Theatre: the life in a life – Ellen about Nola, a moment of reflection III

In the run-up to the exhibition Surinaamse School which will be on display in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in late 2020, writer and Nola Hatterman expert Ellen de Vries, who also took the initiative for this exhibition, will be writing regular blog posts centered around Nola Hatterman in the coming months.

Welcome back, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam recently called out. The corona measures in the Netherlands have been eased quite a bit after all. Starting June 1st, soon after the corona-quarantine, museums in the Netherlands opened their doors back up. In Suriname it will take a while longer. There was a total lockdown there until June 22nd 2020. Before the relaxation of measures in the Netherlands, everybody at home could enjoy themselves with Stedelijk at home, with online mini docs, podcasts, audio tours and video-assignments. The last  assignment regarded Nola Hattermans painting ‘Op het terras’ [On the terrace] from 1930. In it, art teacher Oskar Maarleveld talks animatedly about the beautiful composition of the painting, in which he recognizes the artist’s theatre-background: ‘It looks just like a scene from a movie or a play.’ Quite interesting, to look at the painting from that angle.

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‘Op het terras’ [On the terrace], during the exhibition Geen kunst zonder kunnen [No art without artistry], in Readytex Art Gallery, Paramaribo, Suriname, March 2020 / PHOTO Ellen de Vries

Spanish flu

Nola received her degree from the Amsterdamse toneelschool [drama school in Amsterdam] at the time that the Spanish flu ­­– the corona of Nola’s generation – was wreaking havoc. In Amsterdam alone, this virus claimed 2000 victims. Casket makers worked overtime. In Amsterdam – unlike other places in the country – schools had simply remained open during the epidemic.

With her degree in her pocket, Nola stepped onto the stage in 1918. Those going through the playlists will come across famous director names such as Eduard Verkade, Herman Heijermans and Louis Bouwmeester. The actors she stood on stage with, were the celebrities of their time: the Bouwmeesters, Johan Kaart senior, Esther de Boer-van Rijk (‘Kniertje’), Else Mauhs and Albert van Dalsum. Nola performed in prestigious plays from renowned authors such as Ibsen, Shakespeare, Vondel and Zola, but she was also seen in farces and peasant dramas. She played very small roles in four ‘silent’ films. In the silent farce of Theo Frenkel senior from 1920, De bolsjewiek‘ [The bolshevik], the tall Nola is the charming waitress who serves whisky and cigars. The film industry was noticeably in its infancy. The interior scenes were shot on the courtyard of the Hollandsche Schouwburg in Amsterdam. The wind played freely with the actors’ hairpieces, the lamps danced back and forth, and if the sun disappeared behind the clouds the scene was suddenly shrouded in darkness.

In 1920 she was also cast in the musical ‘De Jantjes’ where she immediately fell for the charms of the director of the piece, the actor and writer Maurits de Vries. She married him in 1931. That marriage did not last very long however.

Drawing and painting are things that Nola did from childhood on. As a teenager she got lessons from the Italian painter Vittorio Schiavon. In drama school the painter Gerrit Willem Knap was her teacher for the subjects Drawing, Plastic art and Costume studies.

Every now and then, works turn up that serve as reminders of her theatre days. Recently, Amsterdam’s oldest auction house De Zwaan, auctioned the drawing of Elisabeth de Nijs, costume seamstress at the Stadsschouwburg and married to actor, playwright and director Jan Lemaire junior, for the winning bid of € 1.500.

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Two works of Nola that were recently auctioned by auction house De Zwaan


In 1978, after living in Suriname for a quarter century, she told the Surinamese journalist Henk Doelwijt of the monthly magazine Tori, why she chose for theatre back then.

‘What attracted me to theatre, was the life in a life. It was an escape from the injustices in life, the injustices between man and woman. Women had a subordinate role.(…). In theatre, the women were equal to the men.’

The answer attests more of pragmatism than of passion.  Nola never achieved the status of a theatre diva with large, important roles.  She decided to turn her first love, drawing and painting, into her life’s mission.

In 1930, when she completed the painting with the film-like scene ‘Op het terras’, her ‘theatre curtain’ had already fallen. From her subordinate position as a woman she felt a bond with the oppressed. She made the subordinate position of the Dutch from the Indies and the (Afro) Surinamese in particular, into the theme of her work and life, and she promoted a ‘black’ instead of a ‘white’ beauty ideal.

Nola Hatterman moved in communist (artists) circles that wanted to create a different world order.  De-colonization was an important theme therein.  In the 30’s she crossed paths with the black freedom fighter Anton de Kom. His biographers, Rob Woortman and Alice Boots, suggest that Nola, due to her theatre background, inspired De Kom to write the movie script Tjiboe. Tjiboe is about the seemingly impossible love between a black Maroon boy and a white Dutch girl. Whether that’s true, I don’t know, but it does seem as if her theatre background kept playing a role.

When May of 1945 marked the end of the horrible Second World War that had cost the lives of so many of her black and white (artist) friends (among which Anton de Kom), Nola and her Surinamese friends did not let it go by without doing their part. With their floats the Surinamese showed that they too had contributed to freedom. Nr. 19 was titled ‘In faithful connection. Nola designed the décor.

There must have been a Surinamese float nr. 20 with the motto ‘The West-Indies join in the fight’. Nr. 18 ‘Garoeda’ was from the Perhimpunan Indonesia (PI: association of students from Dutch East Indies). During the liberation celebration, the PI reminded of the fact that the Dutch East Indies were still occupied and that in 1942, Queen Wilhelmina had promised the Dutch colonies a different form of government.

With thanks to Mark Ponte.

‘Na fesie’

That wasn’t lost on Suriname either. After the war, a new generation of Surinamese, dark-colored boys from the middle and the folk class, crossed the ocean to study in the Netherlands. An independent Suriname seemed within reach. Nola supported the independence strive of this group of students, led by the nationalist Eddy Bruma. When Bruma’s idea to perform his play ‘De geboorte van Boni’ [The birth of Boni] took hold, Nola logically designed the décor. On top of that, she also generously opened up her house at the Falckstraat – a welcoming spot for many Surinamese – for the rehearsals. She managed to get director Edwin Thomas to direct the play starring professional star actor Otto Sterman and Frits Pengel who played the main character of the hero Boni. The premiere took place in Amsterdam in 1952.

Hein Eersel about his role in the play ‘De geboorte van Boni’. A portrait by Milton Kam (camera) and Ellen de Vries, please visit Sranan Art Xposed on Vimeo.

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Decor of ‘De geboorte van Boni’ (1952). Actors in the piece a.o.: Frits Pengel, Imro Kambel, William de Vries, E. Frymersum, Hein Eersel, William Manhoef, Otto Sterman, Prins Kaya, Carla Veldhoek and Paula Ribbens / PHOTO ©Maria Austria. Collection Maria Austria Institute. Many thanks for its use!

She captured the actors of the piece that symbolized an independent Suriname, on the canvas: ‘Na Fesie’ (The future). It stayed behind on the easel when she moved to Suriname, following in the footsteps of her graduated friends. In the collar of one of the depicted men, she wrote: ‘Not completed. Left for Suriname. 1953’. The reproduction of this iconic group portrait will soon be on display at the Open-Air Museum Fort Nieuw Amsterdam in Commewijne, Suriname. The original is due for a restoration and may, just maybe, move back to Amsterdam temporarily for the exhibition Surinaamse School in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

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Na Fesie (The Future, 1953), private collection / PHOTO Ellis Doeven

‘De geboorte van Boni’ had its premiere in Paramaribo, during the celebration of the abolition of slavery on July 1st 1956, in the posh theatre Thalia. Bruma was in charge of directing and Nola was naturally responsible for painting the decors. This time, together her students Armand Baag and Ruben Karsters. In 2001 it was performed again under the direction of Felix Burleson.

Corona-free terrace

Nola happily assisted with the making and designing of costumes and décor pieces, but preferred not to be reminded of her former career. In 1968, the film historian Geoffrey Donaldson, who documented the history of the silent film, was told the following: “I have a decent reputation as painter and art teacher and would prefer not to have that clouded by the memory of facts that are not important to anyone. As an actress I never had a meaning of any real significance.”

Still, the open newspaper in ‘Op het terras’, undeniably refers to the flourishing cultural life of Amsterdam in which not only she, but also the man she portrayed, played a part at that time. Soon more information about this man who – completely corona-proof – is about to bite into the foam of his beer.▪SAX 11 logo



TEXT Ellen de Vries

TRANSLATION Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld

IMAGES ©Copyright of Nola Hatterman’s work belongs to the heirs of Hatterman. ©Copyright of the work of Armand Baag belongs to the heirs of Baag.

Statement Ellen de Vries: “After my biography Nola. Portret van een eigenzinnig kunstenares (2008) I was never able to get Nola Hatterman (1899-1984) out of my head completely. Is a quest like this ever finished? No. Does such a journey alter your view of your main character? Yes. It even altered – travelling from the distant past back to the present – my view of my own world. And that is as it should be: A portrait that talks back.”


Reproductions of Nola Hattermans art, as they had been on display in March 2020 in Geen kunst zonder kunnen. 40 repro’s van Nola Hattermans mooiste werken in Readytex Art Gallery , Paramaribo, Suriname, would have been on display from April 2020 in Museum Fort Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname. This has been postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19-crisis. The reproductions have already been moved to Nieuw-Amsterdam, however.

At the end of 2020, her work will be part of the exhibition Surinaamse School in the Stedelijk Museum AmsterdamThe curators of Surinaamse School are: Jessica de AbreuClaire van ElsMitchell Esajas, Carlien Lammers, Bart Krieger and Ellen de Vries, and Chandra van Binnendijk is advisor. This project was initiated by Ellen de Vries and is based in part on her research into Nola Hatterman.

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