Barbara Kruyt (Hengelo 1944). Portrait of Willem Otten 1995. Oil paint on canvas 50×40 cm.
Edgar Jansen. Portrait of Alina Ludmiły Otten 1985. Chalk drawing on paper 65×50 cm.
Willem Otten was born in 1942 as the third of five children in a middle class family in Leiden. Leiden had a number of important national museums that were free to enter on Sundays. In his childhood, Otten and his neighborhood friends regularly visited the national museums for Antiquities (Egyptian mummies), Ethnology (Buddha Hall) and the Lakenhal. In the Lakenhal he was deeply moved by the triptych ‘The Last Judgment’ by Lucas van Leyden (Leiden 1494-1533).
Lucas van Leyden. The Last Judgment 1527. Oil paint on panel 300,5 x 434,5 cm.
The next phase in the awakening process of his love for art began when in the first year of the secondary school his teacher in the Dutch language (Mr. van der Steen) devoted a lesson to self-taught painting. He treated Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ and Henri Rousseau’s ‘Le rêve’. Both end-of-life paintings made an indelible impression on him.
Vincent van Gogh. Wheatfield with crows 1890. Oil paint on canvas 60.5 x 100.5 cm.
Henri Rousseau. Le rêve 1910. Oil on canvas 204 x 298 cm.
After studying sociology and management sciences Otten started in 1969 working at a renowned organizational consultancy firm in Amsterdam. One of his assignments was to provide assistance to ir. Ernst Hijmans (1890-1987). Hijmans had studied mechanical engineering together with ir. Vincent Willem van Gogh (the famous painter’s nephew), and in 1922 they had founded the first Dutch management consultancy firm. Hijmans told with relish how he had spent the night several times in the house of his associate’s mother, where he slept in the guest room under “The potato eaters”.
In 1970, the Leiden self-taught painter Rein Dool made a beautiful portrait of Otten’s teacher Hijmans. This work aroused artistic greed in Otten and he started collecting Dool’s work. For information about life and work of Dool see his biography in this website.
Janita Sassen (Emmen 1966). Portrait Willem Otten with his teacher ir. Ernst Hijmans in the background. Photo 2009.
Around 1975 Otten befriended a number of provo and hippie foremen. In those circles he got to know the gifted autistic draftsman Arthur IJzerdraat. He was charmed by his drawings and collages and started collecting his work. For information about IJzerdraat see his biography in this website.
Arthur IJzerdraat (Amsterdam 1957-2007). Concrete Walhalla. Collage on envelope 31×22 cm.
In the summer of 1979 Otten met the Polish Alina Ludmiła Owsiejczuk (Łódź 1954). During her studies in sociology and ethnology, Alina had developed a love for Polish folk art and, during her ethnological field research, she had started to build up a collection of traditional woodcarvings. Her inspiration was reinforced by two documentary films about the German journalist Ludwig Zimmerer (Augsburg 1924 – Krakow 1987) who lived in Poland. Over the course of several decades, Zimmerer had built up an enormous collection of high-quality woodcarvings and paintings by non-professional Polish artists.
Jadwiga Matusijak (Poland 1927). Maria. Wood carving 28 cm
The two art lovers married shortly after their meeting and in the period 1982-2000 they went – in imitation of Zimmerer – about 3 to 4 times a year on a scavenger hunt to purchase paintings and woodcarvings. They made use of the somewhat dated ‘Atlas de l’art Populaire et du folklore en Pologne’ by the professor of ethnography Marian Pokropek (1932-2022). The living locations of the artists were often only broadly indicated and, especially in the early years, they had many ‘misses’. The artists turned out to be deceased, moved or the products were of substandard quality.
In contacts with informants and artists, Alina’s skills as a native speaker and ethnologist were essential. Hardly anyone spoke a word ‘across the border’ and the procedures for obtaining export licenses were complicated and varied regionally.
Bronisław Krawczuk (Ukraïene 1935 – Gliwice 1995) with his grandchildren to the right and Willem Otten jr. to the left. Summer 1984.
In their searches they were sometimes advised by former classmates of Alina who acted as director or curator of regional museums. Special support was provided by Alina’s former classmate Małgorzata Zawierucha, artistic director of Cepelia, a nationally operating organization for folk art. Another golden contact was the prominent Silesian artist Bronisław Krawczuk, who had built up an important collection of works by befriended colleagues from the renowned ‘Grupa Janowska’. For life and work of Krawczuk see his biography in this website.
After the political upheaval in 1989, the purchases gradually declined. The artist population decreased due to death, acceptance of jobs in the market sector and maintenance work on one’s own home. In addition, the emerging tourism led to the artists sometimes making concessions to the quality level originally delivered.
NDR BROADCAST ABOUT ZIMMERER AND FOLK ART:“Wo die Engel dem Teufel im Nacken sitzen” by Viktoria von Flemming(German language 41 minutes).