Biographical sketchKoos Levy-van Halm
1908-1922, a retrospective
Melle Johannes Oldeboerrigter was born on 27 May 1908 in Wittenburg, a residential neighbourhood adjacent to Amsterdam's eastern harbour area. He was the youngest of three and the only son. His parents, who were forty-three and thirty-seven when Melle was born, had each been through a lot by then. His father, Hendericus Oldeboerrigter, was born on 31 January 1865 in the village of Nijega in Friesland. At age 12, he signed on to work on a sailing vessel and advanced from junior seaman to boatswain. Raised Catholic, he soon became a socialist and was politically active in the seamen's league, an organization that subscribed to the ideals of the social-anarchist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis.
Melle's mother, Johanna Geertruida de Vries, was a very practical woman. She came from Harlingen, where she was born on 3 July 1870 and was a widow when she married Hendericus. By age thirty she had experienced serious emotional losses, including the deaths of her first husband and two children of tuberculosis. One of her children that died had been called Melle as well. Melle and his sisters Liberta and Henriëtte, four and two years older than him, respectively, were vaguely familiar with this past; their mother stayed in touch with the relatives of her late husband. She rarely spoke about the events, and Melle did not learn what actually happened until 1942. As a young woman, she was sufficiently resilient to cope with her new family life. With her husband at sea, however, she lived in constant fear of another loss and sometimes with good reason, such as during World War I, when the ship on which Hendericus sailed was rumoured to have been sunk by torpedoes. In such crises, she let her children give in to their emotions, and they all wept frequently.
The children were very close. The house where they were born at 32 Derde Wittenburgerdwarsstraat comprised six families on three floors; in their half of the rear third-floor apartment, the family had a room with an alcove and a tiny kitchen. As was customary, the entire family slept in the alcove. The area was separated off the back of the room, containing a large bedstead against the wall on each side, with a curtain serving as a partition down the centre.
The Oostelijke Eilanden [eastern islands] – Wittenburg, Kattenburg and Oostenburg – had only two bridges connecting them to the rest of Amsterdam. The streets of Wittenburg were filled with hastily built nineteenth-century residential construction and the remaining shipyards. Young island dwellers, including Melle, roamed the fields around them or ventured into the city. Melle saw more than most children, thanks to his disposition and upbringing. He enjoyed popular books, such as In sloot en plas by E. Heimans and J.P. Thijsse, which was read by all his family members as well. In an interview published in 1970 in the Algemeen Handelsblad daily, Melle reminisced that he often went to catch sticklebacks and tadpoles with his friends. He explained that he derived this interest from the youth movement and from people such as Thijsse, a vast source of knowledge: 'There are no longer any sticklebacks or frogs... And where will they find an anthill? I drew them all as a small child.'
His talent for drawing did indeed become noticeable early on; he cultivated this skill at home and at school. Still, he did not remember his years in primary school as a happy time. His name was difficult to remember, and being left-handed was another obstacle. At the posh school, as he referred to kindergarten, he had his name pinned on his smock. Melle was an absent-minded child and had a vivid imagination.
In an interview with Ischa Meijer (1972), Melle described his childhood home as poor but cosy. He was especially close to his mother and said that she was very wise. She used to comfort him after his many 'visionary nightmares,' which differed little from the 'waves of images' that 'overwhelmed' him later in life. His mother used her earnings to supplement the wages of her seafaring husband and brought home small treats for her children. Art supplies were always available. Sometimes she gave them little presents. One very special gift was called the book of cats and was by the graphic artist Steinlen. As a young draughtsman, Melle later met and was influenced by the other work of this socially dedicated artist.
Despite his frequent absences, Melle's father had a considerable say about how his children were raised. An ardent socialist, he managed to pass his principles on to his children. All three quickly joined the socialist choir De Jonge Proletaar. In addition to the recreational singing and dancing on Sunday mornings, the children needed to master cantatas with complicated texts. The choir that performed at Domela Nieuwenhuis's seventieth birthday in Amsterdam's Concert Hall in 1916 addressed him as 'Father Nieuwenhuis.' Melle later considered himself fortunate to have been present at the event and described the socialist leader as a Saint Nicholas dressed as a commoner. He believed that experiencing a historical era enriched his life. His father felt the same way and was unable to control his emotions when he described the 1918 sailors' uprising he had witnessed in Kiel, which had led Hamburg to be controlled briefly by a council of workers and soldiers (the Council Republic).
Melle later called himself a socialist by conviction. Unlike his father, he was wary of active confrontations. His depictive ability enabled him to respond in his own, unique way.
Melle is admitted at the graphic school in Amsterdam to learn typesetting at age fourteen. He attends evening classes in drafting and lithography as well. While in school, he joins the anarchist youth movement behind De Moker, een opruiend blad voor jonge arbeiders [an incendiary magazine for young workers]. Known for its typography and radical content, De Moker was published privately. Melle produced several illustrations for the magazine, taking the Belgian artist Frans Masereel as his role model. The group, which opposed the established order, was immensely idealistic. Men and women went camping together, swam nude and abstained from smoking and drinking. The congresses held at rural venues featured lectures by prominent individuals such as Anton Constandse and Bart de Ligt.
A small group advocated a lifestyle without commitments. This appealed to Melle, who longed to travel throughout Europe, singing and playing his guitar. His father warned him against this course, because he objected to the extreme consequence of anarchism and favoured a measure of discipline and social adaptation. Melle complied with his father's request that he complete his training and then look for work. As an adult, Melle concluded that the discipline he needed to become a typographer was the appropriate mindset for becoming a successful painter.
Melle worked for several printers with brief interruptions. One printed the countercultural periodical Zwarte Kat, to which Melle contributed.
In Het Vrije Volk (1975) Melle said the following about this work: 'When I was young I produced drawings for pornographic papers. Because I neither smoke nor drank and still belonged to the youth movement, I simply saved the money. Eventually I invested it in a revolutionary youth magazine...'
Melle refuses to do his compulsory military service. While distributing anarchist, anti-militarist leaflets at the barracks, he is arrested. Released after fourteen days, he escapes a lengthy prison sentence, as he is rejected from the armed forces because of his tiny build.
Around this time Melle meets Marth Bruijn, a dancer at an experimental dance troupe run by Florrie Rodrigo.
Melle becomes a typesetter at the Arbeiderspers and does the layout for Het Volk, a daily published there. Honing his skills as a typesetter, he works extremely quickly. In his free time, he draws many dummies in chalk and pastels, comparable to a journal of drawings. Compelling newspaper reports inspire many of his drawn memos. He later uses watercolours, sometimes on very large sheets, and has a few series bound. He destroys a lot of his work as well. He asks to be assigned night shifts at the printing press to balance his busy schedule. Melle becomes friends with Lex Althoff, the supervisor of the night editorial board. Lex introduces him to De Kring, an artists' society where Melle meets writers, such as Gerard den Brabander, Jacob Hiegentlich and Jac. van Hattum, and artists, such as Henk Harriet and Willy Sluiter. He draws for periodicals that represent specific political views and illustrates books and book jackets, including for the publishing company Boekenvrienden Solidariteit, which H. Kohn founded in exile.
After several temporary abodes, Melle and Marth move to 62 Amsteldijk in Amsterdam. They do not marry on principle. Both are politically active.
Melle joins the Bond van Kunstenaars ter Verdediging van de Kultuur (League of artists in defence of culture). In this capacity, he helps design the variegated exhibition De Olympiade onder dictatuur (The Olympics in a dictatorship) at De Geelvinck in Amsterdam in 1936.
Melle starts painting, as he indicates in a memo.
Historian Jacques Presser is the first to purchase one of his oil paintings. Author Theun de Vries is the first to write reflections about Melle's graphics and other work in Kroniek van Hedendaagse Kunst en Kultuur.
Following the outbreak of the war, several people in need of a place to hide find shelter at the Amsteldijk.
Melle continues to work at the Arbeiderspers. He also manages to provide type outside the company for the underground press, such as the resistance paper De Vonk. In the few moments that remain after performing his daily duties, Melle draws and paints. Though highly prolific during the early war years, he sometimes has to use inferior materials in his paintings, such as printer's ink.
Owners of works from this early period include: interior designer Jaap Penraat, dancer Florrie Rodrigo, physician Wim Storm, author Maurits Dekker, night-shift executive editor for Het Volk Lex Althoff, industrialist Edie de Swaan and antique dealer Jac. Vecht, who also owns a book comprising a series of watercolour lawn scenes.
In the November issue of the underground paper De Vrije Kunstenaar – launched by Gerrit van der Veen's resistance group in 1942 – one of the few drawings featured is by Melle. Lou Lichtveld (Albert Helman), a close friend of Melle's, was an editor at that point. Fellow editor L.P.J. Braat remarks in a commentary about a facsimile edition (1970): 'Anybody at the time who saw this wonderful drawing "Solidarity," depicting a German soldier gorging himself, with an emaciated Dutch child facing him, realized immediately which well-known painter and artist had produced it.' A note by Melle about this period reads: '... in November all work ground to a halt: no light, no coal, no home.'
Melle moves in with Puck van Hilst – the couple later marries – at 90 Stadhouderskade.
Melle quits his job and devotes all his time to art. He keeps his workshop on the Amsteldijk. Puck supports them as a pedicurist. The exhibition Kunst in vrijheid [Art in freedom] at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam features four of Melle's oil paintings.
A small circle of admirers purchases his work regularly. In hard times Melle receives help from good friends, such as the De Swaan brothers.
Melle moonlights as a contributor to the weekly De Vlam, socialistisch weekblad voor vrijheid en cultuur. His drawings appear on the cover, credited to his pseudonym Frits. Deriving from the underground paper De Vonk and with the physician Wim Storm as the executive editor, De Vlam's contributing editors include Henriëtte Roland Holst, Jef Last and Tom Rot.
Tentoonstelling van teekeningen van Melle [Exhibition of Melle's drawings] is his first solo exhibit, held at the Galerie Lemaire, 28 Leidsestraat, Amsterdam.
First exhibition featuring drawings, watercolours and paintings opens at Huize Sluiter in Groningen. Poet-painter Hendrik de Vries delivers an introductory speech.
Melle's father dies.
A series of drawings with titles such as Oude man in bed [Old man in bed], Laatste stappen van een oude man [Final steps of an old man], Riekus in grot [Riekus in cave], Nog bij moeder [Still with mom].
Melle's mother dies.
First exhibition at the book and art dealer Magdalena Sothmann, 284 Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal in Amsterdam.
First foreign exhibition of Melle's work is organized at Galerie Rudolf Hoffmann in Hamburg.
Melle and Puck move to 126 Weteringschans. Melle takes a part-time job as a typesetting instructor at the institute for industrial art, later the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. That same year, his duties are expanded to comprise typography at the bound graphics department.
Puck van Hilst and Melle Oldeboerrigter marry.
Director of Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum Esquire W. Sandberg rejects two of the three paintings selected by a jury for an exhibition celebrating the tenth anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands. This opinion echoes that of other museum directors who refuse to exhibit Melle's work. Just before the opening, Melle is given the opportunity to submit two other paintings.
Sexologist C. Van Emde Boas publishes a controversial article in the January issue of the literary journal De Nieuwe Storm, analysing Melle's work based on his childhood experiences.
A group of friends and relatives organizes a fiftieth birthday celebration for Melle at café Schiller. Cinematographer Max de Haas records a motion picture of the event.
The Stichting Kunstenaarsverzet 1942-1945 selects Melle for the visual art award. Melle refuses to accept the award, upon learning that one of the jurors had joined the Kultuurkamer.
At the eighth Biennale, Melle's work is exhibited in Saõ Paolo. J.N. van Wessem, the director of Leiden's municipal museum De Lakenhal, who helped set up this exhibition, writes Melle about the glowing appreciation for his work, especially among foreign artists.
Melle's becomes a painting instructor at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in the free graphics department in addition to his other duties.
Melle receives the Keerkring seal from the Keerkring society of artists, where many regard him as the 'greatest living painter.'
A tribute from Her Majesty: on 29 April Melle becomes a Companion of the Order of Orange-Nassau.
Melle's friends form a committee to organize a sixtieth birthday celebration for him in the Koningszaal at Artis, the Amsterdam zoo. In addition, the committee arranges for Van Oorschot publishers to issue a binder containing twelve prints and two lithographs.
Large review exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede.
On the VARA television series Signalement, Henk de By produces a program about Melle, one of the first art shows broadcast in colour.
In Stockholm, Melle's work is featured at the major theme-based exhibition The second international exhibition of erotic art.
Large review exhibition at Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum and at the Gemeentemuseum Arnhem.
Melle retires from his job.
Collaborative project with former student Ruscha Langelaan: Duoschilderij.
On 24 May Melle dies of a heart attack and is buried at the Oosterbegraafplaats cemetery in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam, July 1988
(from: 'Melle schilder, aquarellist, tekenaar, Amsterdammer', Joh. Enschedé en Zonen, Haarlem, 1988, p. 108 ff.)