By Peter Frank
Late this summer, e-mailing to this writer about a particular painting – and, by inference, his new work in general – Joost de Jonge observed that, “in painterly style it is linked with van Gogh and Karel Appel (oils only/wet upon wet). These are likely to be the biggest influences in my work today, together with Mondrian's musically attuned manner of composing and Cézanne's sensibility in stroke… and for color relations. The influence of Appel and van Gogh comes from their gestural style, but mostly as to how they approach the painting as a vehicle of expression! Also… their poetic approach and somewhat tragic individual emotional lives is close to my personal conception of everyday life.”
I read this declaration with considerable interest, and even a little surprise. The nature of the influences on this devoted painter, and self-avowed neo-modernist, makes perfect sense: the painterly comes before the pictorial, and does so in order to manifest the symbolic, the metaphoric, and the directly experiential all at once. But, except for Cézanne, the modernist painters de Jonge cites here are all Dutch. Indeed, the young artist seems to stress this, electing to cite Mondrian’s “musically attuned manner of composing” rather than Kandinsky’s, for instance; and the concern Appel and van Gogh – instead of, say, Jorn and Munch – maintained for “approaching the painting as a vehicle of expression.” Clearly, de Jonge regards himself as an inheritor and sustainer of a national heritage – an unusual attitude for an artist to assume today.
Of course, de Jonge’s observation, for all its patriotic ramifications, does not infer any sort of nationalism, tribalism, or racism. That would be truly (and blessedly) rare. Rather, de Jonge speaks to a sense of genius loci, of a spirit particular to a place and community embodied in, or at least happening to favor, certain aesthetic practices and certain philosophical attitudes. The qualities de Jonge seeks to emulate in the work of van Gogh, Mondrian, and Appel are not foreign to the art produced by, say, Spaniards, Finns, or Brazilians; but they present themselves in Dutch painting in such a way as to provide a distinctive model of praxis.
This writer knows from personal experience – visiting museums and galleries and art fairs with de Jonge – that he maintains a keen interest in modern Dutch painting of all kinds. I have noted during these visits de Jonge’s enthusiasm for and insight into artists as seemingly diverse as Jan Toorop, Bart van der Leck, Bram & Geer van Velde, Anton Heyboer, and Corneille. One’s sinuous line, another’s painterly opacity, yet another’s formal rhythms, all caught de Jonge’s informed but ever-hungry eye during our visits, helping to enhance not only my own experience of these painters but my comprehension of what makes de Jonge himself tick. He saw in these countrymen practical and intellectual forebears, equal in urgency to their counterparts in France, Russia, and Germany and yet closer in spirit, their ecstasy of inquiry heightened equally by sensuous technique, ruminative self-criticism, and expansive association with other art forms and perceptual constructs.
Is there a “Dutchness” to the work of these artists? Is there even a “Dutchness” that de Jonge himself can identify? Is the balance we see in their work – a temperamental (that is, optical, physical, spiritual, and intellectual) balance between heaviness and lightness, profundity and superficiality, gravity and insouciance – distinct to that work as opposed to the work of German or Russian or American or French painters? And is it indeed something that recurs in de Jonge’s work? I would argue so. There is a permission Dutch painters seem to give themselves – and perhaps one another – to embrace contradictory sensations and attitudes, so as to be able to explore complex states of mind and being from, you might say, above and below at the same time. Even van Gogh’s paintings (the late ones, that is) crackle with a surprising jocularity, manifested in his palette and the brio of his brushstroke, and Mondrian was only too happy to infuse his work with a jazz effervescence when he moved to New York, knowing it would enhance rather than betray the principles of neo-plasticism. In these artists’ wake, certainly, de Jonge’s willingness to embody his own concepts in colorful, vivacious images – images you fully expect to begin dancing before your eyes – makes sense as a pictorial strategy.
But it also makes sense as a historical strategy. De Jonge quite consciously ties himself to the aesthetic practices and philosophies of early modernism – Worringer, Focillon – and the late 18th to early 19th century standpoints – Schiller, Hegel – out of which they in turn sprang. As such, embodying himself as a neo-modernist, de Jonge seeks not so much to revive modernist practice as to refuse to regard it as dormant in the first place, contributing to its endurance by contributing to its discourse. Distinctively but traditionally; de Jonge clearly understands modernism as a tradition – Rosenberg’s “tradition of the new” – and does not simply mirror, but maintains, its insights and praxes.
De Jonge’s faithfulness to modernist tents has been noted before, but I reiterate it to clarify his particular identification with Dutch modernism – the modernism closest to his reach and impacting him most directly, certainly in his formative years. Genius loci springs from a soil enriched first and foremost by its own earlier geniuses, and de Jonge’s imagination and eye have been fertilized – not exclusively, of course, but particularly – by Appel’s, van Velde’s, Mondrian’s, and van Gogh’s. Whether or not this makes Joost de Jonge a genius, it makes him very much a Dutch painter, transcending his borders through his art but inhabiting those borders in his art.
Los Angeles October 2011