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from white to perfect (1993)

Whether or not we believe that artists are 'made not born', and establish that most have received tuition of some sort, many of art's most original contributions have undoubtedly come from those with either no formal artistic training, or a different one entirely. Joseph Beuys was a pilot before crashing his Stuka into deep snow in the Crimea; Cezanne was a banker; Gabo studied medicine, natural science and engineering; Gauguin was a stockbroker; Yves Klein played jazz and tought judo; Matisse worked in law, and a life-long job in customs provided Henri 'Le Douanier' Rousseou with his middle name. herman de vries belongs to this tradition, having trained and worked for many years as a biologist before turning professional artist at the age of almost forty. The substance of his early career was not however abandoned but transformed to live on through his art and life.

It was this characteristic which brought about our first meeting, after I received a telephone call from a curator at the Scottish Arts Council imploring my assistance. He was working on a group exhibition which included de vries, who was visiting Scotland for the first time and wanted to locate certain plant species of interest. The curator's singular knowledge of art history, so useful under normal circumstances, rendered him helpless. herman and I met, and later at the Royal Botanic Garden we enthused over maps, and discussed the distribution of the native Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) and the World's smallest Birch tree (Betula nana); in the company of a bewildered but grateful curator.

As with many who enjoy a deep love of nature, herman's factual knowledge began as a small child, learning from illustrated books and walks in the north Holland countryside with his parents. By the age of five he knew the names of most common plants growing near his home and this interest led him to study Horticulture in Hoorn at the age of eighteen. Three years later, in 1952, he joined the Plant Protection service in Wageningen, where he worked for the next nine years. By day he would investigate and report upon the ecology of crop damage by pests, or the nesting habits of rodents; but he also had a great love for art, and in 1953 he began to teach himself to paint, rapidly developing a non-figurative style in the manner of the American Abstract Expressionists Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. This was a time of artistic experimentation in Europe as well as in America; by the mid 1950's Yves Klein was exhibiting his non-objective 'Monochromes' and in 1958 he created the landmark 'exhibition of emptiness', Le Vide, in which the Parisian 'Galerie Iris Clert' was painted white.
At this time, Piero Manzoni was producing his 'Achromes' white paintings, and in 1959 de vries made his first 'white painting'; but characteristically this resulted more from his reading of philosophy and mysticism, than the happenings of the artistic avant garde.

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Paul Nesbitt, 'from white to perfect. herman de vries - the real works', in exhibition catalogue herman de vries. meine poesie ist die welt : aus der heimat von den pflanzen (Städtische Sammlungen : Schweinfurt/Städtische Galerie : Würzburg/galerie d+c, mueller-roth : stuttgart 1993) 27-32.

Paul Nesbitt

Paul NesbittPaul Nesbitt is Director and Curator of Exhibitions at Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh.

1995: 'Nature in the Mirror of Culture. Botanic Gardens and their Role in Contemporary Art', in Vittorio Fagone (ed.), Art in Nature (Edizioni Mazzotta : Milan 1995) 53-58, 177-180.

1993: 'from white to perfect. herman de vries - the real works', in exhibition catalogue herman de vries : meine poesie ist die welt. aus der heimat von den pflanzen (Städtische Sammlungen : Schweinfurt/Städtische Galerie : Würzburg/galerie d+c, mueller-roth : stuttgart 1993) 27-32.

1992: 'a walking conversation', in herman de vries. documents of a stream. the real works 1970-1992 (Royal Botanic Garden : Edinburgh 1992) 4-7.

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