IN THE REALM OF THE EKPHRASTIC: JOOST DE JONGE’S RECENT PAINTING
By Peter Frank
Over the past couple of years, the painting of Joost de Jonge has undergone a relatively steep evolution. Such moments of pronounced transition are not unusual for any artist, much less a still-young one; and to be sure, it has not resulted in the abandonment of the signature style – the vivid colors and sharply described, voluptuous forms – with which de Jonge has already established his international reputation. But he organizes his paintings and drawings differently than before, because he is thinking about them differently. The words of philosophers and poets preoccupy him no less than before, and the attachment he feels to the sweep of art history – especially to modernist concepts and languages – is, if anything, heightened. But other concerns, related to but distinct from these prior factors, now motivate de Jonge as well. The present moment thus marks a pivotal development in de Jonge’s oeuvre, one that does not simply focus his art – seemingly spontaneous in origin and expression – outside itself, but focuses it on a purpose outside itself, on an identity with specific modes of human endeavor. While long motivated by extra-visual sources, de Jonge’s current touchstone is the discipline of music.
Sound – or, as Edgard Varèse described music, “organized sound” – is at least as far removed technically and experientially from optically based art as is literature, and arguably further: while verbal expression can occur with visual sensation, on the page and in performative presentation, the common forms of musical expression resist visual accompaniment, or at least maintain an experiential distinction, if not distance. Music and visual art combine in manifestations as various as grand opera and rock concerts, of course, but it is rare for the visual and the sonic to conflate outside the realm of what can be described overall as multimedia spectacle. Sono-visual intermedia, for all the attempts to realize such a seamless fusion especially over the last century and a half, remains essentially in the realm of experiment. We do not, perhaps even cannot, presume sono-visual intermedia as we do, say, sono-verbal or choreo-visual intermedia. This may soon change: with all the electronic means we now have at our disposal for formalizing and fixing intermedial realms, the aesthetic and social impulses that drove the inventiveness and commitment of such heroic sono-visualists as Alexander Scriabin, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Fischinger, and Iannis Xenakis can likely be put in the hands of those who will come to take it for granted. But it hasn’t happened yet; and during this period of extended transition from the analog to the digital world, multiple alternate possibilities, and alternate realms of possibility, present themselves.
Joost de Jonge’s recent work presents one such possibility – a relatively simple one, conceptually, but, perhaps for that very simplicity, a persuasive one available to the comprehension as well as delight of a broad audience. He paints in reaction to music – in reaction both to the condition of music and to specific musical compositions. With regard to the general “condition of music,” de Jonge takes into account Walter Pater’s observation that “all the arts aspire to the condition of music,” that is, a condition of direct affect unmodulated by meaning or re-presentation. Music, as Pater knew, does not need to inform us to move us; like smell, sound reaches our sensibilities without depending on an appeal to our understanding. Following the model of those who invented abstract visual art (themselves seeking to manifest the aspiration Pater described), de Jonge “embodies” music in non-referential (if unavoidably suggestive) forms, colors, and compositions. With regard to specific musical compositions, de Jonge gives shape and tone to visual equivalencies, embodiments of particular musical works – particular organizations of sound, as Varèse would have it – in the form of optical structures.
In this latter practice – but also in that of manifesting in general a “music for the eyes” – de Jonge is exploring a realm of cross-artistic expression with which we are very familiar, but into the complexities of which we rarely delve. The evocation of musical experience is a common trope in modernist visual-art practice. Until now, however, insufficient distinction has been made among the kinds of approach artists have taken to such practice. In the wake of graphic scores and conceptual art, for instance, notation has become a fully integral realm of visual representation. Synesthesia, on the other hand – the activation of perception in one sense by stimulation of another – has motivated artists (and composers) since at least the late 19th century – as has the exploration of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the kind of pan-artistic spectacle first proposed popularly (if incompletely) in the later operas of Richard Wagner. Ekphrasis also dates back almost a century and a half, embodied in musical works such as Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. But synesthesia, Gesamtkunstwerk, and ekphrasis are distinct art-music interfunctions, none more significant than any other, but fundamentally different from one another. Indeed, synesthesia is, if anything, a psycho-physiological disorder, an atavistic and involuntary circumstance independent of any artistic discipline. The Gesamtkunstwerk, on the other hand, is an entirely cultural formulation, predicating as it does the coordinated layering of discrete artistic disciplines into a conceptually – but not experientially – unified spectacle. Ekphrasis is also a cultural formulation; but, in contrast to the Gesamtkunstwerk – or, for that matter, the notational artwork – seeks equivalencies: the reconfiguration of one artistic discipline, and often of one work in a particular discipline, into the conditions of another.
Joost de Jonge, then, has chosen consciously to explore the possibilities of ekphrasis in and with his work. De Jonge has gravitated to music since childhood. (He speaks of not being given the piano lessons he desired and turning – out of frustration, he infers – to painting and drawing.) It is as much a part of his cultural background as the writing, philosophical and poetical, that inspires him; but it seems to be even closer to his core, engaging him not just intellectually or aesthetically, but viscerally. Perhaps there is a musician at the heart of every abstract painter; but de Jonge’s whole aesthetic, dependent as it is on dramatic contrasts, exquisite balances, and – in the newer work especially – the orchestration of forms, masses, and shapely and coloristic incidents, would present itself emphatically as musical.
De Jonge did not take up abstraction, at least consciously, to “get closer” to music; he was arguably already close by default. The kind of visionary figuration he was practicing as an emerging artist in fact descends directly from the symbolism of Arnold Böcklin and other fin-de-siècle artists whose practices set the stage for the music-art interface in which de Jonge now works. Furthermore, as he has revealed, there is more than a trace of synesthetic response in his method. (“The color I see in the work,” de Jonge has written, “does not correspond with how I experience it. In my mind I can clearly feel a color that corresponds to the identity of the work; I then mix the color and this corresponds to what I feel should instantly fuse with the colors and forms of the work at hand. In this way it is always a give and take [between] the visual and invisible, [between] the material and the spiritual, a continuous dialogue between content and form, though here the direction is from content to form.”) But, having adopted a fluid geometric style, de Jonge has come to realize – to see and feel – that he is bringing forth, unadorned, his inner musicality. He is not simply attracting the “metaphor” of music, he is giving music concrete form.
De Jonge is careful not to attribute specific paintings, or even drawings, to specific musical works. His ekphrasis is not a point-to-point “translation” of organized sound to organized image; he is only too aware of the vagaries involved such translation, even when essayed by masters such as Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. They, after all, were not attempting to “record” a sonic phenomenon as a picture, but interpret first and foremost the experience of music – of the organization as much as of the sound, and of the transcendent quality that the sound takes on when so organized. Klee may have attributed a particular watercolor to a Mozart aria; Kandinsky may have taken inspiration – induced as much by his own synesthesia as by anything else – from Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet; but in both cases the artists, deeply conversant in musical as well as visual art, were giving body to their emotional and physical responses to music. Taking his own inspiration from a vast repertoire of organized sounds (and favored, of course, with access to such a repertoire, never available to Kandinsky or Klee, through recordings and broadcasts), de Jonge fashions his own ekphrastic paintings and drawings as responses to musical language, musical sensations, musical vision. He does not paint a Bachian structure or a Debussyesque fantasy; but his structures and fantasies conjure Bach and Debussy at once – perhaps the one a little more here, the other more there, and then, in this third canvas, the darker colors and more muscular forms could suggest Beethoven or Mahler or Bartok.
If anything, de Jonge is composing himself, painting musically rather than painting after music, capturing ekphrastically no one symphony or sonata or song, but Pater’s “condition of music.” Sometimes the painter choreographs abstract figures rampant on contrasting grounds – the figures themselves responsive to a music we “hear” only through their contortions. Sometimes he organizes his forms in several parallel bands across the picture, almost emulating the basic form of the musical score (although, if anything, parodying any notion of notation). Sometimes de Jonge infers the presence of time, the defining element even of non-teleological music; other times, he deposits our eyes in a sustained moment, as if opening up for our benefit a particular chord. But he is always thinking musically, as his writing and thinking indicate. (“The [work embodies a] longing for clarity as a conscious and unconscious desire of the mind and soul, to grasp the everlasting peacefulness and harmony that could be considered the birthplace of multitude. The rhythmic multiplicity that gravitates towards stand-still, but with the slightest change of angle, reveals its constant flux…”)
This approach, of course, is nothing if not neo-modernist. As mentioned, the entire endeavor to align music and art (as well as other artistic disciplines) to the point of fusion is a hallmark of the modernist era in the arts, intensely investigated, even invented, in early modernism, codified in high modernism, and theorized (as happenings, intermedia, conceptual art, etc.) in late modernism. Its re-emergence now in the work of a neo-modern synthesist like de Jonge, someone who finds his own vision best expressed in a revivified language and spirit, comes perhaps as no surprise, but comes definitely as a refreshing affirmation of constructive principles and ideals.
Indeed, what is most persuasive about de Jonge’s current body of work is not its relation to music, but how its musicality supports its broader spiritual thrust. These paintings and drawings further his commitment to a tone – not just the appearance, but the almost irresistible sensation – of what can only be described as an ordered exuberance, the rational ordering of charming elements into delightful compositions whose surprises and intricacies, despite their apparent simplicity, refuse to reveal themselves quickly. De Jonge’s formal language shares a great deal with cartoon animation in its wit, verve and vivacity, its brightness and crispness, its suppleness and quick transitions; his drawings, in particular, are filled with mischief. But clearly, the inferred temporal structure these works reside in is not the narrative arch of commercial animation, but the fixed present, the continuous state of becoming, that defines the abstract animation of modernism’s experimental filmmakers – and that, ultimately, is the province of music.
“It is for me also a given,” Joost de Jonge has written, “that I experience a band of color as space or as a river of movement… so above all the power of associations, to which Bachelard so incredibly awakens the mind’s sensitivity.” Here citing the influential French perceptualist Gaston Bachelard, whose “poetics of space” crystallized Pater’s condition of music into the visualized lyricism of an earlier avant garde, de Jonge not only declares his affinity with his abstract forebears and their extra-visual aspirations, but exposes the intensity of trans-optical experience that he seeks to capture in his art, as they did in theirs. More than music alone, de Jonge’s ekphrastic effort is a wide and hungry – but not at all indiscriminate – embrace of sensation itself.
Los Angeles November 2010