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Iconic artist passes away - Horowhenua District Council

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

In 1995, Leon van den Eijkel exploded onto the Aotearoa art scene with a brilliant burst of colour - and an exhibition that brought the Dutch influence of Mondriaan’s modernism to New Zealand.

Since then, the works by the Dutch immigrant have featured on the Wellington waterfront with the Urban Trees wind sculpture of colourful squares, the Avalon and Hobsonville sets of three Smiling Windmills, the Waiheke Cross Roads, Totem on the Brick Bay Sculpture Trail, and his gigantic masterpiece Red Cloud Confrontation in the Gibbs Farm Sculpture Park on the Kaipara Harbour.

Being known by the public for his outlandish but highly geometric sculptures, Leon’s paintings are also widely held in private collections. When Covid stopped the plans in their tracks to organise a 2020 retrospective of his life’s work and development as an artist, a new date was set for 24 April 2021. The exhibition opening would be a stylish, colourful and integral part of the start of Dutch Week, at the Big Dutch Day Out in Foxton. The opening of "A Colourful Nation - Kleur Bekennen" went ahead, but without Leon there in person. He had passed away 10 days earlier, after a heart attack.

In 1995, Christina Barton, the Curator Contemporary Art for the Gallery that would later merge into Te Papa, wrote about Leon’s ‘MondriAn after MondriAAn’ exhibition: "To the rationalism of a distinctly European modernism, van den Eijkel adds the chaotic excess of a Pacific post-modernism. Not only is this manifested in his discovery of a new, more expansive palette, but it is also evidenced in the multiple, three dimensional form of the work."

The Retrospective of Leon’s works in the Māpuna Kabinet art gallery in Foxton, aims to cover that mix of modernism and precise but sharply coloured chaos. The larger than life sculptures feature in a video, but four of Leon’s Down Under Super Sizzler BBQs sit right outside the door of the gallery (with 25 more on the walls of the Oranjehof museum - which tells the story of Dutch immigrants). And two of his subtly glittering Going Full Circle bonsai spheres were made available by a private collector.

A number of works that have not been seen in public since 1995 are on loan from Te Papa, to cover Leon’s artistic journey from his formative years to today. ‘A Colourful Nation’ tells the story of a journey of transformation - beginning in 1986 when Leon first arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand, and finishing in 2020 - when he was still working away on his Four Square paintings and plans for a sculpture of huge cubes rolling down a hill in the Gibbs Farm Sculpture Park. The exhibition also shows some of his earliest works - from the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, where he started studying in 1958, at the age of 18.

The foundations of Leon’s work are rooted in the modernist movement of ‘De Stijl’ and the work of internationally renowned Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944). But the immigrant from the Netherlands uses his own vibrant ‘Pacific Palette’ to surprise and delight his audience. Te Papa has made the books available that contain Leon’s 138 Red Cloud Letters - the Pacific Palette colour scheme that became the foundation of all his work after 1986, when he arrived in Aotearoa, captivated by identifying the colours that make up the Southern Hemisphere’s dazzling sunsets. The black books are sheltered from the public behind perspex in black cabinets, but 12 of the Red Cloud Letters colour sheets are on display on a white 1995 ‘Rietveld’ table, where they can be handled by the public whilst wearing white gloves.

Expanding on Mondriaan’s primary colours, Leon aims to distil the natural essence of Aotearoa into his works - with a singular, highly logical Dutch cultural mind-set. As a result of that process, his craftily structured paintings and quirky sculptures often express a subtle sense of humour and a touch of irreverence.

As Leon wrote, about the ‘MondriAn after MondriAAn’ exhibition, in 1995: "If Mondriaan had travelled to New Zealand, he would have come up with this dazzling palette - instead of the primary colours red, yellow and blue. He did not know about our light and colour. So this is what I try to tell him, with my work." For Leon, his use of Pacific colours is a dialogue between European modernism and the vibrant southern hemisphere. He came from a country that looks at nature with a controlled and rational eye - symbolised the highly ordered minimalistic style of his beloved Mondriaan. As time passed, however, Leon was freed from the land with the diffused light and low grey skies. And it shows. Observing his work evolve from 1986 onwards, suggests that the freedom Leon found in Aotearoa - with its dazzling light, colours and untamed landscapes - allowed him to step ever further away from his organised, structured, disciplined Dutch urban background.

On a Dutch Influence on New Zealand Art video in the Oranjehof museum from 2017, Leon says: "New Zealand is so colourful. And we have to do something with that. And that’s what I intended to do, as a Dutch artist here. I’m always dressed in black. I love black. But underneath? There is lots of colour… To me. That is New Zealand. A colourful country."

As he progressed through his artistic journey, Leon found new ways to express who and what we are - as a colourful, multi-cultural nation. Reflecting on the arrival of Dutch artists in New Zealand since the 1950s and 1960s, art historian Luit Bieringa puts it this way: "All these Dutch artists, they all played their role and made their contribution to what has become a really great, multi-cultural nation." (Video in Oranjehof museum, Dutch Influence on New Zealand Art, 2017)

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