IN THE REALM OF THE EKPHRASTIC: JOOST DE JONGE’S RECENT PAINTING
by Peter Frank
Over the past couple of years, the painting of Joost de Jonge has undergone a relatively steep evolution.
Such moments of pronounced transition are not unusual for any artist, much less a still-young one; and to be sure,
it has not resulted in the abandonment of the signature style – the vivid colors and sharply described, voluptuous
forms – with which de Jonge has already established his international reputation. But he organizes his paintings
and drawings differently than before, because he is thinking about them differently. The words of philosophers
and poets preoccupy him no less than before, and the attachment he feels to the sweep of art history – especially
to modernist concepts and languages – is, if anything, heightened. But other concerns, related to but distinct
from these prior factors, now motivate de Jonge as well. The present moment thus marks a pivotal development in
de Jonge’s oeuvre, one that does not simply focus his art – seemingly spontaneous in origin and expression – outside
itself, but focuses it on a purpose outside itself, on an identity with specific modes of human endeavor. While
long motivated by extra-visual sources, de Jonge’s current touchstone is the discipline of music.
Sound – or, as Edgard Varèse described music, “organized sound” – is at least as far removed technically and
experientially from optically based art as is literature, and arguably further: while verbal expression can
occur with visual sensation, on the page and in performative presentation, the common forms of musical expression
resist visual accompaniment, or at least maintain an experiential distinction, if not distance. Music and visual
art combine in manifestations as various as grand opera and rock concerts, of course, but it is rare for the visual
and the sonic to conflate outside the realm of what can be described overall as multimedia spectacle. Sono-visual
intermedia, for all the attempts to realize such a seamless fusion especially over the last century and a half,
remains essentially in the realm of experiment. We do not, perhaps even cannot, presume sono-visual intermedia as
we do, say, sono-verbal or choreo-visual intermedia. This may soon change: with all the electronic means we now
have at our disposal for formalizing and fixing intermedial realms, the aesthetic and social impulses that drove
the inventiveness and commitment of such heroic sono-visualists as Alexander Scriabin, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar
Fischinger, and Iannis Xenakis can likely be put in the hands of those who will come to take it for granted. But
it hasn’t happened yet; and during this period of extended transition from the analog to the digital world, multiple
alternate possibilities, and alternate realms of possibility, present themselves.
Joost de Jonge’s recent work presents one such possibility – a relatively simple one, conceptually, but, perhaps
for that very simplicity, a persuasive one available to the comprehension as well as delight of a broad audience.
He paints in reaction to music – in reaction both to the condition of music and to specific musical compositions.
With regard to the general “condition of music,” de Jonge takes into account Walter Pater’s observation that “all
the arts aspire to the condition of music,” that is, a condition of direct affect unmodulated by meaning or
re-presentation. Music, as Pater knew, does not need to inform us to move us; like smell, sound reaches our
sensibilities without depending on an appeal to our understanding. Following the model of those who invented
abstract visual art (themselves seeking to manifest the aspiration Pater described), de Jonge “embodies” music
in non-referential (if unavoidably suggestive) forms, colors, and compositions. With regard to specific musical
compositions, de Jonge gives shape and tone to visual equivalencies, embodiments of particular musical works –
particular organizations of sound, as Varèse would have it – in the form of optical structures.
In this latter practice – but also in that of manifesting in general a “music for the eyes” – de Jonge is exploring
a realm of cross-artistic expression with which we are very familiar, but into the complexities of which we rarely
delve. The evocation of musical experience is a common trope in modernist visual-art practice. Until now, however,
insufficient distinction has been made among the kinds of approach artists have taken to such practice. In the
wake of graphic scores and conceptual art, for instance, notation has become a fully integral realm of visual
representation. Synesthesia, on the other hand – the activation of perception in one sense by stimulation of
another – has motivated artists (and composers) since at least the late 19th century – as has the exploration
of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the kind of pan-artistic spectacle first proposed popularly (if incompletely) in the
later operas of Richard Wagner. Ekphrasis also dates back almost a century and a half, embodied in musical
works such as Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. But
synesthesia, Gesamtkunstwerk, and ekphrasis are distinct art-music interfunctions, none more significant than
any other, but fundamentally different from one another. Indeed, synesthesia is, if anything, a psycho-physiological
disorder, an atavistic and involuntary circumstance independent of any artistic discipline. The Gesamtkunstwerk, on
the other hand, is an entirely cultural formulation, predicating as it does the coordinated layering of discrete
artistic disciplines into a conceptually – but not experientially – unified spectacle. Ekphrasis is also a cultural
formulation; but, in contrast to the Gesamtkunstwerk – or, for that matter, the notational artwork – seeks
equivalencies: the reconfiguration of one artistic discipline, and often of one work in a particular discipline,
into the conditions of another.
Joost de Jonge, then, has chosen consciously to explore the possibilities of ekphrasis in and with his work.
De Jonge has gravitated to music since childhood. (He speaks of not being given the piano lessons he desired and
turning – out of frustration, he infers – to painting and drawing.) It is as much a part of his cultural background
as the writing, philosophical and poetical, that inspires him; but it seems to be even closer to his core, engaging
him not just intellectually or aesthetically, but viscerally. Perhaps there is a musician at the heart of every
abstract painter; but de Jonge’s whole aesthetic, dependent as it is on dramatic contrasts, exquisite balances,
and – in the newer work especially – the orchestration of forms, masses, and shapely and coloristic incidents,
would present itself emphatically as musical.
De Jonge did not take up abstraction, at least consciously, to “get closer” to music; he was arguably already close
by default. The kind of visionary figuration he was practicing as an emerging artist in fact descends directly from
the symbolism of Arnold Böcklin and other fin-de-siècle artists whose practices set the stage for the music-art
interface in which de Jonge now works. Furthermore, as he has revealed, there is more than a trace of synesthetic
response in his method. (“The color I see in the work,” de Jonge has written, “does not correspond with how I
experience it. In my mind I can clearly feel a color that corresponds to the identity of the work; I then mix the
color and this corresponds to what I fe[el] should instantly fuse with the colors and forms of the work at hand.
In this way it is always a give and take [between] the visual and invisible, [between] the mat[erial] and the spiritual,
a continuous dialogue between content and form, though here the direction is from content to form.”) But, having
adopted a fluid geometric style, de Jonge has come to realize – to see and feel – that he is bringing forth, unadorned,
his inner musicality. He is not simply attracting the “metaphor” of music, he is giving music concrete form.
De Jonge is careful not to attribute specific paintings, or even drawings, to specific musical works. His ekphrasis
is not a point-to-point “translation” of organized sound to organized image; he is only too aware of the vagaries
involved such translation, even when essayed by masters such as Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. They, after all,
were not attempting to “record” a sonic phenomenon as a picture, but interpret first and foremost the experience of
music – of the organization as much as of the sound, and of the transcendent quality that the sound takes on when so
organized. Klee may have attributed a particular watercolor to a Mozart aria; Kandinsky may have taken inspiration –
induced as much by his own synesthesia as by anything else – from Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet; but in both cases
the artists, deeply conversant in musical as well as visual art, were giving body to their emotional and physical
responses to music. Taking his own inspiration from a vast repertoire of organized sounds (and favored, of course,
with access to such a repertoire, never available to Kandinsky or Klee, through recordings and broadcasts), de Jonge
fashions his own ekphrastic paintings and drawings as responses to musical language, musical sensations, musical
vision. He does not paint a Bachian structure or a Debussyesque fantasy; but his structures and fantasies conjure
Bach and Debussy at once – perhaps the one a little more here, the other more there, and then, in this third canvas,
the darker colors and more muscular forms could suggest Beethoven or Mahler or Bartok.
If anything, de Jonge is composing himself, painting musically rather than painting after music, capturing
ekphrastically no one symphony or sonata or song, but Pater’s “condition of music.” Sometimes the painter
choreographs abstract figures rampant on contrasting grounds – the figures themselves responsive to a music we
“hear” only through their contortions. Sometimes he organizes his forms in several parallel bands across the
picture, almost emulating the basic form of the musical score (although, if anything, parodying any notion of
notation). Sometimes de Jonge infers the presence of time, the defining element even of non-teleological music;
other times, he deposits our eyes in a sustained moment, as if opening up for our benefit a particular chord.
But he is always thinking musically, as his writing and thinking indicate. (“The [work embodies a] longing for
clarity as a conscious and unconscious desire of the mind and soul, to grasp the everlasting peacefulness and
harmony that could be considered the birthplace of multitude. The rhythmic multiplicity that gravitates towards
stand-still, but with the slightest change of angle, reveals its constant flux…”)
This approach, of course, is nothing if not neo-modernist. As mentioned, the entire endeavor to align music
and art (as well as other artistic disciplines) to the point of fusion is a hallmark of the modernist era in
the arts, intensely investigated, even invented, in early modernism, codified in high modernism, and theorized
(as happenings, intermedia, conceptual art, etc.) in late modernism. Its re-emergence now in the work of a
neo-modern synthesist like de Jonge, someone who finds his own vision best expressed in a revivified language
and spirit, comes perhaps as no surprise, but comes definitely as a refreshing affirmation of constructive
principles and ideals.
Indeed, what is most persuasive about de Jonge’s current body of work is not its relation to music, but how
its musicality supports its broader spiritual thrust. These paintings and drawings further his commitment to a
tone – not just the appearance, but the almost irresistible sensation – of what can only be described as an ordered
exuberance, the rational ordering of charming elements into delightful compositions whose surprises and intricacies,
despite their apparent simplicity, refuse to reveal themselves quickly. De Jonge’s formal language shares a great
deal with cartoon animation in its wit, verve and vivacity, its brightness and crispness, its suppleness and quick
transitions; his drawings, in particular, are filled with mischief. But clearly, the inferred temporal structure
these works reside in is not the narrative arch of commercial animation, but the fixed present, the continuous
state of becoming, that defines the abstract animation of modernism’s experimental filmmakers – and that, ultimately,
is the province of music.
“It is for me also a given,” Joost de Jonge has written, “that I experience a band of color as space or as a
river of movement… so above all the power of associations, to which Bachelard so incredibly awakens the mind’s
sensitivity.” Here citing the influential French perceptualist Gaston Bachelard, whose “poetics of space”
crystallized Pater’s condition of music into the visualized lyricism of an earlier avant garde, de Jonge not
only declares his affinity with his abstract forebears and their extra-visual aspirations, but exposes the intensity
of trans-optical experience that he seeks to capture in his art, as they did in theirs. More than music alone, de
Jonge’s ekphrastic effort is a wide and hungry – but not at all indiscriminate – embrace of sensation itself.
- Los Angeles, November 2010
Correspondence between Joost de Jonge and Peter Frank, April 25,
Wat fijn om weer van je te horen.
What a great pleasure to hear from you again.
I am very much drawn to the interval between certain forms and like
to see difference in size as difference in time (f.e. the orange
dots in "Oblivion" & the grey ones in "Musical Allusion"); this also
refers to me, to the time you need to take those forms in, as with
listening to a chord.
Most important in this context, to me is Schoenberg's theory about
the Non-resolving dissonant ; my idea is that you need to have a
harmony first to be able to speak of, i.e. create a non-resolving
dissonant. I wrote a little something about this in Dutch which I
will do my best to translate here.
"The harmony of the separate"
The relation of a prominently present colour will always be sounding
in a harmony with the other colors though the resolvement will take
place within the spectator's innerself. So it is a harmony in which
the spectator is seen as a true constructive part of the work of
art. The reminiscence of the colour is transposed to the body of the
spectator and should cause a resonance within the spectator of the
spiritual value of the colour.
It is also so that
in classical music the same melodies are often played by different
instruments, either at the same time, with a small interval or one
after the other. Alluding to this, I like to make small variations
within form-sequences varying form, size and colour slightly,
keeping in mind Ruskin's love for the small difference caused by the
work of the craftsman.
The added sand in the paint can bring about a sensation of
vibration, varied accordingly to the size of the individual sand
particle and the amount of sand added; sometimes I even use pastels
and grind them. This vibration could be compared to the extending of
a chord at the piano, or the vibrato in general (voice violin etc.).
Most important as well is the idea of music in being a total
abstract world; sounds usually are not related to/aimed to appear
like ordinary sounds from daily life. With music, the emphasise lies
with sound and the experience of sound: hearing, not so much with
the instrument, the material; I like the emphasis in my painting to
be with sight and light.
I also wish to refer to the Epilogue of "The Sense of Order" by E.H.
Gombrich: "Musical Analogies"
Paragraph 2 page 288:
"Even the perception of a regular row of dots depends on our ability
to compare what we have just seen with what we are seeing at the
moment and also with the continuation that we aspect. There is a
genuine analogy here with the perception of rhythmical sounds, since
the idea of rhythm depends on the memory of a time interval, and our
ability to hold this memory in anticipation of the next sound. This
capacity of the human mind to defeat the flux of time and to
perceive events which, strictly speaking, no longer excist, provoked
St. Augustine to some of his profoundest meditations on the nature
of time. He realised that even in calling one syllable long and one
syllable short, we are comparing sensations that have vanished. We
are no doubt aided in this feat by what has been called the iconic
or 'echo memory', the continued presence of a sensation in our
consciousness before it fades and is filed in the long-term memory
store. If this were not the case we could not have a mental image of
movement, a signal or a word. In this respect Wornum and Semper were
not quite wrong when they compared recurrent notes with recurrent
Paragraph 5 page 295:
"It is in music however, that the interplay between expectation,
surprise and fulfilment has become the very stuff of art."
Paragraph 5 page 296:
"We might say that the demands of continuity and the surprises of
discontinuity must be perfectly reconciled, which brings us back to
the perceptual analysis of effects as they govern the different
Paragraph 6 page 296:
"Recurrent elements too small to distinguish singly result in the
impression of texture, exemplified by such devices as vibrato,
tremolo or the trill."
And of course
proportion is of incomparably importance, when I listen very
intensely to Bach's "Air" I find the layering of the different
violin's beautifully constructed in terms of time/measure/bar: one
note lasts only 2/4 a lower note beneath that lasts 4/4, the rhythm
built on it is 1/8. In my painting I look for these variations
visually apparent, some less, hidden in the structure of the image,
which has been built up layer upon layer.
A visual orchestration of the colours in my mind and the images and
feelings in my Soul.
Thanks Peter for your interest, I do hope you're pleased with my
remarks and thoughts.
Yours sincerely, Joost.
JOOST DE JONGE: NEO-MODERN SYNTHESIS
By Peter Frank
The paintings of Joost de Jonge – bright, rhythmic, voluptuous – seem at first glance high-spirited, easily devised, and readily comprehended. Their actual complexity hides behind their immediate appeal. Determined in fact through relatively elaborate reasoning, the paintings are driven by deeply felt philosophical perception, aesthetic consideration, and art-historical consciousness.
De Jonge’s palette, for one thing, may superficially look designed to elicit a childlike joy and excitement. But the color values, their combinations, and their disposition through each canvas render them, on repeated inspection, increasingly harsh and even menacing. Their chromas tend not simply to the sweet, but to the acidic, and the recurrence of colors seems at once random and relentless, as if de Jonge were setting up, then thwarting, a basic decorative pattern. As much as de Jonge’s extravagant curves and exaggerated figure-ground relationships initially delight the eye and perhaps even move the body, they ultimately insinuate a dissonant overtone into our visual consciousness.
This dissonance, abetted by de Jonge’s similarly rich, creamy, almost turgid painterliness, is as deliberate as is his superficial optical appeal: it is a constructive dissonance rather than a critical one, created for the sake not of provocation but of comprehension. De Jonge wishes to expand our visual vocabulary with such dissonance, to make us recognize its integrity, even its centrality, within the consonance of our quotidian apprehension. What bothers us about de Jonge’s painting is what benefits us; what attracts us to de Jonge’s painting is what brings us to what bothers us.
This subversive play of opposites comprises the kind of dialectical relationship that characterized modernist pictorial discourse – indeed, on which that discourse was in large part founded. De Jonge subscribes to the modernist impulse, to its construct of the world and the necessity of art within that world. The “modernist impulse,” supplanted by post-modernism at least a third of a century ago, hardly seems timely. In fact, the re-examination of that impulse in the wake of post-modernism’s apotheosis and subsequent exhaustion – and in the wake as well of the profound effect the computer universe has had on the entire fabric of our lives – has brought about a neo-modernist response, one which does not so much reassert the ideals of modernism as simply rekindle its idealism. De Jonge’s paintings in effect embody, perhaps symbolize, that idealism, bespeaking a sense that the forces of our world standing in polar opposition can in fact be reconciled.
The concurrence of optical delight and rational order in de Jonge’s painting manifests the resolution of a powerful dialectic, one with which modernism itself struggled valiantly. Evident as far back as ancient Greek discourse, the urge to synthesize the twinned human tendencies to impulse and reason has foundered constantly on the propensity of each tendency to demand primacy over the other. Modernism’s overriding agon, in fact, can be regarded as this argument – between cubism and expressionism, constructivism and surrealism, minimalism and pop art, and so forth, polarized tendencies that capture the extremes of a Zeitgeist. In fact, the “third stream” of modernism, from futurism and dada through fluxus and conceptualism, does propose (however awkwardly or incidentally) a synthesis of the Dionysian and Apollonian modalities – and it is this urge toward synthesis that impels neo-modernist investigation.
In de Jonge’s case, we can see – and feel – a conflation of sensuality and cerebrality, passion and logic sourced in modernist attitudes specific to (among other things) Dutch artistic practice. It may seem anachronistic in a trans-national age to identify de Jonge as “Dutch;” but if we can now define local styles as the result of taste and proximity rather than any sort of genetic predisposition – that is, as the result of environment rather than heredity – we can readily see how de Jonge’s sharp-edged but voluptuous forms and hotly hued but coolly chroma’d colors reflect equally the models of, for instance, de Stijl and CoBrA.
Significantly, de Jonge professes to have been influenced by the musical theory of Arnold Schoenberg (especially, but not solely, with regard to color relationships), and by the tendency of twentieth-century music in general to harness the passionate and the reasoned to one another. In his neo-modernist quest for dialectical resolution, the painter is by his own admission indebted to models of sonic and temporal expression as he is to static visual form. The notational procedure that informs de Jonge’s compositional method – rendering his preparatory drawings conceptually engaging in their own right – not only follows classic painterly procedure, but mirrors the task that befalls instrumentalists when they perform a composer’s score: they must adhere to described parameters and at the same time must inflect their performance with heartfelt interpretation.
Given de Jonge’s urge to synthesis, many artists, modern and earlier, have influenced his development to this point – especially considering that it was not that long ago he was practicing a visionary kind of figuration, one that relied on exacting technique to render unstable, dreamlike scenarios. Access to various philosophies and theologies (beginning with exposure to the Sufism his grandfather practiced) has also informed the painter’s attitudes and practice. And profound cultural and natural revelations, such as his exposure in depth to the work of Miro and Picasso and to the Iberian light and soil which shaped them, figure prominently in de Jonge’s evolution from the post-modernist dysphoria of his figural work to the neo-modernist play of his abstraction.
Many contemporary artists, it is true, can claim similarly broad access to exotic sources and disparate phenomena; our rapidly shrinking world now puts its manifold gifts in our hands almost without effort. But de Jonge does not take these gifts for granted. He uses them to spur his own investigations and production, almost as if impelled by a sense of responsibility to the peoples of the earth whom he now finds so close at hand. If our globe has diminished to the point where we find ourselves next door to everyone else, we need to resolve fundamental differences and enter into a spirit of “serious play” with our fellow humans (as, indeed, with our entire environment). The dialectic between the creative and destructive, the rational and the uncanny, the considered and the impulsive, must come not simply to equilibrium, but to union – and in as delightful a manner as possible. Joost de Jonge’s art models this union, in this manner.