Fien Huijbregts

1910 - 1977

Fien Huijbregts has had only a short career as photographer. Around 1930, she formed part of the surrealist movement in Brussels. In Dutch photography, surrealism is essentially non-existent, and Huijbregts is an important exception. Her work is informed by her remarkable ability to see a different reality in ordinary objects.

Objet sublimé
Fien Huijbregts was born in 1910 in Zundert, Brabant. Although she was raised according to the stringent religious habits of the region, at an early age she showed an independent spirit. She skipped school regularly and was mainly interested in typical boys stuff. For exmple, she loved hunting rabbits with her homemade bow and arrow and she was an excellent tree climber. At the age of 16, she left her hometown Zundert.
She went to her uncle in Brussels, the art dealer Gerard Verbeek. Through him, she was introduced in Belgian surrealist circles, a flourishing movement at that time. There she got a passionate affair with the writer/photographer Paul Nougé, under whose influence she became interested in photography. Completely absorbed by this new interest she developed rapidly, as is proven by her Brussels night series (published in 1929 in the Brussels magazine Variétés, when she was only 19 years old). In the following years, she developed her own style: a simple, honest approach of her subject matter. No striking technical effects, but a great directness characterizes her work. She was not interested in esthetical art photography, but her work was of a visually inverted nature. She appeared to have an exceptional ability to percieve objects in another reality with a new meaning: in a statue she saw a landscape, in a landscape she saw a tree. She called these transformed object pictures ‘objet sublimé’ and gave the idea of ‘object trouvé’ a completely new meaning. She was one of the first to comprehend the relationship between the mechanical character of a photograph and the idea behind the ‘object trouvé’. Moreover, she succeeded in extrapolating the consequence of that analogy to an even deeper principle, that of the objet sublimé.
There are some notable differences between her work and that of other surrealists. Huijbregts never staged her photographs, but only photographed what she coincidentally encountered. She made no use of collage, a method which seems to be suited for her purpose. For her, this technique  was too artificial; she loved creating meaning with straightforward, single images. She didn’t need any special dark room tricks to evoke the unexpected with her images. In many ways, her work can be compared to that of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose early work also has surrealist qualities. Both create new meanings through transformation of reality without the use of special effects. With Cartier-Bresson, this transformation takes place through a constellation of elements that converge in a “decisive moment”. The surrealistic impression is evoked by the absurdity of the assembled elements. For him, photography is about seeing the right moment in a constantly moving world. Huijbregts, on the other hand, sees possibilities in creating new meaning in a static world by means of a visual metamorphosis. This provokes a similar effect as in Cartier-Bresson’s best work. One could say that  Cartier-Bresson is a physical photographer because he acts immediately when he recognizes the right moment, while the process of Huijbregts is a more intellectual one because the transformation takes place in her mind.
About her photographic method, Fien said in an early interview that she would stimulate her ability to see reality differently with alcohol. A special mix of absinth, champagne and tea extracts yielded the best results. In the morning, she would take exactly 200 ml of this mix and she would work in her small studio in Rue Verte, or she would walk for hours through the streets of Brussels with the camera around her neck in a comatose condition. A pocket flacon filled with the mix would keep up the percentage of alcohol in her blood during the day. At the end of these trips, she often would not remember where she’d been or what she had photographed. According to her own statements, she took this alcoholic mix solely to stimulate her artwork; some years later she even claimed that she didn’t like alcohol. Whether this assertion is entirely consistent with the truth is doubtful, because letters by Nougé show that she regularly had nocturnal escapades, during which she would drink heavily.
Her life as an artist lasted about 10 years, a period in which her entire oeuvre was established. In the late thirties she moved to Argentina with the Italian landowner Pietro Izzo, whom she had met in Brussels. They lived on a farm in Patagonia and had two children, Beatrice and Pietrino. Her interest in photography completely vanished, and she didn’t touch a camera ever since. Even pictures of their children were made by Pietro. Around the beginning of the seventies, she returned to the Netherlands. Her husband and children stayed in Argentina. The reason for her return is still unclear. She settled in Zundert again, where she was involved in the foundation of a local museum for Vincent van Gogh, who was also born in Zundert. There was correspondence with the director of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam to show a few works from Van Gogh’s period in Brabant. However, due to lack of knowledge of the city board of Zundert, these attempts failed. Her effort for Van Gogh is remarkable because she regarded him as an overly emotional painter. She was probably more attracted to his lifestyle than to his work, which would explain the fact that she translated his letters into Italian. She died on the first of January of 1977 and is buried in the cemetery of the National Reformed church of Zundert.