Jan Wolkers, painter, sculptor, author

This Dutch video says about itself:

A tribute to Jan Wolkers, a Dutch multi-talent … cremated today [oct.24th 2007] in Amsterdam – the Netherlands; music by Ramses Shaffy “Zing Vecht Huil Bidt” …

Today, to the Jan Wolkers exhibition, in the Lakenhal museum.

Jan Wolkers (1925-1907) was a graphic artist, painter, sculptor, and author of novels, short stories, poems, and a theatre play. This exhibition opened exactly one year after he died.

Wolkers was born and grew up in Oegstgeest, then a religious Roman Catholic and Protestant village west of Leiden city. To escape from his strictly Calvinist family, he often walked on the Rijnsburgerweg road, which he called “the road to freedom”, to Leiden.

Already when he was ten years old, he visited the Lakenhal museum for the first time. It inspired him to become a visual artist himself. So, it really is appropriate that the Wolkers exhibition now is in the Lakenhal. Much of the work exhibited is owned by Karina, Jan’s widow.

Painters in the Lakenhal collection which inspired Wolkers included Rembrandt, about whom Jan Wolkers wrote a poem when he was eighteen years old. And the late medieval-Renaissance Dutch painters Cornelis Engebrechtsz and Lucas van Leyden; eg, Van Leyden’s self-portrait.

During the Second World War, Wolkers had to hide from the nazi occupiers looking for forced labour. However, he managed to study at the Leiden art school. The studies included making drawings of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, based on the art school’s plaster copies of them.

The first halls of the exhibition contain much early graphic work from 1944 and a bit later. Self-portraits. Landscapes, of Poelgeest castle in Oegstgeest and other surroundings of Leiden. In 1945, Wolkers painted a Vanitas: a skull and bones, reminding viewers that life is not infinite. Vanitas is a well-known theme in seventeenth century Dutch painting. Though Wolkers painted with much rougher brushstrokes than most seventeenth century painters, the painting is an example of how twentieth century “modern” painters still had links to artists in earlier times. Other examples of this are El Greco, Rembrandt, the Impressionists and others as inspirations for Pablo Picasso. What the modern artists did not do, and conservative critics hated them for that, was copying old masters in slavish and sugar-coated ways.

Until the late 1950s, Wolkers’ paintings and drawings, though looking avantgardist to conservatives, were figurative. That goes for his sculpture, depicting a cock, a woman with a cat, and other subjects, as well. In the late 1950s, Wolkers’ work became abstract, and would basically stay so until the artist’s death.

Much of his later sculpture was made from glass. Well known examples of this are his monument for the people killed by the nazis in Auschwitz concentration camp; and his 2005 monument for Rembrandt. Most of the glass sculpture of the exhibition was smaller work, including a model for the Rembrandt monument.

Wolkers used unusual materials in his later paintings, including gold paint and cow dung, sometimes combined in the same painting. Sometimes, pieces of wood protrude from the paintings, making them three-dimensional.

Some of Wolkers’ work hangs between works by earlier artists, from the sixteenth century to Floris Verster, 1861-1927. Between earlier artists’ works to which it has relationships. Also, poems and quotations from novels by Wolkers hang on the walls of the Lakenhal regular collection halls, next to art to which they have relationships.

Something I missed a bit at this extensive exhibition were Jan Wolkers’ views on society and politics (except for a mention of his Auschwitz monument).

In the 1960s, he made election billboards for the Communist Party of the Netherlands; and posters against the Vietnam war; about Che Guevara; and against the colonial war of the Portuguese fascist regime, supported by NATO, in Africa.

When the Yugoslavia war broke out in 1999, unlike Blairite trendy pseudo-lefties, Wolkers did not support that war, but spoke out against it.

I still fondly remember him reading his poems in the Leidse Hout park; not far from where he was born; and featuring in his stories and novels.

Many of the visitors at the exhibition today were primary schoolchildren with their teachers. This is a kind of ironic justice: as in the 1960s secondary school students were often discouraged from reading Wolkers. He was considered too sexually explicit by puritans.

11 thoughts on “Jan Wolkers, painter, sculptor, author

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