Wouter Prins is curator of 'The Museum of Religious Art' in Uden in The Netherlands. He is the author of a huge body of published texts on the varying relations between art, both classical and modern, on the one hand and christian religion and theology on the other. Rodeo Calvary! has been published in: 'Rinke Nijburg - Piercing the Spirits, A Cosmology in 144.000 Images', Harderwijk, The Netherlands, 2005, pp. 46-57.
Some ten years ago I visited a painter on the Zeeland Islands. As I was going to write a piece about his work he gave me a few reviews and catalogues to take home so I could familiarise myself with the material. Amongst the documents was a booklet; actually it was a collection of eight postcards with a short introduction. It was one of the most curious introductions I had ever come across.
The text starts with the author’s apology. He had had to postpone writing due to his mother’s death and his daughter’s birth soon afterwards. ‘And death and birth deprive us of words’.
But then the author comes to his senses. And how. Once past the subdued, quiet and moving introduction it whizzes by Munch, the Roman Catholic Mystery, God, Levinas, Parisian existentialism, Godot, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, the art of icon painting and Marxist-Leninist social realism, the Last Judgment, Lenin and Stalin, Jan van Eyck … all in the space of four pages. Nevertheless the element of suspense is maintained throughout the essay. The author succeeds, apparently without effort, in combining half the history of the world with a review of the Zeeland painter’s canvases.
A review that does not mince its words: ‘Occasionally the faces in J.P.’s paintings get on my nerves……… But then, those eyes keep staring at me, fixing their gaze on me, more than I care for…’ (1)
This first acquaintance with Rinke Nijburg has stuck in my mind. With its flood of associations, and pairing of the most divergent forms of art, literature and philosophy, it is not only characteristic of the author, but also of the man and artist Rinke Nijburg. Nijburg has set himself the task of creating a cosmology where heaven and earth meet in unparalleled fashion. And just as Nijburg ventilated his temporary displeasure with the work of a friend and colleague (see above) his own work may have a similar effect on many a listener, reader or viewer, who in the end can only take so many associations, combinations, and fantasies.
Nijburg has of course not been deaf to these reactions. After all, they resound within him too, and perhaps more loudly so. Not that he would ever be able to call it a day. At some point in the past when exactly God only knows he set off on his pilgrimage, his quest for subject matter for his cosmology. Such an enterprise is not without obligations and his art does not aim to please – neither himself nor us. We, his public, are forced into the role of hanger-on, of a third party dragged up the mountain along with Nijburg and his alter ego.
And as the journey is not over, as the cosmology has yet to amalgamate, it would be premature to try and formulate what exactly the work entails and where it is heading. Nevertheless Nijburg seems to be on tack. Paintings, drawings, etchings, texts, and statements: an abundance of building blocks.
1. Setting off
‘ I don’t like Bob Dylan, because, when the man sings, I always have the feeling he expects something from me.’, Nijburg heard a listener say in a radio programme. And this is precisely why Nijburg rather likes Bob Dylan – the preaching, the prophetic qualities of the singer. He recognises himself in the edifying, uplifting and rather pious elements of the songs. There is something religious about his cosmology, something Christian about his pilgrimage. Only the wrappings are different. (2)
In 1997 Nijburg published The Works of Hercules. A book of tides in one hundred drawings. Here Ronnie (the narrator) and Hercules (his alter ego) climb a mountain together. Ronnie and Hercules continually clash, specifically on the subject of religion and belief in God. It is tempting and rather obvious to see Hercules and Ronnie as the personifications of two sides of one and the same person. A person who doubts, who moves back and forth between faith and denial, no longer able to distinguish between truth and falsehood. It is clearly Hercules – the unbeliever, the cynic – who emerges as the more effectual of the two characters in the accompanying story. Hercules resembles Nietzsche in many respects, ‘ the philosopher with the hammer’, who proclaimed God dead. But Nietzsche went even further. ‘Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht? … Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!’ (3) ‘We have abolished the true world: what kind of world is left? an apparent world perhaps? … But no! with the true world we have also abolished the apparent world!’
Nietzsche’s final reckoning with Plato’s realm of ideas, with his hierarchy of higher and lower worlds and truths, not only marks the end of the old image of a deity and the world. It also marks the beginning of a new world that has to be entirely reconstructed from scratch. Now that the apparent world has been done away with, now that the belief in higher reason and in the deeper meaning hidden beyond and below daily life has evaporated, Nijburg, thanks to Nietzsche, can draw freely from historical and present-day fragments. He can link fairytales to science, have celebrities and nonentities turn up in the wrong place and at the wrong time, turn musical chairs into a mating dance. Nietzsche is Nijburg’s muse, but also his eternal tormentor. Not only has Nietzsche got rid of God on high, he has also questioned our hopes of a God in our own world. Nijburg’s work demonstrates a deeply rooted awareness of the deterioration of our world. But it also speaks of an equally deeply ingrained desire to negate this awareness in a playful, humoristic manner.
Tattoo Shop Cavalry (2004) exposes this ambivalence. The gouache shows an American limousine, parked in front of a Tattoo shop. The bodywork is white, the rear window black. The rear lights are blood red, as are the letters Cavalry on the wall of the Tattoo shop. The number plate features the word Calvary instead of Cavalry – a play of words that suddenly brings to mind Christ’s last journey along the road to Calvary (Golgotha).
The road through Nijburg’s world is a Calvary Cavalry, a martyr’s rodeo.
2. An Amusing Hunt
A Calvary Cavalry of some stature needs a proper hunting party. And shooting is fun anyway.
In the spring of 2004 visitors to the Umbrella Factory in Nijmegen could try their luck on Nijburg’s ‘ Targets’. Very little firing was actually done. The art-loving public fully lived up to its reputation of being civilised and peace loving. The handful of visitors who did pick up the gun either missed the target or inadvertently hit something else. There’s no winning wars with art lovers.
The concept of this shooting gallery started with the acquisition of Historische Zielscheiben, a book on hunting scenes painted on panels, depicting Adam and Eve holding the apple and other scenes related to shooting. (4) The panels were commissioned by rifle and hunting clubs whose members actually used them for shooting practice. This peculiar fact fitted in perfectly with Nijburg’s fascination for hunting.
Born and bred on the edge of the Veluwe National Park, Nijburg was fascinated by shooting from an early age. (5)
This fascination is echoed in his choice of Saint Hubert as the patron of his own ‘publishing company’.(6)
Towards the end of the Middle Ages a famous legend started circulating concerning this Bishop of Liege, who lived in the eighth century and who loved fishing, according to the oldest vita.
In this legend Hubert is presented as an ardent hunter, unhindered by rules and regulations, going his own way. Even on Good Friday, the day of Christ’s death on the cross, he walks briskly along forest paths. Until all of a sudden he comes face to face with a deer. He grabs his bow, but just as he is about to release the arrow he sees a cross appear between the deer’s antlers. He returns home in great distress, bids his wife and children farewell and exchanges his passion for worldly pleasures for more spiritual pursuits.
Hubert’s vision, fairytale and childish as it may initially seem, actually marks the dramatic transition from perpetrator to victim, from hunting to being hunted, from hitting to being hit.
It also illustrates how vulnerable the body is. These two aspects of shooting are also characteristic of the series ‘Targets’. Perhaps the Nijmegen public was well aware of this. Bad marksmen are not necessarily bad observers.
The ‘Targets’ are not only ambiguous with regard to content. They also fuse two opposites in the strictly formal rules of painting: cold geometric circles and the vulnerable target itself. Or in the words of Nijburg himself: the sharpness of Han Schuil and the expressiveness of Marlene Dumas. The ‘Targets’ provide an excellent opportunity to merge both abstract and figurative forms.
This effort to mix forms is a recurrent feature of Nijburg’s work. The backgrounds in his paintings, drawings and etches are often reduced to vertical colour zones. Within these zones houses and rooms are drawn as two-dimensional planes. The traditional three-dimensional division into front, centre and back have been reduced to a back screen fronted by a narrow stage that serves as the characters’ battleground. At closer inspection we learn that it mainly concerns Man, surrounded by light (yellow), air (blue) and heaven and earth (both, remarkably enough, dark blue-black). This composition is reminiscent of the theatre, where the complexity of narrative and dialogue contrasts sharply with simple, bright settings. The multiple application of blue and dark blue, of air, heaven and earth, creates the image of a story embedded in a worldwide context. A microcosm within a macrocosm.
Part of Nijburg’s public however is not at all interested in such reflections. The part that values the paintings on its formal merits only, that does not hold with the ‘intolerable’ (Borges) allegorical, narrative aspects of his work. (7) The part that wants to observe but does not want to go on a pilgrimage.
4. Boredom en route
A good long journey only becomes really substantial when it’s accompanied by long days of intense boredom and shiftlessness. And a pilgrimage is usually a considerable enterprise, even in a luxurious motorcar. The hardest stage of the journey comes when the initial freshness and novelty wear off and there seems to be no end in sight.
In the tradition of mysticism the Latin word ‘ariditas’ indicates this trial period. It is the same word in English, ‘aridity’, i.e. dryness, barrenness. It also stands for long and endless dark nights that sometimes go on for years on end. In this period a mystic’s patience is thoroughly put to the test; out of touch with God, he spends his days in a state of utter loneliness in a world that he experiences as a desert. This ‘ariditas’ is preceded by ‘conversio’ (conversion), ‘purgatio’ (purification) and ‘illuminatio’ (enlightenment). The fifth and last phase – and this is by no means reached by every mystic – constitutes a complete oneness with God, the ‘unio mystica’. (8) If we divide Nijburg’s work into the five stages of this mystical road, the ‘via mystica’, two specific stages seem to come to the fore: the second stage of purification or ‘purgatio’ and the last stage of oneness with God or the ‘unio mystica’.
The ‘purgatio’ is a period during which the believer, the pilgrim, is seriously taken to task. The convert has only just tasted the bliss of believing in God, when he is reduced to a deep internal struggle. Earthly matters seem more tempting than ever. Voices questioning the existence of God become louder and louder.
The Works of Hercules features a mini Hercules who calls Christ on the cross a dry old stick and subsequently, to the horror of (pious) Ronnie, tears the cross out of the ground, throws it over his shoulder and strides off up the mountain. In the large drawing Enigma of the double little mermaid three girls, Maria, Magda and Lena lose their innocence on an evening out and fall in love with a young man who, with reference to the Holy Trinity, is called ‘one and the same’. (9) The young man eventually kills the second (and true?) ‘one and the same’. Whether the girls recover their faith remains a secret. The purification process that Nijburg portrays occasionally overshoots the mark.
Compared to ‘purgatio’s tempestuousness, ‘ariditas’ seems a rather tedious, long-winded affair. At this stage, however, uncertainty and a fundamental feeling of doubt become more profound. As we have already seen, ‘ariditas’ is not a key theme of Nijburg’s work. Nevertheless, in certain images, it occasionally emerges in a rather conspicuous fashion.
On Nijburg’s monumental canvas The Game of Patience God is depicted as an almost naked man crouching on a black surface. His elbows on His knees, His eyes fixed on the ground. God is watching a monitor placed in front of the canvas. The screen shows a man wearing a monkey mask trying to play a game of patience. The Game of Patience was made for the exhibition 7 Good Days (at the Museum Het Valkhof, Nijmegen 2001). The painting, with accompanying film, ‘The Seventh Day’, was the final piece of this project, inspired by the biblical creation myth. It does not refer to the seventh day, the familiar day of rest. God bears no resemblance at all to the wise old bearded man who rests after six days of labour and looks back on his creation with a sense of fulfilment. Here he looks very much like a Neanderthal, a barbarian, a Demiurge. The earth, moreover, still looks desolate. Stars and planets have remained in their primary phase and have not developed beyond amorphous balls of light.
And Man is little more than a degenerated ape, engrossed in a game of cards (patience).
The tattoos on the arms of God, the snake and the dragon, seem to refer to the snake in paradise and the dragon in the apocalypse. Thus they symbolize the beginning and the end of time. The circle is complete. The act of creation – a repetitive cycle of ferocity and idleness – becomes entirely pointless. The more so as the ‘crown of creation’, Man, created after God’s image, is bored stiff and wiles away his time playing silly solitary games and making fun of his macho creator.
This sense of futility, boredom and despondency are radically wiped out in the final phase, the apotheosis, the ‘unio mystica’. ‘The end’ as a theme features in most of Nijburg’s work. The lifeless body of Frank Zappa on a woman’s lap; the approaching death of Sebastian; and most of all the numerous images of stigmatisation and injuries, which place suffering and dying against a background of a hope for resurrection. The fascination with stigmatisation originates from a fascination with Francis, the famous saint from Assisi, who in 1223 on Mount Alverna ‘in a vision beheld a man with six wings, like a seraph, who floated in the air above him with spread arms and joined feet, as if nailed to a cross. Two wings were fixed above his head, two were stretched out to fly with and the final two covered his entire body. When he saw this, he was filled with tremendous awe but knew not how to interpret this vision. He mainly rejoiced about the manner in which the Seraph, who was of an indescribable beauty, looked upon him with a benign and merciful expression; simultaneously he was appalled by the grievous manner in which he was nailed to the cross. [Once the vision had disappeared] he rose, prey to both joy and sadness and reflected intensely on the deeper meaning of what he had seen. And while he was thus in a state of excitement and uncertainty, signs of nails on his hands and feet appeared, just as he had previously seen on the crucified man above him.’ (10)
In a lecture on the stigmatisation of Saint Francis, Nijburg compares stigmatisation to tattoos. In both cases signs are applied to the skin. (11) There is one big difference between the two, however: stigmata continue to chafe. While tattoos decorate the exterior, stigmata abrade the interior. While tattoos are the ID-cards of the children of the world, stigmata are the scorch marks of the children of God.
In a moving and bizarre 1996 drawing Nijburg balances a baby on a mountaintop, where it is wounded by five arrows that appear to come from the sun. Aimed at hands, feet and the region of the heart, identical to Christ and saint Francis after Him. This curious representation has been explained by Nijburg as follows: ‘[…….] birth is given to us from above. One is only truly born once one has been touched by arrows from on high. An increased acuity and charge is acquired by the wound that becomes a peacock’s eye [symbol of resurrection and eternity]. Touched, marked and branded by eternity one suffers life on earth, indeed one suffers from all things earthly. But it is also because of this that one is laid open to others, to other matters and eventually to God. This seeing is the true birth.’ (12)
It was at that moment, in that phase, on top of the mountain, with a view of the Promised Land, that Nijburg managed to temporarily (!) silence his alter ego, his Hercules, his Nietzsche. In order to really understand how this could have come about we need to return to the opening words, to the words Rinke Nijburg wrote in reaction to his mother’s death and his daughter’s birth:
‘Life and death deprive us of words’.
1. Rinke Nijburg, ‘The face stripped of blood’ in: Janpeter Muilwijk. Paintings, Middelburg 1995
2. ‘But I don’t like to observe traditional schemes and iconography that have been handed down. In other words: I like painting or drawing saint Francis, but I don’t see the point of doing that in a fourteenth or fifteenth century fashion ………. We are tied, hand and foot, to the twenty-first century. That’s what we have and where we are. But actually writing off religion, relegating stigmatisation to the world of fantasy is something I am not prepared to do’. ‘Laser beams from the ether. On the winged stigmatisations of Saint Francis of Assisi’, Rinke Nijburg, unpublished lecture, Eersel 2003.
3. Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Götzendämmerung’ Munich, Vienna 1977, p. 963. Translation: ‘We have abolished the true world: what kind of world remains? an apparent world perhaps? … But no! with the true world we have also abolished the apparent world.’
4. Anne Braun, Historischen Zielscheiben, Edition Leipzig 1981.
5. ‘As a nine-year-old I walked with our neighbours’ rifle to the Brook of Lunteren to shoot at sparrows and frogs. I usually didn’t really hit anything as the rifle had a marked deviation to the left. Occasionally, if I managed to adjust this, a few sparrow’s feathers would flutter down. This gave a so-called ‘kick’, a good feeling. I didn’t know why, yet. Later you learn that wielding power creates such feelings. As most birds just flew on unhindered and refused to drop down, I decided to start shooting frogs. These sat in the grass right under the rifle’s barrel. Even the deviation to the left needed no correction. The fun was soon over when I shot the frog’s right hind leg to shreds. The small creature kept dragging along its loose leg, still attached by a single tendon. Horrified I followed the frog’s hop, step and jump until it jumped into a ditch, where it traced circles of a sort in the water. Like a boat with a slipped screw. I returned the rifle to the neighbours and never asked for it again. This wasn’t power over animals, it was impotence.’ Press release on the occasion of an exhibition at Artists Initiative Umbrella Factory, Nijmegen January 2004.
6. The choice for Saint Hubert also refers to the hunting lodge ‘Sint Hubertus’, built by the architect Berlage in the nature reserve ‘de Hoge Veluwe’ for the Kröller-Müller family between 1916 and 1920. The National Park ‘de Hoge Veluwe’ still has Saint Hubert in its logo, in spite of the area’s predominantly protestant population.
7. J.L. Borges, ‘From allegories to novels’, in: The Cult of the Book, Buenos Aires 1949, transl. Amsterdam 1999. In this essay Borges discusses the problems we have today with the metaphor or allegory when it is maintained consistently throughout an entire narrative, as was the practice in the Middle Ages. The allegory has also fallen into disuse in modern visual arts. Max Beckmann, much admired by Nijburg, constitutes an exception. His use of the allegory coincides with a profound interest in fifteenth century Flemish triptychs.
8. Helen Nolthenius, A Man from the Valley of Spoleto. Francis amongst his contemporaries, Amsterdam 1988, p.213.
9. The girls are also, in a sense, one and the same: Mary Magdalene.
10. Helene Nolthenius, op. Cit., p. 177.
11. See note 2.
12. Philippe Verdult, ‘Reflections and stigmata. In conversation with Rinke Nijburg’, in: Ineradicably Moved. On visual arts and religion, ed. B. van Iersel, W. de Moor, Ph. Verdult, Nijmegen 2000, p.41.