Monday, February 28, 2011

H. P. Berlage: Total Artist

During the Christmas holiday I spent a few days in The Hague and visited the H.P.  Berlage exhibition at the Gemeente Museum. The museum itself was designed by Berlage, his final architectural commission - he died just before its completion in 1935.  This was a rare opportunity to see the work of an artist in a museum that had been built by the very same artist whose work was being exhibited.

Gemeente Museum The Hague by Berlage

As Mallgrave reports in his Modern Architectural Theory: "In Holland, modernism during this period is more or less synonymous with Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934)". Berlage studied architecture at Zürich's Federal Insititute of Technology (the ETH) but the exhibition revealed his versatility of talent and proves him to have been a Total Artist. Not simply an architect, he was also a maker of furniture, china, glassware, wallpaper and a book designer. The exhibition helped me understand why he was such a dominant influence on Dutch Art Nouveau and why he is remembered as the father of Modernism in The Netherlands.  His rational, spare approach to design and his abhorrence of superfluous decoration left its mark on later developments of Dutch design right up until today. Here is his own working desk, designed when he was still working within the Jugendstil ideals, but you can see that he has pared down decorative details to a minimum. Although heavily influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement Berlage rejected the more floral, decorative Art Nouveau style that was coming from Belgium and gradually developed the taut, constructive style that he considered to be in keeping with Dutch character.


Here is another desk, this time for a boardroom and with chairs. The picture on the wall shows one of the buildings that Berlage designed for the insurance company "De Nederlanden van 1845". The beautiful chairs are an indication of why Berlage is considered to be the harbinger of the new, emerging style, Art Deco.



Berlage was deeply interested in creating the perfect chair.  His admiration for the chairs of ancient Egypt knew no bounds.  He wrote a number of books on chairs and claimed that the Egyptians had never been surpassed. Here is one example of his own Egyptian style chairs.



Here is a design that Berlage made for the collected works of Louis Couperus.  It is for the cover of Couperus' debut novel Eline Vera, a novel that, by coincidence, I happended to be reading at the time of my visit (and that I highly recommend).



Around 1904 and 1905 Berlage worked on a number of wallpaper designs, inspired by the prints of micro-organisms that had appeared in biologist Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur. Berlage based his designs on microscopic patterns found in the natural world. In 1927 a number of these designs were printed by the company R and D (Rath and Doodeheefver), including this one.



Berlage was a towering figure in Dutch design, with convinced socialist, even utopian tendencies.  He strongly believed in community art - creating art projects that would improve society and involve furniture makers, various craftspeople as well as architects. It is ironic therefore that his most famous building was the Amsterdam commodities stock exchange or Bourse.

Beurs van Berlage Amsterdam, now a conference centre






Thursday, February 24, 2011

David Chipperfield in Zürich

British architect David Chipperfield was recently awarded the Royal Gold Medal for his services to architecture. This is the latest of a series of honours, including a knighthood, that the 57 year old has received.  Nevertheless, the modest Englishman is not a household name; he is not one of the dozen or so cosmopolitan Starchitects, like Foster, HadidKoolhaas, Libeskind, Gehry, Calvatrava or Herzog and de Meuron, whose buildings, by their sheer audacity but also by their irreverent isolation from the historical and social context that surrounds them, have established themselves as icons of the postmodern world. Chipperfield's works are generally characterised by a lucid austerity and creative restraint.  It is his thoughtfulness and faithfulness to place that gained him the commission to restore the Neues Museum on Berlin's museum island.  The result demonstrates how David Chipperfield put modest conservation before eye-catching innovation.

Neues Museum Berlin

His Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, Germany, is clearly a nod to the great European classical tradition that stretches back from today to antiquity.  The design was controversial because in Germany classical columns have strong and immediate echoes of Nazism's megalomaniacal architectural fantasies.  But Chipperfield's is a classicism that is almost homely, and reflects a homage to Palladio rather than Hitler. This is a modest house for literature.


Museum of Modern Literature Marbach, Germany

Museum of Modern Literature Marbach

In 2008 David Chipperfield won the competition to become the architect of the extension to Zürich's Kunsthaus.  The project is to be completed by 2015 and the new extension will house the wonderful Bührle Collection. Chipperfield was in Zürich earlier this month and talked about his plans for the Kunsthaus. As reported by the newspaper the Tages-Anzeiger, someone from the public remarked that it seemed like the extension was going to be a very big building. "Yes, it's a big building. It's a museum" Chipperfield answered. The new building will be across from the old building, creating a museum square, and behind the new building there will be a large garden. Why, he was asked, wasn't the new building further away from the old building, which would leave a big square? He answered that then you would get "a small garden and a stupid square".  For me the key question was, had he designed this new building specifically for Zürich?  He answered that he had not deliberately imitated anything typically Zürich or Swiss, but he had developed something that suits Zürich, because it is a quiet building. He concluded: "Zürich is a solid city, not Barcelona. It's a Zürich building."

I have earlier written on the major contemporary world architects who: 

"take no account of the context, or the local, when designing their artworks. The buildings are meant to stand out, not to blend in, and are consequently designed with an absolute disregard for the local context. That’s why they would be equally at home anywhere, because they are at home nowhere."

David Chipperfied is an architect, I suspect, whose buildings are not outsized by his ego. It is so nice to find an architect who studies the urban environment before he stamps it with his idea.

Planned extension of Kunsthaus

Old Kunsthaus on the left, Chipperfield's extension on the right

Friday, February 18, 2011

Interview with poet Padraig Rooney - The long time of history, the short time we have to look at it

One late afternoon last autumn I met my friend, Irish poet  Padraig Rooney, in Baden, Switzerland.  Some international football game or other was taking place in Basel and the Swiss citizenry were doing duty before their television sets.  As we walked in the footsteps of Hermann Hesse we had the streets to ourselves.  We wandered through the medieval town, crossed a bridge that spanned the Rhine and found a deserted Michelin starred restaurant opposite the famous baths. There we chatted as we had our evening meal, the French windows open wide to the swollen river that thundered past. Padraig had brought the galley proofs for his new, third poetry collection - The Fever Wards.  The title is taken from his 2009 Strokestown Poetry Prize winning poem. In November 2010 The Fever Wards was published in the UK by Salt Publishing.


As we looked over the poems I began to quiz Padraig about his work and months later, having had the time to read and reread his marvellous and intriguing newest collection, I followed up my interrogation with an interview via email.


Padraig, your new collection has a great variety of form and length - sonnets to prose poems, a few lines to a few pages.  How does the form a poem will take come to you?  Do you plan it, decide, this will be a sonnet?  Have you ever rearranged a poem radically and discovered it works better in another form?

The form usually comes fairly early in the writing process. I went through a period of writing sonnets and wanted to see where that form would take me, how I could play with it, shape it to the particular occasion of the poem. I enjoyed toying with a kind of random rhyme. And now I’m wary of the sonnet form: its neatness, the way it can deaden the subject matter. Towards the end of writing the collection I got a kick out of very short poems. There’s a special pleasure in condensing so that nothing is extraneous. I can’t remember if I’ve rearranged a poem but I’ve certainly shortened them – I hope for the better. When I’m reading other people’s poems I often wish they’d stopped much earlier than they do, and when I turn the page and there’s more I feel a sense of dismay. It’s a miniature art form, so less is more.


Edward Hopper: Sun in an Empty Room





A number of the poems paint very vivid visual images.  There are references to Hopper and of course Émile Friant.  How would you describe the relationship between your work and art, specifically painting? 


For many years, until I was thirty or so, I painted. In my teens and twenties I thought of myself, without embarrassment, as an artist and knew all the art supply shops in Dublin and in Basel, where I lived during the summer of 1973, after leaving school. At school I studied art for five years, and I had good art teachers. With two friends we organized an arts collective called Artara – we held exhibitions in the local Assembly Rooms, ran a folk club, brought Irish poets such as Peter Fallon, Daniel Riordan and Matthew Sweeney down to Monaghan to read. The Woods Band and Clannad came to play. The day Picasso died I went to school dressed head to toe in black. In my last year at school I exhibited a couple of canvases at the old Project Art Centre and that summer I was in and out of the Kunstmuseum in Basel. The Beyeler Museum didn’t then exist but its early incarnation, the Galerie Beyeler, was on Bäumleingasse near the Munster where I saw a fantastic exhibition of Picasso’s lithographs in 1973. I used to wander around Basel sketching the friezes and the sculptures in the street. It’s strange now to look at a statue in the street and know I sketched it thirty-five years ago.
            So I’ve had a long and intense relationship with art, particularly painting. I like strongly visual poems. I like that about Elizabeth Bishop – who was also an accomplished watercolourist – the way she looks closely.  Poets frequently respond to Hopper because he’s rather poetic and enigmatic. If a painting grabs me it is usually because it corresponds to an underlying psychic terrain – that’s how the Friant poem came about.

Some poems seem to be influenced by places you've lived in - North Africa, Paris, Budapest, Thailand etc.  But there are of course the references to Ireland as well.  Would you describe yourself as an Irish poet?  Is there such a thing as Irish poetry?  How do you see yourself within this?  Joyce once said he had never left Dublin - could this apply to you at all?

Where to begin with this question? I would describe myself as an Irish poet, though I’m quite happy to drop the adjective. I’ve been out of Ireland longer than I’ve been in it and so my poetry will reflect that exile, as it were. I’m very fond of the French historian Fernand Braudel, for whom geography was at the back of history. Before there were nation states there were seas, mountains and valleys. In the same way Ireland is at the back of my poetry, though there are later overlays. There’s something attractive about fusing places in a poem – making the poem a new place. I’ve been very nomadic. It can lead to shallowness. I’ve taught the global nomad all my life, in a plethora of international schools, and do think that much is lost by not staying put – particularly in the area of language. Globlish is everywhere. If I had to choose an exemplar it might be Nabokov more so than Joyce: both created dream nations. Nabokov’s and Joyce’s English usage bears the mark of exile, a fusion quality, a twisted idiom, wrought, completely their own.


Padraig Rooney

The motifs - harbours, antiquity, encounters remembered years after the event - these all occur and reoccur in this collection, and had me thinking of Cavafy.  And then I came across the poem ‘Cavafyesque’.  Am I right in noticing a Cavafy influence?  Is this deliberate - how does it work?

I’ve just had a look at my old Cavafy Poems in the Chatto & Windus edition and see that Des Hogan sent it to me from London in April 1979. He’d visited me in Paris and must have realized I didn’t know the Alexandrian master. So Des turned me on to ‘these beautiful, painful poems’. It was the erotic, streetwise poems I liked then, their risky, revealing quality, and only later the reflections on Hellenic history. And then I just liked them all. They were seminal when I was coming out – that you could capture the fleeting trace of encounters, of places, in a few laconic lines. “Half past twelve. How the years have passed.” They showed what you could do with a bandage and a bit of iodine. Of course Cavafy wasn’t at home, either, in Alexandria. I went there once, to his apartment. It’s now a small, underfunded museum. His is a very distinctive voice.

I see a number of binary motifs repeated, binding the collection together e.g references to wetness, dampness on the one hand, and dryness, aridness on the other. The tropics and the desert.  The sea and stone. Clay and dust.  Is this deliberate?

Partly. When I was writing the poems in the book I found myself making these big leaps across time. The desert was there, a dream desert. I spent a year in the Sahara desert in 1977, six hundred kilometers south of Algiers. My novel Oasis was about that terrain and I thought I’d done with it, but no. The peculiar quality mangrove must have, its roots in salt water, its head in the air – that attracted me. I just have spent so much time in the tropics. I don’t know how deliberate all this is. It’s all a kind of psycho-geography. When you’re working on a book you half-consciously stumble on your own terrain, the terrain that feels right for you, that expresses your voice.

There is a strong sense of melancholy that permeates the poems.  Loss, age, impermanence. For instance, "The Tow Horses" captures what I mean. Is this a theme, would you say?

Going back to what I said about Cavafy, his voice has that reflective quality too – the long time of history, the short time we have to look at it. Those themes you mention would make their presence felt for most poets of a certain age, nel mezzo del cammin. If those themes didn’t surface, you would wonder. Death is all over this book: the reaper is rampant. But he’s a Nick Cave reaper. There are humourous poems in the book too. You can temper melancholy with humour, particularly black humour.


There is also a strong sense of wonder.  I found the lines: "a god of gas created us/from mud to understand the living" almost emblematic for the collection.  Any comment on that?

That particular poem came out of a visit to a national park along the coast of Thailand, a mangrove reclamation area with boardwalks running through it, so in the evening you could see how it is a fascinating hardscrabble biosphere. At the time of the tsunami I was in Thailand, though up north, and we felt the tremor, a couple of thousand kilometers from the epicenter. There is a half-conscious attempt, in the line you mention, to reconcile the Big Bangers with the God delusionists. And, cruelly, the stripping of the mangrove forests increases vulnerability to the sea. But looking at the horrific footage of the tsunami (or indeed the World Trade Centre footage) there is a curious resemblance to the mangrove swamp: the scurrying for cover, for purchase, the drowning in dust.




Padraig's poem "Bone Bed" appeared in The Financial Times (print only version), but you can read it in the online magazine nthposition.


To read Padraig's poem "The Ordination Meal", click here.


Padraig and Matthew Sweeney will be reading from their newest collections at the University of Berne on March 25th, organized by the Swiss-British Club.  Padraig will be giving a reading in Zürich on September 6th at the James Joyce Foundation.


Padraig's work will be included in a volume, The Captain's Tower, to be published in May in honour of Bob Dylan's 70th birthday.




Thursday, February 17, 2011

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Sihlwald

I count myself very lucky to live on the edge of a beautiful forest, the Sihlwald.  Since 2008 this forest is an official National Park and is consequently protected from further development. Just a few steps from my house I can wander for hours without encountering another human being.  Sometime ago I wrote on this blog about the Sihlwald. Yesterday we walked over the forested hills and down to the Türlersee.  In the summer we swim here, but yesterday the lake was half frozen, deserted and enveloped in a cold fog.

The Türlersee

But though I love the peace and quiet, the birdsong and occasional sighting of a fox, I am also aware that many have walked here before me.  Woodcutters have supplied the city with its firewood since the middle ages, right up until the early 20th century.  In the 18th century poet and painter Salomon Gessner lived here during the summers.  Goethe, an indominatable hiker, as well as poet, playwright, novelist and scientist, wandered though these forested hills and visited Gessner in his house that still stands at the river's edge.

Salomon Gessner's house


In the 19th century Wagner walked, from Kilchberg down towards the River Sihl and along the wooded valley.  He conceived Das Rheingold while taking the waters at Albisbrunn, and Siegfried's magical encounter with a bird is based on birdsong that Wagner heard in the Sihlwald.  In the 20th century one famous visitor to the forest was Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of former President of the USA, Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Until last week a small clearing in the forest had a sign to mark the place where she once stood that said "Eleanor Roosevelt Platz".  Not anymore.

Eleanor Roosevelt had always loved trees and on April 17th 1948 she made a quick visit from London to Zürich specifically to visit the Sihlwald.  Tens days later millions of Americans read her description in her widely syndicated column My Day:


"While I was in Zurich, Switzerland, I had the pleasure of visiting Sihlwald Forest, oldest commercially managed forest in the world. For 600 years this forest, which covers about 2000 acres, has been cared for and has been a source of income... Sihlwald was originally designed to provide firewood for the people of Zurich, and it still fulfills that function, but considerable wood is cut for marketing as lumber....
The forests are also used as recreation grounds for the people... people come with their lunch baskets and sit under the trees. Receptacles for trash are provided, and everyone is very careful to pick up their papers when they leave.

Children are taught in school how to conduct themselves in forests. That's why there is apparently no need for signs. I looked everywhere for directions such as we have—"Be Careful of Fire"—but there was not a single sign. Yet they rarely have a forest fire.
This particular forest is about a half-hour's drive out of Zurich, but there are others nearer the city. There are about 5000 acres of trees in the whole area. The beech woods are very beautiful, with a green carpet of little spear-like leaves which smell like chives and are, I think, some relation to the onion.
Not far from the entrance to Sihlwald is a very attractive guesthouse with a wonderful view. There one can have tea, either indoors or out on a terrace. The sunshine pours down in good weather and, at this season of the year, one looks out on a hillside with fruit trees in blossom and daffodils and forsythia in bloom."


The authorities who now run the new National Park have decided that nature has no need for historical memory.  Last week the old sign was removed and the name "Eleanor-Roosevelt-Platz" is no longer to be used. A spokesperson for the Zürich Wilderness Foundation explained: "The Roosevelt-Platz is not a part of the visitor's information concept. The old sign has no historical value".  Furthermore, "Historical information does not provide orientation during a hike".  So, the forest is nature and nature alone, and history has been banished.

The concept behind the Sihlwald today is a noble one - the aim is to leave the forest in its natural state - no houses, shops, cafes, roads will be built within the wilderness area.  I am not expecting nor calling for signs to be erected to point out where Goethe or Wagner once set foot. But the Roosevelt sign had been there for over half a century.  Its removal is, I believe, akin to official historical vandalism.

Eleanor Roosevelt in the Sihlwald

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Johan Thorn Prikker and the Introduction of Batik into Dutch Art

In my last blog post I argued that Jan Toorop’s Javanese roots influenced his art. Now I would like to point out another influence from the Dutch East Indies that impacted on Dutch Art Nouveau - batik. No one quite knows when the craft of batik began, though the word was already recorded in a 17th century Dutch shipping list. By the late 18th century, with the availability of high quality Indian cotton, batik was flourishing on Sumatra and Java and many of the other 13,000 islands that made up the Dutch colony, the Netherlands East Indies. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles amassed a large collection of textiles, including batik, during his time on Java between 1811 and 1815. His collection is today in the British Museum. By 1845 colonial Dutch women had started their own workshops in the East Indies in which local women produced batik textiles that had been designed especially for the European market, featuring Indonesian, Chinese and European motifs. By the end of the 19th century some of these works were appearing at international exhibitions and in 1903 The East West Society founded a shop in The Hague, the Boeatan, which sold a variety of traditional Indonesian crafts, including batik. The shop would remain in business until 1971.

Although colonial relations were, by and large, characterized by inequality, John MacKenzie has argued that the area of design constitutes a field in which European-Asian relations were most often based on admiration, rather than subjugation, and that European attitudes towards Asian decorative arts were more affirmative than in any other area of culture. Marjan Groot claims that the popularity of batik was “the most notable result of the early artistic interest in the Dutch colonies” and that in the nineteenth century “this admiration became embedded in arguments to reform Western decorative art and design”.

Agathe Wegerif-Gravestein in batik dress: 1902

 Around 1892 Dutch artists began to experiment with applying batik to modern design. In 1898 a gallery opened in The Hague called Arts and Crafts and during its short lifetime (it went bankrupt after six years) quickly established itself as the premiere establishment of Dutch Art Nouveau decorative arts. That same year Agathe Wegerif-Gravestein (1867-1944), wife of the gallery’s financial backer, established the Arts and Crafts gallery batik workshop in the town of Apeldoorn. Wegereif often wore batik dresses, which provided her with a reputation for exoticism. Within two years over two dozen Dutch women were employed in her batik workshop and some of their products were exhibited in Paris at the 1900 Universal Exhibition, including textile furnishings for the Dutch pavilion. Marjan Groot has described Wegerif’s upholstery pieces as featuring “a fine linear Art Nouveau style”. Though her batik work spread throughout Europe, and was praised by female critics, as one of the few female artists in the Art Nouveau movement her creations were taken less seriously by male critics. They frequently condemned her work as too expressive and lacking a rational, that is, Dutch, approach.

Bench with batik upholstery by Agathe and Chris Wegerif-Gravestein: 1904

Agathe Wegerif freely admitted that she had been drawn to batik through conversations with the Dutch artist Johan Thorn Prikker. Most of her batik creations were based on Thorn Prikker’s designs. He himself had begun to work with batik in the early 1890s. Like Jan Toorop, he worked with the Belgian group Les XX, and became a close acquaintance of Belgian designer Henry van der Velde. Today van der Velde is remembered as one of the greatest exponents of Art Nouveau and many major museums are proud to exhibit his work, but Thorn Prikker has been all but forgotten. This chair was designed by van der Velde in 1893, but the batik upholstery is from Thorn Pikker.

Van der Velde chair with batik design by Thorn Prikker: 1893
That same year Thorn Prikker produced his best known painting, “The Bride”, which became famous briefly for its mystical atmosphere and the exotic, batik design of the woman’s dress.

The Bride by Johan Torn Prikker: 1893
In a poster for an exhibition of Dutch art in Krefeld, Germany in 1903 Thorn Prikker combined motifs from the Irish medieval Book of Kells with tulip-like forms and shapes from Javanese batik textiles, demonstrating that what was unique about Dutch Art Nouveau was the typical Dutch restraint and symmetry combined with its colonial exoticism.




Batik Curtains designed by Thorn Prikker for Arts and Crafts, The Hague: 1900

La Maison Moderne in Paris with batik designs from Thorn Prikker




Fragment of batik curtain designed by Thorn Prikker
Another area where the influence of Indonesian batik made itself apparent in Holland was in book design. Carl Adolph Lion Cachet (1864-1945) was a famous Dutch Art Nouveau artist and the first to apply batik technique on parchment. To commemorate the inauguration of Queen Wilhelmina in 1898 he designed the catalogue of an exhibition of Royal Portraits and objects that had been held at the Rijksmuseum. Thirty-nine copies were bound in Lion Cachet’s beautifully designed batik parchment, to be presented to the new queen and other dignatories. Recently a very lucky collector (and blogger) stumbled across one of these in a second-hand bookstore and bought it for……. 14 euros.

Carl Adolph Lion Cachet's Catalogue of Exhibtion: 1898

In 1900 Louis Couperus, considered by many to be one of the greatest Dutch novelists, published his novel De Stille Kracht (The Hidden Force). The cover of an earlier novel, Metamorfoze (1897) had had a beautiful Art Nouveau cover designed by Jan Toorop.

Cover design by Jan Toorop: 1897
De Stille Kracht was not only set in the Dutch East Indies (Couperus had spent most of his youth in the Dutch East Indies) but the book itself was designed by an important Art Nouveau artist, Chris Lebeau (1878-1945) and he had the cover executed in the Indonesian batik technique.

Chris Lebeau's batik cover design for De Stille Kracht

Today the Wolfsonian library of the Florida International University has an unrivalled collection of Dutch Art Nouveau bookbindings and ornamental ephemera that are distinguished by themes, motifs and techniques, such as batik, that were introduced from the Dutch East Indies. Some of the leading Dutch artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are included in the library’s collection, including Jan Toorop, Carl Adolph Lion Cachet and Chris Lebeau.

One of the hundreds of the batik bookbindings in the Wolfsonian Collection
In 1901 Johan Thorn Prikker and Henry van der Velde worked together on a magnificent house called “De Zeemeeuw” (“The Seagull”) in Scheveningen, just outside The Hague. Van der Velde designed the house while Thorn Prikker decorated the interior. He painted a huge mural above the staircase "The Game of Life" based on a Hindu story.

Johan Thorn Prikker, The Game of Life: 1901

But by 1904 Johan Thorn Prikker found himself to be persona non grata in the Dutch artistic world. Artistic and political differences had caused him to fall foul of the leading practitioner of modernism in the Netherlands, the architect H. P. Berlage. In Holland Thorn Prikker had worked in an amazing variety of media, producing paintings, murals, lithographs, furniture, carpets, lamps and textiles, including batik. He had been one of the first to apply the traditional Indonesian batik technique in contemporary art, in textiles and in painting, had contributed to a renaissance in Dutch bookbinding and he had inspired Agathe Wegerif-Gravestein to found the first batik workshop in Europe. Thorn Prikker left for Germany, where he would spend the rest of his life, as creative as ever. In Germany his work was valued, he would hold a number of professorships in art and design colleges and he was recognized as the most important master of modern stained glass art. But in his native Holland he faded from memory and hardly gained a mention in English or French histories of art, despite the fact that nearly all major Dutch and German museums possess work of his.

But Johan Thorn Prikker is being reclaimed. In 2008 a German art historian by the name of Christiane Heiser was awarded a PhD by the Dutch University of Groningen for her work on Thorn Prikker’s artistic biography. Now she has helped curate a large exhibition in Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. But you will have to be quick, the exhibition finishes tomorrow. Then it will travel to Düsseldorf where it opens on March 26th at the Kunst Palast and runs to August.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Jan Toorop: Dutch-Javanese Artist

Most histories of art dealing with Symbolism, Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, mention the Dutch artist Jan Toorop.  His symbolist paintings emanate a sense of weirdness that mixes a private mythology with a dose of mysticism.

In 1886 Toorop married a young English woman by the name of Annie Hall.  (I have no idea if there is a connection with the Woody Allen film.)  In this painting of his bride we find her reading at the breakfast table.  Toorop seems more interested in the effect of white than in giving a careful rendering of her facial features.  At the time he was living in Brussels. He joined Les XX (the Twenty) and was very much under the influence of James Ensor. I think you can see the James Whistler influence too.


Woman in White (Annie Hall): 1886

A decade and a half later we can see how his style has developed. For instance in his beautiful portrait of the feminist Jeanette de Lange, we see how he has adapted Surat's pointillist technique.


Potrait of Mrs. M.J. de Lange: 1900
 Again we have a portrait of a woman reading. This time each line is finely drawn and various brightly coloured dots fill the canvas, except where he leaves the white underpainting visible through the surface, giving the painting an etherial quality.



O Grave: 1892
  But it is for his symbolist art that Toorop is best remembered. In the pencil drawing "O Grave Where is Thy Victory? two mysterious women with slim, elegant bodies and flowing hair glide and linger over an open grave. The gnarled branches and bough of a tree entangle the body of a man who is dying, or already dead. The women, presumably, are some sort of angels, helping the man to rid himself of his painful, worldly body and they gently guide him into whatever awaits after death. The flowing lines, the curve of the women's bodies and the trees and the oriental face of the woman, are typical of Toorop's enigmatic works.

The following year (1893) he produced what some regard as his masterpiece, "The Three Brides" with its coiling, flat, serpentine composition and imagery that echoes Javanese art, especially batik.


The Three Brides: 1893

And here is another of his drawings, from the same year, an illustration for a book cover done in typical art nouveau style. The Japanese influence on the swirling lines of art nouveau has often been remarked upon, but in this work of Toorop one would be correct to pick up on an Indoensian influence, especially those lines of smoke that float upward like the shadows of Wayang Kulit.


Het Boek van Verbeelding: 1893


In 1894 Toorop produced what became the most famous work of Dutch Art Nouveau. Delftsche Slaolie was a poster for a salad dressing:

Again, the faces of the women look oriental.  The flowing hair and the cloth of the dresses has something batik.  The hand gestures of the woman on the right reminds me of Sita, in a Balinese rendition of the great Hindu epic, The Ramayana.
And here is a photo of Jan Toorop, taken in 1892:

Jan Toorop: 1892

He is no blond or redheaded Dutchman. Toorop was born on Java, on what was then the Dutch East Indies in 1858. Neither of his parents, nor his grandparents had ever visited the European mother country. Although they were classified as European, and had Dutch citizenship, they had been in the East Indies for over a century. Toorop was an "Indo" or a Dutch European with some Indonesian blood. He did not set foot in Europe until he was aged 14. During his youth he never paid much attention to his own background, but as his "exotic" looks began to work a mesmersing influence on some of his admirers, particularly some female followers, he invented an imaginative family background, including a Javanese princess as a mother. Toorop's mother was certainly not a Javanese princess. But there is little doubt that his family did have Javanese ancestors, and perhaps Chinese. Little research has been done on Toorop's Javanese roots. Art historian Robert Sibelhoff alone has written an account of Toorop's childhood. He suggests: "The claim to a princess for a mother and to the arms of knighthood seem to derive from (a) lively imagination. Thus one notices in Toorop a changed attitude toward his Origins between the mid-1880's and the mid-1899's. By the end of this time, the dual heritage is seen as partly responsible for the merging of the European and Asiatic visions in his art." Furthermore, Sibelhoff quotes Jan Toorop himself, reminiscing: "The East Indies have meant very much to me. The Indies cannot be left out (weggedacht) of the beautiful, half-Chinese environment on Banka and the Oriental nature there in the Indies brought me in contact with beauty for the first time. The dresses which work on your imagination, the beautiful materials, the mask-plays in the Chinese Kampongs ... although I, of course, did not understand anything of it, for it all was in a kind of Chinese, nevertheless it made an enormous impression on me, even as a child".


Art in general is a neglected area within the historiography of European colonialism. Likewise, most histories of western art give little or no attention to the contributions of Asian artists, or the Asian roots of some European artists. An example of this would be the Javanese roots of Jan Toorop's work.


Jan Toorop in his studio: 1911