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1992 - The Eloquence of Silent Protest.

JAAP SCHREURS:

The Eloquence of Silent Protest

·  by Peter van Lint transl. by Margot Muntz

An exhibition of the work of Jaap Schreurs, who died in 1983, is being held at Jester Art Gallery, Amsterdam, from July 28 through August 27, 1992. It is the exhibition of an artist who has been dead for almost ten years, and whose work was rarely shown during his lifetime.

Schreurs was an extraordinary phenomenon. A workaholic with no need of encouragement or appreciation. Saying 'He did not care a rap about criticism, commentaries, or social status' would not be a good description of him. Such an attitude always implies a particular position. It implies you acknowledge the existence of it, although you choose to ignore it. For Schreurs, however, expositions, exhibitions, art criticism all belonged to another world. For him, they simply did not exist. He neither rejected nor approved of them, they just did not belong to his world. That is why he did not become known, did not receive the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. A universe in himself, he lived for and in his work, which from hour to hour and day to day confirmed and shaped his existence. At the same time he was intensely involved in the world, and was constantly, painfully, shocked by what was happening there. To be oriented to both the interior and exterior world is to be in a paradoxical position. That is the impression the outsider gets of Schreurs' activity and production: a system of apparent contradictions and paradoxes.

A production of hundreds of paintings - that hardly anyone has ever seen. An uncompromising demand for perfection - that went hand in hand with a restless search for new techniques and materials. An intense social engagement - the expressions of which were confined to his studio. An obsessed artist - who did not want to let any painting go, who was not interested in selling, or in BBK benefits (a State subsidy for artists). A tenacious and hard worker - who paid no attention to trends, fashions, fads, or stunts - and yet absorbed and integrated all innovative tendencies and developments in a very personal way. Subject matter that was both cruel and helpless at the same time.

Who is Jaap Schreurs?

In the year of his death Schreurs would have reached the age of 70. He was born in 1913 in The Hague. From his father, one of the 'minor' painters of The Hague School, and also a violin builder, he inherited his talent for visual art and music. And from his father, he learned the importance of perfection and professional skill. At first his aim was to be a concert pianist. He received lessons from Kerbijn until he was 17. Then, however, he made a decisive change and began training at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Independent Art Academy ('Vrije Academie') in The Hague. His teacher Erdely especially, who came from Hungary, had a strong influence on him in the beginning of his studies.

In his work - paintings, drawings, initially also lithos and gouaches, later, etchings as well - Schreurs remained pictorial.

Just a few times he did agree to an exhibition, which was generally given serious attention in the press. The first exhibition took place in Hofwijck in Voorburg, when he was already 36; the second, ten years later in Utrecht, and the third, in 1960 in Norg. He was not interested in more. He wanted to work, and an exhibition upset his rhythm of working. The Utrecht artist Maria Prins took the initiative for a posthumous exhibition of work done during the last years of his life, which was held in the VARA studio in Hilversum (summer 1983). For his wide circle of family and friends this was the last occasion in which to view his oeuvre. Since then the whole collection has been kept in storage until the present.

Subject matter

Not so long ago the question of referential subject in the visual arts and art discussion was taboo. This never bothered Schreurs. His work is clearly referential in character. His concern is for reality, his experience and interpretation of that reality, and the way he continually re-lives it. Consequently his work is epic-dramatic in nature. He draws and paints events. The emphasis is not on the action itself but on its underlying impulse, the essence of which is presented as tension and confrontation. His subjects thus are people, and sometimes animals, in conflict with each other or with society. In that conflict he paints especially decline or decay, whether it be the corruption of power as in 'The Colonels', or the physical, almost tangible helplessness and vulnerability of 'The Feet' caught in barbed wire, the angry

distortion of the couple involved in a power struggle in 'The Failed Marriage', or the physical and mental deterioration of senile, elderly people in 'The Old Peoples Home'. Even the few portraits and figure studies by Schreurs show this dramatic element. His subjects are never passive: they are kept under subjugation, they wait for release, wait until their time comes, are wary, are spying, but are never passive.

In this dramatic conflict 'looking' plays a very important role. Schreurs' subjects communicate with their eyes - with each other, but also and especially with the viewer. They spy, threaten, question, evade, demand, condemn. If looks could kill, some of his subjects would do just that. Can the strong preoccupation with 'seeing' as a means of communication be related to the fact that Schreurs was able to see with only one eye since his youth? However, he not only is attentive to 'seeing' as a means of communication. He paints mouths, noses, ears, and especially the organs of touch, the hands and the feet.

Almost always it is a question of power and powerlessness. Between man and his fellowman, in dependency or the striving for freedom, in difficulties or under compulsion. Also between man and society and the reverse. In this respect in particular, Schreurs is thematically very closely related to South American artists.

Linear and spatial features

Schreurs' composition conforms to the epic-dramatic character of his work. The subjects, as individuals or as a group, are given a central position against a theatrical background. Without neglecting the decor, he gives it only a situating function.

Thus, generally speaking, his work shows a clear focus. At times he even uses the photographic technique of zooming in, as in the painting 'The Feet' mentioned earlier, where he zooms in on his subject, and then enlarges it to enormous proportions. Occasionally the decor becomes a kind of frame. as in 'The Actor'. In the framework around the actual decor, a number of small figures are depicted that relate to each other in a dramatic way: one little figure pursues another, one offers another a flower, two sit at a table with a bottle on it, and so forth.

Schreurs' interest in stage properties is also in line with his epic- dramatic themes. In 'The Interview' the microphone has been painted with precision. In 'The Feet' the precisely-drawn barbed wire functions as a needed prop. The rubbish bin, on the cover of which there are seven numbers, is a significant element in the painting 'The Dog'.

Although initially Schreurs worked in a 'naturalistic' way, and his work shows a strong tie with reality, the result is neither photographic nor anecdotal. In strongly emphasizing the organs that serve for sensory perception - eyes. ears. nose, mouth, hands and feet - he could hardly avoid distorting them. As a result his figures are distorted almost to caricatures, and unmistakable similarities can be seen with the distortions in cartoons and strip stories, like those of Tich Corben, Esteban Maroto, or Wally Wood - however great the differences admittedly are. People in different periods and cultures apparently often choose comparable symbols: wide-open mouths, grasping hands, claws, dilated nostrils, and so forth.

Style and technique

Schreurs' style and technique are of course greatly influenced by the material he uses. There are pctures with a smooth surface, where he uses lazulite technique, and others with a rough relief, as though the paint was applied directly from the tube.

Especially his early work is 'naturalistic' with a preference for dark colours. On the paintings on hardboard, however, we see elongated heads and necks, and the colours are much lighter. On some works the paint has been applied lavishly, with large areas of red, yellow and white.

Schreurs' drawings are done with great care and in detail. He paints his most important work with acrylic on hardboard. The colours are predominantly dark. The greys of his bodies are especially noteworthy. In his last works, we see a return of orange, yellow and other light tones as in 'The Golden Bird'. Generally speaking, he is sooner a painter of darkness rather than of light. Insofar as the source of light can be traced, in accordance with the theatrical nature of the work, it often radiates from the viewer.

Schreurs seldom gave his work a title. On the basis of obvious motifs, and at times of their involvement with the creation of many of the works, his heirs provided the titles, such as 'The Dog', 'The Feet', 'The Interview', 'The Voyeur', 'The Golden Bird', 'The Colonels', 'The Soul Squeezer', 'The Old Peoples Home', and so forth. Since the heirs were closely related to the artist, these interpretations are probably not far from the mark.

Painterly development

Like many other artists, Schreurs began as a naturalistic, figurative artist. During his first period, he painted portraits of members of his family and of himself, especially. He also painted hungry and crippled people. In the second period, he changed to painting on hardboard, and the beginning of stylization can be seen, e.g. the bodies become elongated. He also began to use lighter colours. Afterwards, he started to experiment with materials. Paint layers became thicker, and colours more vivid. After the war he painted alternately with oil paint and acrylics; later he used acrylic paint exclusively. In all periods the dramatic element is clearly apparent, particularly in his late period when it is most fully developed. His attitude also became clearer: concern, despair, empathy, and anger at violence.

Jaap Schreurs died on 16 February 1983. He never sought publicity or fame. He just worked very hard, a dedicated painter. His work deserves to be saved from oblivion.