It seems to me that some people aren’t happy with my autobiography, after all, “at the end of the day it’s all about the person”. So I wonder if they want to hang me on the wall or my paintings (my critics don’t need to answer that). I refuse to give myself a critique, as an artist, let alone as a person, so I’m afraid I can’t elaborate on my autobio at this point.
What I can do is give concise biographies of my family. Some may wonder what this has got to do with my artistry. The answer is:not all that much. On the other hand, it’s customary to include in any biography, short biographies of the person in question’s family, as I did in the case of Picasso, Modigliani and Mondrian.
I will start with my father Hendrik Jacobus Pieter Jansen (Henk Jansen), born Aug 8th 1916, Ermelo, The Netherlands, died May 11 1989, Bussum, The Netherlands.
My father’s father came from Zeeland, a province in the South-West of Holland, where he married Sophia (I have yet to gather more data on her).
I’m not clear on my father’s parents’ background. On the one hand my father said that his father descended from a family of land owners, and as a middle-aged man he went to Ermelo in Central-Holland, to retire. On the other hand, both of his parents worked as nurses in a home for the mentally disabled, where they met. My father never mentioned that to me, so he might have regarded it as an embarressment.
My grandparents had one son and three daughters. My grandfather was remembered by his children as a kind, gregarious man, who liked shooting and wood carving. My father’s mother was a beautiful, strong, but manipulative woman, who was both loved and feared by her children. My father was twelve years old when my grandfather died from a heart attack. My grandmother was left in the seemingly impossible position of having to raise four children on her own, with no social security to fall back on, but she was able to successfully manage her drugstore and photo shop, which allowed her to retire in her mid-50s. From sixteen years old on, my father managed the photo shop. He was a very good runner and at 18 he was set to go Olympic, until complications following surgery cut his sportive career short.
When he had finished school, he wanted to become a chemist and specialize in fiber science. He decided not to go to university, not wanting to stay dependent of his manipulative mother. Instead, he had a short education as a chemical analyst. He went to work for Shell Oil, which was conducting chemical research in order to improve the quality of gasoline.
In 1940 Holland was occupied by Nazi Germany and my father was sent to Berlin in Germany for “Arbeitseinsatz” (forced labour). During the war my father worked as an analyst in a laboratory headed by a professor of chemistry, all in the name of Arbeitseinsatz. What made life in Berlin particularly stressful were the almost daily air raids, with everyone moving into shelters in the middle of the night. There was food shortage, so my father, who stood 1.79 m (5.87 ft) tall weighed just 45 kg (99 lbs) at the end of the war. Doing some work for the resistance, my father would take photographs of collapsed buildings in Berlin, for bomb damage assessment, which he would then pass on to the Swedish embassy. One time he was caught by a German soldier, who let him go in exchange for the camera. At some point during or after the war he found himself seeking shelter in a trench, with 17 Czechoslovakian soldiers, when a bomb dropped right into the trench. The Czechs were dead, but my father was sitting just around the corner, much to the benefit of yours truly’s existence.
When the Russians entered Berlin, my father witnessed mutilation and rape and Berlin was set on fire. When Nazi Germany was finally defeated, my father was asked by his contacts from the resistance to go to Russia to retrieve some objects, called spinnerets (?) that seemed to be vital to Holland’s fiber industry. They were taken by the Germans from Holland and then by the Russians from Germany. So he took the train to Russia, standing up for 24 hours. Having arrived in Russia, my father was able to enter the factory that had the spinnerets, at his leisure, take the box and walk out without anyone realizing what was going on.
Back in Holland he was drafted for military service in Indonesia, which resisted Dutch colonial rule. My father refused, because he thought he had gone through enough suffering during the war, so he went into hiding. Before long, the Dutch government agreed and he was dismissed.
He went to work for a chemical company which would later be taken over by chemical multinational Akzo Nobel, for which he continued to work until his retirement.
Just after the war my father worked during the day and followed a course in the evenings, which earned him a degree comparable (in level) to a university degree in chemistry. True to his love of femmes fatales, my father married an Amsterdam show girl, but soon realized this was a mistake and he had no children with her.
My father met my mother in a café in Amsterdam. My mother was working as a secretary to the board of directors of a chocolate factory. My father would wait for her in front of her office building after work hours, but because of the social stigma of being with a married man, she tried to avoid him. She went to England and France to improve her language skills, but also to avoid my father. When she returned and my father was again waiting for her, my mother gave in and she went to live with him in a house in a suburb of Amsterdam (where she still lives).
My father was a brilliant chemical engineer (the best in Europe, according to his colleagues), in his time one of the leading specialists in polymerization. He also had an affinity with the visual arts, as do many family members on my father’s side. Whenever my father had a chance, he would visit museums, during international business trips, or take our family to local exhibitions. He was a fan of Pablo Picasso, Karel Appel and the architect Le Corbusier. My father’s fondness of modernity was partly due to his youth in Ermelo, which in the first half of the 20th century was a rural village of a fanatically religious nature. Everyone was dressed in black (like the postmodern art scene…) and entertainment was not done. No dancing, no card games, or as my father put it: “Everything that was fun, was disallowed”. Even today the fanaticism (religious or not) is palpable. Next to my father’s grave in Ermelo there lays buried a 24 year old man on whose tombstone is written: “Sown in delight, conceived in dishonour”, meaning that the man had been an illigitimate child. The fin de siècle (with it’s loss of religious belief) had not quite reached Ermelo, but nevertheless the winds of change enabled my father to become a freethinker. In that sense he was Monty Python-esque: A very formal and intellectual man with a quirky twist. He would embarrass my sister and me with his overly formal behaviour (during the 1970s), his lack of physical coordination and his social ineptness, but we also respected him for his humour, wisdom, vast experience and solid personality. As a teenager my sister mingled with the local bohemians, who, among other things, were drug users, but due to my father’s warnings she never touched drugs herself and her friends were shocked at her sensible lifestyle, which was due to the respect she had for my father’s points of view. My father was a somewhat timid, soft spoken man, who always avoided verbal confrontations, but his opinion carried weight with people, even with my sister, who was a difficult teenager.
Avoiding verbal confrontations, by no means my father avoided physical confrontations. People would misjudge this low-key , “professorish” man at their peril. Watching soccer games was his passion and sometimes he would come home somewhat bruised, but content at the blows he had been able to deal. He was never heavy handed with his family.
In the business world he was able to hold his own, due to his uncomplicated nature, his physical and mental strength and his technical expertise, but due to his modesty, lack of social skills and unpolitical approach, the highest echelon was never within his reach. Even though at one time he was paid a better salary than the head of his branch, he prided himself on never having asked for a pay rise. His strategy of dealing with conflict was to stoically take the harassment of his opponents, which can be very effective and as means of intimidation, but not always as a sign of leadership. Having grown up among women, he had a way with them, but couldn’t get along well with men, which was no help professionally either.
He intended to get into a partnership with a German businessman to start a chemical company, until at 55 he got a severe heart attack, thwarting his ambitions. He stayed at home for 2 years, then went back to work, part time, for Akzo Nobel. Retirement at 65 was hard for this man, for whom work was the basis of his self-esteem. He died at 72, during heart surgery.
Although not artistic, my father was a uniquely creative man, a quality which still inspires me. He was a post-Fin de Siècle man, with the same intellectual dynamism, curiosity and grandeur of the artists and scientists I admire. I didn’t get on with my father. For all the ability he had, my father was too insecure about his self-worth to be able to befriend men. Although later in life he tried hard to improve the relationship, his initial rejection and his childlike social skills would continue to dominate our relationship. My parents were opposites in most ways. My father stoical, intellectual and low key, my mother sensitive, nervous and at times verbally aggressive. This diverse gene pool contributed to a highly charged family, especially during my sister’s and my adolescence, with deep and strong family ties and equally intense contradictions and conflicts. It’s not uncommon that parents and their children diverge during the children’s puberty and then converge when the children grow up, but because my father was old to have children and died rather young, my father and I didn’t get the chance to converge and become befriended adults, without all the real or assumed obligations and tensions of a parent-child relationship. Today, as ever, I honour and love Henk Jansen.
Biographies of my mother and sister will follow.