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The last testament of Jacqueline de Jong

A fiery final interview with the provocative Dutch artist

Dutch painter, sculptor, and graphic artist Jacqueline de Jong, who died last mo nth aged 85.Photo: Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © Jacqueline de Jong

“I’m just waiting to go upstairs,” was one of the last things Jacqueline de Jong said to me.

Here I should stress that this was not the great Dutch artist, who died on June 29, musing on mortality. Instead, she wanted to stop talking, to get in the lift she had installed in her Amsterdam house and to go back to her studio to work.

It sounds absurd to say that the news of de Jong’s death came as a shock. But despite her 85 years, and a cancer diagnosis, her demeanour when we met over a video link a few weeks ago was of someone with a future ahead of her, whose ideas and curiosity and creative instincts were in full flow.

We met shortly after the opening of her latest exhibition at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, which continues until July 10, and includes new paintings alongside a number from the 1960s.

Aside from that lift, de Jong seemed to have made almost no concessions to old age. Her final paintings were bigger than ever, and I got the feeling that it was only logistics that had stopped her going bigger still.

“Well, they go inside the elevator”, she told me. “My atelier is upstairs on the fifth floor. I can’t make them bigger!”

Titled La Petite Mort – a title that now seems to give de Jong the last laugh – the exhibition includes four new paintings alongside four from the 1960s, her provocative mixture of sex, war, death and politics delivered with the same spirit of surreal comedy so characteristic of her paintings from 60 years ago. “Is there a similarity?”, she asked me, with some curiosity. “Yes, probably there is”, she conceded after a short pause, “And probably in the colour, somehow.”

Latterly, De Jong used oil stick rather than paint, but her palette in the exhibition consists of the vivid primary colours she began using in the 1960s. Her titles too, were as perplexing and suggestive as ever.

We spoke before Marine Le Pen’s latest electoral success in France but after European parties of the far right gained ground in the European parliament, including Geert Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands. The titles La Propagandiste Idiote, Polar Bear…?, and Sneaky Guardian, struck me as overwhelmingly political.

When Brexit (or breakfast, as she would have it) inevitably came up, she pounced indignantly on the practical repercussions: “So my work that came to London before Brexit, it’s stuck there. And if it comes back to a Schengen country, to Holland, I have to pay duty on my own work to get it back from your horrible Brexit. I have to pay 9% on my own work to get it back.

“I’m not very happy about Brexit personally. But you’re enjoying it enormously, being free from us Europeans. It’s so silly, and now this idiot [Farage] is getting into your parliament again. It’s like this bastard we have here, Wilders, he has a lot of support. There are lots of people, understandably, who are very unhappy with many of the things we are happy about. You have to consider that.”

De Jong was the sort of archetypal European whose experiences and family history inspired the EU project. Born into a Jewish family in 1939, in 1942 she escaped to her mother’s native Switzerland for the duration of the war.
In her teens and twenties she spent time in Paris, London, and Amsterdam, returning to Amsterdam permanently in 1970. Still, she denied any connection between her own experiences as a refugee and her preoccupation with the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

“If you want to make an interpretation like that, you’re free to do so, but don’t forget, I was three years of age so I don’t have any memories. All that I know about it is what was told to me. I don’t remember anything. And of course, I could be egocentric enough to put that aspect of my life into my interest in refugees. But I don’t, for the simple reason that it has not very much to do with my personal life. It simply has to do with the facts about refugees, it’s not about me or my past. I do not paint myself, because I want to paint people or things more universal than my own person.”

Though De Jong’s madcap assortments of people and animals don’t resolve obligingly into stories, she was clear that there is always a storytelling element: “I’m very much against the word ‘narrative’ in pictures, but I’m always trying to tell a story, even if it’s a limited story, it’s still a story.”

Often, her pictures offered prompts for one’s own mental ramblings, or perhaps more pertinently, an insight into the workings of the artist’s own mind. Not that De Jong was inclined to elucidate.

“I don’t make interpretations myself – other people do, of course,” she said. “It’s marvellous, that it’s possible to have all these interpretations and I am very grateful for that, and I really want to keep this, you know, freedom of the image. Any interpretation is possible.”

Could Painters’ Thoughts, 2023-4, provide a key? Her response was as enigmatic as ever. “I’m not going to tell you. It’s the painter who is thinking! I mean, I don’t know what he’s thinking – he, or she or it.” Even so – and goodness knows if she had just dreamt this up as a mischievous gift to me – her voice dropped confidentially as she said: “I could tell you the secret. I could reveal the big secret. At the left of the painting there is a person … and he looks a bit like Van Gogh. That’s the whole story.” Even now I don’t know if she was teasing me.

De Jong’s commitment to “the freedom of the image” is one of many echoes that still reverberates all these years after her involvement with Situationist International (SI), the anti-capitalist collective that between 1957 and 1962 made its mark as the most political of all postwar art movements. In fact, De Jong denied that SI was an art movement: it was, she said, a social political movement with artists.

It’s an apparently semantic point, that gains clarity in light of SI’s central concern with “the spectacle”, a theory derived from the Marxist idea of false consciousness, that sees the mass media, and specifically the image, as the agent of an alternative, dominant and alienating reality.

De Jong joined SI after moving to Paris in 1961, where she met the German Gruppe SPUR, and CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) whose leader, the Danish painter Asger Jorn, was her partner for a decade. These like-minded groups joined SI in the early 1960s, but the collaboration was short-lived, and by 1963, the doctrinaire leadership of Guy Debord led to multiple fallings out and departures.

“The reason why we all were thrown out of the Situationist movement was because we became commercial,” explained De Jong. “If you consider yourself a professional artist then you’re supposed to be professional. And that means you have to sell your work if possible. I

“It’s really luck that I started already selling with my first exhibition in ‘62. And then of course, there were times when it was very tough and hard and difficult. But generally speaking, it went on. So I can’t complain at all about my – what is it? – 60 years of career.”

If the distortions and alienating effects of consumerism and the mass media were exercising the intellectuals of the 1960s, in the 21st century those anxieties have achieved previously unimaginable proportions, voiced perhaps in the visual cacophony of De Jong’s paintings. Her titles undercut ostensibly humorous images, as in the cartoonish Autostop Suicide, 1965. Bucha, Ukraine II, 2022, dominated by grief-distorted faces, sits uneasily by La Propagandiste Idiote, 1965, juxtapositions analogous to the indiscriminate, often jarring placing of stories in news feeds.

De Jong was not a fan of Instagram: “I find it superflue”, she said. “There’s too much and too much and too much. I think the whole joy of looking at things disappears with the enormous amount of images you get – it makes it less interesting. And I mean, imagine that even colour photography was not yet used in art when I started. I have absolutely no colour photos of the 60s as they were.”

Visual overload was enough of a consideration for De Jong that she had begun to build it in to her practice over the past two years, in works focused on the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. She told me that she kept a second picture on the go while she was making a war painting: “It’s to relax my mind a little bit off the war and off the drama and get it into another sort of free thinking.”

I wondered whether there is a parallel between our own time and the political upheavals that came to a head in Paris 1968, but De Jong disagreed: “It’s very different. The 68’ers were just fixed on changing society and life. Now we are at war. There are protests now concerning the climate, but mostly they are concerning the war in Ukraine and in Gaza. And I think that’s very different. That’s much more global than Paris 68.”

De Jong designed posters for the May uprising, which took considerable inspiration from the Situationists, whose philosophical aphorisms chimed with the urban discontent of the 68’ers. By 1968, her flair for words and images was well-honed, her expulsion from SI allowing her the freedom to explore Situationist ideas free from the strictures of the organisation.

Between 1962-7 she produced six issues of The Situationist Times, described by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam as “one of the most exciting and playful magazines of the 1960s”, and recognised still as a key moment in magazine history.

In the first issue of The Situationist Times, she addressed Guy Debord directly, making clear her allegiance to Situationist principles if not SI personnel: “I’m proud that you call us gangsters, nevertheless you are wrong. We are worse; we are Situationists.”

In the past decade or so, the acquisition of The Jacqueline de Jong Papers by Yale University secured The Situationist Times for posterity, and in 2019, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam published a major history, titled These are Situationist Times! De Jong was rightly proud of the project, but though it marks the moment when she found her artistic voice, her work has never remained static, even when it returns to ideas and themes from the past.

Her curiosity was constantly renewed through materials and as well as oil stick, her new work features pumice stone and acrylic paint. Work was a continuing adventure, clearly.“I’m just waiting to go upstairs and get on. I have no idea what I’m going to do,” she told me.

I felt sure I already knew the answer to my final question, but asked it anyway: did she still have a rebellious streak? “Definitely. I mean, people don’t change that much”. And with that, she headed back to her lift. Going up.

Jacqueline de Jong: La Petite Mort is at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, 6 Heddon Street, London, W1B 4BT, until July 10

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