Arts Holland: Chris Berens’ Amsterdam

Arts Holland: Chris Berens’ Amsterdam

December 5th by Chris Berens is probably my favourite Sinterklaas painting of all time. Read my interview with Amsterdam’s most magical painter at the Arts Holland blog, with photos of his works:

You can also scroll down and read the interview here (without photos):


Chris Berens is one of Holland’s most talented contemporary painters. Inspired by Old Masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt, Berens creates surrealistic dream worlds filled with mysterious characters. All of his works are painstakingly hand-painted with drawing inks and perfected with a rigorous technique which results in a unique distortion effect. His latest exhibition “Amsterdam” is a spectacular hommage to his city. The moment I first laid eyes on his works, I was smitten and I knew that I had a new favourite painter. I got in touch with this very talented artist, and asked him about his inner world and inspirations, and their impact on his highly-acclaimed, soul-stirring works.

Your work is so whimsical and other-worldly. The Amsterdam series is filled with fantastical characters: blown-up animals, Sinterklaas and spinsters in a post-apocalyptic setting. The paintings seem like scenes from a saga or a mythology. Is there a bigger story to the paintings? Are they characters and scenes that make up a story? Or are the paintings simply seen as individual works on their own?

Well, that’s just how you would look at them I suppose. I wouldn’t say there’s no story to them, but the thing is that the paintings ARE the stories. They are not illustrations to a piece of text nor do they come with a manual as to how to read them. A story is a series of events, connected and gathered and put in order for them to make sense and have a plot.

Perhaps you should see a painting (or my painting at least) as a walk through the forest of Little red riding Hood, or Hänsel and Gretel, without the story ever being told. So there’s a girl in a red poncho, on the far end there’s a wolf, and there’s a house with an old lady in a bed, there’s distant singing and the flutter of birds. You could put some pieces together and make up Little Red Riding Hood, you could also see different things, focus on other elements and make a whole different story. Same scene, same forest, but different spectator, different perspective, different story. So I’m not the one telling the story, I’m the guy who made the forest, dimmed the lights and threw in a little girl and a bad-ass wolf.

Do you live in Amsterdam? What is the motivation behind making a series about the city?

Yes. Whenever I have a show abroad, the city the show is held is my theme. or rather, my decor, my setting. And Amsterdam brought me so much, my fiancé is from Amsterdam, my daughter was born there, my ‘mother gallery’, as we decided to call it, is there, and my career started there and it just felt time for an homage. The city is so very beautiful, and this is what it looks like in my head. Plus, when I make a whole show, it gives me time and space to expand its original thought, to give it more depth. So the longer a setting or place on my mind and the more I feed it by rendering it all into paintings, the deeper and more evolved that place gets.

What inspires you? (It could be in general and/or in your work as an artist)

The shadow of a tree, a child laughing.. No, kidding. What inspires me to paint, is the world inside my head that keeps getting bigger and more crowded. It’s the opposite of ‘The Nothing’ from Michael Ende’s the Never Ending Story. Things I see and hear and do and feel or have ever seen, felt, heard or experienced in another way, is inside me, and is transformed is one way or another and from that moment on it’s part of my inner world. Not transformed exactly, it’s more like adapted. All evolves so it can survive inside me. Changes are needed for that. Sometimes things transform into something completely different, sometimes multiple things merge into one, sometimes things are trimmed, and sometimes the things I come across are just so perfectly beautiful, they come out just as they came in. So from that perspective, I am the Nothing from Michael Ende’s the Never Ending Story.

But of course not everything I see or hear nests or sticks. If I would have to put a tag on the things that do stick, I guess that would be all the things that could be from my world. So that could be a film, a painting, a book or a piece of music, the imagination of my 2 year old that is triggered by the things she sees instead of held restrained by them, or the way the autumn sun is grazing the yellowing leaves outside my studio right now.

So to sum up, the shadow of a tree, a child laughing…

In your bio, you said that you taught yourself the techniques of the Old Masters. Who are your favourite painters or artists?

In the range of Old Masters, I would have to say Rembrandt, Vermeer, Ruysdael, Pieter Brueghel, Jheronimus Bosch…..

Quoting from a previous interview of you, you said: “I try and find and stay true to my own language in imagery, as in my opinion it all comes from gesture -being the aesthetic of the brushstrokes and their emotional impact- your imagination and trying to stay true to yourself. When images come from deep within, regardless the source of inspiration, they’re sincere and genuine.”

In your artworks and in interviews, you place an emphasis on dreams and imagery and the importance of staying true to the inner self. However, it can sometimes be very difficult for artists and creative people to reconcile their dreams / inner worlds to their work.. It can be that they don’t have the right technique or they do not have the right skill. What advice would you give to them?

Right, it might seem like I say that when you’re being true to yourself the rest will follow. Obviously you’ll have to be able to make a fantasy, an idea, dream or wish into something else. In my case, what I did, was look for artists that come as close to what I want to visualize as possible, and start to X-ray, dissect and analyse what they did. I chose painting as my outlet, as making film would be my other option, but, as I started being freshly graduated and very poor, I had no resources and no one I could work with, as I had to be all by myself and live an almost secluded life to nourish and incubate the germs that were my true, own ideas. Working with someone would have killed all those thoughts. It’s not said that I would have no imagination or creativity left in me if I would have worked with someone, they just wouldn’t have been as original as they are now. I would however like to make the step to film someday. I just have to figure out a way to poor my thoughts into such a complex medium.

So anyway, I locked myself up, tried to put my own imagination to a rest for a while, and just started imitating and studying other artists, sometimes literally painting over prints. Later I would try to paint Vermeer’s paintings from behind, or paint the same scene at night, and so gradually letting my own mind flow  freely. At first wrapped around someone else’s creations and slowly but surely letting them go and try and stand on my own two feet.

As an artist, do you have any tips for first-time visitors to Amsterdam? Are there any special places for you or secret nooks with giant rabbits or sinister spinsters you would like to share with them?

Oh, well there’s a lot of great museums. Stedelijk Museum just re-opened after 9 years of rebuilding. It’s just wonderful. The first room you’ll enter after you’re in is just too much. It’s as big as my living room, but there’s 2 Breitners that just make me want to sit down and cry and opposite is a van Gogh that might be the best one he did and right next to it there’s a Toorop (Jan) that I would love to return to in my dreams and just when you leave the room you get kicked in the stomach by a Courbet that haunts me ever since I saw it and it just leave you gasping for air as you float down the rest of the museum.

Hermitage is very cool. Actually the Van Gogh Museum just closed for renovations, and has for now moved in with the Hermitage.

I always love the Westerkerk my favorite church in the shadow of which my daughter Emma was born. Near that church there’s a small cafe, called Café Chris, it’s been a cafe since 1624 and the builders that built the Westerkerk were paid their wages there. That used to be my hangout when we first moved to Amsterdam. Since we moved about a year ago, it’s Toussaint, a great café just around our corner.

And go see a film in Tuschinski, great building. If you like film, EYE is a film museum just over the water (IJ) north of Central Station, they always show great films and usually have nice exhibitions. I think the Kubrick exhibit is still showing, go see that if it is.

You can see Chris Beren’s works at the Jaski Gallery in Amsterdam.  Currently, a documentary is being made about his work, “Chris Berens. Master of his magical universe.”

Upcoming shows:

  • PanAmsterdam, November 18-25, 2012
  • TEFAF Maastricht, March 2013
  • Solo show in Tokyo, October 2013


About the Author

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.