Renée Geurts ~ Interview with Rob Steenhorst 2013 – 2014

Rob Steenhorst1960









Over the last few years, my work has been concerned with capturing one moment from a series of moments. You can say they are a bit like film stills: “what went before, and what will follow”.

That captured moment is an amalgamation of memories, thoughts and insights; from me or from others. It’s a connection between all kinds of experiences – even if not actually “experienced” by me – and often mixed with waking dreams, visions or absurdities. But all these “experiences” are coloured by who I am. That is where these works comes from.

Rob Steenhorst , Leiden, December 20, 2014


Location: a new studio in a large bright room, situated in an outbuilding of a corner house on a 1960s estate. In the centre of the room there is a large table, with computers and monitors perched on it.

A major recent work, entitled “Cul de Sac”, dominates the studio. A Lambda print in landscape format, 1m x 60 in size, mounted on dibond and sprayed with liquid gloss, it represents the Lamentation of Christ.

This work was created after I had seen “The Lamentation” by Rogier van der Weyden; it’s a triptych from the fifteenth century. It posed the question whether such a classic image, with all the concomitant rules bound up in its making, could be transported to the present day; using modern people, in modern dress.

How would people react nowadays to such a situation, or subject? The figures in those old paintings share the pain and loss equally; between themselves. The figures I depict in “Cul deSac” respond individually. Some are curious, some distant, or troubled and sad. The seated woman left sticks out her hand towards the body. How does it feel, this body? The dog in the picture is also curious. It smells of the blood of Christ and looks as if it is about to take a lick of the spilt blood.


There are many animals in my work. Not only dogs, but also birds, cats, rats, and a pig.

I’ve always loved animals. And I think animals are very important for ​​people. They are a kind of indication for how the world actually works.

Some time ago, during a really nasty, dirty winter, I took my son to the swimming pool in Voorschoten. There’s a lot of half-arable land round there. And there, in a copse of trees in a field, I saw some forty herons standing together. They stood in the cold winter light, looking a little forlorn and thoughtful together. Now; if you know that herons are very territorial animals, you will realize that this was very special. I looked on and thought, there are some other living beings that don’t have it easy. But who seem to be able to put their natural urges aside.

For me, animals represent all the things that happen under the cultivated surface of this life. And, as a human being, you are also part of nature, also an animal. People are as they are, past and present. The way animals and people interact with each other have many things in common.


I was born in the city of Amsterdam. In 1953, when I was one year old, my family moved to the garden city of Slotermeer. That place is the result of a typically optimistic postwar project; a spacious place, with beautifully designed houses and flats. There were wide avenues, parks and large gardens. Beyond this area, going towards Haarlem, you had the countryside. The mist that hung over the meadows there drifted in over our district. Soon, there were new districts, Geuzenveld and Osdorp. In hindsight, this place, and period has greatly affected my work.

It was a great place for a child. The results of the baby boom after the war were clearly visible! These and other new districts were, I suspect, meant as temporary housing for people in neighborhoods like Kattenburg , Wittenburg and Haarlemmerhout Gardens . The “anti-social elements” were also sent there. There was also a rag and bone man who kept his horse at home, on a chain that was placed through a hole in the wall; next to the door jamb. All people who had been touched by the war and poverty now had to learn to live with each other in a new environment.

There are several small events that happened against this backdrop, ones that made a strong impression on me. It was generally a pretty quiet street, but when the street vendors like the pickled herring seller, the grinder, the oilman, or the waffle baker came, people came out of their house. You also saw musicians walking down the street, a Volendam “oompah band”, or an accordionist. And, on Wednesday afternoons -when I was about seven years old – a trumpet player would walk down the street. He was a weird, lonely little man. You could see that there was something wrong with him. He wore a raincoat and beret. He looked at no one whilst he played his tunes, and picked up the 25 cent pieces the housewives would throw down to him from their balconies. There was something sad, tragic about him. He played such a sad song too: “O, My Father”. You felt that – to him – it was about someone who wasn’t there anymore. Later you learnt that there were many people at that time that had no family anymore. Maybe he was one of them. I made various works round that figure.

Gradually, the atmosphere changed. Often there was fighting; normally groups against each other, one street against the other, or a particular group against “the Moluccans”.

Later, in the early 60s, there were a number of pitch battles, especially during the “Luilak” festival on the third day of Pentecost; dozens of gangs of boys fighting in the middle of the street. Then, everyone joined in; hard, and full on. There was a kind of wildness in the air; a sort of unthinking, immediate reaction to the surrounding events.

Later still, the fights developed into riots. There were attempts to maintain order but that was like fuel to a fire. And sometimes, whether there was any provocation or not, the police, dressed in white leather trim and riding motorcycles with sidecars drove through the streets and chased away the crowds of youths. They would chase them down through a shower of rocks and stones. But even when they had the upper hand they never really caught anyone, and were unable to completely stop the trouble.


School wasn’t great. I got bad reports, except for drawing. When I finished my schooling, they wondered what would become of me.

I did draw well, so the Art College was proposed as an option. I thought it was a good idea too. I wanted to be a photographer, but that fell through. I seemed to be more or less colourblind.

An alternative was bookbinding. But I did not want to that. In any case, I noticed that that training didn’t keep pace with the rapid technological developments. You could probably become a bookbinder much faster through training with a company.

Bookbinding was obviously a dead end. After some more searching and thinking things over I started on a training course in the catering and hospitality industry.

That was a dreadful school. A particular teacher of French and English made ​​us feel like we were the stupidest and most useless group he’d ever encountered. He didn’t reserve his disdain and humiliation for me; he also chastised my parents, to whom he once declared: “Your son is very stupid! We’ll never make anything good of him. I’ll try my best but don’t expect too much.”

Another teacher could get foaming angry: “You know nothing! You are spoiled!” He then picked up a book about the war, showed a famous and very sad picture from Emmy Andresse which showed an emaciated and dirty child with a spoon. “This is life as it is!” he screamed. He later drove his car into a group of children and was locked up. A traumatized man. There’s the war appearing again. You felt the war everywhere.

Later the training moved to Amsterdam-West, closer to home. That was a lot better. I learned a lot, even cooking.


After this training, I got an apprenticeship at the Amstel Hotel. There was a lot of bullying and harassment there. Simply put, you worked from early morning until late in the evening and you got paid very little money. I tried to complain, but I was ignored. Eventually I went to a trade union for advice. Everything was neatly noted down, and I was told I would hear something very soon.

A week later –dressed in my work suit with white gloves – I was working for a large party that took place over several rooms. Suddenly I was asked to report to the director, Mr Mazeland.

That man wore an old fashioned, dark blue cutaway jacket with a waistcoat, and grey trousers with wide chalk stripe. He stood looking at me from behind his desk. In harsh tone he said: “So! You talked to the union about what you earn here.” “Yes sir.” “Why did you not first speak to your boss?” “I did, sir.” Mazeland went a little redder and roared, “Hands behind your back!” That was the beginning of a huge tirade. ‘How had I got this sedition in my head…’ ‘Who do you think you are…’ During the yelling and screaming, something changed in me. The whole scene went right over me, as if I was watching a movie. And I felt a strange sense of calm and distance. It did not hurt me; rather it interested me to observe what that man was doing there. I was completely unintimidated. I was a spectator of a play starring yet another idiot. The scene ended with the door being wrenched open: “Out! Out!” The reactions of the people in the hotel showed that the roar of the dressing down had reached the great mirror hall. I owe a lot to that man. Since then, I am never intimidated by behaviour like that.

After my departure there was sorted, things changed. The Amstel Hotel had to treat all students as full employees. And that was not reason why the hotel had created those apprenticeship positions in the first place! The union had been keeping tabs on this situation for some time and used my complaint to formally tackle the hotel. To such a chic hotel, that was a massive affront.

I found other work at the Apollo Hotel. That was also a place where supervisors unleashed their frustration on the lower ranks. The group of people who live and work in the kitchens, restaurants, basements, laundry rooms live in a different, self-contained world. Lots of different nationalities; some boasting very dramatic backgrounds, these are the kind of displaced and uprooted people who the upper floors prefer to ignore. The Carver Theatre Group made a very the strong play about this world, “Fever” (1992). I stayed at the Apollo Hotel for two months. All in all I was not suited for the hospitality industry, but looking back, that period formed a turning point in my life.


I was just 17. I realized that I needed an education and took the entrance exam at the Rietveld Academy. The first time I was rejected, but the following year, I passed; and that gave me great pleasure. The course was Graphic Design, with teachers like Jan Willem Holsbergen, Jan Bons and Kees Nieuwenhuijzen.

During military service, I was able to commute between The Hague and Amsterdam whilst still attending the Rietveld. The lively evenings there were a great antidote for the daily dose of military service.

After my army demob there was a crisis at the Rietveld Academy. Something to do with democracy and self-determination; which led to fewer fellow students attending lessons. I sometimes found I was the only student at a class. Jan Bons felt it was enough and stopped.

A good friend, graphic designer, got me some work. From that moment I was a freelance designer / illustrator. At the same time I started drawing and painting. Apparently, it was good enough because I found I was eligible for the Visual Artists Scheme. And immediately there was a lot of work commissioned. It felt unbelievable; I was so happy to actually have some money. Once the first Bureau for Registering Credit installment was paid off, I bought a warm coat and a pair of waterproof shoes and I put my heart and soul in following a career in the visual arts.

Rob Steenhorst 2013 850