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Ballad of a Homburg hat
Peter L'Official
13 June 2022
published in Issue One

On the art of misidentification

Nola Hatterman, Op het terras; © Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Show me a Black man who hasn’t been mistaken for a musician or asked if they play music, and I will show you a brother from another planet.

I can’t be sure how Louis « Lou » Richard Drenthe (1901-1990) or Désiré Max Jules Constantijn van der Lak (1903-1990)—better known as Jimmy van der Lak or Jimmy Lucky—would have felt about being mistaken for each other, in life or in art; I can only testify to how I’ve felt when handed a similarly brownish classmate’s essay by a teacher, or called by the name of a not-at-all-similarly shaded workplace colleague. What I do know is that the subject of Nola Hatterman’s most famous painting, Op het terras (On the Terrace), now in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, which depicts an exquisitely dressed Black man confidently enjoying a beer and his newspaper at an outdoor café, was long thought to be Jimmy van der Lak, but was in fact Lou Drenthe. Van der Lak was a Surinamese tap dancer, boxer, bartender, restaurant manager and artist’s model at the Rijksakademie. A Black man of many trades who made a name for himself in the Amsterdam and Scheveningen of the late 1920s and early 1930s as a dancer in local revues, Jimmy would have been hard to miss in a sea of white Dutch folk unused to Black men of any kind in their midst. He claimed in an interview that when he arrived in the Netherlands in 1925, a grand total of 11 Surinamese resided there.

Lou Drenthe—a Surinamese trumpet-playing bandleader, waiter, and actor in the Amsterdam of the same era—surely counted in that select, highly visible few. Drenthe—who, like van der Lak, hailed from Suriname’s capital city of Paramaribo—was the paternal grandson of ancestors enslaved on the De Guinesche Vriendschap (The Guinean Friendship) sugar plantation. Trained as a gas fitter, Drenthe, upon his arrival in Amsterdam, found whatever work would pay, which is one reason his resume resembles van der Lak’s. In a play called Vorstelijke Emigranten (Royal Emigrants, in which married members of the Russian nobility are forced to flee the Bolshevik Revolution and work as servants in Paris), Drenthe even played a driver named Jimmy, and later waited tables in Amsterdam’s first Surinamese post-war restaurant, of which van der Lak was a co-owner. Invisibility, per Ralph Ellison, counts indistinguishability among its afflictions.

It is a minor miracle that Hatterman’s painting even found its way back into the public eye. Painted in 1930 and later purchased by the municipality of Amsterdam under an artist subsidy program that often placed such purchases in public buildings, Hatterman’s work was lost—to history and the vagaries of art hung in municipal buildings—and then found in the locked office of a possessive University of Amsterdam office worker. Two diligent art historians—who, for a 1999 exhibition, had tracked the painting down via rumor and hearsay—confronted the covetous bureaucrat. She let them see the painting for a few minutes, and then ushered them out. (I’d engage in the same bureaucratic soft theft if I had the chance.) The art historians called the Stedelijk and the museum removed the painting the next day.

« Then I started on a fairly large painting of Lou Drenthe », Nola Hatterman wrote in a letter in the 1980s, discovered by the scholar Ellen de Vries in 2020.

He was sitting on a café terrace, princely, nice clothes, yellow gloves on the table in front of him, with a glass of beer, white and red plaid cloths on the tables. It was truly a unique painting and I had success with it. Working with Lou Drenthe was very pleasant, he was a nice guy. It was a business relationship at first—he earned money by posing for me—but we developed a pleasant, companionable relationship.

According to de Vries, Drenthe was the first to tell Hatterman, from a Surinamese perspective, about what it was like in Suriname and what it was like as an immigrant to the Netherlands, or rather a migrant to the seat of colonial power. Apparently, he would often visit Hatterman’s home to see the painting and show his likeness to friends.

On the day I first saw that likeness in a brightly lit gallery of the Stedelijk, almost ten years ago, the sharply-appointed and elegantly-seated man on the terrace was the only other Black man in the room. I read the wall text aloud to my friend (as it read in 2013) and fell in love with Hatterman’s masterpiece:

The man featured in this painting, Jimmy van der Lak, emigrated from Suriname to Amsterdam, where he found fame as a boxer, barman, and cabaret artist. By including the newspaper open to advertisements of cabaret performances, Nola Hatterman indicates the role played by the subject in the city’s nightlife. Hatterman painted in a style known as the New Objectivity (Nieuwe Zakelijkheid), in which objects often disclose details of the subject’s background. Hatterman was commissioned to paint the portrait by the Amstel Brewery, but the company did not consider the piece suitable for advertising their product. Raised in what was considered a ‘colonial milieu’, Hatterman said she felt black on the inside. She settled in Suriname in 1953, where she founded an art school.

It is a pleasant irony that so much supposition, conjecture, predisposition, and assumption would surround a painting from a movement known as « New Objectivity ». The story that Op het terras was commissioned by the Amstel Brewery but then rejected because of the model’s skin color is provocative and irresistible, yet it has never been confirmed. (Surely this would have been the best Amstel ad ever: has a glass of beer ever been more crisply and deliciously depicted? Has the froth of a European pilsner ever looked so delectable?) Op het terras also reveals how our most trustworthy tools of visual and textual analysis can fail us: the figure’s clenched right fist is always interpreted as that of a boxer, much in the way that the cabaret advertisements visible in the newspaper signaled to researchers that this must be van der Lak. What’s almost always ignored is the casual, relaxed draping of Drenthe’s other hand, hanging loosely from his wrist, left arm perched on the back of the brilliant white chair as if he’s turned, with ease and nobility, to regard someone who’s called his name—presumably the correct one—outside of the frame. The clenched hand, then, conveys not aggression but propriety and even foppishness, adjusting his double-breasted jacket to present his nattiest self to his unseen addressee—and, of course, to you. His leather gloves, so supple they hang gently over the table’s edge, invite the viewer to grab them, yet Drenthe shows no concern. His newspaper is splayed out on the table behind him, close enough for the viewer to read the theater pages along with him. We are only intruding upon this man’s unhurried ritual.

What remains most « objective » about the painting is Hatterman’s studied reverence and the skill of her rendering; she misidentified nothing about her subject and his milieu. A viewer can luxuriate in its cool cosmopolitan elan and intelligence, so self-possessed is Drenthe, so vivid and exacting are his surroundings. Hatterman « felt black on the inside », the wall text said, a sentiment—like many expressions of interracial identification—at once powerful and misguided, earnest and untoward, affectionate and off-key, keenly felt but better left unsaid. The pint glass, refracting the tablecloth through Drenthe’s biertje, is Hatterman’s answer to the mirror in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, to the glass orb of Titian’s Salvator Mundi. It tells us how to look and how to love looking.

This gave me comfort in a place where faces like mine were largely in the minority. My own identification with this Black figural presence began even before I knew anything about who it was, or wasn’t. And the later discovery of Drenthe’s misidentification as van der Lak only intensified my identification with both men. Despite the wrongness of the painting’s original label—but maybe because of it too—the recognitions produced by the painting and its context, be they precise or flawed, are still meaningful, familiar, and deeply felt. The Black American experience is, I know, distinct from the Black European migrant experience, but the precarity of Black life is hardly unique to either place. I knew that man in the painting the same way I know what is shared in a simple nod of the head between Black and brown folks whenever we find ourselves, alone, together, in unexpected places.

Though Drenthe himself can’t weigh in on his rediscovery, his relatives can—and did, in the magazine Het Parool, in July 2020. His granddaughter, Letty Robben, knew him immediately: « I recognized him by his gloves. He always wore such fancy gloves. He was a real gentleman. An expressive, charming gentleman. » His niece, Maja Drenthe, saw in Hatterman’s letter a communion formed between artist and model: « Through his stories Nola became aware of what it must have been like to live as a dark-skinned person in a white world…It really moved her. And when I read it, it moved me too. » Whether there were 11 or 1100 Surinamese in the Netherlands when Lou Drenthe and Jimmy van der Lak found themselves as strangers in a strange land, they likely felt the profound loneliness of a migrant who is seen as a phenomenon, a party piece. But they created new selves in this new place: performing not only as entertainers of many stripes, but also, unpaid, in the unchosen role of « the first » or « the only » Black man that many white Dutch people had ever met. Somehow the painting captures this, too.

The more people who are mistaken for van der Lak, the more folkloric and less real he seems: a trickster figure, everywhere and nowhere, a literal shadow boxer and jack-of-many-trades, a Protean figure by which white Dutch people understood all Black Surinamese migrants. « Of course it would have been Jimmy that sat for a portrait », some jazz club owner who knew him might say, « Who else could it be? » The trail of misidentification includes a reproduction of the painting on the cover of  Etniciteit, criminaliteit en het strafrecht (Ethnicity, Crime and Criminal Justice, 2009)—with the figure’s skin noticeably darkened beneath his tilted Homburg—in which a Dutch criminologist suggested that van der Lak « was not typically Surinamese » but rather « lived up to all the stereotypes of an American Negro at the time ». Van der Lak, we gather, fit the description—a transatlantic projection, willfully blind, that left me sad but not surprised.

The traditional distinction between metaphor and metonymy has to do with rhetoric and with language itself. A metaphor transfers meaning—between, say, my love and a red, red rose. We know the « tenor » (love) and we know the « vehicle » (rose) that carries us. Metonymy, though, is a change of name. « Black Twitter » is metonymic, as are, in a different way, all racial slurs.  Metonymy doesn’t carry, exactly; it names or it replaces. Perhaps to ponder metonymy is to ponder flattened things—reductions—and even to worry that all of our names are, after all, two-dimensional. On this particular semiotic terrace, in any case, one Black man was replaced with another; invisible man became interchangeable man.

But at the end of this road of racial metonymy, there was a corner to turn, where misidentification yielded a serendipitous delight. I had never seen Ballade van den hoogen hoed (The ballad of a top hat), a short film from 1936 directed by Max de Haas. Searching for van der Lak led me to it; a promotional video for the 2008 Black is Beautiful art exhibition at Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk implied that van der Lak was in it. The film, avant-garde in its day, depicts the adventures of a top hat as it makes its way through various strata of society. The hat begins and ends its journey floating by an old fisherman on an Amsterdam canal, but in between, we follow its career  as an accoutrement to diplomats signing a treaty in Geneva (in English, German, Italian, Russian and Indonesian) while the sounds of war echo in the background; as formal attire for a golden wedding celebration; as an ersatz football for Dutch children. The hat will find a place atop the head of a Black trumpet player, cocked jauntily to the side as he plays.

Scenes from Ballade van den Hoogen hoed (1936), directed by Max de Haas. Collection Eye Filmmuseum

The trumpet player is not van der Lak. Nor, as much as we might want it to be, is it Drenthe—who, remember, was in fact a trumpet player. It was an entertainer named Arthur Monkau. (Thank you, Jack Monkau, a Dutch actor and Monkau’s son, whose comment on the YouTube video—« Just for your information, the trumpet player in Ballade van den hoogen hoed is not played by Jimmy van der Lak, but by my father, Arthur Monkau Sr. »—suggested that this was not a first-time correction.)

Another tragedy, or farce, of misidentification? Sure, but for me there’s a lively irony, too. Unmisidentification is its own art, and now along the path from terrace to top hat stand three unflattened human identifications, each wonderfully individuated from the next. Drenthe and van der Lak wore different hats, and led itinerant lives, of a kind: they were celebrated, but often as adornments, both desired and neglected. The itinerant top hat in the film wears different men. As it happens, Monkau Sr.’s trumpet player is not the only Black man in the film; another is seen in Geneva among the signers of the treaty at the film’s outset, clad even more formally than Drenthe in his portrait.

After settling on the hat’s price, Monkau’s trumpet player places his coins onto a newspaper that we want to read the same way we read the paper on Hatterman’s terrace. Monkau’s playing then finds a paying audience with a white Dutch woman: she drops money from her upper floor window into his outstretched top hat below. But his performance is cut short by a policeman’s patrol: the music stops abruptly after the cop turns the corner where we know our busker is. The black hat rolls back into view, and we are left to imagine what happened. Bizarrely, a child then urinates on it (so much for Dutch cleanliness), and his mates initiate the kickabout that sends the hat back into the canal, ever to float downstream.