The Hague period of Jan Cremer Back


Author:R.W.D. Oxenaar


The roads between Amsterdam and The Hague are long. A sort of relationship as New York has to Washington: the international metropolis and the somewhat provincial seat of government. This was noticeable in the Fifties; Hague artists sometimes went to Amsterdam, Amsterdammers never to The Hague. When the Haags Gemeentemuseum organised the exhibition Facetten 2, hedendaagse Belgische en Nederlandse schilderkunst in 1956, many of the Hague and Amsterdam artists met each other for the first time at the opening.


Jan CremerAmsterdam was dominated by Cobra; by Appel, Corneille, Constant and all the others who belonged to the group in the widest sense. You could hardly ignore or miss it. Those differently inclined were given little chance. The atmosphere was typified by a rough, broad and dramatic style of painting, direct, vital, dynamic, primitive, magically inspired. Appel's messing about and, at the other extreme, the more elegant aesthetic of the dream in the work of Corneille.


There were a lot of international contacts, Cobra was recognised in the world. And the world came to Amsterdam. The long series of changing, always topical and trend-setting exhibitions that Sandberg brought to the Stedelijk Museum from home and abroad was at full steam. The Hague climate in art at that time was mainly characterised by the verve group, a rather heterogeneous company that generally tended towards the atmosphere of l'Ecole de Paris. There one encountered variations of a post-Picasso realism and in particular a wide range of usually pleasant abstract impressions and expressions.


Strong figures like W.J. Rozendaal, Paul Citroen and R.J. Drayer from the Academie van Beeldende Kunsten were significant for generations of young people. In the world of abstraction, Willem Hussem and Jaap Nanninga clearly stood alone as autonomous masters in the genre and were indeed also recognised outside The Hague. Pieter Ouborg, an isolated figure, whose strength and originality was respected by Cobra, arrived from the Dutch East Indies and made his appearance in the milieu. His fame grew fast and culminated in the row, typical of those times, about the award of the Jacob Maris Prize for his abstract drawing 'Vader en zoon'. Co Westerik was on the rise, but remained for a long time a lone and little understood artist. Peter Struycken was then making his first steps in art in The Hague. The Vrije Academie was dominated by Livinus van der Bundt who had fully developed his light organ.


And then, late in 1958, appeared the eighteen year old Jan Cremer, officially enrolled as a student at the Vrije Academie and before long also assistant to Hussem and Nanninga. He found a place to live in the centre of The Hague in a business premises in the Annastraat behind the restaurant 't Goude Hooft. Entering through a trapdoor you came into a fairly spacious floor, an environment that was to play a role in the early publicity surrounding his rapidly surfacing personality.


Jan Cremer was born in Enschede in 1940. Art played a role in his life at an early stage. After primary school and one year advanced primary education he worked from the age of fourteen for a sign-painting business. Via a stand for Boekelo salt at the e55 fair in Rotterdam, he became acquainted with the work of Karel Appel which made a big impression on him. He also sees books about Miro and Klee which incite him to make drawings and collages.


As an underage reform school pupil Jan Cremer was under the supervision of Pro Juventute. Via the housekeeper of his assigned guardian, a juvenile court magistrate, his work came into the hands of the sister of Cornelis Veth and via her was seen by the great man himself, the old Hague caricaturist critic, writer of Prikkelidyllen and many other books. His recommendation resulted in Jan being given the chance to follow a course under Johan Haanstra at the aki in Enschede. It was not long before it started to go badly there, so his guardian gave him the choice between the marines or a reform school. He chose the marines but that didn't last longer than a year. Difficulties kept arising around young Jan's dynamic and explosive lifestyle. Finally, the State Guardian approved of him enrolling at the Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten in Arnhem in September 1956. Among the teachers he encountered there were Fred Sieger, Hendrik Valk and Henk Peeters, but right from the start he ran into problems with the director Harry Verburg over disciplinary matters, which resulted in him being expelled after only one term. Cremer learned a bit about graphic techniques from Valk and made his first lithographs. At the beginning of 1957 he left Arnhem for good, went tramp shipping for about a year, mainly to Russian ports, and headed overland for Italy in the summer of 1958.


Late summer of 1958, after various wanderings, Cremer arrived in Paris from the South of France and naturally it was not long before he turned up in the legendary old tannery in the Rue Santeuil where Bram Bogart, Corneille, Dora Tuinman, Lotti van der Gaag and Kees van Bohemen had their studios at the time. He had the most contact with Bogart, worked with and for him, had lessons from him and worked as his assistant. The work of Bogart, after that of Appel, who still lived in Paris but no longer in the Rue Santeuil, is Cremer's second great revelation. He turns his attention away from Cobra, particularly its Appel-Jorn side, and towards the more informal and structural intentions that he perceives in Bogart, such as the mixing of linen, jute and other materials with the paint. Bogart's paint handling, with its heavy impasto and use of monochrome, excites him a great deal. And from his recollections of Paris in the late Fifties, the heyday of the Ecole de Paris, it is no surprise that the name of Yves Klein crops up, although he was still hardly known at the time.


Jan CremerWhen Cremer appeared in The Hague at the end of 1958 he had already gained a measure of international outlook. He returned to the Netherlands in order to look for recommendations that could give him a chance of getting a French scholarship. Although virtually self-taught, he was busy charting his own course along the line Appel-Bogart-Klein and it seems ironic that he ended up in The Hague of all places and not Amsterdam. In Amsterdam he would probably have been included without much ado in the maelstrom of passionate painting that was prevalent there. In The Hague, because of his personality and his work, even though he had produced no manifestos, he was immediately 'the barbarian who made the crockery rattle in the china cabinet'. He stayed less than two years in The Hague, but a lot happened in that short time, with the result that he was conscripted for good as a Hague artist. In 1983 I wrote a short introduction for the catalogue of the exhibition, Jan Cremer als schilder, Haagse periode 1958-1962 in Galerie Nouvelles Images in The Hague. There are extensive quotations from this introduction in the paperback Jan Cremer that Freddy De Vree wrote in 1985 about his painting. Now I need to look to De Vree for support, in the hope that this cross-pollination will further a proper understanding of Cremer's development.


In the year 1988 already more than a decade of renewed interest in what may be broadly termed expressionist painting had passed by. This craving for a big gesture, for a storm of feelings, for the dramatic visualisation of an acute way of life, brought with it a new appreciation for the emotion and aggression of those earlier times. In the same way as now, new wild painters also announced themselves in the late Fifties, with new action and new figuration. 'Jan Cremer quickly joined in', I wrote. He was young, very young even, when he managed right away to present a way of working that people in the Netherlands found as irritating as Cobra had been. He was a daredevil: daring, swagger, brutality and spontaneity determined the freedom of movement, the personal flourish and the never modest format that characterised his paintings, which otherwise fitted in amongst the multifarious forms of what soon began to be called informal art. It must have been early in 1959 that I became personally acquainted with Jan Cremer. How the connection came about I will leave rather vaguer here than in my 1983 introduction. In the meantime it seems to have become difficult to find out what exactly happened then. In any case, Jan Cremer quickly gained support and recognition. He took part with a selection of six paintings in the eighth group exhibition of artists from The Hague in the Haags Gemeentemuseum from May till July 1959. To make that choice was in any case one of the reasons I visited his studio in the Annastraat.


A breeding ground for this meeting had already arisen somewhat earlier. De Vree writes, 'Jan Cremer is in the meantime earning his living as a nightclub doorman, sign painter and decor painter at the Haagse Comedie where he is remunerated with linen and paint, and now exhibits his work for the first time, in October 1958, in Galerie De Posthoorn, run by Frits Becht. One of the works dating from this period is Barbare, a horseman modelled with plaster relief and painted in the monochrome colour of blood'.

The exhibition was simply well received, with no fuss or scandal and with positive, serious reviews. There was talk of a volcanic character, thick crusts, lava-like substance, running drips of paint and an explosive personality, a person whose vital temperament discharges itself in his art uninhibitedly and without complexes, spontaneously and confidently. De Vree goes at greater depth in his essay into the significance of Cremer's art. He mentions Pollock, Stamos and Gorky as abstract expressionists driven by psychological torment, each with a past of his own to struggle against. Cremer's personal fight against the established order is in the same spirit.


I have always been struck by how Cremer, already when very young and time after time since then, quickly managed to select, unhesitatingly, intuitively and without much rational consideration, inspiring and essential examples; first Klee and Miro, more or less by chance, but still; then Karel Appel, from the broad spectrum of Cobra; Yves Klein from the muddle of Parisian innovations in the Fifties, and there too, very close at hand, Bram Bogart who put him on the right track technically and formally; Pollock as for him the most relevant representative of the great generation of American abstract expressionists. He could not have seen much of Pollock's work at the time as it had hardly been shown in Europe, but a single indication was apparently enough to experience the spiritual tension and energy of Pollock's action painting as a positive, liberating influence. At first sight, Cremer's work in this period seems related the closest to that of Kees van Bohemen. Cremer is intrinsically different, which is also apparent, but it does explain why he was quickly recognised in the circles of informal artists, who anyway got their inspiration more from Germany (such as Götz and Schumacher) than from France. Cremer does not have the calligraphic gesture of Hussem, nor the intimate, melancholic poetry of Nanninga. The remnants of figuration, as in Appel, are pushed as far back as possible, but never disappear completely. 'Although the works are replete with figurative suggestions', writes De Vree, 'Cremer gladly agrees that he paints abstractly, since the notion of abstraction means that a particular age of painting, an existing way of working and the culture connected to this have come to a definitive end.' The technique of Bogart and the action of Pollock are close to him. He works fast and directly, the paintings show momentum, an emotive brushstroke, no hesitation, no re-doing, striking new directions, marking standpoints. He has a feeling for colour; a lot of red and blue, black and white, but often earth colours as well, forms the basis in each painting for a self-evident, natural combination of colour and form. He also has a sense of scale - the work is fairly large in format for those times, determined by the reach and tension of his own arm, never detailed or meticulous, the personal arabesque always rendered freely and unabashedly, but with a certain monumentality. De Vree writes, 'But whereas abstract expressionism is a fairly tormented transposition of a complex psychological life, Cremer is concerned with a stylistic form applicable to his personal theme of war and destruction, rebellion and revolt - or of harmony with the elements and nature. There is no place for the romantic and melancholic in this period of volcanic art.'


The volcanic, the eruptive, in the work, coupled with what was for those times a surprising and shameless search for fame, led to Cremer's 'one-man guerrilla war' which became his trademark. With his 'Peinture Barbarisme', Jan Cremer announces himself as a barbarian. He calls himself 'Art Enemy no.1', 'Culture-rowdy', 'Savage Beast' and 'Art Gangster'. For him the world is a 'Cremertorium'.


All of this was set down in the manifesto Op beschadigde poten lopen [Walking on damaged paws] that the poet Hans Wesseling wrote for him on the occasion of his one-man exhibition in 1959 in Galerie Cinq Mouches in Amsterdam and the 't Venster Art Centre in Rotterdam. The 'barbarist' Cremer is quoted as saying, 'Something new has to come: something big, something crazy. We will drink impotence from the skulls of the soft-headed. We've had enough of their sensitive compositions, their sophisticated colour spectrums, it's all rubbish, aesthetics.' Such a position fitted well with the ideas of the informalists, albeit rather more roughly put and of course it was also reminiscent of Futurist manifestos. There is always a new generation gap. The young are opposed to the old. Jan Cremer always had more reason to do this than others. There is personal fierceness in his aggression. He is trying to liberate himself from a difficult past. He defiantly sets his way of doing things against the style of the aesthetes: 'I slap some paint on a canvas, I drip, splash, kick, hit. I fight with paint, some- times I win.' A fuller and more venomous version of Appel's earlier statement: 'I just mess around', mixed with a dash of action a la Pollock.


Jan CremerYet for all his hardness and aggression, a certain romanticism and a need for poetic meaning is certainly not foreign to him. The six paintings that he showed in the 8th group exhibition of Hague artists were titled Vuurnacht, Vogelmoord, Barbarenfeest, Sterrensneeuw, Maanbloemen and Maanmens. The works of Van Bohemen in the same exhibition were mostly titled Compositie. Jan was not yet 'I Jan Cremer', but the word already fascinated him. The only full year in The Hague, 1959, immediately became the first big year in Cremer's career. A lot of exhibitions - besides the ones already mentioned, he was included in the exhibition circuit of the informalists at home and abroad. Good reviews by well-known critics such as Ru Penning and Cees Doelman. Good contacts with kindred artists like Armando, Gribling, Henderikse, as well as the teacher he previously didn't get on well with in Arnhem, Henk Peeters, who was organising a lot with and for the informalists; recommendations also from Sandberg and Jaffé for a possible French scholarship. His fame is growing fast, his myth is flourishing. He manipulates publicity in a way that is at once naive and sophisticated. He becomes the young art hero, famous because of his lifestyle, which finds confirmation in his painting.


In 1960 he receives one of the Jacob Maris Prizes for his submission to the Hague Salon in Pulchri Studio, which included the large five-panel painting La Guerre Japonaise, with a price tag of one million guilders. Cremer wanted to go to Paris and had to leave his work behind somewhere. So he donated La Guerre Japonaise to the Queen in the hope that in return she would be willing to pay the rent of a storage place for his work. This sort of thing makes one think of the way that Gerard Reve later described his legendary contact with the Queen. It resulted in a number of Cremer's friends and acquaintances being investigated by the Royal Household's security service.


Having indeed got the French scholarship, Cremer goes to Paris in late 1959. He continues working in the informal style, which is understood there more in relation to Georges Mathieu, for example. The informal artists themselves were shifting in 1960 in the direction of Zero and Nul. In April 1961, on the suggestion of American artists he was friends with in Paris, particularly Larry Rivers, he goes to Ibiza, where he remaiuns for some years. He gets to know good Spanish artists like Millares, Canogar, Tharrats, Saura and Quixart. His painting becomes looser, thinner and faster, more volatile and splashing, often proceeding from a centre. Cremer's painting has matured and the time on Ibiza brings a period to conclusion. Later in Amsterdam, New York and elsewhere, and again in Amsterdam, the work becomes different. The Hague, Paris, Ibiza, that is the informal period. At the same time it is clear that, between his 18th and his 20th year in The Hague, Cremer managed to evolve into a professional painter, a painter with vitality and style, confident and determined, big-hearted and very humanly moved. There in The Hague he ensured himself of a lasting place in art.