passion for 20th century art & design

Hans de Jong (1932-2011)

What is particularly striking about the career of De Jong is the apparent ease with which he found his way as an artist, without compromising himself and by following his desire and need for artistic freedom. Constantly occupied by renewal, he appeared to be on a relentless journey of discovery within the field of ceramics, both technically and thematically. ‘Sometimes, when I have just completed a piece, I visualise the next version. That’s how the small, diverse series, which I enjoy making, originate…’

As an artist Hans de Jong certainly made his mark. From the early sixties and seventies, an era of renewal on all levels within society and culture, he followed his own path. The path of a ceramic sculptor, a sculptural potter, but more than that the path of a craftsman with an eye for detail and a natural bent for proportions. It is justified to brand De Jong’s work as unique in his field. However, it would overstate to suggest that his uniqueness was deliberate. The secret lies rather in his approach to being an artist. Remarkable talent and natural affinity with beautiful things aside, his artistic development was a consequence of the freedom he granted himself to manage the situations and circumstances that arose.

Needless to say, the thorough and passionate training at the Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidonderwijs also played a vital role. Here he was trained by the ‘famous trio’, as he called them: the teachers Wim de Vries, Theo Dobbelmann and Sybren Valkema. The latter was responsible for his technical knowledge of the craft. During a time when the ceramist had to prepare his own glazes and clay, he did it with love and craftsmanship, despite the sleepless nights he must have endured over the unpredictability of the result, a distinctive quirk of working with clay.

The other two, De Vries and Dobbelmann, who certainly did not always see eye to eye when it came to artistic vision, provided him with a special combination of industrial thinking using Bauhaus principles and the drive for autonomous artistry. The ‘vessels’, the building blocks for the countless number of animal, human and botanical figures, were based on geometrical shapes, such as the much-used cubes and spheres. The decoration, often etched, described by some critics as lavish, served not just as embellishment and support of the form, but brought the form to life in such a way that the result was a unique autonomous piece of art.

In each phase of his working life, he faithfully adjusted these fundamentals. If he strayed from them he felt the need to explain his reasons for doing so. He was persistently developing old and new ideas, constantly in flux, with a relentless curiosity for things to come. From the smallest detail such as a key impression on the tip of a foot, to the disdainful grin on the face of a fantasy beast that looks into the world with a determination that needs no explanation. Perhaps even more important for the development of the artist Hans de Jong than the training was his creativity and intelligence and his natural affection for fantasy, which he found namely in literature, theatre and puppetry. Someone once described De Jong as a walking encyclopaedia in the areas of art and theatre. It seemed that he had seen every exhibition and show that mattered, which indeed was often the case. This passion for literature and theatre is partly what gives his work an extra dimension. He himself was modest about this, as he was about other matters, feeling it necessary to refute any hint of pretention. For his audience however, the fervour was palpable.

De Jong’s talent was already noticed in the early years in Amsterdam, evident from the large group of supporters who followed his work and certainly the sheer number of articles reviewers devoted to his work. During his career, De Jong received many awards, underlining the expansive appreciation of his work. The time was right. The attention that ceramic art received in the sixties from museums and collectors resulted in a large number of notable exhibitions. Partly in response to the challenge that these exhibitions offered, hundreds of fantasy creatures, figures, vases and tiles saw the light of day. De Jong reacted to the various challenges and assignments entirely in his own manner: playful, frivolous, creative, but always with an underlying purpose. He reacted the same way to changing work circumstances caused by relocations to different areas in the country. The yearning for renewal probably also instigated restlessness, whereby a change of environment was more a necessity than a chance event.

Undoubtedly one of the highlights in De Jong’s career was the retrospective exhibition organised by Boijmans Van Beuningen in 1976 under the title ‘Van Bakbeesten en Vuurlanders’.

The artist had meanwhile moved from het Gooi to Westbeemster. Influenced by the polder environment, with endless views over the meadows and waterways, animals and figures gradually faded into the background. Sets of dishes, tiles and pots appeared, inspired by land and waterscapes and seas of grass, with picturesque decoration using a tin glaze technique which gave the pieces a more independent character than previous works.

In the 1980s more exhibitions were hosted in Germany, where this work was well received. In Oegstgeest, where De Jong lived between 1985 and 1990, he created a series of vases and sculptures, which demonstrated the next step in the development of the artist, although it may be more appropriate to talk about a sideward step. For the first time, he deviated from basic geometric forms. From pieces of clay, whimsical hand-formed objects were created, painted in soft earth tones with a brush. For outsiders, it was work not instantly attributable to him, yet it was at the same time compelling enough to effortlessly be successful.

The 1990s in Rheden reverted thematically back to the sixties and seventies, with figures and animals inspired predominantly by literary subjects. His work came full circle. Although the number of art pieces created throughout his final working years diminished, the pieces demonstrate a serene maturity, technically as well as thematically.

Hans de Jong died on 11 March 2011.

English summary from Hans de Jong (1932-2011) Keramist, author Rob Meershoek. published by Artentique and distributed by Waanders Uitgevers, Zwolle, 2017. ISBN 978 94 6262 156 5.