Gerrit Joost de Jonge is a painter on a global mission. This year, he embarked on one of the most transnational artistic collaborations in the world, and made it available online, for free, to anyone with internet access. His latest project, Painted Poetry & Painterly Poetics: an ekphrastic notion (www.PaintedPoetry.org), brings together over a dozen poets, essayists, critics, historians, and artists in a digital book that puts his abstract paintings in conversation with a variety of mediums.
Ekphrasis – for those like me who have no clue what it means – refers to a piece of written work inspired by visual art.
In Joost de Jonge’s project, poems respond to paintings, paintings respond to essays, essays respond to poems that are responding to paintings, some of the text is translated from other languages – the web of production and interpretation is kaleidoscopic.
Contributors to the project include Dinah Berland, Emily Bilman, Eva Bosch, Domenico de Chirico, Peter Clothier, Robbie Dell’Aira, Norman Dubie, Peter Frank, John Fuller, Joy Harjo, Juliën Holtrigter, Onno Kosters, Robert C. Morgan, Diederik Oostdijk, Saul Ostrow, Andrin Schütz and Robert Wynne. From the studios of Utrecht to the canvases of Mvskoke-Creek tribal artists, Joost de Jonge has embarked on a global collaboration that is pushing creative and interpersonal boundaries.
Poet and professor Dr. Robert C. Morgan summarizes Joost de Jonge’s project with a historical brush stroke: “The sign of the true artist is not one who obsequiously copies artists from the past, but who borrows a concept of painterly structure from an earlier time and places it squarely within the present. Here I refer to the recent, should I say, burgeoning Improvisations of Joost de Jonge who transports the knowledge and vigorous intuitions of Kandinsky from the late period of Der Blaue Reiter, transforming them into a relativist concept of form, stylistically different, yet offering a clarity of focus that renews the expressive force of independent painting as both a mental and biological act of necessity.”
I spoke with Joost de Jonge about his inspiration for the project and what he learned from it, and nearly all the poets, essayists, and translators weighed in too – everything they had to say paints a picture of a loving, exciting, illuminating, stimulating, and productive transnational collaboration that all of us as readers, writers, and lovers of art can take a lesson – or more – from. In the spirit of the project, we decided to include responses and reflections from the writers involved as well. What became clear to me throughout the interview, is that the process of collaboration itself is a work of art unto itself. Transcending the isolation that sometimes accompanies the artistic process can actually lead to the creation of things that would otherwise be impossible. It also shows the fun and trust inherent to projects like these – a way to keep the ego at bay and just play, to see what unfolds.
Isn’t that, after all, the best part of art?
— Raluca Albu, Managing Editor
What inspired this project?
JOOST DE JONGE
I’ve always been a great admirer and lover of poetry. This love was instilled in me by my maternal grandfather who took English as a “second” language, which was quite exceptional at the start of the 20th century in the Netherlands. He shared with me his passion for English, and I have inherited from him some quite exceptional bibliographical editions of the great poets like Shelley and Longfellow, amongst others. I did issue a digital publication, The Archeology of Personhood, but only with essayists and in the more traditional category of the artist’s monograph. This didn’t entirely satisfy me, as I felt the emphasis was too much on the personal; I wanted to reach beyond the borders of my own work and emphasize the poetic, and in this manner, a more universal sense of aesthetics. I also wanted it to be within its own domain, hence the website www.paintedpoetry.org
One example of a project that inspired this one is the collaboration between André Breton and Joan Miró, Constellations of Miró, in which Breton wrote a short lyrical text to the small works on paper by Miró of the early forties called “Constellations.” What I do feel is unique about my project is the multiplicity of poetic voices. I’m not aware of other examples, though there may very well be some.
What were your expectations of how this project would come out? You have over a dozen writers involved! And you had to put your paintings out there for their interpretations, which, in some ways, may change the way a viewer experiences them. This is risky. Were you nervous about what they would write or the egos or any of the other dreadful things that could go wrong when artists work together?
JOOST DE JONGE
Yes, I was nervous about what they would write. I really had no idea what the outcome would be, but this appealed to me and formed part of the challenge. Once I received some of the first poems, by Dutch poet Juliën Holtrigter and American poets Peter Clothier and Robert Wynne, I knew I was on to something.
What did this project do for you as an artist?
JOOST DE JONGE
I feel much more artistically alive now, in the wake of compiling the book. The interaction with the participants really gave me a boost and refined my poetic insight into the painterly aspect of my work, and vice versa.
Norman Dubie’s poem really brought colors to life for me; he generated new values through his words, I consider him one of the most effective in this intuitive and emotional sense, a magician who can give a poem a real color. I’m also meeting several participants personally. The artistic and these in-person meetings give me a sense of being part of a larger world, of a more universal dream and artistic reality.
That’s a lot of artistically productive socializing. That’s the dream, in some ways, for many people, that they have a hard time achieving. You’re an artist whisperer. Putting this out digitally adds another layer of artistry to it since you’re working with designers as well. Why did you decide to put it out online in a digital format? And for free? That’s rare.
JOOST DE JONGE
I dreamt of this project as a project for humanity, for people all around the world. I wanted it to be freely accessible from everywhere to make it accessible to anyone interested in this kind of art and my quest. This can enhance their personal enjoyment of art, life, and spirit. The web design is carried out by a studio in The Netherlands, in Utrecht, called Autobahn Design. They designed my previous book at ISSUU and were showcased by the curator of Behance at Typography Served.
I have a real synergy with these designers and feel they have once again done a great job. It took around a year to complete, though I must emphasize it will be an ongoing project. There will be new poets, and now composers, contributing to it in the future, beginning with the aforementioned Brian Turner, another great, great poet. Also we’ll be working with the highly celebrated poet Monika Rinck from Berlin, and Daniel Thomas Moran from New York.
My artwork from the project was shown at Art San Diego 2015, last month. Peter Frank wrote to let me know, “Alex [Salazar Fine Arts] is here and has hung two of your Personhood paintings to good advantage. Also, Françoise Gilot has some excellent canvases on view.”
I recently received a new poem from Moran. The poem is responding to the Ode to Kandinsky image.
October the Twenty-Eighth
The dark has grown
to overtake the days,
The broad door to November
has cracked open.
The piquant colors of dying
flutter down the empty air.
I awoke in a lingering nighttime,
the dawn nowhere to be found.
Today, winter sent its
first dispatch from the north,
The rains, tonight the winds,
will bring down the choir,
Cupping the river’s waters,
Bending the trees to its will.
We are here again, centered
in all our familiar.
We will pull back the drapes
and invite the angled light.
In a chilled noon, the sky
is its most noble blue.
We will accept what is left.
To account the days until,
This Earth makes its tilt
toward life’s green reiteration.
– 2015 Daniel Thomas Moran
I noticed many pieces were written in multiple languages. Translation is another artistic layer to this project – it’s amazing to uncover more and more layers than just the obvious two. What was it like to work with artists from around the world? Did that deepen the experience?
JOOST DE JONGE
The transnational aspect comes from a quality that I feel is part of the Dutch enterprising spirit, doing business all over the world. My father was an international salesman, selling cheese from New Zealand to Japan, to England, Spain, Greece, and so on. At home we would receive people from all over the world. I studied twice in Spain and I have visited art shows and exhibitions through all of Europe and the United States. I showed my work in many different countries, in the States with the Bill Lowe gallery in L.A. (where I met Peter Frank) and Atlanta, so it seemed natural to go global. And now with the Internet, the whole world seems closer and more readily available. This transnational factor is a part of the spirit of the times.
Every single participant has enriched me with their artistic capabilities and the kindness and generosity they have shown me in participating. Their language is colored by their experience as a Briton, an American, an Italian, a Dutchman, and so on.
I’m curious to hear from the writers. What, in particular, drew you in?
I started out in this world as a visual artist. I come from a family of Mvskoke-Creek tribal artists. I was naturally drawn to respond to this project. Gerrit Joost de Jonge’s painting style is very earthy even as it emerges in abstractions, in the manner that poetry or songs emerge. I have often collaborated as a musician with other musicians, as a poet with dancers, and a playwright with theater producers and personnel. This was an opportunity to respond in a different sort of way: In a way artists (including word and sound artists) are always collaborating, with history, myth, and the unseen and natural worlds.
A few years ago I decided to teach a course at VU University in Amsterdam on American poetry and visual arts. It is part of a Master’s program we call Literature Visualized in which we tease out the connections between literature and all sorts of visual media throughout the centuries. When I held my inaugural lecture as Professor of English and American Literature, I talked about the challenge of how to teach and study literature after the so-called visual turn. Our Western culture is becoming increasingly dominated by visual culture as opposed to written culture. Yet I see this development more as an opportunity than a threat to the study of literary texts, as all sorts of exciting visual and verbal hybrid forms have come in existence as well as new forms of collaborations. When Joost de Jonge emailed me about participating in his project and explained how many poets had responded to his call to exchange a poem for one of his paintings, I was very intrigued.
After visiting him in his studio and reading the poems that were inspired by his paintings, it was remarkable to see what patterns emerged. For the essay that I wrote I approached my piece in a more intuitive and spontaneous way than I usually write my academic work. All of a sudden I was struck, for instance, about how many poets discern rivers in Joost de Jonge’s abstract art, and I noticed I had the same reaction myself. Rather than verify whether my impulse was correct or not – let alone academically sound – I decided to go with that flow, literally and figurative speaking. That may be a direct result of working with an artist, or perhaps that is a way I in which my work naturally progresses.
I think all artists, poets, and academics crave connection and understanding, and a project like this fosters those human needs.
I wrote a book called Modern Ekphrasis, which is all about this dialogue. Many of my poems inspired by paintings have been published in magazines. I enjoy writing poems on paintings because this practice trains the eyes and the pen!
Although I think in these cross-artistic terms all the time, I rarely get to apply them to my own work, even as an art critic or curator. Here, I was asked to respond as an artist to art. I was a bit daunted by the directness of the relationship I was being asked into; it was as if I was asked to enact, or re-enact, the fabled processes of Kandinsky or Auden. Well, however much I might be in awe of the process, I ought to try it, not just presume it and consign it to others’ practice.
Collaboration — and as well, the examination of other art forms through your own — may or may not be necessary for artistic growth, but I’d like to think they are. They focus your creative attention more or less entirely outside yourself, pulling you outside the envelope you can’t help but encase yourself in, and allow in some fresh air.
What surprised you about working on this project? Or working in such a collaborative way?
It wasn’t easy to write a poem that would really describe his complex abstract painting. The tensions in his paintings evoked by the colorful planes and the turbulent painterly gestures that seem to connect and at the same time separate them, brought to me the notion of cosmic violence, of ongoing destruction and creation. As soon as this notion took a hold of me, the words started to flow, naturally. To me it seems that the interlocutory exchange concerning the different arts is what holds future promise. The reality of the modern day world is so complex that it is precisely a more complete sensory experience, which would live up to its challenge. It has often been proven that the different artistic disciplines can influence and enrich one another, successfully.
Abstract paintings evidently have no “content” in the literary sense. The temptation to interpret the surfaces of pigment in some representational or symbolic way is, I believe, not to be resisted, since otherwise we would simply have a description of what the painting is, not what it does. What the painting is, is simply a relationship of form and color and texture. An art critic may wish to expound upon this, but a poet must do something more. What the painting does is to work upon the suggestibility of the viewer, and allow interpretation. I chose to see “my” painting as a mask, with a range of ritual and emotional meanings deriving from Swiss folk custom. I am sure that the artist never dreamed of such an interpretation! But the response was elicited, and (mysteriously) it was given. And of course, I was probably just as surprised by the outcome as the painter.
When I was working on the book with David Hurn, I suggested that he produce a photograph to go with one of my poems. (He refused!) The same might be suggested to De Jonge. But there is a difference in this latter form of collaboration. The likely outcome is mere illustration, the visual accompaniment of a complex verbal construct. When writing is at the service of fine art it is not a mere accompaniment, a passing insight, but a recreation. It should strike at the core of the thing and bring it to a new birth. I am sure that artists and writers (and composers) working together manage to create things that are quite different from the things that they produce alone.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I relished the opportunity to respond to the piece sent to me. For me, writing about abstract (or even surreal) art is much more interesting than writing about art that is primarily rooted in realism. I like having to use my imagination to provide a context in which the reader can enter the intersection between the painting and my poem. I was surprised that my perspective began as an outdoor aerial view and then worked toward finer details before turning inward and focusing on the landscape of the narrator’s own body, but I was happy with that journey. I was most concerned with the artist’s reaction, particularly since I was arbitrarily codifying details he consciously left less clear, so it was gratifying that he liked the resulting poem.
I’ve always had a strong connection with visual art, and have written quite a bit of ekphrastic work in the past – including my 2nd collection, Museum of Parallel Art, which imagines famous works of art created by other artists.
Most of my ekphrastic work in the past has related to famous works by long dead artists. I enjoy the collaborative process between artist and writer, particularly because it challenges me to surprise and satisfy both myself and the artist. I find that, while collaborations of this nature may not be necessary for writers and artists, the participants can develop new ways of thinking about their own work, and the world in general. There are many ways for each of us to grow in our own creative realms, but sharing our processes across disciplines offers unique opportunities. In fact, it’d be fun to have artists create paintings based on poems, too – like some sort of translation from one medium to another.
I am a critic – the challenge is always the same – to evaluate – to interpret – to transcribe – it is always met in the same way and when it renders value it enhances my understanding of what has been done and what it is that I do. The process is to see and write and re-write until what has been written substantiates its self and has weight
Nothing is necessary unless there is some compulsion to do something – I find working and talking with others sometime more fruitful than playing with myself.
I had expected that it would be more difficult to come up with a satisfactory result – the fact that these mini-narratives keep suggesting themselves is no guarantee they can actually be put down on paper, in words – but to my surprise and delight, they did. I wrote my poem during one afternoon which, apparently, found me completely in my ‘zone’.
Collaboration may not be for every artist. I like it, whether in the form of collaboration with a sculptor or painter or as a way to respond to film or even a topical event. Given contexts enrich my own work, but other artists may find themselves distracted by them.
As in the writing of any poem, I hoped and expected to discover more about the subject at hand—in this case, Joost’s painting “Fughetta on Paper”—and also about myself. By spending time with the painting and bouncing off of its subtle color relationships, shapes, and gestural language, I was surprised and excited to find a narrative beginning to emerge that reflected my own journey at this particular juncture in my life, thus the poem’s title, “Fugue for a New Life.” Joost’s evocative painting gave me the opportunity to explore that journey in a freer and more imaginative way than I might ever have done otherwise.
Although I have collaborated with artists in the past, I found responding to Joost’s work to be especially stimulating, perhaps because his painting was both abstract and colorful, as well as suggestive of music, which opened up a wide range of possibilities for generating a poetic dialogue and discovering fresh solutions along the way. It seems to me that creative growth depends in part on being shaken out of familiar habits, which this process of collaboration certainly did, and I hope to have a chance to do it again very soon.
ROBERT C. MORGAN
I believe one can function both as a writer and as a painter, but each practice or discipline has its own unique qualities. One cannot assume to be a writer simply because one paints, or to be a painter because one writes. While this statement is coming from a Western perspective, I would have to argue that even the Chinese literati, who worked in exile during the Yuan Dynasty, were trained both in writing and painting. Having said this, it is possible for painters and poets to work interactively provided that each is knowledgeable, to some degree, about the other’s practice.
What I enjoy about the current project by Joost de Jonge is a kind of liberation removed from academic protocol. The works of each contributor, whether literary or painterly, appear to have evolved independently on their own terms. Here lies the source of the project’s energy.
ABOUT GERRIT JOOST DE JONGE
Gerrit Joost de Jonge studied painting at The Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, Facultat del Bellas Artes in Barcelona, and the School of Art in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Joost de Jonge was recently featured in the Bill Lowe Gallery’s April 2007 exhibition in Santa Monica, in addition to exhibiting at the Lowe Gallery’s Atlanta space. He also has exhibited in Italy’s most prestigious art fairs through Galleria Studio Legale. His work explores the enigma of the ‘Infinite’ and expresses its metaphysical and philosophical manifestations through abstract works founded upon complex color theories and oppositions in textures and materials. You can read more about this projects here (http://www.joostspaintings.nl/joost.html)