Oct/Nov 2021  •   Reviews & Interviews


Review by Gregory Stephenson

Jacques van Griethuysen.
Verbeke Foundation. 2021. 287 pp.
ISBN 9789464000078.

Opening the pages of this book of collages created by Jacques van Griethuysen (1917—1995) might be likened to ingesting a potent, fast-acting psychoactive substance, in that van Griethuysen's arresting, dreamlike images can induce a species of spatio-temporal dislocation: of a sudden we find ourselves in an alternative reality, complete and entire, a realm beyond the ordinary categories that condition conventional conceptions of the world. And—as with some drugs and some dreams—the lingering impact of van Griethuysen's compositions upon the eye and the mind is one of disorientation leading to a reorientation, a new breadth of attention regarding the world around us and the world within.

The story behind the collages collected in Curiorama is itself curious. As recounted in an introduction to the volume by Geert Verbeke and in an afterword by René van der Voort (written in Dutch with English translations), the background facts are these: from an office in The Hague, Jacques van Griethuysen earned his living as a broker and an appraiser of real estate. At home, during the evening hours, working contentedly and carefully at his dinner table, he created collages, spontaneously assembling compositions from his extensive file of pre-cut images selected from among 19th century steel engravings, using pieces of cardboard as supporting surfaces. When finished to his satisfaction, the collages were then stored by van Griethuysen in cardboard boxes. A secret, solitary surrealist, he sought neither attention nor recognition for his creations, which came to number more than a thousand. Van Greithuysen also experimented with photo collages (examples of which are included in this collection). On only one occasion—persuaded to do so by a friend—did he consent to show his work in an exhibition held at the Galerie Pierre Vanderborght in Brussels in 1966. After his death in 1995, van Greithuysen's covert oeuvre might have been forever lost but for the efforts his son, Patrick van Greithuysen, who brought his father's work to the attention of Geert Verbeke and René van der Voort both of whom responded with enthusiasm and admiration for the vitality, variety and skillful renderings of this unknown artist's vision. An extensive collection of van Greithuysen's collages, comprising almost his entire body of work, has found a home at The Verbeke Foundation—a unique museum of contemporary art situated on 35 acres of open and enclosed space in Kemzeke, Belgium—which in 2014 organized a retrospective of the artist's work, and which has also published this handsome, richly illustrated hardbound volume.

In the otherworld of van Greithuysen's audacious imagination, gravity (in both senses of the word) is defeated. Humans achieve liberation from the earth by means of airships and airplanes, in hot-air balloons, with the aid of a host of self-propelled contraptions, and by sheer joyous, weightless levitation. Repeatedly, the erotic intrudes upon and overcomes complacency and solemnity. Hierarchy and pomposity are derided and deflated. Cause and effect are superseded by the law of incongruity. Cataclysms and decapitations co-exist with merry frolics, blithe abandon, and unbridled license. Disruptions, disjunctions, and displacement are commonplace. Collisions and affinities, tensions, fusions, and fortuitous encounters abound. In this turbulent realm of the enigmatic, the magic, the unruly, the sublime, and the whimsical, the only impossibilities would seem to be mediocrity and banality.

Van Greithuysen's collages may be seen both as the expression of a profoundly subversive human impulse to repudiate the ordinary world of reason and restraint, breaking free into flight and frenzy, and as an affirmation of the sovereign power of the imagination to transform and to transcend the dull, quotidian world, to shatter habit and the status quo, and to reconfigure reality. From an excursion through the exotic terrain of van Greithuysen's world, we emerge more alive, I think, to the poetic disposition of the pre-conscious mind and to the latent strangeness of our familiar world—a strangeness too often obscured by preconditioned perceptions. In the humor, violence, delirium, and desire that inform the collages collected in Curiorama, I am reminded of the uncompromising Surrealist "Déclaration du 27 janvier 1925," which concludes, "Surrealism... is a cry of the mind turning toward itself and determined in desperation to crush its fetters." To that noble end, the insurgent art of Jacques van Greithuysen makes a valuable contribution.