Klaas Berghout Studio


/ Essays

Jewish Chalk Portraits

From 2010, I have been working on a series of Jewish portraits based on the book “Jüdische Portraits” (Jewish Portraits) by German photographer Herlinde Koelbl. In the years 1986-1989, she interviewed German Jews who had escaped the “Shoah,” the Holocaust. These men and women belonged to the last generation who left Germany before WW II began, and who were able to return to narrate their life stories after the war.

When I began working on the portraits, I did not plan on creating a chalk image for every portrait in the book. The book was a gift to me, and the portrait on the cover instantly spoke to me. It follows that this portrait was the first of the series. After that, the others followed, one by one.

What intrigued me in particular was the way in which the subjects gazed at the camera, and how the features of the faces seem to be in accordance with these gazes. I felt the urge to shape these faces myself in order to understand their stories. These are stories without words, because I never read the accompanying interviews until after the images are finished, when my work speaks for itself.

The faces, the people and their vulnerabilities, the marks of life, of experience and age are so expressive and strong that they radiate a certain beauty, all of which makes them fascinating to me.

At the outset, the larger heads—the fact that each face filled the entire page—resonated with me the most, so I created chalk images of these. In time, I began to see more possibilities for the portraits with more space around the faces. I started to enjoy giving texture and meaning to the space around the people I was portraying.

On another level, the dynamics of distance and closeness play an important role in the process of creating and viewing my panels, as does the tension between surface division and composition. Viewing the portraits from a distance, then coming in closer to observe the details, then stepping away again to take in the whole—this sense of motion is essential to the creation of my work.

The photo portraits—slices of time—literally brought me into motion, and through all the chalk dust a new countenance would arise. Time and again, it surprised me that someone who, as a result of my observing their photo, had become familiar to me, would come into being as a new person. Of course, I hope that my work will also move others.

Every portrait of every person has its own spaciousness, and takes up space differently. Some works, for example, do not tolerate being framed. Despite these differences, the portraits tell one connecting narrative—together.