Longread — 7 Feb 2019 — Laurie Cluitmans
We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings, for play is irrational.1
Art had taken Jacqueline de Jong to Paris in the early 1960s. Changing political circumstances in Paris after May 1968, a lack of studio and living space, and complications with her residence permit eventually make her return definitively, à contre-coeur, to Amsterdam in 1971.
Amsterdam – Paris – Amsterdam
When De Jong applies to the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in the late 1950s, her portfolio of work is returned to her unopened. Her association with the “red lord” Willem Sandberg is not appreciated. When as a student of art history she submits her thesis on the Amsterdam School, it is also refused. The movement is not seen as art historical. The Netherlands of the late 1950s does not seem to align with De Jong’s ideas, and so she moves to Paris where her lover, Danish artist Asger Jorn, lives and works. On the advice of Sandberg, she, an inquisitive autodidact, spends half a year working at the celebrated “Atelier 17,” the studio of British painter and printmaker Stanley Hayter.4 Paris offers her the freedom she so craved.
The student uprising and workers strike of May 1968 make a deep impression on De Jong. She describes it as the climax.5 She uses the lino press in her studio to make protest posters emblazoned with Situationist slogans. The posters allow her to express her artistic and political ideas. Dressed as a proper lady, she escapes the attention of the police and smuggles the posters, rolled up under her arm, to the “distributor.”
The events of the time also herald the dawn of a new phase in De Jong’s personal life. Jorn initially distances himself from the students and workers—he had already experienced conflict in the Spanish Civil War—, while she embraces and supports the aim and possibility of revolutionary change. It is around this time that she first meets Hans Brinkman. After May 1968, the regulations governing French residence permits are amended. For De Jong, this means that she has to renew her carte de séjour every three months instead of every five years. In those early years, she is forced to frequently travel back and forth between Paris and Amsterdam. When in 1971 she loses her living accommodation—and hence her studio too—in Cité Prost, she returns definitively to Amsterdam. She moves in with Hans Brinkman, living on a tiny attic floor on Singel in Amsterdam.6 It’s the start of a new chapter in the career and life of the artist.
Kroniek van Amsterdam
The Kroniek van Amsterdam series, which De Jong makes between 1970 and 1973, directly reflects these new living conditions. Each work in this series is set up as a diptych in a small suitcase, with handwritten text in English on the left and a painted image depicting various scenes on the right. Measuring 50 by 50 cm when closed, the suitcases are easy for her to carry anywhere. She initially even hauls them between Paris and Amsterdam. The diplomat’s suitcases, as she calls them, become her studio and diary rolled into one.7
“Wednesday: Nothing special at all: cats fighting, dreary weather, incense.”; “Tuesday: R. Filliou comes + J.C. Lambert, last one up alone, ‘Chronique d’Amsterdam’ like this am working on now, while Hans sleeps,”
she writes in January 1971 (January 20th Wednesday 1971), coining the title of the new series in the process.8 She recounts the events of her life chronologically, in the manner of a chronicle, personally, very directly, unfiltered, without literary pretentions. In her autobiographical texts, De Jong discusses the mundane details of life—the weather, artists and writers she meets, dinners, going out and playing pinball, arguments with her new lover, the lovemaking that follows, then a football game. Small drawings illustrate the stories in the text. A duck, a cutesy Dutch landscape, and pinball machines. Always pinball machines.
The image on the right has nothing to do with the text directly. A number of anecdotes take place at the same time. Fragments are placed above or alongside one another, flat on the surface, without perspective. The image has the same immediacy as the text on the left, but is further removed from the autobiographical. What matters are not the illustrations themselves, but the associative picture story. A shiny car, a man without legs in a wheelchair that is being bombed, a woman in lingerie who is tied up and dominated by a man wearing a police uniform, a cyclist in a Dutch landscape featuring a mill, all sit easily alongside one another.
De Jong elaborates her figurative style further in Kroniek van Amsterdam, moving far beyond the influences of Informel and art brut that had been so visible in her early work. It is pop art, the language of entertainment, popular culture and advertising—perhaps also the illustrations on pinball machines—that clearly influence her style. She addresses themes such as seduction, sexuality, violence, even innocence, in a seemingly naive, figurative manner. The links she exposes in the process are both humorous and uncomfortable. Kroniek van Amsterdam casually connects the personal and the political.
In 1970, after the VPRO documentary makers bring De Jong into contact with Galerie K276, she is able to present her Kroniek van Amsterdam to the public for the first time. A pinball machine in the middle of the space, the suitcases on the wall. A year later she shows the series in solo exhibitions at Galerie Gammel Strand in Copenhagen and at Galerie Tanit in Munich.
Amsterdam in the 1970s
Although De Jong’s work and person attract some attention, the return to Amsterdam is difficult for her at first. Paris was the centre of her artistic practice and career, her professional network and circle of friends. In the Netherlands at that time, she is defined on the basis of her relationship with the Situationists, and as the Dutch artist who had witnessed the protests of May 1968 from close quarters. She misses the collaboration and solidarity of the Paris art scene. She finds everything in Amsterdam much more individualistic, a situation she in passing attributes to the so-called “Beeldende Kunstenaars Regeling,” a subsidy system that provides artists with financial support in exchange for their services or artworks. In the Netherlands, she argues, there is less of a practical necessity to work together.9
Even so, she builds up a new network in the Amsterdam of the early 1970s. She meets artists such as Pieter Engels, Jeroen Henneman, Woody van Amen, Christine Koenigs, and Josephine Sloets. She becomes friends with writers and people working at the VPRO broadcaster. For the seventh issue of her periodical The Situationist Times, she and Brinkman begin a study of “flippers,” as they call pinball machines. Together they draw up an inventory of pinball machines in Amsterdam at the time. They photograph the machines in situ and draw up all sorts of diagrams, collecting all the material about pinball machines they can find and writing letters to manufacturers, to which they receive few answers.10
“Those were exciting times in Amsterdam,” says De Jong. “There was Art & Project, Wies [Smals] started De Appel.” In 1973, Hans Brinkman opens the Pander Art Centre in the furniture shop of the same name in The Hague. The “dinner for the poor” that he organizes there with Spoerri and Marja Bloem to announce the programme for the year is greeted favourably in the press. In 1974, Brinkman opens his own gallery in Amsterdam. Many artist acquaintances from Paris come to Amsterdam to exhibit at Galerie Brinkman. De Jong continues to exhibit her work there regularly until 1995.
The new city hall
Too big, too pompous, too authoritarian, too expensive. The Stopera, Amsterdam’s new city hall and opera house, opens in 1986 despite widespread protests. Funding for artworks in municipal buildings is allocated on the basis of a so-called percentage regulation. The motto is: no fragmentation of the budget, but works of international standing and commissions for just a few artists. Out of over two hundred submissions, a specially composed committee also selects De Jong’s proposal. She sets to work with sixteen other artists.11
However, just as the building’s construction is beset by problems and discord, the art commissions also provoke conflicts and differences of opinion. For example, there are objections to the proposals of Pieter Engels and Wim T. Schippers for the wedding halls. When the artists explain their schemes in person, city officials approve them after all. But by then the committee has withdrawn the proposals as a precaution. Art critic Erik Beenker, who documented the process and individual commissions, summarizes it dryly through a remark by one city official: “You’re easily tempted to opt for uniformity. After all, that’s your duty as a public official.”12
Architect Cees Dam, who designed the Stopera with Wilhelm Holzbauer, commented:
If six people design a horse, you end up with a camel. That’s the danger. It was of course a lot of hassle, but nothing about this building went smoothly, and I mean absolutely nothing. Even this part, the art.13
Holzbauer, for example, had a preference for established, internationally known artists such as Willem de Kooning, Karel Appel and Jan Dibbets. Of this, Pieter Engels says:
Holzbauer would simply have preferred to purchase works for the building, and I could imagine that of him, even if he is such a grumpy character. It struck me in meetings that the man feels burdened by the Dutch situation, constrained by that percentage arrangement and all those consultation committees that weigh you down with a pile of art in your building, art you don’t really want at all.14
A considerable time passes between the open call in 1982 and the installation of the works in the Stopera in 1988. What seems problematic for some artists—time has overtaken the proposals—proves to be an extremely productive period for De Jong. Working on commission is largely new to her as a painter, and it encourages her to think big.
De Jong is invited specifically to make work for one of the lift landings. She takes the movement of the lift and the staircases up and down as the simple starting point for a series of 35 paintings of varying size, entitled Upstairs-Downstairs. The turning movement of the spiral stairs inspires the basic idea. The steps return in various forms in each painting. De Jong says of the series:
Most of the paintings feature three creatures. As classical as possible. You can make a triangle out of them, but I needed them for movement. By creating a compositional rather than a narrative relationship among the three figures, I try to achieve a rotating movement. Apart from that, there’s no story. […] on the top floor I do mountain scenery. Once, in a meeting, I said in jest that this was a homage to Holzbauer and to Austria, but that really was a joke. I think it’s a fairly low building. So I thought, let’s put a few paintings of mountains on the top floor, to make it seem a little higher.15
This is the first time that De Jong works on such a scale in public space, and she carefully considers the materials she uses. She opts for extra-thick frames and extra-thick linen, available only in untreated form.
When I started to prepare it with white paint and suddenly saw how beautiful a brushstroke looked on that brown background, I became sort of lustful for that material. I no longer wanted to attack it by making it white, but instead started to paint on it directly.16
She adds black lines to the linen very directly and spontaneously. Figures sit or hang on and around the staircases. They are different characters, dressed in suits or, as De Jong calls them, Roman punks, a figure with a dog on a leash and a handkerchief hanging out of his trouser pocket. So for the first time in a decade, creatures slowly start to appear again here. The creatures, or monsters as De Jong calls them, were an important development in her work of the 1960s. With those monsters she broke away from the abstract expressionist style that connected her to Jorn. It was the monsters that gave De Jong a voice of her own, and that now, with all the acquired knowledge, return again. Sometimes as passing spectres, as when the staircase becomes a metropolitan rush. At other times they are calm figures, precisely rendered. Talking among themselves very self-assuredly, they take over the stairs, claiming their place in public space.
With Upstairs-Downstairs, De Jong also claims her place in public space. After her decade in Paris, she has slowly but surely secured her place in the city of Amsterdam.
About the author
Laurie Cluitmans (Netherlands, 1984) works as Conservator of Contemporary Art at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht and as an independent art critic and curator. She curated He Disappeared Into Complete Silence: Rereading a Single Artwork by Louise Bourgeois (2011) at De Hallen Haarlem (with Arnisa Zeqo); Tribute to an Avenue (2013–2014), commissioned by Sculpture International Rotterdam; Where the Sidewalk Ends (2015), a group exhibition in the public space (with Rieke Vos); Saskia Noor van Imhoff’s solo exhibition #+21.00 (2016) at De Appel, Amsterdam; and All Heal (Valerian) (2017) at art space Rongwrong (with Jort van der Laan). In 2016 she was awarded the Prize for Young Art Critics.
1. Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens. Proeve eener bepaling van het spel-element der cultuur, in: Verzamelde werken V (Cultuurgeschiedenis III), ed. L. Bummel et al., (Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon, 1950), 31.
2. Jacqueline en de Situationisten, 1970, television interview, dir. Lies Westenburg and Hans Redeker, transcribed by Peter Westenberg, VPRO studios.
3. Jacqueline de Jong in Jacqueline en de Situationisten, 1970.
4. Riki Simons in Jacqueline de Jong. Undercover in de kunst (Amsterdam/Gent: Ludion, 2003), 150–151.
5. Xandra Schutte, “Jacqueline de Jong: Avant-garde-diva. ‘Ik was onaangepast’,” De Groene Amsterdammer 39, 26 September 2012, www.groene.nl/artikel/ik-was-onaangepast.
6. Simons, 154–156.
7. Interview with the artist.
8. The French poet Jean-Clarence Lambert worked as French cultural attaché in the Netherlands on an edition of the magazine Opus International (the French quarterly magazine for art and culture, published between 1967 and 1995) specially devoted to the Dutch art scene. The issue appeared in September 1971, and De Jong contributed to it with a diptych. Interview with the artist.
9. Interview with the artist.
10. Interview with the artist. The periodical never appeared, but it made its first public appearance in 2018 in an exhibition. Jacqueline de Jong & The Situationist Times: Same Player Shoots Again, 11 May–2 September 2018, Torpedo, Oslo, Norway; 15 September 2018–13 January 2019, Malmö Konsthall, Sweden; 31 August–1 December 2019, Museum Jorn, Silkeborg, Denmark.
11. Erik Beenker, ‘Een Hollandse kathedraal’, in: Kunst in muziek, theater, stad, huis Amsterdam (Amsterdam: Stichting B.A.T. & Kunst, 1988), 5.
The committee consists of architects Wilhelm Holzbauer, Bernard Bijvoet and Gerard Holt, and artists Justa Masbeck, Bob Bonies and Dane Beerling under the chairmanship of André Jansen, head of art affairs for the City of Amsterdam.
12. Beenker, 40.
13. Beenker, 16.
14. Beenker, 11.
15. Beenker, 28 and interview with the artist.
16. Interview with the artist.
Translation of Dutch quotes to English: Billy Nolan.