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Thursday, April 20, 2006


Outer turmoil and art as therapy

Special to The Japan Times

One of the quickest ways to understand an artist is to look at his self portraits. Van Gogh's reveal his intensity and passion, while Rembrandt's show the calm dignity to which he aspired in his art and his life, and with which he faced aging. But what is to be made of the self portraits of Horst Janssen, the German artist whose work is now at the Museum of Modern Art Saitama (MOMAS)?

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Horst Janssen (pictured in his "Selbst -- Zu Paranoia" [1982])

In a series of pencil and pastel works from the 1980s -- all showing a great instinct for the expressiveness of line -- the artist, who died in 1995, seems to be caught up in a bout of self laceration. One shows him puffed up like a ball of fat, while another shows the opposite, the lines of the skull protruding through his fleshy features.

In another he presents himself as the Cyclops, peering over his glasses with one eye, while the most memorable image, "Selbst -- Zu Paranoia" (1982), shows the artist with a look of idiotic surprise on his face and a gaping, toothless mouth.

Although they impress by their artistic virtuosity and sheer gut-wrenching honesty, these are not self-portraits designed to present an impressive exterior to the public, like Rembrandt's, but something a lot more private and stormy.

"His art was his diary," Itaru Hirano, curator at MOMAS, comments. "His portraits, as well as his other works, always have the exact date."

The MOMAS exhibition, part of the seemingly endless Deutschland in Japan Year 2005/2006, includes portraits of friends, lovers and family -- such as "Lamme Ich Bin" (1993) which shows his daughter Lamme in an Amazonian pose -- as well as numerous erotic works.

If the show gives the impression that the artist's private studio and secret cabinets have been ransacked, it's not surprising -- most of these works were in his private possession when he died, and have actually been lent by Lamme.

As the works suggest, Janssen, who was born in 1929 in Hamburg, led a tempestuous life that included several divorces, problems with drink, and even a trial for murder following a drunken brawl. Starting his career in his teens as an illustrator for children's books, Janssen later experimented with the woodblock prints -- which won him moderate fame as an artist -- before moving on to other media such as etchings, pen, pencil, pastel, and watercolor.

Initially influenced by European Expressionists like Munch, Janssen was also in the sway of the automatist side of Surrealism, which encouraged him to experiment with chance elements. In his early erotic etchings, blotches and stains of the ink are incorporated into the design, usually as pubic hair.

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Janssen used Hokusai's 1814 print "Kinoenokomatsu" (above) as an inspiration for his own 1978 watercolor "Griechischer Jyngling"
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Art Brut strongly informed his art as well. A movement that rejected the art world and its fashions, and instead found its inspiration in art created by primitives, prisoners and psychiatric patients, it was often seen as a form of therapy. It was this aspect that probably attracted Janssen.

"He seems to be looking for some kind of mental cure," Hirano says. "Janssen was a compulsive drawer and wouldn't stop even when people visited his studio."

Janssen identified himself with Japan's own "drawing maniac," the 18th- and 19th-century ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai. Janssen's native Hamburg had close ties to the Dutch ports, which have traditionally had close ties to Japan, meaning that there were several good collections of Japanese art in the German port city that would have exerted an influence on Janssen.

Although his woodblocks radically differed from Hokusai and Japanese artists', he was intrigued by the compositional and evocative qualities of their art. Realizing that ukiyo-e originated as paintings, he used other media such as pen and watercolor to mimic those elements, as in "Griechischer Jyngling" (1978), which, it is thought, was inspired by Hokusai's notorious "Kinoenokomatsu" (1814). Hokusai's shunga -- Japanese erotic print -- depicts an octopus embracing a naked woman.

Janssen tread cautiously when dealing with such influences and inspirations. While a lesser artist would have taken a more literal approach, Janssen quotes the composition and mood of sexual perversion in Hokusai's work, but radically substitutes the elements.

Instead of a naked woman and an octopus, a limp, long haired youth passively accepts the sexual attentions of a flaccid old man -- a perfect stand-in for the boneless octopus. The tension created by the octopus's tentacles is expressed through the crutch the old man holds onto as well as rope lines connecting his and the young man's nipples. As for the large round shape of the octopus's head, Janssen preserves the element in his composition by including in the background a classical Greek figure holding a hoop. Thus Janssen expertly matches the impact and feel of Hokusai's classic piece of bestiality, in tribute, while staying true to his own artistic style.

The exhibition shows that Janssen had a colossal talent, so why, then, is he still relatively unknown? Probably his less than attractive image and difficult personality, combined with his often repulsive subject matter, has prevented people from recognizing the true genius of imagination, texture, line and composition that lives within these dark works.

"Eyes toward Hokusai" is at the Museum of Modern Art Saitama, a three minute walk from the West exit at Kita-Urawa Station on the JR Keihin Tohoku line, till May 21; open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more info call (048) 824-0111 or visit www.momas.jp

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