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Mankes, Jan - VM - Koos Sluiter

Jan Mankes: Row of Trees

Trees Reaching Up

by Koos Sluiter

In the Netherlands 2020 is the centenary year of Jan Mankes’ death. The painter Jan Mankes died of tuberculosis on 23 April 1920, 30 years old.

Mankes painted, made drawings and woodcuts in a dreamy style: still lifes, portraits, landscapes, and animal studies, especially birds. Mankes was a solitary artist who was averse to schools or movements. His search for a universal truthful language connects him to totally different modern artists. His credo was ‘Art is giving expression to spiritual life. Since the purely spiritual, the ineffable, cannot be named, material things are used to do so.’

That sentiment also applies to his painting Row of Trees, dating from 1915, when he married the Mennonite preacher Anne Zernike. She had been the preacher of the Mennonite congregation of Benedenknijpe since1911 and was the first Dutch female preacher. But that does not mean that the two figures on the path between the trees are the newlywed couple. Mankes is never autobiographical. 

Row of Trees is an expression of a search for truth and purity, a journey along a winding path. The trees reach high upwards, pointing to heaven. Someone hardly visible to the right is struggling with the soil. Everything is searching: upwards, for indefinable horizons, in the field, in conversation with each other. Are the disciples on the road to Emmaus pictured here, unnerved in conversation about burning questions: how was it possible for events to go as they did with Jesus, the Man of God? Then a third person comes to accompany them. They cannot let go of what he says. ‘Stay with us,’ they say. He releases a different glow within them.

Assigned to the realm of the dead, he there banished the deepest darkness. Now his light falls over the world, unmissable for all who are searching.

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Jan Mankes: Row of Trees, 1915, oil on canvas, 69 x 52 cm. Museum MORE (abbreviation of MOdern REalism), Gorssel, near Deventer, NL.

Jan Mankes (1889–1920) was born in Meppel, The Netherlands. His family moved to Delft in 1903. In that period, he worked as an apprentice with the glass painter J.L. Schouten and followed evening classes at the Academy of Visual Arts in The Hague. From 1909 until 1915 Mankes lived with his parents in Het Meer, a suburb situated between Heerenveen and the little villages of Benedenknijpe and Bovenknijpe. This is where he developed his love for nature and made many of his best works. In 1913 he became acquainted with Anne Zernike, a theologian and the first woman preacher in the Netherlands. In 1915 he married her, after which they lived in The Hague for a while. In 1916 they moved to Eerbeek in the province of Gelderland, because they thought that those wooded surroundings would benefit Mankes, who was already suffering from tuberculosis. In 1918 their son Beint was born. Mankes was mostly bedridden; whenever he was feeling a bit better, he would work without interruption. In 1920 he died of his illness, when he was 30 years old. Mankes left an oeuvre of about 150 small paintings, 100 drawings and 50 prints. Nature is the most important subject in more than half of his oeuvre. Apart from that he made self-portraits, portraits (especially of his father, his mother, and his wife), still life studies, landscapes, and interiors. Already during his life Mankes exhibited many times and was much appreciated. The tranquillity in his work is caused by balanced compositions and modest use of colour, as well as an almost invisible brush stroke.

Koos Sluiter, born in 1946 in Emmen in The Netherlands, was a preacher from 1970 and is since 2011 a retired preacher. He devotes himself to exploring the interface between faith and art, organising courses and presentations, see www.geloveninkunst.nl.

ArtWay Visual Meditation 18 October 2020