Biography Niels Janssen
La Grande Parade
When I was 18 years of age I saw an exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, entitled ‘La Grande Parade’, The farewell exhibition of Edy de Wilde as director of the museum.
The fascination I had entertained for the visual arts for some time then, exploded into a full blown desire to become an artist : “I want this too! “. What ‘this’ was exactly I didn’t know, other than an elusive yet inescapable energy.
I noticed I was very opinionated about the works on display. I did not find them ‘interesting’, but deeply recognizable or not so much. Picasso, Leger, Braque, Ryman, Beckmann, Guston, Bacon and especially De Kooning showed me a world which I recognized as my own. I did not experience an esthetic joy or admiration for certain ideas, but I felt I was emerged in an ocean of possibilities. I realized then and there that this was the place I needed to be and that I wouldn’t settle for anything less. I was inspired!
Inspired in a room full of mirrors
And I was fucked. Inspiration without ability turned out to be a bitch. To make matters worse I also discovered the music of John Coltrane in that period and was blown away by its sonorous seriousness and intensity. I had discovered my artistic fathers, De Kooning and Coltrane. No less important than a moon-landing or the discovery of cold nuclear fusion, when you’re 18. Much later on I learned that both of them were active in the sixties in Long Island, away from the noise of New York City. De Kooning in his self-built studio near East Hampton and Coltrane in the attic of his home in Dix’ Hills, just an hours drive away. De Kooning painted ‘North Atlantic Light’ there and Coltrane composed ‘A Love Supreme’. These still are my favorite works of art. The heart of the snowball that since then has grown by a body of hundreds of artworks.
So there I was, in a suburb of the Northern Dutch town of Groningen, my frame of reference formed by overseas geniuses. I was shy, withdrawn and dreamy. Locked within myself as if in a room full of mirrors. As the son of intellectuals I had this deep interest for the arts, but I lacked the right tools. I wasn’t looking for knowledge as such, logic or analysis, but for the expression of a primary feeling. I experienced a gaping hole between my reality and the mastership needed to get were I wanted to be. I felt very insignificant, but also determined to resolve this discrepancy. No matter what.
The search for a basis
So I took up drawing- and painting lessons in a municipal centre for the arts and as a subject to graduate from high school- a novelty at the time. I was looking for a basis, but what should this basis consist of? Of wild-romantic painting like De Kooning? Of classical study, like still lifes and modelstudies? I decided to try both- and more. I read a lot about modern art, went to exhibitions and spoke about it with knowledgeable and skilled people I had access to.
This period became one of confusion and general existentialistic experiment, great friendships based on the same interests and the urge to live life to the max, a first steady relationship, drawing, painting, bars, boring jobs and very mixed feelings about everything. I felt I hardly made any progress and decided I needed to force things: I moved to Amsterdam!
The intellectual approach
Because my first steps into the arts were too unstable and because of my upbringing I was equipped with the intellectual approach I enrolled in Art History at the University of Amsterdam. I really tried to study art historical microscopic sub-phenomenae, but within 6 months I knew I could not go on like this. My heart was with art and the promises it seemed to hold.
From Art History tot the Art Academy
I decided to quit Art History and to start preparing for enrolling in an Art Academy. I managed to get accepted for the preparatory year at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, my first serious relationship of 4 years went down the drain. Stripped of the false certainty of the intellectual approach and of a relationship turned sour I found myself exposed to a strong, cold wind. I bent deeply, but did not break. I had forced a breakthrough.
After six months of alternating despair, inspiration, endless nightly sessions of listening to music , some more boring and tough jobs, soaked-in–life-literature, girls, bars, but foremost many hours of painting and drawing I dared to make the great leap forwards and applied for several art academies’ entrance exams.. To my great sense of triumph I was admitted to the art academy in The Hague en was even allowed to skip the first year of study in Utrecht and Rotterdam. At the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam I had to pass two committees. Committee A thought I had what it took, but the eel-like chairman of committee B clearly belonged to the school of ‘first we will break you down and then we will build you up again!’. After all the hassle of the past years I had no desire to be bullied by this guy and his arrogant scorched earth bullshit. So the conversation turned into a row and I could kiss admittance to de Rietveld Academy goodbye. Since I lived in Amsterdam this was a painful disappointment. But this pain was short-lived because I had a good feeling about the KABK (Royal Academy for the Visual Arts) in The Hague. It seemed a thorough school to me and less pretentious than the Rietveld Academy, where a perpetual battle of eccentric self-presentation seemed to be going on. So I went to the KABK, spent the first year traveling back and forth and finally moved to The Hague.
My choice to go to the KABK proved to be the right one. In the first year of the study Hans van der Lek became my painting teacher. He was in his mid fifties and in everything the counterpart of your typical art school teacher. Clad in jeans, chain smoking, speaking with a strong The Hague accent (in Holland associated with a good sense of humor and underworld types), trampling on mainstream conceptions of the arts, making politically incorrect jokes, with near-shaved hair and prominent sideburns that reflected a distant yet dangerous rock ‘n’ roll past. He was extremely well informed about painting techniques, history and art history, jazz music (he had a collection of over three thousand albums), literature, soccer, billiards and was exceptionally intelligent. Hans became my painting father. He taught me the importance of discipline and perseverance. Any student that arrived later at school than he did was growled at and was allowed to ask questions only at the end of the day. Whoever spoke in art slang or was being pretentious was laughed at. If you weren’t prepared to put in the hours and suffer to learn, you weren’t worthy of Hans’ attention. On the other hand, he was very clear that only you, from an individual perspective, could formalize the profession: “The basis, that’s you’.
A typical learning school
In order to show the importance of these assumptions during my education he called me names, stepped on wet oil paintings, tapped the ashes from his cigarette on them and showed other types of unpolished behaviour, but always with the intention to make a vital point. ‘Painting is living, little guy’ (just like De Kooning, whom Hans hated, had said!): A life lesson was a painting lesson and vice versa. Giving up was not an option and no problem was too big to solve.
After my graduation from the Academy we became friends and I often visited Hans and his wife Henriëtte at their home. A tight circle of friends had formed around them , consisting of former students of various generations. There was laughter, at times even tears, discussions and rows, we drank quite a bit, smoked enough to obscure vision in the small living room, listened to music and watched soccer games. I felt honored to be a part of all this.
The roller coaster
My years in the Academy were like a roller coaster. I was very happy to be able to concentrate on art fulltime. I met new, talented friends with similar interests. I now functioned within a context and no longer as an outsider. I tried all kinds of things in the field of drawing and painting and felt encouraged not only by Hans, but also by some other teachers and fellow students. Hour upon hour I built up the experience, knowledge and craft en route to a formal language I could call my own. But this was no neat process at all and I often felt like being lost in the wild. This actually happened to me in mountainous terrain in the south of France when I was 14 years old. In hindsight I think what happened was that I got lost in the maze that wild boar cause in the undergrowth. I clearly remember this nagging feeling of being separated from the life I knew- and, also, a strange calm.
As an art student I experienced this feeling again (without the calm), the maze being the endless possibilities now and all the opinions about them, uttered by my teachers, peers, friends and relatives. It is in that stadium of development very hard to hold on to the invisible string that guides you out of the maze; one’s vision of what art should be like. This vision cannot be forced, but has to be formed through this experience. The acceptance of trial and error and my tendency to rationalize often bothered each other tremendously. With great ups and downs I made my way through the Academy. Meanwhile, for added drama, I experienced the rise and fall of a love affair in the category grand, compelling and impossible.
The years after the Academy we no less turbulent. My graduation just marked the end of a four- year period, but obviously not the end of my quest. That just went on relentlessly and became more focused on a Willem de Kooning statement: ‘You can work wonders if you accept what you have’. Joseph Cals, another influential teacher at the Academy, put it this way: ‘You should raise your own personal deviation to a standard’. But to indicate exactly what there was to accept or what this deviation looked like was not at all clear cut.
How to survive as an artist
I had acquired a lot of knowledge and skills during during my years at the Academy, but how to put these to good use? Also the problem of surviving as an artist presented itself. The first step towards reality was hopeful: My graduation exhibition was a great success with lots of sales and an appointment for an exhibition at a large accounting firm.
Thanks to an idealistic and very practical manager at a housing association I was able to live and work in a building due to be torn down. His reasoning was simple and effective: Put a bunch of artists together in a bad neighborhood and it will decline at a slower rate, whilst the artist can live for free- We had only to pay for heating, water and electricity. Thus a colony of about 20 starting artists was formed, divided over 3 different streets. We all knew each other through Hans and Henriëtte van der Lek, who lived nearby in a slightly less rundown neighborhood. We helped each other with the refurbishing of the houses to a habitable level since they were in different states of deterioration. With great joy I moved into my new residence. The former living room became my studio, I slept in a tiny room that the former owner had used as dovecote. There was a mice and cockroach infested kitchen and a bathroom with a tub. A true paradise. To cover the low costs of living like this and still be able to develop myself as an artist I took on my first job as an art teacher, did some assignments for murals, made use of a social arrangement for artists for a while, got a subsidy now and then.
Meanwhile the artists colony flourished. There were parties, we often ate together, we listened to music, talked about each others work and helped each other out whenever we reached a dead end, be it financially, artistically or otherwise. It was a jolly mess, until Henriette van der Lek became ill. Soon the seriousness of her affliction became clear and the colony was shrouded in mourning. Henriette had become a mentor for many of us. She’d had a career in dancing, had painted and written, was razor sharp , intelligent and had a unique sense of humor. She had advised us where Hans was not able to and took care of us during hard times. We tried to support Henriette and Hans as best as we could. Eventually, Henriette died at home aged 59. Hans really skimmed along the edge of the abyss in the aftermath of her death, but after a while found joie de vivre again and even remarried. I spent many more nights with him at his home, in an infamous poolhall, a pizza joint and in this Chinese place where they served fried lard with sugar. At the end of the millennium he started having all sorts of vague physical problems. In the afterthought of a joined opening at a gallery he told he had cancer. After a capricious disease course he also died at home, a few days short of his 65 th birthday. All his friends became very drunk together after his cremation. An era had passed.
Prior to Hans’ death the artists colony was dissolved because the buildings we lived and worked in were now actually going to be torn down. The same manager that had provided the studios had a tip: In the old centre of The Hague he knew of a canal house that belonged to yet another housing association for which it was problematic possession. It consisted of two lofty and characteristic floors and a large attic. We were allowed to rent it at a low price if we would renovate the place ourselves. But who were ‘we’? In the nightlife of The Hague I had met a girl. Beautiful, kind, direct, energetic and full of joie de vivre: Sanne. Soon we couldn’t get around it: Yes, I want to be with you! And yes, for the long haul please! We’re still together after 22 years.
The new millennium
With a befriended couple we renovated the canal house, threw a big party to celebrate the turn of the millennium and lived there for 8 years to our full satisfaction. During this period I had different studios, mostly on a ‘anti-squat’ basis, but also a permanent one at walking distance from our new home. Furthermore I had started to teach very motivated pupils and I had made a series of strong drawings. The ‘translation’ into paintings did not go well, but on the whole I felt like I had gotten out of the roller coaster and was in a less frantic circus attraction. I felt I was getting closer to my goal, the invention of my own formal language. But then my –literally- worst nightmare came true: My mother got seriously ill. In the course of six months I saw her change from a very vital woman into a wreck. Appalled and amazed by her fate, she died at home in the presence of my father, sister and me. This was the blackest hour of my life. Yes, your parents are bound die, this is ‘ part of life’. Fuck that shit. She had just turned 62. She had physically and emotionally suffered tremendously. She was a unique combination of wisdom, intelligence, mildness and beauty. She loved life. And I loved her. After almost 20 years I am still profoundly sad about her death. She should still have been here.
After darkness the light
The period after she had died was like a black pit. I tried to move on, but as a matter of fact I despised life itself. This must have been extremely hard for Sanne. But she also pulled me through. Slowly I crept out of the pit and life regained color again. 5 years after my mother died I experienced the most wonderful moment of my life: The birth of my beautiful daughter Lisa! Her second name, Sophia, was one of my mothers’ names. Just before Lisa’s birth I had had a very successful solo exhibition and had sold a lot of paintings and we were due for a long hot summer. Life was good again.
The house near the seaside
2 years after Lisa was born our family could move to a quieter neighborhood with lots of options for schools for Lisa, thanks to the generosity of my family-in-law. In this fine house we still live, at only a stones’ throw away from the dunes and the beach.
Shortly after we moved to our new home the credit-crunch became manifest, followed by the Euro-crisis, accompanied by growing populism. A very toxic cocktail for the arts. The market crashed and the atmosphere became hostile. In response I devised the Micro-patronage, a system in which artists connect with a circle of art lovers who all furnished a relatively small sum to keep the artist afloat while becoming a part in his/her artistic story. In collaboration with Sanne I shaped this idea by establishing a foundation, the formation of a foundation board, the organization of exhibitions, bus tours to artists studios, promotion and presentation of the idea, press contacts, and so on. The idea really took off were it concerned the patrons; over a 130 private people signed up to support artists. But the number of participating artists remained disappointing, despite a major effort to convince them to join us and the support of the Dutch ministry of Education, Culture and the Sciences, the Platform for the Visual Arts and STROOM The Hague (the municipal service for the arts in The Hague). The dire situation in which the Dutch artists found themselves in apparently kept them holding on to traditional ways of representation and made them shy away from an experiment. The imbalance between the two pillars of the Micro patronage, the givers and the makers, made Sanne and myself decide to quit the foundation. Somewhat dissatisfied obviously, but knowing we had done what we could at this point. A new worldwide crisis triggers the revitalization of this idea through this website, be it without the administrative burden of a foundation, nor the responsibility for others artists, but with the same mentality: striving for a maximum of autonomy, dealing with art lovers directly and permanently searching for new ways of cooperation.
In 2012 I moved into the studio where I’m still working today. It is an L-shaped very long and narrow space with light coming from both directions, located in the centre of The Hague. Somewhat awkward but despite or because of this I feel very much at home in this studio. I found more peace of mind here and the accumulated experience in painting and drawing came to a point where I could answer to the adage of Jo Cals, You should raise your own personal deviation to a standard’.
A wandering mind
My deviation is that I have a ‘wandering mind’. Ideas and thoughts tend to come quickly and compellingly, flow into each other and tumble over each other without respect for hierarchy. This used to bother me tremendously, for instance when doing homework or with the execution of the more ‘classical’ assignments at the Academy. These often collapsed on their own because in my mind I was already someplace else. The belief in a new artistic strategy was short lived for the same reason. After enthusiastically choosing a certain point of view there inevitably came the notion ‘so what..’, followed by yet another idea bound for the same outcome. Highly frustrating, to the point of despair. I had the feeling of making illustrations to ideas and found it quite ridiculous to make just one of them more important than others, when there are are so much to choose from. Why choose for that particular kitten from the litter and not the other ones?
Improvising in a restrictive framework
In the course of the years I designed different ‘improvisatory’ strategies. After a while I started to experience these as too pinching. And then there was the matter of painting versus drawing: My inspiration for becoming an artist was fueled by expressionists like De Kooning, Appel, Bacon, Van Gogh, and Soutine. Painting thickly was synonymous with the artistic H-bomb while Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix provided the sound track. Nonetheless I gradually came to realize that drawing is more in my nature. That I can convey what I want to better with a freshly sharpened pencil than with paint. I experienced the drying time of paint, for instance, more and more confining, as unwanted breaks in a process that should continue seamlessly. From 2012 on I haven’t touched my brushes and paint.
In the previous period I had already drawn more than I had been painting and what been fermenting rised to the surface. On my worktable lay a leaf of paper om which I had made notes with various pens and pencils: Droodles, scrawls, appointments, lists for groceries, maps, floor plans for exhibitions, stained with coffee and affected by time in other ways. It had been shifted and turned many times and it was unclear what was supposed to be the up- or downside. Some notes where blurred beyond recognition, some where fresh and clear. Some little drawings where quite elaborated during obviously boring telephone conversations, others where very sketchy. This leaf of paper was, in short, a mess, but it looked interesting because of the multitude of elements. The fact that it was a precipitation of time fascinated me and made me think of the canvas ‘Excavation’ from 19…by Willem de Kooning. An excavation as an image of the passing of time. This is an ‘overall’-composition too; foreground and background are hard to distinguish. The main ‘motive’ and its surroundings are blended in. Ever since I visited ‘La Grande Parade ‘ I was captured by this concept of space and during my academy-years I had experimented with it, but always connected it with abstraction.
And I found abstract art an increasingly problematic notion, especially when abstraction and ‘freedom’ began to become synonymous. Representation, the possibility to give literary meaning to a flat surface did not only seem of all times, but also at the cradle of all art. Our brain is furnished on interpretation, that’s why we see a midget on a Velazquez-painting and not just some colorful blots and are we able to distinguish a tiger between the tree trunks. Why would one want to eradicate this magical phenomenon? And furthermore: Who dreams abstractly? The leaf of paper showed me that I could grow a composition from ‘figurative’ elements. And texts and scrapings and anything I felt like doing. An improvisation that could harbor many ideas at once. Ideal for a wandering mind!
By continuing associating I could grow a network that was made up of many elements but that had its own dynamics of directions, compactions, light and dark. I had the sensation of finally haven broken the surface and breathing freely. In this way, drawing seemed to encompass an ocean of possibilities. I called it ‘psychography’ and the works that derived from it ‘psychographs’; precipitates off the mind in words, images and gestures.
In ‘psychography I had found a habitat for my wandering mind. I could now work on any given theme and simultaneously on all kinds of asides; ideas, thoughts and associations that presented themselves forcefully while working on the initial idea. I could for instance start out with feelings of melancholy and helplessness that are induced by growing older (self-portrait) while exclaiming to some politician or the memory of ‘wonderstew’ that appeared on the folding table during vacations. Or with my fascination for maps and a Frank Zappa song text on the side and a study for a fish. Making art is in my view to testify of the time spent in this world, which is a very fluid experience; an endless chain of experiences, memories, sensations and emotions. This calls for a form that can harbor a multitude of perspectives, imagery, texts and ideas.
The development of psychography
Because the ‘method- psychography’ takes up a lot of time it took a while for me to produce a body of works sufficient to be able to present it. There are hundreds of elements in one drawing and the forging of a composition from all these elements takes a lot of ‘viewing time’ and deliberation to anticipate a next step, decide if it is time to strive for more harmony or to take a risk. In short: Psychography needed some developing time. The first presentations of my psychographs took place in the context of the Micro patronage, after this was shut down several galleries and exhibition spaces have shown the works.
The year 2020 started optimistically for me in sunny Italy. It was known that there had been some troubles with a virus in China, but around new years eve there was no sense of alarm- later it became clear that the first contaminations had already occurred in Europe. This carelessness soon evaporated as the number of contaminations started to spiral out of control in the Netherlands too and the first lockdown was proclaimed. I think I will continue to remember this period as a surreal combination of clear blue skies without any condensation marks of airplanes and a fundamental insecurity of everything that seemed unshakable. Secretly enjoying the calm and at the same time being stressed like never before by external conditions. Against this background my father started to go backwards. During the lockdown I had continued to visit him at ‘1.5 meters’, but in May I found him impaired. He was already suffering from all kinds of ailments, one more serious the than other, but he certainly enjoyed a high quality of life too. All of a sudden the process of decline accelerated. Covid-19 was ruled out, but a water tight diagnosis was never determined. As a 85 year old my father didn’t want any medical hassle anymore and I could only respect this. Together with my sister, my fathers lady friend and the wonderful women of home care I was able to accompany him to his end. He died on June 27th, in the lightest period of the year. After his cremation we put his ashes in my mothers grave in Groningen, where the biggest part of our family life had taken place. This marked the beginning of the rest of my life as an orphan, along with a strange conviction that my parents know that I am well equipped to cope. I’m grateful to my parents to be alive. It’s wonderful to be here. And to bearing witness to life as an artist and to draw from an endless reservoir.