Martin working on ‘Rolls’ 1973


In the beginning, realism. But what is realism in the representative arts?

A fundamental question to which every artist at some point in his or her career must find an answer.

For Martin Helm it was literally the starting point of his work. This ‘back to basics’ approach would characterise his entire career.

A basic form of realism is the one-on-one rendering of the subject perceived onto a flat surface. By one-on-one meaning: On the same scale as the real subject, in frontal view, and as precisely as possible.

For simplicity Martin chose basic materials to execute these renderings: Pencil and paper. He prefers the word ‘rendering’ to ‘drawing’. Drawing implicates the use of lines, rendering makes use of shades.

The first series consisted mainly of commonplace subjects: A bed, part of a wall, a fence, observed and reconstructed from memory. There was no foreground, no background.


‘Fence’ 1974   pencil on paper, 100 x 74 cm


Rendered in grey tones (colour was to enter in Martin Helms work at a later stage) and as illusionistic as possible with pencil.

The next phase was a change in scale, and the introduction of perspective. The renderings became more sophisticated. Imaginary suburban cityscapes where people were conspicuously absent, but they had left their marks and traces. Maybe they were there, but just around a corner,  inside a building, or had just passed the picture plane.


‘Bios’ 1974   pencil on paper,  100 x 94 cm


“I had drawn people from life, but these drawings were never satisfying. A drawing takes time, and a person changes during that time, even if it’s just a quick sketch. They change both physically and psychologically. Persons in paintings and drawings always look somehow artificial. They are impressions of one human from another. This artificiality can be very attractive, but it is not what I was trying to express.

Drawing imagined people is even worse. They always turn out looking like archetypes…”

“A person in a photograph looks so much more real. Our culture is programmed to accept the reality presented by a photo. Using photographed people in my drawings made me wonder about this perception of reality. what was it, exactly, that made this huge difference?”

The early series of drawings featured reality without people. The new series would feature nothing but people’.

The human figure was not presented in traditional form or manner, however:

“I began experimenting how far I could go with the copying, by hand, of prints and photo’s from humans – in groups or as individuals. How far, in the sense of recognizability. recognizability, not as individuals, but as human form.”

Realism was not the issue, but a by-product .

“I felt I was working in an abstract way, painstakingly following the shapes and shades the photo or print dictated me. It worked best if I didn’t know what I was working on. The process asked for a sort of mindlessness, a shutting down of all things I had learned, of prejudices and cliché’s.”

detail of drawing ‘Mallorca’, coloured pencil on paper, 50 x 65 cm


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