Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman had a special position within De Ploeg. He started his career as a journalist and student printer and in 1908 he set up his own printing company in Groningen. As an artist he was self-taught and his earliest known painting dates from 1917. His contacts with De Ploeg were initially business-like; in February 1919 he printed the catalogue of the first exhibition organized by this new circle of artists. Later that year Werkman became a member of De Ploeg.
The printing press became his artistic tool when he started experimenting with it in 1923 in the first of a long series of prints (‘druksels’). He developed a unique technique using the printing material, the ink roller and the hand press. Later, he expanded his expressive capabilities with the use of templates and stamping techniques. Werkman's total oeuvre comprises more than 2000 works, including paintings, watercolours, graphics, drawings and printed matter. But the prints constitute the core of his oeuvre. Werkman printed the earliest of these in small editions, but the vast majority are unique pieces, most of which, some four hundred, date from 1940-1945.
Within his oeuvre the typographically characteristic and experimental printed matter from his printing house takes a special place. Werkman allowed himself great artistic freedom, as can be seen from the posters, catalogues and other incidental publications that he provided for De Ploeg. In the 1920s and 1930s Werkman made several artfully designed magazines, partly filled with his own poetic texts, including Blad voor Kunst (1921-1922), Preludium en Pesach (1936). Of great importance was The Next Call, in which he experimented freely with typography; nine issues of The Next Call came out between 1923 and 1926.
De Blauwe Schuit
Special place in Werkman’s printed work are the publications by ‘De Blauwe Schuit’, the underground publishing house that printed a total of forty publications between 1941 and 1944. It concerned mostly little books containing original work or existing texts, and which responded in covert terms to the German occupation with the intention to hearten people. This is also how the Hasidic Legends (‘Chassidische Legenden’) came into being, which are among his most famous and most beloved works. His illustrations and designs, left an important mark on the art of printing.
During the war years, artistic creativity prevailed due to a combination of lack of business assignments and great artistic productivity, stimulated by a growing interest in his work. Shortly before the liberation, Werkman's life came to an abrupt end: in March 1945 he was arrested by the ‘Sicherheitsdienst’ and executed on April 10.
In November 1945, museum director Willem Sandberg organized a commemoration exhibition of Werkman’s work at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Since then Werkman's oeuvre has found much appreciation at home and abroad.
Text: Jikke van der Spek, Anneke de Vries
Dieuwertje Dekkers, Jikke van der Spek, Anneke de Vries, H.N. Werkman – Het complete oeuvre, Rotterdam 2008. Frans R.E. Bloem, Willem van Koppen, Mieke van der Wal, Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman – Brieven rond De Blauwe Schuit 1940-1945, Amsterdam 2008. Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman. Kunst is Overal, St. De Ploeg-Groninger Museum 2015. Peter Jordens, Hendrik Werkman en De Ploeg. The Next Call en het constructivisme, Zwolle: WBooks, 2017.