Maarten ‘t Hart lives in Balkbrug (Overijssel), on a small road that the GPS cannot immediately find. After a few minutes’ drive on a sandy path you come to a small farm that looks as it could have looked a hundred years ago. But it just seems so, the farm has been slowly renovated over the past fifty years, the last time with an exhibition space in what was once the hay barn. If you walk from the dirt track to the front door, you will pass a large vegetable garden – all in all there are about two hundred species of plants and trees around the house. In the exhibition space: paintings and drawings that evoke the same, almost forgotten atmosphere as the house and garden. Flowers, fruits and small animals, but above all: old buildings. And of these, especially church interiors, realistically rendered, they are monumental spaces, you almost always see high pillars and round arches, white light falls through the windows over tiled floors. Because human figures are completely absent, it is invariably completely silent, almost mystical.
We sit outside, in the shade of a large oak tree. There is coffee, later we get soup from vegetables from the garden. On the garden table books that have appeared about his life and work, Maarten ‘t Hart and Maarten ‘t Hart, The Sequel. If you leaf through them, on one of the first pages you will come across a photo of ‘Interieur Sint Joriskerk Amersfoort’, a painting from 2002. It is the church next to the house where he was born, from the living room he looked directly at the choir. What he remembers: “The first time my mother took me to a church service, I was about five or six years old. I was immediately stunned by the space. Since then I have been crazy about churches.”
Maarten ‘t Hart (72) comes, he says, from a family of entrepreneurs. His grandfather started a tent and sail maker, later his father took over the business from him, as the eldest son he was destined to follow that example. But he went to art school. “My father understood that I wanted that. He would have liked to sign himself, but his father thought he should join the business. As a helping hand, my parents even bought work that I made at the academy. I also had a small studio in my father’s company.”
You could say that there was more understanding for his work at home than at the art academy. “It was the time of abstraction, wasn’t it, but I thought: I just want to learn a trade. There were more students who thought that, they went to the graphics room just like me. And to the drawing lessons. I have also had conflicts with teachers, at a certain point they thought what I was making was really crazy. But because my work was of good quality, they couldn’t send me away. I just finished the academy.”
Drawing is not just looking, it is also smelling and listening
What is so attractive about painting church interiors?
“Old churches have a certain atmosphere, it is sacred. You experience that immediately when you enter, you start to speak more softly. The Romanesque churches appeal to me the most than the Gothic ones. After that it quickly decreases. Classicism, baroque: it doesn’t mean much to me.”
“Romanesque churches are the simplest and therefore the strongest in terms of spatial effect. In the Gothic it becomes a bit looser and you get more light, which I like by the way. It is only less concentrated light, they are often whole puddles. In Romanesque light you have those small light traps on the floor and against the walls, which are often also a bit mysterious.”
Is it about the light?
“For everything, really. Drawing is not just looking, it is also smelling and listening. The whole atmosphere of such a space, its sober and meditative. I also intentionally don’t paint people in it. And no images either, I leave them out if they disrupt the lines, sometimes they are just too kitschy. In an empty church you become focused on the space and the light. Everything around it just distracts.”
Just like modern life distracts. Maarten and Annelies (67) ‘t Hart have three grown children who grew up in this place. There was and is no mobile phone. And no car either, there are two bicycles in the shed. They eat vegetarian, much comes from the garden. Homemade bread is served with the soup. And no camera is involved in making the paintings, no matter how realistic they look.
How it goes: “Before I make the painting at home, I sketch the interior in the church. And as I do that, I mathematically compare all the elements I see. I have a small stick for that, a thin brush from which the hairs have been removed. I first hold that baton horizontally in front of my eyes.”
He takes a stick and shows it. “For example, if I were to measure the shed here in the garden, where I now put my thumb is the end of the wall. Then I turn the stick vertically, look like this. Now I see that the shed is just a little higher than it is wide. In this way I go through the entire interior of a church, so that later all proportions in the painting are correct.”
At the same time you omit things, such as those images of saints. Or you can replace stained glass windows with white glass windows.
“I do that for the atmosphere, but also because the composition then becomes better: it is not always good. Then you think: it is very beautiful here, but those pillars should be a bit closer together. Sometimes a certain wall is very bare, I think there should be a niche in it. Or: I’m going to move that window a bit, then it’s better in place. What matters is that you make a good painting, that you handle your subject freely. Otherwise, you might as well take a picture.”
Things have happened in my life that you think must have been sent
Today his church interiors are well known, and his name is established as a painter, but when he started painting, the same name sometimes led to confusion. Articles in local newspapers would say that he not only painted, but also wrote books. They even met once, Maarten ‘t Hart the novelist and Maarten ‘t Hart the painter. “Long ago. He got people who wanted to buy paintings and I got people who asked about books. I don’t even remember who took the initiative, I believe he wrote me a letter. We’re not family either, that’s been sorted out once. Anyway: the name, the Reformed, and then also the garden. Because we are both still working on biology, he professionally and I as an amateur. I make an inventory of wild plants and regularly pass things on to nature organizations. So I’ve been confused there too. And it still happens that you hear people say: look, that’s where the writer lives and that is certainly his large garden. But we also have contradictions, of course. He has fallen from his faith.”
And you don’t. Does faith play a role when you are painting?
“Sometimes, yes. For example, when the light slides beautifully over a dinner table. I consciously capture such a moment in the painting that I make. And sometimes others take the symbols out. Once I was sent an article from a church magazine, in which a painting of mine was described. The painter meant this, the painter meant that, it said. I read it and I thought: that man is right. But I hadn’t seen it that way myself. I mainly draw and paint logically: that the light has to come from that corner, and therefore through such and such windows, because that is then correct in the whole.”
Do you go to church on Sunday?
“Yes, usually here in the village. I come from a Christian family and I kind of inherited that. I also like a bit of a strong sermon. And in church you maintain contact with fellow believers, which is also a way to nurture your faith. Apart from that, I have had a few experiences that have made the faith much stronger for me.”
Can you tell us more about that?
“I find that difficult. Let me say: things have happened in my life of which you think: that is absolutely impossible if you start to reason it normally, so that must have been directed.”
Would you like to try it anyway? Just writing this down makes it a bit…
He hesitates. “I hardly ever tell this story, it is mainly an experience that is very beautiful for ourselves.”
Dan: „I mainly paint a lot of churches, but I also paint old inner cities. One day I wanted to go to such an inner city, to sit there and draw. But the weather was nice, I actually felt more like working in the garden. Another time, I told myself. But in the garden I thought: I think I’ll just start drawing. So I grabbed the bike, rode down the path for a bit, but then I thought again: no, I don’t feel like it, I’m going to work in the garden. It was a very strange doubt, I’ve never had that before. So I put the bike back and went back into the garden. But I kept having that strange, uneasy feeling and thought again. I took the bike again and left. And what happens: I get on the train, where someone is waiting for me to show me a place. He says sit there. I didn’t know that whole man, but I did what he said. Then he sat down opposite me. And he asked me to explain to him what faith meant to me. I thought that was strange, but good: I wanted to do that – and he listened very carefully. At one point the train stops, he shakes my hand and says: thank you for this conversation, I was at a crossroads in my life today. And then you start to think, then you think: this is a piece of practice of faith that is normally in the vague, about which you sometimes hear something, which is also in the Bible, but which you now experience yourself. I was caught by my guts, because I had to be there at that moment. Exactly at that moment I had to help that man further.”
I don’t have to do it all myself, there are powers that stand by me
What experience would you like to share with someone looking at your church interiors?
“The atmosphere, the meditative. But also the space and the light. I want you to experience a certain peace. And that you can think a bit: why is that church there, what does faith mean.”
Can you still sit in a church without thinking about light and proportions?
“If I have no intention of painting, I can. But I do have a professional deformity, even at those moments I dissect everything in lines.”
And where do you get your own meditative moments from?
“From prayer. Prayer is something that always works for me. It’s also not that I tell a story out of nowhere, I regularly notice that there is contact at that moment. I also give thanks for all the good things out there, because I have a lot of privileges. And I ask for protection, for a good day. I start the day with prayer and I also end the day with a prayer, a prayer of thanks. I find that very soothing, like: I don’t have to do it all myself, because there are powers that assist me. Faith is a reality in our lives that we experience every day.”
Work by Maarten ‘t Hart can be seen on location from 8 to 17 September on Thursday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in De Schuur, Groot Oever 14, Balkbrug.