Exhibition The Mix Netherlands ‘Earth’: Martien Coppens & Wiesje Peels

Exhibition The Mix Netherlands ‘Earth’: Martien Coppens & Wiesje Peels

In the section ‘Telling History’, we take a dive into Tilburg University’s rich Heritage Collections. This time, we focus on a project of the Brabant Collection that led to a special duo exhibition at two locations in Tilburg.

Wiesje Peels at her DOKAR, Helenaveen, 2023. Photo: Hans de Kort

For six weeks, Breda photographer Wiesje Peels, as an ode to Martien Coppens and analog work, made a bicycle trip to the Peel with her self-built DOKAR: a darkroom on wheels. In this way, the photos of Brabant’s landscapes, people, and events taken along the way could be developed and printed immediately. The DOKAR works as a ‘connector.’

The Beeldmix Foundation organizes The Mix Netherlands exhibitions in all twelve provinces. Here, a historical photo collection is used as a source of inspiration for contemporary photographers. The Brabant and eighth (!) edition has the theme ‘Earth’ and combines the work of Martien Coppens (1908-1986) with that of Wiesje Peels (1975).

Duo exhibition at two locations in Tilburg

The exhibition is an initiative of the Beeldmix Foundation together with the Brabant Collection, Tilburg University, NS, and ProRail. On view until October 31, 2023 and free to visit at Tilburg central train station and at the Tilburg University campus: Esplanade & Cobbenhagen Building (the indoor exhibition in Cobbenhagen Building can only be visited during the week).

Would you like to take a look in the DOKAR? Then report to the Brabant Collection.

On the outside of the darkroom on wheels is a photograph printed in negative. Wiesje Peels took a shot of a frozen pond in the Peel, with all the frozen air bubbles. In the inside of the cart, the photo is printed in positive.

Wiesje Peels was eager to realize her long-cherished dream: a bicycle ride through Brabant with her self-made darkroom on wheels. Before setting off, Wiesje browsed through the photographic oeuvre of Martien Coppens. His vintage prints (the core collection) and his archive are managed by the Brabant Collection, housed in the Tilburg University Library.

Wiesje selected some thirty Coppens photographs with the theme ‘Earth’ in mind. Earth as in earthy, light and dark, nature, character, soul, spirituality, and all with both feet in or on the ground. She noticed a lot of symbolism in Coppens’ photographs. Peels created a new narrative from his appealing images and ‘responded’ to them with her own work.

Self-portrait, Lieshout, 1964. Photograph: Martien Coppens. Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam | Brabant Collection, Tilburg University

Ode to Martien Coppens

In the early 1980s, Martien Coppens received a commission from the Province of North Brabant. He himself selected one hundred photographs from his total oeuvre: a concentrated summary of subjects that most fascinated him. This purchase resulted in an exhibition in the Count Hall (Provinciehuis) in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

With this came a modest brochure entitled Self-Portraits in 117 Photographs (1983). It did not include a literal self-portrait, but he mirrored himself in his photographs. He translated his ‘soul images’ into themes, which showed a completion of life: from megalith to baby, that is, from death to birth; from omega to alpha.

In addition, his seventy photo books formed a starting point for Wiesje’s selection, including a foursome whose subject is the Peel: Around the Peel (1937), Monsters of the Peel (1958), Heart of the Peel (1978) and surrounding the Peel (1979).

Packed up and ready to go

Thanks to both the donors via the crowdfunding platform Voordekunst and the builders, Peels’s DOKAR idea—visualized on a napkin—was realized. In May, she left Breda, packed and ready to go—with tent and camping gear—in the direction of the Peel.

Left: Weeping Tree, Ommel, 2023. Photo: Wiesje Peels. The Mix Netherlands ‘Earth’ | Image Mix Foundation
On the right: Mieke van Gerwen from Brouwhuis, Helmond, circa 1933-1934. Photo: Martien Coppens. Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam | Brabant Collection, Tilburg University

Sleeping in the DOKAR was not an option because of the chemicals: it was a workshop and not a caravan. The cart was not always easy to keep under control and the trip also had setbacks: burst tier and bar breakage. Along the way in the Kampina and the Peel, Wiesje met and portrayed people. From cheerful, loitering youths and migrants to sculptor Joep Coppens (indeed the son of), campers, and guildsmen.

‘Soul Images’

Coppens’s ‘soul images’ captured the photographer’s imagination. The ‘figures’ (the Celestial Bearer, the wolf, the white horse, and the Peel gnome) and ‘symbols’ (Jo’s hand, stone, and primaeval tree) are part of a kind of fairy tale, or composite ‘Coppens-Peels world.’ The outdoor exhibition with ’trotters’ (kind of billboards in portrait format) does not show a linear story but invites you to exercise your imagination without limitations!

The Brabant Collection

Brabant photography is one of the focal points of the Brabant Collection (housed in the Tilburg University Library). The vintage prints and archive of Martien Coppens (1908-1986) are managed here. His negatives are housed at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam.

Emy Thorissen is an art historian and works as curator of Old and Special Collections at the Brabant Collection and Tilburg University Library.

With thanks to Wiesje Peels.

Photo expo

Univers featured the exhibition and spoke with artist Wiesje Peels and curator Emy Thorissen. Watch the video about that:


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