He resigned as it is called cold turkey, it had been nice. ‘Playing a little oboe is not possible. You have to play four to five hours a day, otherwise the instrument will punish you. So it was sluggish. ‘ Han de Vries (80) oboe has been wandering around his house for about thirteen years now. “I do not even know what closet it is in. The instrument is sometimes also an enemy, it has controlled your life. When a ballerina is busy with her pointed shoes, she will say she loves them, but she hates them at the same time. Love-hate: that’s the way it is with me and the oboe. ‘
From the time he was 14 to 63 years old, the wind instrument was pretty much his life companion – there was not a day without it. In the kitchen of his monumental house in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark hangs evidence of the great heights to which his music took him, or rather: where he brought the music. Randomly pinned between his stove and his piano: concert posters, record covers, photos with musicians of the same caliber as De Vries – world stars. At the age of 23, he became the first oboist in the Concertgebouw Orchestra, a resounding solo career that took him around the world, performing with, among others, Isaac Stern, Keith Jarrett and James Galway. Music written especially for him by composers such as Louis Andriessen and Willem Breuker. Prices too, closets filled.
The silence of retirement
And then there was the silence in the self-elected pension, schluss. From a musical point of view, Han de Vries, a retired oboist, from now on continued to play the piano in a relaxed way in his own kitchen. ‘But it itched. I thought, damn it, I have to see if there’s any life left in this dried up well. ‘ When his wife – psychoanalyst Iki Freud – suggested that he start drawing again, he thought ‘it does not work, nothing at all. It must have been too long, 42, 43 years’.
During his teenage years, De Vries attended courses at both the art academy and the conservatory in The Hague. ‘In music you had your own teacher, one to one. During those hours, I managed much faster than in the strict drawing classes, where from 9 to 12 people were only busy drawing a chair. That’s why I continued in music. ”
More than sixty years later, the many corners of his house are still full of paintings, and the walls are filled with canvases of his own. Recently, there is also a large glossy book with nearly three hundred pages of paintings in acrylic and oil paints, pen and pastel drawings. Panoramas and portraits, cartoons, abstract work, cheerful still lifes and landscapes full of disasters. ‘The work is like a diary, you can see what touches him, what touches him, what inspires him’, writes the artist Marthe Röling in the preface.
None of the work goes on sale or to the gallery. “I do not even know if it is really good, but they are all my children – I love them dearly,” says the creator. It may have been thought of as’ damn unprofessional ‘, he adds,’ it’s a pleasure to explore your own inner world while painting. Completely different from making music, you reproduce someone else’s work. If you play a piece by Bach very well, people think you are Bach himself, you get into the composer’s mind, you are submissive to him. You have to have the courage to draw and paint, it comes from within yourself. And no one thinks you’re Rembrandt. ‘
Han de Vries is a child of war. He was born in 1941 and had Jewish parents. Dad survived a concentration camp. “He had already been taken away as a political prisoner when I was born. My mother went into hiding in 1943. ‘ It was the painter Dick Elffer’s wife, Mien Harmsen, who managed to place little Han ‘via the underground’ with a couple in Aalsmeer.
“It was a peasant couple who did not have children of their own.” Despite his foster mother’s wet kiss – ‘I thought it was awful’ – he was fine under the circumstances. ‘I got very good food there and a lot of love and attention. It must have been an insane grief for the couple when I was picked up after the war. ”
Absolutely no therapeutic hassle
Father De Vries was an architect, he died when He was 17. Under the pseudonym Chanah Milner, his mother became known after the war as the singer of the Jewish song. His childhood was spent among survivors of the camp or those who had served in the resistance movement, artists and performers, and no one was left without scars. ‘On Mien and Dick Elffers’ birthdays, the room door was never allowed to close. Mien had survived Ravensbrück and had been in Vught. After an incident, she was locked inside a bunker with eighty other women. The next day the door opened and half of them thundered out dead. Mine was still alive. It has made her totally claustrophobic. ‘
‘No, no, it’s definitely not a therapeutic thing, my painting,’ he swears. Nevertheless, there seems to be a lot of night and time in his work, raging seas, graves, deaths, ominous birch forests and anonymous lots of hunted creatures. Those pictures are ‘quite general’, he says, ‘it must have something to do with my background, it obviously comes out, but I’m not always aware of that when I paint. Sometimes I have a vague mood in my head and it comes out on the screen. ‘
It works like this for him: ‘Suppose you are still a child, you are sitting on the toilet and peeing, and suddenly you see a dog in a funny pose in the marble motif of the floor. If you focus on it, it’s suddenly gone. So I sit across from a canvas or a piece of paper. I just get started and then I suddenly see something that looks like a river bed, for example. Then there are mountains and then something arises. Polish author Witold Gombrowicz once said that all he had to do was hold his pen and adjust it slightly. Such is the case with me with painting. I keep that brush and something comes, always. ‘
Yet the war is never far away. “I think about it a few times every day. The war that has been there that I myself have been dealing with, and the war now in Ukraine. It’s so unthinkable and scary. But I can not draw and paint on that theme. ‘It’s too depressing. I’ve pretty much left the sad paintings behind. I also made a lot of paintings with beautiful landscapes, with bottles of wine and fun companies – with happy people.’
Riding like crazy on the racing bike
He agrees with Marthe Röling, who once called him a tormented but cheerful soul. “I can have a lot of fun and laugh liberated.” When someone on a painting of a fleeing crowd thought he recognized a group of lemmings who, for example, would throw themselves into a ravine. ‘I was joking that it was just a group of cyclists without numbers.’
For that was what he became after his retirement: a cyclist. ‘You can’t come to an orchestra and say: I can’t play because I fell on the back of my head on a bike. That’s why I’ve always been physically careful. It was only after my retirement that I started riding like crazy on that racing bike. I even cycle in countries like Laos, Vietnam and the Philippines. ‘
The art of sitting back is still foreign to him, even at the age of 80 years. Maybe it’s because of the relentless music teachers who managed to shape a rather disciplined agenda man out of ‘the baggy artistic boy that I was’. Yet it sometimes happened that when he arrived at the Concertgebouw, he had to borrow a jacket from the timpani because he appeared in a suit while the protocol prescribed a ‘gray suit’.
Or he was by mistake in Groningen while playing in Brussels. ‘I jumped in my sports car and drove like crazy to Brussels. After that crazy ride, I showed up in the hall with straight hair and a bow like a propeller. Then the orchestra ever forbade me to come to a concert with my own transport ‘.
But usually at half past eight, half past ten was rehearsed in the Concertgebouw. Now to the train to a masterclass in Zurich, then to Schiphol again – all agenda work. ‘ In addition to discipline, he was left with an artistic production urge that has taken serious forms. ‘In fact, I still think something has to come out of my hands every day, and very often it doesn’t work.’
A glass of wine at 5 o’clock in the afternoon sometimes gives comfort. ‘Delicious. I’m a big drinker and I’m not ashamed of it at all. It relaxes me and frees me from guilt. I’m a completely free person, but that guilt … It used to be when I had not studied oboe enough, or when I was having too much fun. And now it is sometimes enough. When I’m not productive, I feel like a lazy bitch. ‘
The five are on the clock. He opens the globe next to the fireplace and takes out two glasses and a bottle of Grüner Veltliner. ‘Sometimes I put on some jazz – not classical because it’s too beautiful, too sensitive, but music by Miles Davis, Count Basie or Paul Desmond for example. I rummage around the house a bit and look through such a pile of paintings every now and then, then I come into intensely happy atmospheres. Yes, when I look back I can only say that I had a happy life. And yet I am alive and kicking. ‘