An introduction to the work of Barbara Broekman

One of Barbara Broekman’s monumental works is the photo collage called ‘Tribute to Life’, that occupies an entire wall. The work measures 25 x 2.6 metres and was commissioned by the Netherlands Cancer Institute and the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Hospital in Amsterdam. It consists of a visual arsenal of around a thousand photographs collected by the artist from magazines, encyclopaedias and the internet: microscope shots of healthy and diseased cells, intertwined with others of crowds of people and satellite photos of the earth. In between are small portrait photographs of individual people. They are people in Broekman’s circle of friends and acquaintances who have had to deal with cancer. The giant-size image of the face of Barbara’s mother, who died of cancer, emerges in subtle fashion through these images. It is only possible to see the contours of her face from a distance.
The interweaving of micro and macro, the combination of the universal and the personal and their processing in complicated patterns, and the huge format of the works are recurrent elements in Barbara Broekman’s oeuvre.
The work of Barbara Broekman is introduced below from a number of different angles.

Tribute to Life, 2008,   260 x 2500 cm, collage of photographes, commissioned by NKI - AVL, Netherland

Tribute to Life, 2008, 260 x 2500 cm, collage of photographes, commissioned by NKI - AVL, Netherland

1. Education

Barbara Broekman (1955) studied at the Rietveld Academy (1978-1982), initially in the Fashion Department and then in the course for Monumental Textiles. Her most influential teachers were Margot Rolf and Herman Scholten. Margot Rolf is someone with her feet planted firmly in the rationalist design approach of the Bauhaus. In this method beauty is not a decorative addition, but is guided by an aesthetics based in the choice of materials and techniques. The pattern of a fabric is livened by the alternation in the colour and texture of the threads, without this encroaching on the structure of warp and weft. Van Rolf taught Barbara Broekman to design in a structured and analytical fashion. Herman Scholten has strong affinities with conceptual art and the minimalism of the Dutch Nul movement. He instilled Barbara Broekman with a formal and objective approach to design. Both influences were decisive for her approach to art.

While her style has developed in another direction, her formal approach to image and her analytical exploration of the composition can be referred back to her period at the Rietveld. 
In her early designs the formal legacy of the Bauhaus can still be discerned. It can be seen in a work she made in her years at art school and which she still made by hand, a piece of embroidery from 1981. Strips of colour run through and over each other, while maintaining the organized structure of the textile. In this initial stage of her work Broekman investigated all the possibilities of this structural working method. 

While she was still absorbed in these formal variations in structure, her curiosity was already seeking a freer approach and new stimuli, which she found in America. For her apprenticeship year for the Rietveld, Broekman looked for a placement in New York or San Francisco, which at that time were world leaders in textile courses. San Francisco took her on. In 1980-81 Broekman studied for a year at the California College of the Arts in Berkeley. Her senior lecturer there was the artist Lia Cook. Through her Broekman came in contact with the free approach to divergent cultural and historical traditions that she has appropriated and assimilated with ease in her own work. Furthermore the hierarchical distinction between the free arts and the applied arts (or rather, the notion of art divided into categories according to materials and technique) was not an issue here. In short, it was a mentality that closely related to the emerging postmodernist movement in Europe and it was a relief for Broekman with her sensitive and intuitive creative personality to be able to draw from both sources at will.

Besides Cook, the American artist Sheila Hicks was an important source of inspiration in those years. Broekman: ‘With the enormous sizes of her works, Hicks freed textiles from their context. She rescued the discipline from the feminine realm and from its everyday normality.’ She was also drawn to Hicks’s business attitude and her studio with a host of people working for her.

Broekman’s work expanded, partly under the influence of the American stimuli, into increasingly complicated compositions and larger formats in which she also looked for a three-dimensional stratified quality. She began to include visual elements from art history and from other cultures and she started working with photographic imagery. The well-ordered working method she had been instilled with in Amsterdam became a fundamental technique, a method. ‘Once I had mastered that system, I could be open to chaos again. I work in a much more intuitive way now.’

Embroidery, 1981, 275 cm x 210 cm, Textile, paint and embroidery yarn (rayon)

Embroidery, 1981, 275 cm x 210 cm, Textile, paint and embroidery yarn (rayon)

2. Technique

The departure point in Barbara Broekman’s work is textiles, the traditional techniques of textiles. In part of her work she sticks to the material of textiles, but this is not essential. Even when she works in other materials, the textile pattern or technique of weaving is still somehow recognizable in her work. In this way she achieves a technical layered quality that is often related to one of theme.

In her work the following techniques occur: 

  • Embroidery in satin-stitch and chain stitch, in silk, cotton or wool 
  • Machine weaving 
  • Tufting 
  • Gobelin weaving 
  • Mosaic (ceramic tiles, glass tiles)
  • Casting (concrete, linoleum)
  • Collage (photographic material)
  • Painting (acrylic on canvas)

As said, her analytical, formal mode of composition is allied to traditional textile technique. Embroidered scenes are constructed out of separate elements. In weaving, the threads overlap and the image is created out of many transected blocks or bars. When enlarged, this also results in a certain perspective effect; the surface is not two-dimensional but layered. 
In her designs Broekman plays with this basic fact. She works from photos that she cuts out and inserts in another pattern related to the structure of weaving, a grid. In this way she can fuse two images with each other and achieve complex compositions. A related method is that of placing two images as two transparent layers on top of each other, the one a photographic image, the other for instance an abstract one. The contours transect, creating a complex composition of unrecognizable areas that she fills in with colour, taking account of the effects of light and perspective.

The impact on the viewer is also one of different layers. From a distance one can recognize concrete photographic images that are overwhelming in their size and complexity. Close at hand, one sees nothing but abstract elements that are a delight to gaze at in their refinement of craft. Or else, when it is a collage, one can discern the details of a photograph in the separate visual elements. One sees an image within the image that creates an effect of infinite recurrence. And that is what her work is about – a double layer in meaning, the interweaving of technique and meaning. ‘My aim is to activate the process of viewing.’
At a certain moment Barbara Broekman literally wove two photos together.To achieve this result with weaving or embroidery didn’t seem the best choice; the fluent shadow work or colour transitions are difficult to implement using these techniques. She had the photos enlarged and printed on canvas and cut them into strips that she wove together. The result was one image created out of two, with the counter-image on the underlying strips invisible, but nonetheless present. (Dutch Landscape series 1-5, 2005-2006)

Dutch Landscapes, no. 4, 180 x 250 cm, Printed canvas, woven in strips, Edition of 5 pieces

Dutch Landscapes, no. 4, 180 x 250 cm, Printed canvas, woven in strips, Edition of 5 pieces

3. Themes

Barbara Broekman does not just work in large formats; her themes are equally ambitious. Her subjects are universal emotions related to birth, love, leave-taking and death. They also touch on her personal history, on events and experiences in her own life, such as the death of her mother. These themes are recognizable in every culture and world cultures are a special concern for Broekman – not least because of the rich textile traditions that are a source of inspiration for her work. Textile is a universal material, almost as old as humanity, and it exists worldwide, among all layers of the population. 
Interweaving of content and form can be seen for instance in the series, Loss 1-10. Here Broekman combines a photo of people in situations of war, genocide or other disasters, with a specimen of their own textile tradition, their own culture. The insistent image of fear and pain on the faces and the pattern for instance of a woven ‘salt bag’ from the Caucasus interpenetrate.

A recurring theme in her work is the position of women, the relation between men and women and that between women and children, the image men have of women – women as ideal housewives or objects of desire. She contrasts this with the prototype of men as soldiers, the macho type. Here too this subject matter is close to the artist herself and to her personal experience. Her own daughter for instance appears in a photo collage in which her beauty and purity are transected by images of a group of screaming men, young orthodox Jews in this case. In other works from this series, Woman 1-10, photos of models in provocative poses are combined with images of Western soldiers in combat uniform or Chinese soldiers on parade.
‘It is extraordinary that women have done so little to challenge this image, this position.’ This is an issue that she is deeply concerned with but mainly as something she takes note of. She doesn’t necessarily have the ambition to change this, nor does she cherish the illusion that she could.

After a series of weighty themes, Broekman has increasingly felt a need, as a form of spiritual purging, to work with formal departure points, to explore material effects. Besides her themes in terms of their subject matter then, a continual line of abstract or abstractified motifs has emerged. The compositions are just as complicated and layered as they are in her content-driven works. Intersecting motifs give rise to swirling, churning images. These tapestries and rugs remind one of the hallucinatory designs of the Dutch masters of the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as Colenbrander, Lion Cachet or Gidding. A typical example is her designs for the ‘Stadgenoot’ housing association in Amsterdam. 
In this sense her black and white objects and landscapes can be thought of as intuitive counterpoints.

Loss, no. 1, 2007, 80 x 110 cm, Gouache on paper, Giclée print, Realized in textile: 2008, 160 x 250 cm, Hand-embroidered, chain stitch, mercerized cotton

Loss, no. 1, 2007, 80 x 110 cm, Gouache on paper, Giclée print, Realized in textile: 2008, 160 x 250 cm, Hand-embroidered, chain stitch, mercerized cotton

4. Material

From the start of her career Broekman has worked a great deal with textiles. In contrast with the picture many museums or critics still have, this does not make her a textile artist in the strict sense – that is, someone who can comfortably be pigeon-holed as belonging to the applied arts. Broekman sets to work as an autonomous artist and she uses textiles and textile techniques in the first instance as a conceptual motif. The ambiguity of two-dimensionality and the layered character of a piece of textile is one of her most common design principles.

Moreover, textiles are earthy and universal, sensual and accessible. Working with textiles is not a goal in itself for her but a means of expression. Depending on the goal or application of a design she works equally comfortably with photography, ceramics, concrete, linoleum, artificial grass, paper, objets trouvés or paint.

After all, even in Holland, thinking in artistically hierarchic, material-based domains is outmoded. Increasingly often in recent years artists have worked with divergent materials, breaking through the limits of various disciplines. Think for example of artists such as Berend Strik and Michael Raedecker, who use needle and thread and sewing in their work. Or Claudy Jongstra or Fransje Killaars, who work respectively with wool/felt and market remainders. The borderline between applied and autonomous art is becoming less clear, as also happened in the first half of the twentieth century.For Barbara Broekman this means that her choice of materials has to do with site or subject matter.

Design, pavement and pond, Buikslotermeerplein, 1996-97, In conjunction with the architect Kees van Santen, 37,000 pigmented concrete tiles, 700 m2 painted asphalt, 130 m2 pouring concrete, 34 light sources, 20 fountains. Construction: W. Woestenburg, contractors, De Rijp. Client: Amsterdam North City Council, with Delta Ontwikkelingsgroep

Design, pavement and pond, Buikslotermeerplein, 1996-97, In conjunction with the architect Kees van Santen, 37,000 pigmented concrete tiles, 700 m2 painted asphalt, 130 m2 pouring concrete, 34 light sources, 20 fountains. Construction: W. Woestenburg, contractors, De Rijp. Client: Amsterdam North City Council, with Delta Ontwikkelingsgroep

5. Motivation 

Asked about the motives behind her work, Barbara Broekman constantly replies with an all-embracing statement: ‘In this universe we are so insignificant and at the same time so rich in that we are still able to make our contribution..’, by which she means that she wants her viewers to start looking deliberately and to reflect on his/her privileged position. And she does this specifically by confronting them with difficult subjects. For instance in the series, Loss, she shows that, besides the destructive forces in the world, humanity always tends to embellish its environment or to make it special. ‘This creative power, this continuity, you can put your faith in that.’ 

Her second motivation is her desire to overwhelm people with the virtuosity of her work – the exploration of size and imaginative power in the first place and then its incredible detail and diligence. Her goal is to get the viewer to take delight in looking. ‘Art, no matter what sort it is, can offer beauty and consolation. That is what it is all about.’

Diary, 2005, 225 x 710 cm, (5 volumes, 143 cm wide), c. 5,000 images from Broekman’s image archive, printed on polyester, canvas and denim. Collection: Houthoff Buruma legal advice bureau, Amsterdam

Diary, 2005, 225 x 710 cm, (5 volumes, 143 cm wide), c. 5,000 images from Broekman’s image archive, printed on polyester, canvas and denim. Collection: Houthoff Buruma legal advice bureau, Amsterdam

6. Clients 

Barbara Broekman can count herself fortunate with a long series of major clients. For the most part, these are institutions, which is not surprising given the nature and size of her works. Some examples are: the Ministry of Social Services and Employment (carpet for the large assembly room, 1992), Hotel Arena (linoleum floor in collaboration with Forbo Krommenie, 1993; layout for 16 hotel rooms and bathrooms, 1999), The Central Income Tax Building, Amsterdam (seven tapestries, 1995-96), Holland America Line, Cunard Lines Ltd., P&O North Sea Ferries, carpets and wall carpets, 2000-2002) and ‘Stadgenoot’ Housing Association, Amsterdam (17 wall and floor carpets for the head office, 2002-2008).

Working for and with clients is more than just an economic activity for Broekman. It is inseparably linked to her approach to art. ‘I would never want to make art all alone and purely for myself. I go in search of this sort of patronage because I feel a need for this sort of dialogue, this reflection of myself. Moreover I want my work to function in a specific social context, for it to be seen. People call it cultural entrepreneurship, but for me it is in the first place an idea about work.’

The commissions often have a feature that can prompt her choice of subject matter. She makes a careful study of her clients and their incentives. An example would be the commission she received in 2004 on the merging of five local authority districts in the Westland, the centre of the Dutch glasshouse region, one of the economic bastions of the Netherlands. A property developer was involved who wanted to present the new local authority with something permanent in the new local government offices. Barbara made a design consisting of five wall carpets, each depicting a subject relating to the Westland: the cycle of life and/or of nature, the history of horticulture in the Westland, greenhouses and greenhouse cultivation, the world of auctions and finally the product – flowers. In order to arrive at these themes and explore them in images, Barbara consulted the archives of her client, attended workshops and other professional meetings, did research in libraries and on the internet. In this case she drew inspiration, among other sources, from the arts and literature of an earlier age, from sixteenth-century Gobelin tapestries to the virtuoso late-Baroque painter Tiepolo and nineteenth-century French texts about flower symbolism. But she also based herself on such prosaic elements as the rabbets, window frames, gutters and other structural elements of greenhouses. The supplier’s catalogue for these materials formed the inspiration of the third carpet. ‘During a period of study, I always try to collect as much visual material and information as possible. You have to take care not to cling too soon to one specific image. You need to keep that mental space open. Your whole work then consists of gathering information; only then are you free to form your own images.’ 

Just as her collaboration with clients is inseparably linked for Barbara Broekman with her notion of the artist’s work, working with a team of assistants is also a logical and indispensable link in her method. For many years she has worked with a group of an average of four assistants in her studio. They work as her extension, exploring her ideas or helping with the arranging and technical processing of selected material, for instance for collages. Administration, recordings, communication and PR are carried out by her team. All of this is essential for carrying out the often lengthy and labour-intensive commissions in an efficient manner and presenting her work in the public domain.

7. Producers

Since her first embroidered wall carpet of 1981 for the Rietveld, Barbara Broekman has ceased to realize her works by herself. For six months she toiled twelve hours a day until her fingers were ruined. For years now she has employed professionals to do the work that they are much more capable of than she is, leaving her free to concentrate on the content and form of the work. This freedom has enabled her to develop her technical skills to the utmost. 

Broekman is a perfectionist, but for that very reason she gets the best out of these artisans and their supervisors. ‘On my side there is a huge amount of single-mindedness, but that also goes for the people who actually make the works … There has to be a chemistry with those who carry out the work, there has to be a harmonious alliance. You have to be able to appeal to them as professionals.’

She had the Gobelin textile manufactured in Poland, for instance, for the wall tapestry from the series, Multicultural Holland for the Ministry of Housing and the Environment and the Central Inland Revenue Building in Amsterdam (1996). In Granada (Spain) there is a firm that carries out her designs for manually tufted carpets, for instance for ‘Stadgenoot’ Housing Association. She commissions her embroidery pieces – the technique that she uses most – to be made in Delhi in India. This work is only manufactured by men, by Muslims who hand their skills down from father to son. Embroidery is a fully-fledged profession there. In one month a man can embroider about one square metre.  With a team of about five men an average-sized tapestry by Barbara Broekman can be completed in three to six months. But no matter how precisely she prepares their activities with adequate working drawings and colour specifications, inevitably something that reveals the hands of the people executing the work slips in, as a personal interpretation of the commission. This is something she has no problem with – on the contrary, she sees it as an interesting feature that belongs to her working method.

One thing is clear, Broekman’s work could not exist without the assistance of numerous artisans in a large number of places in the world.  The high labour-intensive character of her work gives it an extra dimension, one that she is fully sensitive to. If the total image is overwhelming, a glance at the detail leaves us speechless. For westerners like us it is almost unimaginable that this work has been made manually, stitch by stitch. No computerized machine got a look in edgeways here; it was thought up by human brains and fashioned by human hands.

To make sure that this partnership runs to perfection, Barbara Broekman has paid various working visits to India, Poland, China and other places where her producers are based. In doing so, she has built up a relation of trust and she knows whether they are able to carry out her instructions. An enduring form of cooperation has come about in this way that is valued by both parties. ‘Figuratively speaking, we understand each other’s language. I know that as a result the embroiderers, tufters and other artisans get pleasure from producing my work.’ 

Through her contacts with producers she increases her technical knowledge of materials, their qualities and possibilities. She has, for instance, explored the technical qualities of concrete and how you can process pigments in it in a way that is affordable and of an adequate quality to be used in the public domain. This knowledge was necessary for realizing the redevelopment of the Buikslotermeerplein in Amsterdam-Noord (1996-97) and the playground of ‘De Octopus’ primary school in Diemen (1996).

Indian men at work

Indian men at work

8. Position

To place the work of Barbara Broekman in a context of other artists is not simple. Some of her relations with other artists have already been mentioned, such as the work of the American artist Sheila Hicks. The relation with the cross-discipline use of textiles in art has already been mentioned, as have her roots in the Bauhaus tradition via figures such as Margot Rolf. Her visual kinship with designers such as Colenbrander and other early twentieth-century artists.

Reminiscences of Pop Art (Warhol for instance) can be seen in her tendency towards abstraction and the optical objectifying of photographic material. The optical use she makes of the grid reminds one of the Op Art work of someone like Vasarely or the systematic processes of altering form/colour of Peter Struycken. While the latter however is guided by the computer, Broekman bases herself on intuition. Her eclectic application of images from art history and other cultures, but also from magazines, advertising and other popular sources, without any hierarchical distinction, is typical of the post-modern generation of artists. 

To sum up, the work of Barbara Broekman offers a wide-ranging, often conflicting wealth of associations. It reflects a contemporary and independent spirit. She takes up a position as an intermediary between different domains that were for a long time pigeon-holed in classical art history. Content, form and function are brought together in her oeuvre, as are high and low cultures, her own ideas and the production of others, Holland and the world, autonomous and applied art, her personal style and that of others, the banal and the unique, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Under the strict direction of Barbara Broekman, the interaction between these domains gives rise to a new reality of great visual power and a layered content.  

Petra Timmer/TiMe Amsterdam