I turn violence into art

The Work of Armando

An artist, a writer, is confronted with the duality of imagination and reality. During the period that the Dutchman Armando (1929-) made his debut, fantasy-rich imagination was setting the tone in the visual arts. 1948 had seen the setting up of the CoBrA group (a group of artists from the three cities Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam); the artists in this group rejected realism, taking their inspiration instead from the spontaneous fantasy of a child’s drawing. But as early as 1950 some of them had turned away from this approach and were giving expression to the horrors of reality in the recently ended Second World War. Armando studied history of art after the war. His first drawings, which appeared shortly after 1950, were inspired by the visual freedom of individual expressionism. During the same period he began writing poetry.

Right from the beginning, however, Armando’s work was no imaginary depiction of an internalised experience. It presented reality in the raw, without comment or interpretation, mercilessly. Armando did not allow himself to be tempted by the imagination. He faced reality four-square.

In his early period as a visual artist Armando, who had not had any formal training, abandoned the familiar paths as far as possible. He drew with his left hand, with closed eyes, in the dark and using a blunt stub of carpenter’s pencil. These drawings were abstract, chaotic and ‘materialistic’: fragile and thick lines, strokes and dashes which sometimes almost went right through the paper. They were violent and aggressive; he himself called them criminal. He drew, so he later said, in the same way that people were killed in the war: out of anger and hate. He could not indicate precisely where that anger sprang from, except to say that it came from his memories of reality. He felt powerless to discover the motives for the destruction and continued to search for them.

The Latin word ‘Armando’ means ‘while I arm myself’. The bearer of this name is obsessed with evil. His art springs forth from his fascination with violence and war. In order to temper his memory of that cruelty, he must record its unbridled and merciless character. ‘Not moralising or interpreting (‘artifying’) reality, but intensifying it. Working method: isolation, annexation. Result: authenticity. Not on the part of the maker but of the information. The artist who is no longer an artist; a cool, realistic eye.’ Armando wrote these words in 1981 in his Notes on the Enemy (Aantekeningen over de vijand). ‘Art’, he said, ‘is something we need like toothache.’ To the extent that his work is focused on beauty, it is the beauty of evil. ‘How much beauty can we bear?’, said Armando in a text from 1985.

The reality which Armando cannot escape is that of the thirteen/fourteen-year-old boy which he himself was during the Second World War. He was aware of the way in which concentration camp prisoners in Amersfoort were tortured and murdered. That is his obsessive theme. His drawings, the poems with which he made his debut in 1954, his later paintings and works of prose are his powerless attempts to fathom these horrors. His weapon is identification. Sentiment and interpretation serve only to flatten the perception of reality. He became a boxer and in 1962 published his boxer’s poems: isolated and thus intensified fragments of reality. In 1967, together with the author Hans Sleutelaar, he published a documentary work about Dutch SS war volunteers.

Armando’s emphatic identifications, exercises in registration without any moral aspect, met with a great deal of resistance. His fascination with evil was too easily taken for admiration and veneration. His work was described as dangerous, as ‘corrupt art’. But Armando was not looking for sympathy. The world is hard, and so is he. As an artist he takes up the struggle against degeneration, a fighter against time. The coherence of his art, his lifestyle and his statements brought him increasing recognition after 1965, despite the initial criticism.

Appreciation of Armando was initially also hampered by his fragmentary and multifaceted character. As well as being a drawer, painter and poet, he worked at various times as a journalist, as a co-actor in his tragi-comedy Herenleed written together with Cherry Duyns, and (from 1971) as a violinist in a gypsy orchestra. As a result he himself was often as hard to grasp as the reality in which he was unable to detect any coherence, and which he merely recorded. This lack of coherence was precisely what made reality so bewildering for him, and he sought to express it by producing works in series.

His drawings and monochrome paintings from after 1954 had a greater focus on landscape than his earlier works. He declared the landscape, close by the scene of the crime, to be guilty. ‘Whatever happens, it just keeps growing. And that is precisely what I find so unforgivable about landscape.’ The contrast between nature in all its beauty and the culture of wartime madness was fundamental for Armando. Unable to come to terms with this contrast, he filled his drawn or painted landscapes with the traces of human cruelty and the urge to destroy. Besides black, red was almost the only colour which Armando allowed into his work. He often mixed the thick paint with sand and plaster in order to fight against creating a mainstream ‘composition’ as far as possible whilst painting. He created an ‘espace criminel’.

In the late fifties and early sixties, Armando’s art continued to focus on recording, seeking a reconciliation with reality, or on emotional overwhelming. Just as he isolated reality in his poems and short prose texts, so he began in the period 1958-60 to incorporate nails, bolts and lengths of barbed wire into his visual art. The inhuman and human are mingled together; victim and executioner become interchangeable.

His work was already showing greater control in this period. Hate and anger were replaced by the ‘enemy’. Armando continued to search for his identity; in 1979 this search took him to Berlin.

In the years before this, from 1967 onwards, he integrated photographs in his drawings, giving them a more dualistic and ‘sacral’ character, for example in On the Way to the Place and The Unknown Soldier. In his Diary of a Perpetrator (Dagboek van een dader), published in 1973, there is also a process under way between man, at one moment perpetrator and at the next prey, and imperturbable, morally uninvolved nature. The same situation in various guises also lies at the basis of the television play Herenleed, which began its ambiguous dialogue in 1971 with fragments of conversation between a gentleman and a servant, which in fact amount to a failed communication and thus take on more the form of statements or even of a confrontation. ‘Heer’ is the Dutch word for ‘gentleman’, and the related word ‘heir’ is an old word for ‘army’, while ‘leed’ means ‘suffering’ or ‘harm’.

The theatre series was followed in 1978 by a frank television film, History of a Place (De geschiedenis van een plek), about events in Amersfoort before, during and after the war.

In 1979, helped by a German grant, Armando shifted his battleground to Berlin: ‘the lion’s den’. Here he created the series Feindbeobachtung: larger canvasses, some of them monumental works in the form of diptychs and triptychs. In these works white takes on the battle against black. Around the edges, in particular, the paint engages in a true ‘battle substance’. These works are less concerned with the duality of perpetrator and victim, and more with the boundary and intermediate areas: human passiveness which has tolerated these awful events, just as nature acts as if it knows nothing and is not concerned about anything.

1988 saw the publication of Armando’s opus, the novel The Street and the Shrubbery (De straat en het struikgewas), which is set in the boundary region between the town and the forest and which deals with what happens when the enemy is given a chance to carry out his destructive and humiliating work. The same words recur regularly in cohesive fragments throughout this work, terms with a wartime ring to them such as ‘bold’, ‘courageous’, ‘alert’, ‘guilty’, ‘lurking’ and ‘prowling’. Many sentences are questions which are presented as facts: ‘Hey, how did he end up dead.’

Armando works according to impulses, and this is also how he writes his poems. He also works from sketches for his paintings. He writes and paints only what forces itself upon him: ‘There are some days when everything hurts.’

In Berlin Armando’s art took on a more explicitly romantic character, a tendency already hinted at in the title of a poetry collection in 1971: Heaven and Earth (Hemel en aarde). The Germanic pathos, the urge for the infinite, which Armando recognised in Nietzsche, were expressed in the series of paintings entitled Gefechtsfelder. The lonely tree, the isolated forest, evoke the art of the romantic landscape artist Caspar David Friedrich, whose Chasseur im Walde from 1814 adorned the cover of the cycle Diary of a Perpetrator. But in Armando’s work there is no question of inner spiritualism. His Fahnen are black heroic flags, often simultaneously representing merciless axes. Armando seeks to master time, and believes that art is a way of gaining a hold over reality. That is its consolation.

The Körperlich series from 1982, and the more recent series Köpfe (1988) offer an impression of a last remnant of matter which has been sustained through time. There is a striking similarity to mummies, and more particularly to the scanner images which are able to show the cause of death of these people who died very long ago. They are the most far-reaching challenge to time, which lays bare suffering and erases all trace of life. More than ever, they challenge beauty.

Armando has confessed that, unlike the French painter Bonnard, he is unable to paint flowers while the world is drawing up its battle lines. He would like to be able to do so, but the fact is that he has pledged his heart to a beauty which is terrible. This obsession is now expressed in symbols: ladders, a reference to the Jacob’s ladder, which stands for the unattainable, that which supersedes humanity. The wheel, as a symbol of cyclical time, the constant turning which none of us can escape.

The greater simplicity of figurative forms, a ladder or a wheel, have enabled Armando to discover a new field in addition to his paintings. He now designs large bronze sculptures: monuments against time. He also devises oversized goblets, which lie open to history like sacrificial bowls.

Armando’s work is always focused, and with ever greater stubbornness, on keeping alive the image of the enemy, as is also the case in his latest volume of poetry, The Name in a Room (De naam in een kamer). His battle is the battle against time, against the irrevocability of death. As a poet and writer, actor, drawer and painter, and now also as a sculptor, he thus lines up with a major artistic tradition. This makes him one of the more important artists of our time, and one with an international reputation.

By Erik Slagter
Translated by Julian Ross

First published in The Low Countries, 1999


Further Reading
Armando, the Berlin Years. The Hague, 1989.

From Berlin (Tr. Susan Massotty). London, 1996.

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