In his painting, by his own admission, Joost de Jonge follows a model supposedly extraneous to painting, that of classical music. Indeed, he has professed this influence, above all others, for at least the last half-decade, studying and listening to concert music – whether of the Baroque era, of the Moderns, or of whatever period – not simply as inspiration, but as formal and coloristic prefiguration. This writer has identified de Jonge’s impulse as “ekphrastic,” seeking to manifest the form and content – and above all, the sensation – of music in his very different, but demonstrably sympathetic, art.
The ekphrastic condition, however, infers a reliance on specific compositions for such form and content, an attempt to translate the spiritual as well as structural essence of extant musical works into painting. De Jonge has certainly done this, and continues to do so. His work of the last year, however, embraces a wider goal: the expression of musicality itself in painting.
In this regard, we might be able to say that de Jonge has that much more fully encompassed another label I have pinned on him, that of “neo-modernist.” Such a rubric indicates that de Jonge consciously – you might say ideologically – seeks intellectual and practical guidance from, and thus positions himself as an inheritor of, the artists of a hundred years ago who invented abstract art – and, not incidentally, for whom the example of music provided model and rationale. Such neo-modernism, too, has been de Jonge’s approach, more and more overtly, since the new century began: he has come to define himself against post-modernist dissolution by finding identity in the inheritance – supposedly discredited but still stable – of modernism. (Of course, such reclamation of abandoned impulse is itself a post-modernist maneuver, but such is neo-modernism’s participation in the true, larger post-modernist discourse.)
In fact, many artists working today rely on musical exemplars; many (certainly the most prominent) of these reliances, however, manifest as cultural/social citation and performative situation, and most cite recent and current popular music as their motivation. De Jonge, by contrast, is responsive to classical music, even in its most experimental forms, and as an abstract painter finds the reasoning of ekphrasis the logical means for embodying his preferred sonic art in his preferred optical discipline.
But, again to emphasize, de Jonge’s current direction builds on rather than simply recapitulates ekphrasis, emulating rather than mirroring classical music, an approach even more central to modernist practice. In particular, de Jonge has been exploring a theme-and-variation method in his painterly composition, establishing a fixed relationship between key shapes and manipulating a variety of attendant elements (color, texture, linear intensity, details of contour, even interior patterning) as if “tuning” a visual idea. We see this method anticipated throughout the history of modernism; indeed, Monet’s and Cézanne’s ceaseless examination of given distinctive subjects established a modernist ethos of investigative redundancy, an ethos that recurs forcefully in the oeuvres of, among others, Matisse, Picasso, and Delaunay.
But it is most of all in the work of the Blaue Reiter painters – in particular, the Russians among them, Kandinsky and Jawlensky – where we see the theme-and-variation approach formalized, established as an end in itself and aligned with musical practice. Kandinsky stands to this day as the most consciously musical of painters, establishing a direct ekphrastic relationship with composer counterpart Arnold Schoenberg and defining his first bodies of entirely non-objective work according to musical rubrics (“compositions” and “improvisations,” as well as the less musically specific “impressions”). Jawlensky’s landscapes, heads, and non-objective paintings evince the theme-and-variation musical model less deliberately, but no less obviously.
In his work of the past year, de Jonge has followed the theme-and-variation form with great deliberation. Not accidentally, however, the formal examples of Kandinsky and Jawlensky – not alone, but above all – display their DNA in de Jonge’s recent canvases and works on paper. These works could not have been painted by either Russian, of course, betraying as they do de Jonge’s personal sensibility, one that admits Mondrian, Léger, Schwitters, Klee, Appel, etc., and his own unique formal and coloristic preferences, not to mention touch. But they could not have been painted without either Russian, either.
At this point, Joost de Jonge stands – or works – somewhere between ekphrasis, a specific practice, and neo-modernism, a generalized context. The neo-modernist rubric necessarily encompasses all contemporary ekphrastic work in idiomatic terms; but, as noted, most contemporary visual artists engaged with music follow formal models that do not identify as neo-modernist. De Jonge, for one, brings ekphrasis, as practice and as model, back to its modernist roots.