ERIK SLAGTER | Lucebert: As a Poet a Visionary, as a Painter an Eye-Witness
The poet and painter Lucebert (ps. of Lubertus Jacobus Swaanswijk, 1924-1994) has an uncontested place in Dutch literature as the ‘Emperor’ of the new post-war poets. Since the day in 1953 when he actually dressed up in Emperor’s robes to receive the poetry prize from the city of his birth, Amsterdam, his poems have not only received more attention than those of other poets; since that day his growing reputation as a major poet has never come under attack. Even after he began to concentrate more on his painting from the mid-1950s onwards, he was still known first and foremost as a poet. He was regarded as the leader of a group of innovating poets, initially termed the ‘Experimentalists’, even though Lucebert himself, in a programmatic poem written in 1951, pointed out his admiration for and affinity with the poets Friedrich Hölderlin and Hans Arp. In another poem in which he defended the experimentalist poetry of his generation, or ‘Movement of the Fifties’ as it became known, Lucebert also mentioned Blake, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, as well as Dada, the most striking trend in literature and the visual arts in the period just after the First World War.
The Experimentalist Movement in Dutch poetry which emerged just after the Second World War was in fact something of a making-up of arrears. Expressive painting in the Netherlands from the period after the Liberation in 1945 also recalled the work of international trends from the twenties and thirties, such as Dadaism and Surrealism.
The Netherlands had remained aloof from the events of the First World War, and the ensuing international cultural trends consequently had little or no influence on Dutch art and literature. It was not until after the Second World War that this gap was bridged, when the young post-1945 poets and painters drew their inspiration from a new source, from writers and artists who had already left their mark in France and Germany. This does not mean, however, that they were merely followers. The great strength of Lucebert’s poetry is that it burst open the Dutch language and opened the way for new sounds and a completely original poetry.
Lucebert’s poetry and art shook off many timeworn conventions, showed great variety in sound, line and colour and ultimately developed from a protest against injustice and rules into a longing for love and mystic values. As a realist, Lucebert was a witness to his time; he was also a visionary who revealed the unknown and the mysterious in a completely new way. It is this which gives his work such significance, both in his native country and in an international context - as is borne out by the many translations and exhibitions of his work. This does not mean, however, that his poetry and his painting are extensions of each other; they are two different forms of expression which sometimes complement each other but which in most cases are drawn from different sources and which do not always run parallel.
Lucebert’s protest is directed less at the poetry of his predecessors than against war and abuse of power. During the crisis years of the thirties - when Lucebert was a boy of about ten living in a working-class district of Amsterdam - the violent suppression by the army and police of a revolt by the unemployed made a deep impression on him. When, a few years after the end of the German occupation of the Netherlands, the Dutch government announced its ‘police actions’ in response to the pressure for independence in its former colony Indonesia, Lucebert’s was one of the first voices to be raised in protest. His ‘Love Letter to our Tortured Bride Indonesia’ (‘Minnebrief aan onze gemartelde bruid Indonesia’), which appeared in 1948, was his first published poem:
...I am the bridegroom sweet borobudur
how much avenges the bridegroom his bride
when on Java pools of blood she convulses
exploiters their prey her eyes oysters bash in and suck out?
It is a poem which was quoted often in 1995, the year when the Netherlands commemorated the passing of a half-century since the Liberation and when Indonesia celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its own declaration of independence.
The protest against the lust for power and repression is not incidental to Lucebert’s poetry, but a central theme. In one of his first poems, in the 1952 collection Apocryphal - The Analphabetical Name (Apocrief - De Analphabetische naam) he declares, ‘I am no gentle poet’. There are many drawings and paintings dedicated to this theme, as well as an anthology of poems. It was a constant theme in his work to the end of his life: one of Lucebert’s last poems was a protest against the death sentence passed by Iran on Salman Rushdie.
For Lucebert, poetry was something he needed to help him face up to a world in which man abuses his fellow-man using the most abhorrent means. The fact that using words as a weapon was not a matter of choice for Lucebert, but rather a compulsion, was demonstrated clearly in ‘The Experimental Poem’ (‘Het proefondervindelijk gedicht’). In this poem Lucebert declared that the poet is a witness to and a spokesman for his time. He also wrote that ‘my poems are formed / by my ears’. Lucebert was not only an eye-witness to his time, however; he was also a lyric poet who expressed the inner voices he heard in sound and rhythm, as a messenger of the mystery. Elsewhere, he said of the writing process that ‘a God it is / playing the violin on my throat’.
These multiple origins and functions of the poetic work of Lucebert (a pseudonym made up of ‘lux’ and ‘bert’, both meaning ‘light’), i.e. as a commentator on what he sees and as an interpreter of a supernatural voice, means that his poetry can be interpreted in more than one way. This in turn makes it difficult to translate. Lucebert himself was well aware of this quality in his work, and made full use of this multiplicity of sound and meaning. Sounds guide the poet to associations and lead to new meanings not offered by the normal conventions of the language. Lucebert tried ‘to give expression to the expanse of life at its fullest’. As a result, his poems take on added meaning when read aloud. On the one hand, like Hans Arp, Lucebert makes use of associations and wordplays; on the other, like Hölderlin, he is a mystical poet who is in contact with divine voices which cannot be represented using conventional language. When, in ‘I Try in Poetic Fashion’ (‘Ik tracht op poëtische wijze’), the poet writes that he has ‘sought out language in her beauty’ and ‘heard there she had nothing human left’, this can be seen as a reference both to a reality in which there is no longer any beauty, and to the need to recreate beauty by using new words.
Lucebert sought the aid of the dictionary and of other poets in his quest: ‘It’s all in the world it is all’. He not only explored the possibilities of language, for example by breathing new life into expressions which had fallen into disuse, but also looked to the visual arts for forms which could be translated into poetry.
The collection Apocryphal has a separate section, ‘The Drawn Name’ (‘de getekende naam’), containing poems devoted to artists. Here we see that Lucebert considers Arp’s work ‘the heartbeat of the stone’; Henry Moore he describes as ‘the earth which drifts and rolls through man’; Paul Klee’s work is described thus: ‘in the joyful window rises the scent of the coloured fruits of things’, and elsewhere:
...the cages of poetry spring
open for Miro’s beasts
a flea, a lekkerkerker and a summer bug
reach with their tentacles into the language.
Lucebert’s talent was channelled into poetry and visual art. It was stimulated by the need to renew the language and the urge to make himself known as an eye-witness of his time. As a visual artist he constantly exposed the misdeeds of his contemporaries.
Lucebert was able to set aside poetry, but never drawing. From an early age he drew on everything; in his youth he copied many other works and made spontaneous sketches in the margins of his poems, sketches which were not meant to illustrate the poems. Even before the War he was ‘discovered’ while drawing in the street and he was taken to art school, where a progressive teacher introduced him to Dadaism and Surrealism. Lucebert earned his first income with cartoons and illustrations. His free drawings are startling in their fanciful imagination and their constantly surprising ability to evoke associations.
Although he continued drawing the whole time, Lucebert initially made his name mainly as a poet. He was only indirectly involved with the new, expressive and experimental movement in Dutch art associated with the CoBrA group (1948-1951). It was not until after 1955 that he began to apply himself more intensively to his drawings and paintings, which he exhibited regularly from 1958 - at Galerie Espace in Haarlem and later in Amsterdam, but also in London, at the Marlborough Art Gallery.
Lucebert himself described his work as a visual artist as follows: ‘I paint everything that comes into my head, I draw and paint everything on everything, I value all views equally, I do not choose between motifs and I do not strive for syntheses, I am happy to leave oppositions in place and while they struggle with each other I offer no resistance, I remain out of range and experience the freedom which only they give me, my paintings, my poems, these joy-giving playgrounds where everything has its place, where Saharas and oceans come together in sandpits. I do not therefore swear by thin nor by thick paintings, I have no preference for certain palettes, today I seek refuge in tree-brown, tomorrow I drown laughing in dew-blue. Concreteness, abstraction, it’s all the same to me, I barely know the difference, I only know that these are terms deriving from a world of concepts in which I am and wish to remain a xenophobic stranger.’ (From Stay calm children, something important is happening - kalm aan kinderen, er valt iets zwaars, 1961).
In an interview in 1989, when asked what criteria a good painting should meet, Lucebert answered as follows: ‘expression, form, colour composition... In the first place it must be interesting. Interesting for the inner eye. Surprising. Every morning afresh. The worst thing is if it becomes boring. Or, even worse, if it becomes a mere decoration on the wall. Everything is possible in a painting, thin or thick, jumbled or tightly composed, provided it surprises.’
The different sources from which Lucebert draws include the 1922 book by Prinzhorn, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (about ‘the paintings of the mad’) and a ‘dirty spot which may well be a face / between india-rubber and correction fluid / (...) nothing better than dominated by this spot / to rub out snip away dissolve blur substitute / in confusion build again drench through pull down stand up ...’ (from ‘Spot as a Life’s Work’ - ‘vlek als levenswerk’, 1963).
Lucebert makes it clear that chance is important in his work, and that newspapers, radio, television or film can also spark his imagination. ‘A good painting is then born in no-man’s land, a boundary area between design and awareness, a terrain where neither the conventions of memory nor wishes dream-dogmas of one utopia or another can play their limiting role. A good poem, a good painting is therefore never complete, never finished, it is openand sloppy, it does not remain silent while suffering or laughing, it gladly allows itself to be well-thumbed and changed over time by an eccentric.’ (from Stay calm children, something important is happening).
In his visual work Lucebert often does the opposite of what he sees and combats in the world around him: he gives mastery to his powerlessness, uses the weapons of his artistry, rather than abusing power in order to impose his will on other people and on the things he makes. His art gives the appearance of having arisen spontaneously; the artist need do nothing other than conceal himself: ‘I allow fools, emperors, mandarins and similar figures to speak for me and if necessary I objectify myself a little’, as he said in an interview in 1959.
The results emerge in an experimental process, while he is working in communication with his materials: drawings employing the most wideranging techniques, collages, etchings, lithographs and screen prints; paintings in gouache, acrylics and oil; ceramics and photography - almost everything can serve his improvisation; just as the rhythm of his drawing and painting hand can be led by the jazz of Thelonious Monk or Dizzy Gillespie.
All this does not mean that there is no development or thematic line in his work: every drawing and every painting is unmistakeably a Lucebert. Initially his work was playful and fantastic, with a good deal of humour, but after 1958, when Lucebert had had his own studio for a number of years and had also begun to concentrate on painting with oils, the aggression increased. His work became angrier, with frenzied generals and teeth-grinding tyrants. Senseless abuse of power is ranged against defenceless subjectivity in these works. Lucebert mirrored himself on the world of Hieronymus Bosch, and in fact wrote a long poem on one of Bosch’s works,The Garden of Earthly Delights, in 1968.
Lucebert spent a good deal of time in Spain from the mid-sixties onwards, and developed an interest in the culture of that country; partly influenced by the Spanish sun, his work became clearer and sharper, angrier and more satirical. It acquired the impact of the work of El Greco or Goya with their visionary, grim, uncompromising expression, something which also characterises the canvasses of Francis Bacon, for example. ‘Perhaps that is why the monsters no longer disguise themselves,’ said Lucebert, ‘but reveal themselves as they are and as I see them: as boundless lusts for power or as powerless sighs of resentment’.
His anger cooled and his criticism became more controlled, but this did not lessen the impact of his works. With a slight variation on a poem from 1981 for the poet / painter Breyten Breytenbach (see The Low Countries1995-96: 252-258), who was imprisoned for his views on apartheid, Lucebert’s work also ‘was ashamed to be a poem and not a bullet / with which - poet - it could murder your executioner.’
The horrors of war and execution, of terror, racial hatred and vanity continued to be a major motif in Lucebert’s work in the seventies. He forced the viewer to look at the roll-call compounds, at the selection yards and at the huts (‘The Perfect Crime’ - ‘De perfekte misdaad’, 1968).
Lucebert’s cynicism about a world which repeats itself but does not improve itself increased after this period, though there was still a place in his work for playful humour and light-hearted irony, which gave the aggression against repression a more anecdotal character.
Lucebert’s production was very large; every day was a working day with a fairly rigidly defined routine. Like the French painter Dubuffet, whose conception and method of expression show many correspondences with Lucebert’s, he liked to take ‘that which inspires aversion in him’ as the starting point in his work. He rejected every style and this makes his work difficult to pin down. All kinds of influences from older and more recent art are incorporated in his work and given his own expression. And the titles, finally, are again original elements which open yet another perspective.
The impression of wonderment and, sometimes, of foolishness which Lucebert’s work leaves on those who see it keeps intact the uncompromising mirror which he holds up to mankind when he shows it its failings and involves it, like a militant criminal, in the sardonic world of his creations. His art is merciless and yet full of sympathy, and forces us to participate. Lucebert remained ‘a commentator of commotion’. The accusation in his images is oppressive; at the same time, their surprising, visionary originality can be a liberation.
Erik Slagter (Netherland, 1939). Critic of art. Page illustrated with works by Lucebert (Netherlands), guest artist this issue of ARC.