Archive News & Expositions
The painter Rein Pol and the mystery of mortality
On the 17th of November 1964, around noon, a Nato fighter jet crashed into the woods near Straumsnes in Norway. The Dutch pilot was Wim Heitmeijer from Groningen, of whom only few remains were found near the wreckage on the mountain slope. Wim Heitmeijer was an uncle of the artist Rein Pol from Stedum (Groningen), who is one of the best-known figurative painters of the Netherlands. Tomorrow Heitmeijer´s next of kin will leave for the Straumsnes forest to unveil a memorial on the 2d of May. Rein Pol will travel in their company, because to him, uncle Wim was not just any uncle, he was his childhood hero.
By Eric Bos, Nieuwsblad van het Noorden, 28 April 2000
The artist Rein Pol (50) brings out a large canvas. It is a painting of a landscape, as Pol is known to paint on occasion, in addition to meticulous studies of light or alienation in still-lifes, trains, musical instruments and portraits. However, this Frisian landscape differs greatly from the others. It is not even an actual landscape, it is more like a portrait of the sky. Two fighter jets are racing through it. Pol points out the registration number he painted on one of the planes. ´That is the number of the Starfighter that my uncle was killed in´, he explains.
That uncle, that accident, have colored his life. His uncle Wim´s death has been one of the most traumatic experiences in the painter´s life. ´Of course, many more people among my acquaintances have died in the meantime´, says Pol, ´but the death of my uncle Wim was the first and the most unexpected. His death has greatly influenced my works, in which life and death, but particularly death, are a leitmotiv. I used to be jealous of my cousins for having such a father. Because he was a pilot, I thought more of him than of my own father, who was to be a well-known policeman in the city of Groningen.´
´There was a certain rivalry between policeman Pol and pilot Heitmeijer. The brothers-in-law liked to compete with each other. The story goes that they were going in for a race downstairs. My father rushed down the stairs, but uncle Wim just lifted up the window and jumped out. When my father arrived in the street, my uncle stood there waiting for him. Those were the kind of stories going around in my family. ´
In addition, uncle Wim was one of the few people who owned a car in those days, says Pol. At that time, hardly anyone possessed a car in the street where the Pol family lived. ´One day we rode along in his car, my ten-year-old cousin and I were in the frontseat, on our way to Leeuwarden. Uncle Wim lived nearby the Leeuwarden air base. He then started rolling a cigarette, while, to our amazement, his son took the wheel as a matter of course. And on New Year´s Eve uncle Wim would bring signal rockets. When the neighbours saw those giant rockets in the sky they knew, that is uncle Wim. James Bond wasn´t known in those days, but looking back, uncle Wim was like a James Bond to us.´
When the news came that Wim Heitmeijer (39) had been killed in a plane crash, Rein Pol was a Boy Scout who had just turned fifteen. ´That had made a deep impression on me. And what was probably even worse at that time: I could not share the story with my friends. My father did not want us to boast this dramatic event. ´You will not speak of it, my boy´, he told me that night, and that was that. Just imagine: my all-time hero had been killed in a plane crash and I could not share it with anybody! At the evening of the day on which my uncle´s plane had crashed, I had to go see my patrol leader for a meeting at his house in the Kapteinlaan. He had a record player in his bedroom, and played some of his favourite music for me - music I wasn´t familiar with. At home, I did not have a radio, let alone a record player. He was very emotional when he told me it was Jim Reeves´s music, and then he told me that Reeves had recently died in a plane crash. I was dying to say: ´So did my uncle´, but I kept quiet. This has bothered me for the rest of my life, and even though my father had barred me from speaking on the day of the accident exclusively, it is only now that I´m telling this story´.
Whilst flying over the Netherlands in his Starfighter, uncle Wim must have passed out or perhaps he had died already.
The death of the Groningen pilot, officially squadron leader, got extensive coverage in the Groningen newspaper Nieuwsblad van het Noorden. ´Cause fatal flight Starfighter pilot still a mystery´, the headline read. According to this newspaper, the crash supposedly resulted from a defect of the resuscitator. It reported that the deceased pilot (´an enthousiastic sportsman, especially athletics and netball´, living at the Gorechtkade), left behind a wife and four children aged four to eleven. Rein Pol: ´The plane continued its flight on the automatic pilot, in one straight line, until it ran out of fuel while it was flying over Norway. It then fell straight down in the wood on the mountain slope near Straumsnes. The pieces of wreckage have never been cleared. If you´re there, you can find all sorts of stuff. Little has been found of my uncle´s remains, though. ´It fit into a jam jar´, my aunt said. Mrs. Kirsten Smeby, journalist of the Norwegian local paper Tidens Krav (February 1964), quotes an ´earwitness´ saying: ´We heard the boom on the day before the plane was found´. ´At first we thought it was thunder, because the weather was bad, a northwester snowstorm´, says Bjarne Tveeikrem, who lives nearby, ´but when we heard on the radio that a fighter jet had gone missing in the vicinity, we went looking for it that very same night. There was a lot of snow, it was dark, so we went past the spot where the plane had hit the slope. Remains of the wreck lay scattered over the steep ground, two to three-hundred meters away from the forest road. ´ Charlotte, Bjarne´s wife, also remembers the day of the calamity as if it had happened yesterday. ´We were having dinner around noon and heard a terrible noise. We thought it was the thunder. But soon after, we heard on the news that a plane had gone missing near Kristiansund and the surrounding area. Then the phone rang without a stop, and at night the people of the Heimevern and men from the vicinity went looking for the airplane.´ Charlotte Tveeikrem reports that the pupils of the school in Straumsnes collected money for the pilot´s children.
In the spring of 1965, Wim Heitmeijer´s widow visited the place where her husband had crashed down. She also paid a visit to the school and brought a model airplane of the same type as the crashed fighter jet.
In 1977, Rein Pol had his hero immortalized in paint. He had just graduated cum laude from the Academie Minerva in Groningen, when he painted the posthumous portrait for the pilot´s widow, his aunt, his mother´s sister. ´I had paid an extra visit to the air base to find out what kind of helmet he had worn, and which clothes. I have adjusted the colors though, to the color scheme of the painting. For instance, I changed bright orange to grayish brown.´ In the spring of 1998 Pol came into contact with Mr. Egbert Pijfers, a Dutchman living in Norway. Earlier on he had bought the Blue Angel, one of the well-known train-paintings, and this time he wanted a painting of the train against the background of a Norwegian fjord. Together with his cousin Hilbert Heitmeijer, one of the pilot´s sons, Pol travelled to Norway and visited the spot where the Starfighter had crashed, coincidentally this was near Pijfers´ home. ´The three of us went down there´, says Pol, ´and we found various pieces of the plane wreck. It was Pijfers´ idea to put up a memorial plaque. I will incorporate a screen print of the portrait I have painted of uncle Wim. When we depart for Norway tomorrow, my aunt Heitmeijer will come with us.
The notion In Memoriam is a leitmotiv in Rein Pol´s oeuvre, not just literally as in the many portraits of dead animals and people, but also in a recent painting of the pieces of the wreckage of the crashed Starfighter he found in Straumsnes. ´I´m a traditional painter´, is his explanation for his preference for death as a subject. ´Through the ages painters have been fascinated by the themes of life and death.´ For him, telling the story of his all-time hero is not just an important moment in his life, it also reveals the link with the main theme of his oeuvre which is painted again and again, directly or indirectly. Take for example the painting Evening train, a lonely train on a deserted railway against the background of an autumnal evening sky. Or the Indoor tennis court by night, seemingly a study of light and dark of an inflatable tennis court, illuminated from within, but in fact a strange glowing body which appears to have come down on earth as a signal from the darkened sky. And above all in the many drawings and paintings of old and deceased people, often next of kin. Though Pol will never cease to try and catch the mystery of immortality and death in his works, his uncle Wim´s death will remain the largest mystery of all.