Mathilda Maria Petronella Brugman, known as ‘Til,’ was born on 16th September 1888 in Amsterdam, the eldest of nine children. The Brugman family were strict Roman Catholics and their first-born daughter’s assertiveness and sexuality would become a source of domestic conflict. At the age of 11, Brugman was sent to a Catholic girl’s boarding school, having already shown an aptitude for languages, encouraged by her mother. In 1911, Brugman found her own apartment in Amsterdam, taking a job as translator.
Always acknowledging that she was attracted to her own sex, Brugman fell in love with the opera singer Sienna Masthoff in 1917, and the couple moved to The Hague, where Brugman worked as a foreign languages tutor. At the same time, Brugman started to write poetry, inspired by her friendship with the avant-garde painter Piet Mondrian.
By 1917, Modrian had become affiliated with the recently formed collective of artists and architects, known as De Stijl. Founded by the designer and painter Theo van Doesburg, the group considered that art should be stripped down to the bare essentials, favouring simple bold lines and mainly black and white colour schemes. Others associated with the movement included the Hungarian painter, Vilmos Huszár and architect and furniture designer, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld. Additionally, a journal of the same name was produced in order to publicise De Stijl’s abstract notions and concepts, with the first edition proclaiming, ‘There is an old and a new awareness of art. The former focuses on the individual. The new focus on the universal.’
Utilising her remarkable linguistic abilities, Brugman’s poetry relied heavily on rhythm and sound, with De Stijl’s influence apparent in the typography employed; the group’s journal published her poem W in 1923, and later ones, such as Engin d’Amour and SHE HE, featured in various European avant-garde journals. A further reflection of the impact De Stijl had on Brugman can be seen in the décor of the home she shared with Masthoff; a music room was conceptualised by Huszár and adorned with a white chair she commissioned from Rietveld.
In 1926, Brugman met the German artist and Dadaist, Hannah Höch. Previously the long-term mistress of Raoul Hausmann, an Austrian artist and writer known as the ‘warhorse of the Dada polemics,’ Höch was nevtherless intensely drawn to Brugman. The friendship between them quickly became romantic, and Brugman ended her involvement with Masthoff. Höch was initially apprehensive, telling Brugman, ‘To be closely connected with another woman for me is totally new, since it means being taken by the spirit of my own spirit, confronted by a close relative.’
Residing in The Hague until 1929, the pair then settled in Berlin. In the German capital, Brugman resumed her teaching, earning enough for Höch to devote herself entirely to her art. They also adopted Ninn, a cat whom both women adored. Brugman’s confidence and ease with her own sexual identity clearly had a profound effect on Höch, and many of her famous photomontages, completed whilst they were together, portray same-sex intimacy. In 1935, they embarked on a joint venture, the book Scheingehacktes, with text by Brugman and illustrations by Höch.
Believing that Brugman’s ‘strong personality’ had made her feel ‘I had to find myself again and return to myself,’ in 1935 Höch entered into a relationship with Heinz Kurt Matthies, a German musician and businessman who was twenty one years her junior and they married in 1939 before divorcing in 1944.
During the summer of 1939, Brugman returned to Amsterdam along with her new, much younger lover, the daughter of the German entrepreneur, Hans Mertineit-Schnabel. Throughout the war, Brugman stayed in occupied Amsterdam and aided the Dutch resistance until she was finally forced to flee to the hamlet of Breukeleveen. As a response to her wartime experiences, she began the novel Spanningen, which described a bleak picture what post-war Europe might be like; it would eventually be published in 1953.
After being diagnosed with chronic kidney disease in 1937, Brugman’s health deteriorated and by 1946, she had also developed angina. Consequently, Brugman and her partner, moved to a cottage in Reeuwijk where, mostly bedridden, she enjoyed a spectacular view of the nearby lake from her window as she wrote. There, Brugman completed Bodem, an anti-clerical tale that revealed the lasting impression her rigid Catholic upbringing had made upon her. The manuscript was originally rejected once her publishers recognised its inflammatory nature, but they relented after amendments were made.
From the beginning, Brugman had embraced the literary style labelled ‘grotesque’ – a genre that sought to evoke feelings of disgust and sometimes compassion, frequently through humour. Perhaps the best examples of Brugman’s employment of the grotesque are De houten Christus and Vol van genade, both written in 1949. The former is about a wooden Christ who descends from his cross to converge with mankind and becomes increasingly dismayed by his encounters; the latter depicts a clandestine erotic affair between two nuns and was praised by Brugman’s publishers as bearing the hallmarks of a ‘lesbian classic.’ She was awarded the Marianne Philips Prize and the Amsterdam Novels Prize in 1952.
Following her death on 24th July 1958, numerous works were published posthumously, including Spiegel en lachspiegel (1959), Wat de pop wist (1963) and Tot hier toe en nog verder. Notities (1979). Though almost unknown outside of her native Holland, Brugman remains an individual whose unwavering commitment to her creative and personal principles can be universally admired. From a country left ravaged by the aftermath of war, Brugman observed in 1950, ‘Only the artist now lives still full of meaning, a true life.’