The Muse of Jan Cremer Back


Author:W.A.L. Beeren


'The rocks like paintings by Tapies - ochre, yellow and red.' This association is noted sensitively and to the point amongst all the fuss and fun of the provocative stories in the relentless bestseller I Jan Cremer, a tumultuous book in which the main character-author continuously scores in the most severe circumstances rather than suffer silence. The Spanish painter Tapies was one of the dominant artists in Europe in the Fifties and Jan Cremer, whose paintings and graphics had shown his responsiveness to the furious dynamism of Jackson Pollock, to the explosive Karel Appel and the magical Miro, seems also to have been touched by Tapies and the dark material he made speak. Like Bram Bogart, whom Cremer has assisted in Paris, who did something similar in volcanic paints. In his earliest paintings - made when Cremer was between fourteen and twenty - he seemed to find himself immediately at home in the forms of Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting and to possess the talent to express himself in these styles, reflecting his fierce energy and romanticism. It resulted in a style of his own which he launched in 1958 as 'peinture barbarisme'. 'Which in all respects contains a grammatical barbarism', wrote Freddy De Vree.


Jan CremerThe titles of the paintings from the years in The Hague (1958-1960) often suggest violence: Vogelmoord [Bird Murder], Woestijngevecht [Desert Fight], Stalingrad, Verwoeste nacht [Destroyed Night], Vuurgevecht [Gun fight], Tanktreffen [Tank Clash]. And finally La Guerre Japonaise, the huge five panel painting from 1960. These are indeed the years in which, after a boisterous life of 'travelling on the run' (with its own violence), he starts to occupy a professional position in the art world with his first exhibition in the gallery De Posthoorn, programmed by Frits Becht (1958), participation in the Hague Salon (1958 and 1959, 1960) and in the eighth Hague artists exhibition in the Haags Gemeentemuseum (1959). In 1969 he receives the Jacob Maris Prize for Painting. While based in The Hague, he also has exhibitions in Rotterdam, Leiden, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Amsterdam. I still consider myself fortunate to have purchased the monotype Vuurvogel in 1958 for The Hague Print Collection, which was the last work of art reproduced in my 1962 book Beeldverhaal. 'There in The Hague he ensured himself of a permanent place in art', wrote Rudi Oxenaar.


The international art scene was exceptionally vital and variegated in the Fifties. Cobra, Action Painting and Material Painting are perhaps related but not in the least identical styles. The Cobra artists, for example, admired the careless, direct way that children draw and the surreal, cheerful paintings of Miro. Some of them also showed this playful, poetic and at times folksy side; others, such as Jorn and Constant, had a more sinister image and tone in their work. In relation to this, the approach of the American, Jackson Pollock, was even more radical and merciless. Starting from a highly personal surrealism, which still more or less showed signs of an introverted reflectiveness, he brought his painting to an autonomously rhythmical script with hard accents, dictated by the artist's agile spirit and physicality.


The introverted work of Tapies shows in addition a compound of sand and stone-like material, suggesting the hardening of millennia. Yet at the same time this art also gave human signals in mysterious signs or compositional forms.


As a young man, Cremer was a child of his times and was able to feel comfortable with these different artistic attitudes and to employ the styles for his own violent and romantic sense of freedom. But there are signs of progress. My impression is that in the period when he had a French grant to study in Paris (1959/1960) he measured himself against the works of a large number of eminent artists, and, in a sustained use of themes, expression and discourse, clearly enriched his own work in terms of colouring and control of space. This can be seen in the paintings he made on Ibiza in 1962, in which explosive paint strokes and splashes are turned under the control of an organising eye into brilliant compositions. It was really not by chance or caprice that he achieved a resounding success with these canvasses and gouaches. You read that the works were made quickly with great concentration and under a high pressure of work in a sort of frenzy, but his skill had indeed increased and in a critical sense had become a collaborator in spontaneity. On the basis of this work you might imagine that the painter's work had progressed in stages, innovating, conquering, growing, ripening. This was not the way, for it was not in Jan Cremer's nature. He was fascinated by other prospects.


He began writing in 1962 and he unhesitatingly pursued the success it brought. And it came in a stunning way. Ik Jan Cremer was translated into many languages and became a world hit. He was making pop art from language and the book went off the road of the previously established circuit. Instead of crashing it rose to the heavens of an ast#ronomical edition. You won't find much that is abstract in the 1964 edition of Ik Jan Cremer. You could call it 'figurative' if by that you picture for yourself a heroic figure formed in language from brute reality, sex, anger, love, fantasy, dreams, desires and a humour that doesn't give a shit. And so there were other things to do besides paint, but on arriving in New York in 1964 and strengthening the friendly contact with Frank O'Hara, poet and curator at the Museum of Modern Art, the artist in him once again rises to the fore. But what he has done is radically turn away from European abstract painting; his visual vocabulary is now closer to that of the American Pop artists. Not as far as subject matter is concerned, for after a series of America- nized gouaches which later appeared as prints under the title The New York-Amsterdam Set, with poems by Frank O'Hara, he starts painting Dutch landscapes.


I had expected a strong Americanization in his work when, in 1965, I visited his studio-apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, made famous by writers such as Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan and William Burroughs who had also stayed there for a long time. In any case I was counting on him having taken a clear distance from Holland.


Instead, I saw his apartment and his studio hanging full of Dutch tulip fields. To my amazement, or rather my disbelief, I had even seen the first of these works in the hotel lobby. He talked about Holland like an emigrant or a tourist. But Cremer's artistry transcended the cliché representation, making it a work of art that was as bizarre as it was convincingly attractive. These really were Pop paintings. Yet at that moment, in the heyday of Pop Art, they didn't look particularly 'Pop'. This was because the Pop Art of Oldenburg, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rosenquist was more urban, painted in an industrial manner, reacting to the consumer environment of everyday America. Not surprisingly, Cremer's friendships in New York were chiefly with Larry Rivers and Tom Wesselmann, who certainly belonged to the Pop circuit but were less sophisticated. Cremer's gaudy eroticism can be recognized in Wesselman's 'American Dreams', and in Larry Rivers the pictorialism of Dutch painting. Cremer's Pop Art was painted without beating about the bush, neither self-consciously nor primitively, but rather with the intention of making an unmistakable idol of his distant native landscape. In terms of material, they had become thin compared to the earlier abstractions.


With Cremer, Pop meant not only popular but also 'common'. That also explained his interest in Russian Realism, in other words realism with a touch of glorification. But what counted for him was not the achievements of labour but nature, people and animals. His realism could consist at that moment of the almost abstract play of surfaces produced by a group of cows with their speckled hides, or the schematic, almost poster-like treatment of a woman's face, or the precise realism in the meticulous drawing of a vagina. It is in this realistic period in the mid-Sixties, which comes to maturity in his graphic work of the Seventies, that the artist Jan Cremer acquires his new shape.


The advent of this has the same defiance that he displays in his books, but it does not get in the way of a growing imaginative power, which he disarmingly uses to express his glorification of a Dutch dreamland. It is a different Holland than the one that he tore to pieces when writing about the Dutch art world. It is the Holland of an artist who can only tell a story as an idyll or as a drama. In both cases he exaggerates, which can lead to bombast and to humour, or to both: a lot of laughter - certainly on his own part - about the bombast and the immoderate fabrications. The idyll (or idealization), on the other hand, leads to an impeccable depiction of a cultivated farming country with erotically endowed daughters.


But what we see is also a confident, idealistic intention. Jan: 'The Dutch landscape is the most beautiful in the world. I'm trying to rescue it in my work before it disappears completely. I feel related to it. Holland is one big painting.'

Jan Cremer's graphic work has continued the themes of such representations, particularly after 1970. The professional craftsmen at the Amsterdam lithographic printing shop Clement have totally supported him in his employment of graphic skills so as to expand the possibilities for creating pictures. Pure, clear landscapes like Before the Rain and After the Rain came about. And the portfolios Dutch Landscapes, 1973, and Hollands Prentenboek, 1975, and the many tulip fields, about which more below. From 1980 there is also the portfolio Sixteen Portraits, based on a project from 1966. Originally a homage to Warhol, but in the year of publication more a highly personal Farewell.


There exist a lot of Sixties paintings like Dutch tulipfield, as well as the occasional painting on paper in the mid-Seventies. During the same years Cremer also published a large amount of graphic work, in addition to books, stories and articles. But after 1965 his painting loses ground. When someone can allow himself to paint as well as to write, to be a travelling journalist and graphic craftsman, he inevitably runs into the problem of time and of making choices. This did not turn out to the advantage of painting.

But the painter is there again in 1984, with new Hollandse landschappen, as well as new Tulpen. Suddenly there appears above a tulip field the vast wing of an eagle, casting its shadow. Not an appearance that one would expect above the colourful flat land. Could it be that an ancient heroism and a past mythology are starting to take possession of paintings that look modern and contemporary? It's quite possible, too, that Cremer's book Made in U.S.A., published in 1969, has found its counterpart in De Hunnen from 1983. De Hunnen, to be sure, tells a personal twentieth century story, but Jan Cremer reveals himself here in the new form of a man who feels the need to connect with his origins, to find his roots.


Jan CremerThe triptych Aarde & Vuur [Earth & Fire], 1984, is an epic painting about war, liberation and peace. Portraits of Horses from the same year are touching in terms of feelings but are not at their mercy since their autonomous visual expression in blue and white is just as powerful as the sentiment and the resemblance.


This equality of representation and formal painting can also be seen in Adelaar Sneeuw [Eagle Snow], 1985, and Eagle, 1986. A stroke of ice-cold blue as shadow under the black of the massive wings. Or the gigantic bird rotating in blue above yellow. What memories are evoked in Cremer when he titles his landscapes Altaï, Gobi woestijn, Oelan Bator, Kazachstan, Alpen Helvetia? What visions did he see in Golden Rain and Bivouac d'Attila? All of them paintings from the Eighties, designated as landscapes but compelling in their strong, autonomous imagery. Of a much more recent date are the glowing landscapes of Tuscany, like a sweet intermezzo in a heroic symphony. And strong mountains criss-crossed by skiing colours. And majestic Twents cornfields. From a few years earlier, 1995, a rough landscape Noordzeekust, a barren Winterreise and a Red Field, in shortened perspective.

And always there were the tulips. Petals folded into a heart. An iconography and a stylistic history could be written about Jan Cremer's tulips. But not here. Nourished by memories of Holland, they arose in bulk from the ground of Manhattan in 1965. The first ones still have stalks, which all too soon disappear. The tulips are still there in the Seventies. Especially in the graphics, but these fall outside the scope of this book. I know, but in writing about Jan's visual work how can I pass over such a main theme? One that, partly evolved from painting into graphics, comes back again in the paintings. The field of tulips from 1973 points into the distance but in fact the flowers are depicted frontally, more above than behind each other, in stacks. They still look like the cliché image of Holland. The same way as a loose Miss Tulip appears in the Dutch Landscapes. And it becomes an exuberant Koninginnedag in 1974 with white, red and orange and especially red, white and blue tulips. And then came fields of tulips with bars like on flags. And then, in 1976, we had a bead curtain of tulips and a coat of mail of tulips, but then suddenly in the same year the colours break into rich patterns. And the calyxes become tender, colourful building blocks like in the compositions of Zero artists. As grey-white-black tulips they offer all the tones for printing in lithographic inks. The next moment they are standing - always with a strip of sky above them - in nuanced changes of colour. Or, in contrasting colours, forming pyramids and trapezia. And then in 1979 they form blazons. In 1991 they are wiped out in white. After this they are metamorphosed into sheaves of corn. Or they're like a golden field and then roughly-grained again as a fresco on a wall. Then they're incorporated into a play of pen and brushstrokes. Finally (?) they're filleted into loose petals to become majestic, towering figures of colour, past flowering like rosettes, frivolous granddaughters of devoutly praying grandparents. In 1990 they once again occupy their place in paintings, shoulder to shoulder as a structure for abstract compositions. Or as decorative elements for a Chinese waaier, a masterly work nearly three metres wide.

My God, what a lot of tulips and hearts there are in Jan Cremer's work. Not only in communes but also as individuals. What he is able to do is express the joy and the sadness of a tulip. See Tulips in blue or Tulip Gemini, both from 1993.

As with every metamorphosis, that of Jan Cremer's Tulip is also a fascinating spectacle. It becomes even more exciting since it plays games with the changes in his work. Every oeuvre of significance is already a collection of metamorphoses. Here it is exciting to see how a perfect, elegant natural form can assume all sorts of shapes in the vision and hands of an artist so as to express his interests and emotions. He can make the earth bloom with tulip fields, he can recognise the face of his lover in it, he lets his heart bleed in it, or calms it down, he can line up the flowers in a formal arrangement, curbing the disarray. His nomad's heart knows where to find the tulip, from Oegstgeest to the Crimea. She is his Muse.