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Krijger, Henk - VM - Peter Enneson 1

Henk Krijger: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Rawness, immediacy, existential force, and intimacy

by Peter Enneson

In an artist statement from the late 1940s Henk Krijger describes a turn from the “fine-painter’s manner” and “somewhat objective, sometimes idyllic vein” of his student works of 1937/38 to the “coarse expressionist style” emerging after his release from military service on the eve of Germany’s invasion of The Netherlands in May of 1940. The release from military service and his life during the occupation and in the Dutch underground were accompanied by a critical period of “self-examination and a striving for self-assertion.” Among the pieces marked by the stylistic turn are a number of works on biblical themes unprecedented historically and in Krijger’s oeuvre in their expressionistic directness, rawness and immediacy. A large charcoal drawing of Jacob wrestling with the angel from 1946 stands at the apex of this development.           

In Genesis 32:22–31 Jacob, after fleeing from Laban and preparing to meet Esau, wrestles until the break of day with “another.” When the “other” sees that he cannot overpower Jacob, he touches the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip is dislocated. The other says, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” Jacob replies, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob’s name is changed to Israel: “because you have struggled with God and with men and overcome.” Jacob calls the place Peniel, “Face of God,” “because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

In Krijger’s large charcoal drawing the two combatants are naked. The juxtaposition in the third dimension of the wrestling figures is collapsed to such a degree that the bodily interaction of the men and the touching of the sockets of the hips have an unmistakably sexual edge. The emphatically splayed lower limbs of the Jacob figure are dramatically pulled up, and the faces of both figures turned sideways to the right, as if to accommodate the confinements of the resolutely squarish, box-like space which the figures completely fill. The face to face exchange is especially close and singularly intense – close, like that of lovers. Benevolent and kind from above; anxious, bewildered, and submissive from below.

The face of “the other” – delicate, almost feminine, based in renaissance art – has focussed, piercing eyes. The face of the Jacob figure rooted in the facial figurations on the monumental structures of the west Sumbanese culture in which Krijger grew up, is turned fully backward and then up. The gaze, ostensibly at, is in fact emphatically past or beyond. Their contraposed lips, turned up in the one instance, in the other turned down, are close enough to touch.

Filling in the space outside the wrestling figures are elongated wings. They look to have evolved from Krijgeresque representations of the trunks and the foliage of trees. It is as if the struggle with the “other” – enjoined in the everyday world of people, places, and trees – has entered a mythical, redemptive, or visionary space.

Awkwardly contorted limbs swirl in conflicting directions around Jacob’s muscular, elongated back. The complex, circular movement is bounded top and bottom by the vertically juxtaposed heads and the horizontally juxtaposed buttocks. The movement is suspended above Jacob’s symmetrically splayed legs and wrapped inside a mantel of protective wings.

Downward diagonally from the top left a rhythmic progression of elongated forms runs from the wing tip through the arms, across the angled back, around which the circular movement revolves, the Jacob figure’s leg and down to the right foot. In the context of this progression Jacob’s right arm and hand break out heavenward, in sympathy with the eyes that look beyond.

There is then a taut, evocative orchestration of form in the squarish two-dimensional visual space. Spatial proximities, postural and gestural dynamics, and formal rhythms give feeling-laden form to the wrestling/blessing interchange. The cultural disparity in Krijger’s youth and adolescence, brought to a head in the stylization of faces, finds a wrestling/blessing artistic resolution in this singular, intensively composed, powerfully expressive work. Aspects of this resolution – figural, gestural, postural, compositional – form the basis of Krijger’s later work. Krijger felt the wrestling/blessing dialogue between heaven and earth – a charged dynamic – in the act of art-making itself. And in life.

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Henk Krijger: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1946, charcoal drawing.

Henk (Hendrik Cornelis) Krijger, was born in Karuni on the tiny island of Sumba in the Malaysian archipelago on 19 November, 1914. In 1928 at the age of 14 he travelled to the Netherlands to attend the Gereformeerd Gymnasium in Amsterdam. Between 1932 and 1938 he attended the Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs and the Rijksinstituut tot Opleiding van Tekenleraren in Amsterdam. Krijger’s primary reputation in the Netherlands was as a book designer, illustrator, typographer and type-designer. From 1956 until 1969 he also gained recognition for commissioned work for buildings and in public spaces. In 1969 Krijger immigrated to the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois, USA to become Master Artist for the Institute for Christian Art (ICA) — later Patmos Workshop and Gallery (Toronto, Ontario, Canada). Krijger returned to the Netherlands from Canada in 1973. He died September 29, 1979. A substantial collection of Krijger works (44 original works and 26 museum quality size-as prints from high resolution photographs of original works) collected by the Senggih Foundation (established, 2017 and based in Western Michigan) was recently made part of the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) collection of contemporary art. See: https://artgallery.gvsu.edu/Detail/entities/5498. The GVSU welcomes donations of additional Krijger works.

Peter Enneson (http://www.enneson.com/pedweb_people/pe_main.asp) is a retired graphic designer. He holds a Masters of Philosophy in Aesthetics from the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Peter has done extensive archival, biographical and cataloguing work on Henk Krijger since 1979. His full-length essay “Senggih’s The Survivors: An Exercise in Artwriting” was published in Pledges of Jubilee: Essays on the Arts and Culture, in Honor of Calvin G. Seerveld, edited by Lambert Zuidervaart and Henry Luttikhuizen. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan (USA) 1995. An ArtWay Visual Meditation on Henk Krijger’s 1971 annunciation “No, it didn’t happen indoors” was published online in 2017. Peter helped establish the Senggih Foundation and is working with the GVSU in cataloguing the collection.

ArtWay Visual Meditation 13 February 2022