Peter Smith - The Complete Works 3 and 4
The Complete Works of H.R. Rookmaaker vols 3 and 4, edited by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (Piquant). Review July 2003
by Peter S. Smith
Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker and Piquant Press have published volumes three and four of the six volume set of Hans Rookmaaker’s Collected Works. They add significantly to volumes one and two and further establish Rookmaaker as a key mid 20th Century Christian thinker and writer on Art and Culture.
These new books follow a pattern set by Volumes One and Two. They are not arranged in strict chronological order but are grouped thematically, making it easier to trace Rookmaaker’s thinking on particular topics over a number of years. Books that are already well known in English find a new lease of life as they find their place amongst texts newly translated from Dutch.
Volume Three reprints The Creative Gift, first published in 1981 after Rookmaaker’s death, while Volume Four has Art needs no justification from the late 1970s. Rather buried in Volume Four and easy to miss is a significant piece ‘Art, morals and Western Society’. This was published in 1976 in Beyond Aesthetics: Investigations into the Nature of Visual Art, edited by Don Brothwell for Thames and Hudson. Brothwell brought together a number of theorists from a variety of viewpoints. They shared a common interest in the visual arts that stepped outside a narrow formalist aesthetic interpretation. I remember thinking when the book was published that here was a new departure for Rookmaaker. His distinctive Christian perspective was finding another audience, holding its own alongside parallel texts from very different and secularised perspectives.
The real excitement comes from texts that here appear in English for the first time. In Volume Three, Art and Entertainment, from 1962, sets the scene for much of Rookmaakers’s later popular writing. The book is aimed directly at his fellow-Christians in the Reformed Church as well as a wider Dutch audience. It was to be the first of many passionately argued cases for Christians to understand the times in which they live, and to engage, in a Christian way, in and with contemporary culture. The very title – Art and Entertainment – was radical. By placing these two things together and treating them as equally serious and worthy of attention, Rookmaaker indicated his intention to make us re-think our preconceived ideas about ‘High’ and ‘Low’ art. In the same volume Rookmaaker answers one of his Christian critics.
Volume Four begins with a collection of art historical articles which take us on a chronological journey through Western Art from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century. They include interesting studies on particular problems of interpretation which introduce us to Rookmaaker’s analytical methods. The section concludes with articles of a more theoretical and general nature.
Both volumes end with a wealth of shorter articles, exhibition and book reviews (his admiration for E. H. Gombrich is interesting to read) and transcripts from tape-recorded discussions. How he found time, in the midst of a busy teaching schedule, to write so much is another question. In a collected works there is an inevitable sense that some things had to be written quickly for a deadline. Rather than diminishing the work, this adds a real human dimension. We do get a good sense of the scope of his interests. We might expect to find Western art: but there is also serious attention to the arts of Asia and the Far East. He moves from Inuit sculpture to the interior design of 1930s Dutch ocean-going liners. From Dutch tiles and their route from Mesopotamia, via Islam, through Spain, Italy and on to the Netherlands, (where ‘Perhaps our Dutch sense of neatness had something to do with that, for tiles are easy to keep clean and always have a fresh look’, vol. 4 p. 475) – to entertainment on Dutch television. From the nature of a photograph, to how to take part in a Bible study group. From Bach to Mahalia Jackson; from Beethoven to Dylan. It is a long list.
Rookmaaker’s seamless, integrated underpinning commitment to a non-legalistic biblical faith in Christ, and how to live that life now, runs through it all. I started to read these volumes with too much detachment. I was soon challenged with regard to my own lifestyle. Where were my prayers for these things? Where was my open reading of the Bible? Where was my love for God? Where was my compassion in this struggle? Perhaps it is better not to think in terms of struggle. Let us simply open up and judge fairly and uprightly the things that are put before us. Then it will be obvious if at some point we are called upon to fight for truth and beauty, for righteousness and love. What should be key is a love for creation, for our neighbour, for essential values, for our Father in heaven, most of all, his Son. (Vol. 3 p. 107)
A review is not the place to attempt a critique of someone’s life’s work, and I would not be the right person to do that. Let’s hope that these works will be studied and those ‘in the field’ will offer their critique to continue what is an important discussion.
One question remains: is this all a bit ‘old’ and ‘dated’? To say that these works are ‘dated’, if by that we mean ‘located in a time and place’, is simply to describe all human activity. To say ‘dated’ and mean, ‘What was up-to-the-minute for HRR is history to us’ is to state the obvious. To say dated and mean, ‘therefore obviously no longer of any value to us’ is an error of judgment. There are issues in these works which do, for a while, transcend time and place because they address concerns that Christians always face in this present world. They also address issues in the arts that are still recognisable to us as ongoing challenges. Some parts are easily identified as really tied to a particular time and place. What they give us is eye-witness testimony to what it was like to address those problems at that time; we can learn from that too.
In 1962 Rookmaaker described a Picasso painting like this: 'A revolutionary feeling is expressed in all this, a feeling of an uprising against God himself that vents itself in hatred for what is given, for the reality that blocks the path of human beings in their passion for freedom and their will to self determination. This makes Picasso’s ‘Portrait of a nude’ comprehensible. In this piece not only the time-honoured form is destroyed, the image of woman given in art at least since the Renaissance twisted and profaned but more: this work says no to creation. A painting such as this is a curse' (Vol. 3 p. 73). To take an immediate dismissive stance towards this particular ‘time and place’ judgment by Rookmaaker is to miss the moment and the complexity of such judgments. Certainly, by 1980, Calvin Seerveld in his book Rainbows for a Fallen World (1980 Tuppence Press, Toronto) was offering an additional Christian critique of Picasso: 'Contemporary Christian critics have sometimes slipped into the lazy opinion that ‘Cubism’ or ‘abstract’ modern art is fragmented and defective, therefore a sure if not abetting cause of the breakdown of Western civilization. But that sweeping judgment about modern art is wrong. Braque, and Picasso too … raised the painting consciousness of people by showing the painterly strength of allusive, styleful colour compositions that carried perspective, insightful meaning without using devices of mimetic illusions.' (p. 175)
By then, of course, Picasso was dead, secure in the pantheon of Modern Masters. For my own students Picasso may as well be an ‘old master’. He is certainly old fashioned, if only because he is old and dead and he painted in oil on canvas. In the popular imagination he is a creative genius who invented lots of original styles of painting, became very rich and had a complicated love life.
Maybe something like this is happening. We find it very difficult to see why the landscapes of the French Impressionists caused such a stir when they were first exhibited. We can understand it but we cannot intently feel it. We are unable to recreate for ourselves the deliberate radical appearance of their visual language to those who were seeing it for the first time. The paintings still have that as a key part of their meaning but the ‘shock’ value has long been overtaken by endless repetition of their visual language as it has been tamed, clichéd and absorbed into a visual culture. Not all this is negative, because positive aspects eventually have the opportunity to surface.
Rookmaaker was part of a generation seeing Picasso for the first time. It was intended to be radical, confrontational and nihilistic: a bit like coming across a tiger, face to face, in the jungle. For our generation in 2003, after all the coffee-table books, we come across that tiger on his side of the zoo bars snoozing. He is still a tiger: but his new context has somewhat tamed him.
Following Rookmaaker’s thoughts as he comes to terms with an artist like Picasso is a lesson in itself. It illustrates his critical method. Look at the work itself, not the autobiography of the artist. We know that Rookmaaker, in his own way, was radical. He applauded much of the renewal of visual language typified by Gauguin and later artists like Matisse, and especially the move away from naturalism. Picasso’s visual language is not the key problem, because we find Rookmaaker praising Picasso’s ‘Guernica’: 'It is amazing that, the longer one immerses oneself in this painting, and the more one ponders it, the less strange the figures appear, and the more human they become. The figures may be completely different from the reliably recognizeable shapes in the older paintings we have become used to and yet, we see here, very convincingly portrayed, the sorrow, anxiety, hopelessness and desperation that grip a suffering people in the depths of their soul. And it begins to occur to us that it is particularly through the way these figures are drawn that they express these emotions so profoundly.' (1950: in vol. 1 p. 315. This review was reprinted in full in AM issue 3, 2002, pp 15-16)
Looking back from 2003, maybe Seerveld and Rookmaaker both help us to see a similar thing but from different moments. Both are concerned, as Christians, with what is said (content) and how it is said (visual language). What we do have are Rookmaaker¹s powerful ‘eye witness’ statements, which give a feel for what it was like to see Picasso for the first time. We too face a challenge which might bring us again face to face with a tiger without the bars, as we re-visit Picasso.
Rookmaaker gave us some helpful diagrams in Art and Entertainment to explain the structures of painting in terms of visual experience, the aesthetic and the iconic. No doubt he remained interested in these ideas, but he never developed them further as a comprehensive theory. Perhaps he realised that the renewal in the visual arts he longed for had to come from the makers themselves through the act of making. The way forward was to encourage as many Christians as possible to use their talents joyfully and thoughtfully in God’s service.
A New Testament passage he seems to have quoted most is the place to end. 'Finally.... whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things.' (Philippians 4:8)
A good place to start for all Christians – and not a bad place for would-be artists and their critics.
Peter S Smith is Head of School: Art, Design and Media at Kingston College.
He is a Further Education representative on the Council of the National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD). Last year he joined the Board of the European Academy of Culture and the Arts as UK representative. The Academy is an initiative of the CNV-Kunstenbond in the Netherlands. In 1974, at Rookmaaker’s invitation, Peter organised an exhibition at the Free University of Amsterdam of young artists Rookmaaker had befriended while visiting Birmingham School of Art and Design in 1968.