Carel Willink in 1977
Carel Willink (1900-1981) was born in Amsterdam, the eldest of two sons of Jan Willink and Wilhelmina Altes. His father was - in those days very rare - a professional car dealer and also an amateur painter. He encouraged his son to start painting and Carel made his first painting when he was 14 years. He attended high school, studied medicine from 1918-1919, and then civil engineering at the Technical University of Delft. But he soon moved to the Hague, where he decided in 1919 that he wanted to be a painter.
Because modern art experienced its heyday in Germany, Willink decided to study at the Academy in Düsseldorf. There he was rejected after several weeks, and he continued at the Staatliche Hochschule in Berlin. Eventually he studied three years at at Hans Baluschek's painting school, starting out with expressionist works. During his studies Willink experimented with various art movements. At first he felt strongly drawn to Vincent van Gogh, and made a number of landscape paintings in a similar style. Soon he became impressed by the Expressionism of George Grosz and Otto Dix. Later he made collages in the style of Kurt Schwitters. Upon his graduation, he became influenced by the work of Wassily Kandinsky and constructivism, and produced a number of abstract paintings and watercolors. In 1923 he exhibited with the November Group at the Moabit Glaspalast.
Carel Willink, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1930
Upon his return to Amsterdam in 1924, Willink began to experiment with Cubism and Futurism and became a member of the avant-garde art group The Triangle. Through this group he came in contact with the writer Edgar du Perron. He was a key advisor and good friend of Willink until his death in May 1940. Willink then developed a distinctive style of painting: a kind of cubism with strong figurative elements related to the work of Fernand Leger. Examples of this style were the paintings Three Women, The Silver Wedding and The Clock. Willink, through these works, developed into a reasonably successful artist.
In 1926, during a study trip to Paris, Willink came into contact with the neoclassicism of Pablo Picasso and his figurative paintings, often with classical subjects but with a slightly cubist character. During this period he made works such as Pigeons, and Girl with Dove. The same year, he married Mies van der Meulen, but she left him in two years later. In 1931 he painted Venus Resting, with Wilma Jeuken as the model. They married in 1934 and moved to Amsterdam, where Willink lived until his death.
Carel Willink, Self-Portrait with Wilma van der Meulen, 1934
On the advice of his friend Du Perron, Willink began to paint realistic in the early 1930s. During these years, he was concerned about the future: the stock market crash, the Depression, and the rise of Fascism and Nazism. He was tired of the unending series of experiments in painting, and decided to return to traditional painting techniques. Thus, he developed his timeless style of Magic Realism, set in a threatening and oppressive atmosphere.
During a tour of Italy in 1931, Willink became fascinated by classical sculptures and Renaissance architecture. Both elements appear frequently in his work. He also became acquainted with the work of Giorgio de Chirico whose love of emptiness, depth, and extreme shadows would also influence his work. On his return from Italy Willink began working on two paintings: Late Visitors to Pompeii and Uproar, both of which are typical for his later work.
During the German occupation of the Netherlands, it became hard for Willink to sell paintings, all the more so since he refused to sell paintings to German buyers. In order to meet his financial needs, he now began to make portraits. These photo realistic portraits perfectly fit into his own magical realist style. Willink was until his death the most famous, most popular and most expensive portrait painter in the Netherlands. In 1944, Willink painted the following portrait of J. Bergmans, and many portrait commissions would follow over the years:
In 1947, Willink stayed in Paris and, in 1951, he exhibitied at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Although his technique remained unchanged after the war, Willink experimented with new subjects. Between 1950 and 1965 he made a series of paintings of mostly exotic animals which he incorporated in unusual environments. A giraffe or a rhinoceros in a sculpture garden creates a strange effect. He also combined a nuclear power plant, an atomic explosion or a demolition machine with ruined temples and weathered statues. In 1961, he made a study trip to the Italian Bomarzo Gardens. The bizarre, monstrous statues, designed by Pirro Ligorio, returned a few times in his work.
In 1969, Willink married Mathilda de Doelder, who was an eccentric society figure and had lived with him since 1963. In 1975, Willink started an affair with the sculptress Sylvia Quiël (above). After Mathilde had damaged the portrait he had done of Wilma Jeuken in 1952 they separated, and Willink started living together with Quiël until his death in 1981. On May 19, 1977 Mathilde said on television that she would commit suicide if the separation wouldn't be settled in a a way that would be acceptable to her. When it became formal she received 135.000 guilders and started her own gallery in Amsterdam. She also started an affair with coke dealer Gerard Vittali, who found her death on her bed on October 25, 1977. She was naked, had a gun in her hand and a bullet in her head. It was unclear if she had been killed or had committed suicide.
In the 1970s another change in Willink's took place: The strange light traps and menacing dark clouds gave way to bright daylight, a blue sky and white clouds. Paintings like Dryad Resting and Portrait of Rik testified to a newly found hope for the future. The year 1980 saw a major exhibition of his works in the Stedelijk Museum in honor of his eightieth anniversary. Willink felt only now recognized as a serious painter. He died in 1983 shortly after the publication of his authorized biography Willink Truth. He is buried in Zorgvlied. The tomb was designed by his widow, Sylvia Willink Quiël.