The portrait of Herman Brood
Herman Brood was “the greatest ánd only Dutch rock ‘n’ roll star”. A non-conformist, an enfant terrible. But also loved by many. Because he talked candidly about his lifestyle, his wild side, his use of heroin. Brood was romantically involved with Nina Hagen and his band Wild Romance supported acts like The Kinks and The Cars in the USA. Herman Brood often collaborated with the Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn. The two were friends.
In the eighties he started painting and Brood became a well-known character in Amsterdam art circles. He created murals in public spaces and paintings in pop-art style: bold colours, inspired by graffiti. Brood also became an alcoholic and a heroin addict. Having reached his fifties, Brood wanted to abstain from most drugs, reducing his addictions to alcohol and one daily shot of speed. But kicking the habit proved to be very difficult. His physical and mental health deteriorated. In 2001 he committed suicide, by jumping from the roof of the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel in broad daylight.
Portraying Herman Brood
I painted a portrait of Herman Brood in the same year he took his own life. To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of his music or his artwork. But I liked his personality: he was courageous, funny, bold and authentic. And – very important for a portrait painter – he had a striking face. A very distinct jaw, nose, look. Painting the peculiar, the unadjusted, the authentic: many portrait painters prefer a ‘real’ face over a ‘perfect’ face.
One day I visited the home of a client. To deliver a secret birthday present for his wife, who turned fifty that day: five portraits of their five sons. People were setting up a huge stage in the garden and I asked who would be performing tonight at the party. It turned out to be Herman Brood, together with the Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra. These people knew how to party. I blurted out I really wanted to paint the portrait of Herman Brood that day. My client smiled and said “no problem, I can arrange that for you”. I would only need a few moments of Hermans time, to take some pictures.
So we met Koos, the manager of Herman Brood. Koos arranged his publicity, sold paintings, managed the tour schedule and kept his boss alive by supplying one dose of speed every day. Koos liked the idea: there were pictures of Brood, but not a painted portrait. We arranged a date at a corporate gig, a short performance for a big insurance company. I could visit Herman Brood backstage just after he’d received his daily heroin fix, so he would be happy and subdued. So we went. And we waited. But Herman didn’t show up. Herman was lost.
A shy child, mumbling, trembling
The audience was waiting. The orchestra was prepared. But Herman was nowhere to be found. So a crew of people went looking for him, scouring the alleyways of the city. And they found him somewhere, taking his shot. Koos brought Herman into the room, holding his hand, the way a teacher or a father would guide a shy child into the room. I introduced myself but he looked right through me. He was still lost, vanished into himself. Mumbling, trembling. I wanted to put him at ease and tried some small talk. But Herman didn’t respond to anything. Until I reached for my camera to take some shots. And all of a sudden, he freaked out. Hiding his face behind fluttering hands so I couldn’t see his appearance. Hands with black fingernails, yellow fingers from the nicotine. I didn’t know what to do and responded awkwardly: I started shooting lots of pictures, dozens in a row, trying to get at least one shot with some facial features.
These were the times of analogue film: 36, 37 shots and then you had to load another film. I shot three rolls of film, dozens of pictures, in an oafish frenzy. When I developed the pictures there wasn’t a single shot fit for the portrait I had in mind. All pictures were blurry, out of focus. So I called my client back and apologized, saying I couldn’t paint Hermans portrait.
Blurry hand and scared, stoned eyes
A few weeks later I looked at the pictures again. And this time my frame of reference was different. I wasn’t looking for a clear shot of his facial features. I just looked without much judgement at this enormous stack of photographs. And saw a very distressed and fearful man, caught in a frenzy of movement and energy. I felt touched. He moved me. I started painting and created a series of five portraits, trying to capture the nervous dance of his blurry hands and those scared, stoned eyes.
The portraits of Herman Brood become one of the series I’m most proud of. And it’s also the series with the saddest story attached. This talented and charismatic man – who could play the piano and the guitar, who sang, painted, wrote poetry – kept almost as a circus animal. To perform tricks for applause and drugs. So we, the audience, could laugh and dance and be entertained. By our dearest knuffeljunk. Mr. Rock And Roll Junkie.
Herman Brood tried to kick his habits. But failed to do so and sank into a deep depression. He took his own life, by jumping from the roof of the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam. “And now I’ll go bungee jumping without a rope”, he wrote in his goodbye note to his family. One of the five portraits found a place at the table where the public book of condolences could be signed.