Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of H. R. Rookmaaker
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by Laurel Gasque
Description: Hans Rookmaaker's impact on the arts in the twentieth century was enormous. Laurel Gasque examines Rookmaaker's life and shows how he incorporated his biblical beliefs into his teaching, writing, and interaction with the arts and individuals.
eBook Publisher: Crossway Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: June 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [386 KB]
Reading time: 169-236 min.
ans Rookmaaker's life spanned a mere fifty-five years (1922-). Those years were situated symmetrically in the midst of the twentieth century. He completed the first half of the course of his life in 1949/1950. He was gone by 1977.
Since his death the arts scene among Christians of almost all traditions and denominations in Europe and North America has changed significantly. The Bible Society in New York City now has a serious art gallery. The National Gallery in London marked the year 2000 with an extraordinary exhibition of images of Christ sponsored by two major trusts willing to back such an arts event despite the considerable embarrassment that some art historians still seem to have about Christian subject matter. Over the past thirty years Christian rock music has matured considerably lyrically and musically. Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) is an established organization linking and creatively supporting a wide network of Christian artists in all fields of the visual arts. Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion serves as a beacon of hope for many writers and artists as it speaks credibly from a perspective of faith-commitment to a wider culture beyond the boundaries of religious institutions. In Scotland the Leith School of Art was founded, and in the Netherlands a Christian art academy was established as a result of Rookmaaker's own efforts.
A generation ago these kinds of developments and resources that we have begun to take for granted simply did not exist. In North America the marginalizing and minimizing of the arts were not just a condition of the church but also of a pragmatic culture that viewed the arts as a luxury rather than a necessity. In Europe the situation was different. The wider culture valued the arts and invested in them more than their North American counterparts. For many cultured Europeans art, filled with the beauty and greatness of past human achievement, was a surrogate religion. For an extremely influential and highly intellectual minority, it became a staging ground for raging anger and discontent, especially after the debacle of World War II and the collapse of confidence in an abiding moral order. On both sides of the Atlantic the church, challenged by a new society and not completely confident of its identity, frequently closed its eyes and ears to culture by ignoring trends or becoming defensive.
With extraordinary openness and human sympathy, and with deep faith, Hans Rookmaaker faced these cultural conditions squarely. Not only did many of the arts developments mentioned above not exist a generation ago, but they were not fully imaginable. The dynamic impact of Rookmaaker's life and his short lifework made them a lot more probable. Out of all proportion to his length of days, he qualitatively influenced key individuals and groups that would have a remarkable effect on changing attitudes toward the arts in the church and many other institutions.
In 1961 at the height of the Cold War and the great race for space between the Soviets and the Americans, Rookmaaker, not yet a full professor but teaching at the University of Leiden, made his first extended trip to North America. He was not sponsored or invited by churches, though individual friends from his Reformed tradition welcomed him and warmly hosted him, but came through a grant funded by the Dutch government. The purpose of his trip was to make a study of the teaching of art history in the United States.
To say the least, he made the most of this trip. While in the United States he visited virtually every major center of art-historical study east of St. Louis as well as every major art collection from the northeast seaboard to the Midwest. He attended the College Art Association meeting in New York City, where he met many prominent art historians. He took this golden opportunity also to pursue his passion for African-American music and culture. By this time he was an expert in this field and had recently published a book on jazz, blues, and spirituals. His diary during this trip is dotted with contacts with leading black figures such as Thomas A. Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, and Langston Hughes. Furthermore, he managed to meet a wide range of church-affiliated people, from black Baptists and Dutch Reformed types to a broad spectrum of evangelicals attached to institutions such as Calvin College and Wheaton College and organizations such as Christianity Today. He also traveled to Canada. Afterward he exuberantly corresponded with an amazing number of the people he had met on his travels.
Rookmaaker continued to deepen his thought and nurture his friendships. By 1968 he was a professor and had formed the Art History Department of the Free University of Amsterdam. He was in full stride. The intervening years had helped prepare him for an increasingly chaotic culture. Often this period is looked back at nostalgically as a gentler, more peace-loving time flowing with flower children and happy hippies, when marijuana filled the air and some social issues, such as basic civil rights for blacks in the USA, got straightened out. With fading memory the fierceness of the student protest movements that were gaining strength both in Europe and North America have not always remained clear. When a U.S. combat troop led by Lieutenant William Calley massacred all five hundred civilians of the Vietnamese village of My Lai though they showed no sign of resistance, that tragedy inflamed intense anger, as did the entire war. The attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke, a well-known German student anarchist and activist, unleashed turbulent solidarity demonstrations in Vienna, Paris, Rome, and London. Student protests closed down the University of Paris in the spring of 1968 and turned the streets of Paris into a battle zone, imperiling the government. West Germany was launched into a decade of tumultuous internal struggle as radicals gathering around the Baader-Meinhof Gang tried to kick-start revolution through violence and terrorism.
During these tumultuous years of student unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, few thinkers or leaders were prepared for the hard social, political, and philosophical realities of this era. Many academic and administrative careers were broken in universities across the world. Rookmaaker was not impervious to the pressures on and within his own institution or on himself as an administrator and teacher. But, remarkably, he was prepared spiritually and intellectually for the fundamental challenge of the younger generation's radical quest and the turbulence of the times it helped create, because through the years he had striven earnestly to bring to bear Christian understanding on all the issues of life. He made a huge impact on the lives of students in several countries.
At first glance he looked like an unlikely person to have much to say to a radical and rebellious generation bent on changing not only the university but also society and its mores. A driver's license that he obtained in 1961 during his extended travels in the USA describes him as having brown hair and eyes, weighing 160 pounds, with a height of five feet and eight inches. He was not physically a big man or imposing at all. Dressed in an English worsted three-piece suit and smoking his pipe, he appeared a typical, comfortably positioned bureaucrat or professor. He looked more like a bank manager than an art historian. There was not a trace of bohemian manner in his style. On the surface, it was not difficult to suspect him of being slightly out of touch with current trends or contemporary culture.
When the clamor came, however, he was ready. Many times he faced hostile audiences of art students who were astonished to hear this ordinary-looking, little professor talking impassion-ately and intelligently about contemporary issues and trends from a Christian perspective. His courage in facing and discussing the questions of art and morals in society, areas rarely ventured into publicly by conservative Christians, motivated many reluctant Christian students who had compartmentalized their lives to relate their faith to their whole lives and studies in a deep and lively way.
But it was not only Christian students who responded to him. Tony Wales, who in the mid-1960s served on the staff of British Inter-Varsity Fellowship (IVF), said he had seen students and others come to faith in Christ through such Rookmaaker lectures as "Three Steps to Modern Art." Wales also had seen him receive a standing ovation by several hundred students at a London art college following a two-hour-long presentation and analysis of rock and protest music. On that occasion not only did these students of the protest generation show their respect, but at the end of the same lecture the chairman of the painting department of the college acknowledged that he now for the first time could understand his own son. Wales also relates Rookmaaker's evident disappointment on another occasion when a lecture he was to give at the Royal Academy had to be moved to a larger hall because the Reynolds Room was bulging with people!
Rookmaaker was a masterful communicator in both Dutch and English. When the lights went down and he started to show slides of great works of art of the past or startling contemporary art and comment on them, his audience was fascinated, whether they agreed with him or not. His lecturing style was highly unusual for a continental professor, as he spoke not from a written manuscript but extemporaneously and with full attentive engagement with his listeners. It was an art form, a performance. Like a jazz musician playing inventively with themes, he would improvise within a given structure (the lecture topic) with mastery and control, skill and intensity. He would bait and shock, amuse and bemuse. A lot hung on the sequence of visual or audio examples he used. The more often he repeated a lecture, the richer it got. His material never became stale with repetition because there was always something new, if only in the provocative tone or way he put things.
In the light of day he was equally compelling. Going to an art gallery with him was an exceptional learning experience. He regularly took his own students from the Free University to the many special art collections in the Netherlands as well as on extended excursions to collections abroad, especially to Italy. But he also frequently invited small groups or individuals to join him at the art museum when he spoke at conferences.
He did not feel compelled to look at every painting or work of art when he entered a gallery. He would say, "Look at the one that draws you to itself." Or when he gathered a small group before a picture, he would ask the most obvious question first: "What are you looking at?" Often there was acute discomfort in the group because such a basic question seemed so self-evident. Suspicion would arise that there must be some hidden agenda behind it to expose their ignorance. Rookmaaker, however, never toyed with people in this way. He would be playful and provocative for pedagogical purposes. He was always a sincere teacher. Soon everyone in the little group would learn that they genuinely needed to see firsthand what they were looking at. Afterward this made Rookmaaker's own remarks on the picture all the more rewarding because everyone in the group had started first by seeing it for himself or herself.
Rookmaaker was protective of his little flock of students when visiting an art gallery. He did not take kindly to interlopers with whom he did not have a personal connection. Many of his students relate incidents when a curious visitor would sidle up to the group to hear the interesting things the small, dignified gentleman was saying only to be told directly by him in a not so gentle way, "This is a very special art history course. It costs two thousand dollars. Please go away!" Aghast, the intruder would leave. And the small group would beam at being considered so special and exclusive. There lurked beneath an unpretentious exterior a complex personality of immense vitality and not a few surprises.
Rookmaaker brought his own humanity and his understanding of humanity to his scholarship in a conscious way that is unusual for academics. He also sought to help his students bring their humanity fully into their learning and studies. His own words best describe how important the human element was for him in learning and teaching:
We must judge as human beings, not as an abstract homo aestheticus, not as art historians or as artists but with our full human being.... But everyone may and can judge art. The difference comes between a practiced judgment, based on experience, and the judgment of someone who is just beginning to look. The latter must still learn a lot--in the first place, to see. And that is exactly the situation of our students. We also need to teach them to look as human beings. All of education is concerned with the humanity of young people. The point of departure is their humanity, their young and inexperienced humanity. They need to develop competence in judging, they need to gain experience and insight. They will have to do that themselves. It is all too subtle and too richly multicoloured for us to be able to teach it to them as one teaches a maths sum. But we will have to show them the way. Help them. Pass on something of our experience and our knowledge by which they at least can be guarded from the most obvious misconceptions and dead ends....
The student expects that you will judge as a human being ... a person with conviction, a point of view, a person with a warm heart who can get angry and can also say why you were so moved or became so enthusiastic, can explain why something had such an impact on you. We may talk about works of art, preferably close to the works of art themselves, as long as it is not an argument for argument's sake--so interesting and so cultural--as long as the real commitment is to find the truth, to say the right thing, in order to do justice to the artist, the work in question, and to the students and ourselves as well.
Besides, we can be sure that our work is never perfect. But it certainly can be meaningful. It is possible to work and deal with art and with students in this way. If it were impossible, it would be better never to speak about art again, no, even stronger, to never look at it again. After all, the work proves to be humanly impossible to approach and does not really require our reaction, the input of our personality. Basically these things are about love for our neighbour and for the truth, because only these can make us free and make our work meaningful.(CW [Complete Works], 2:134-)
In 1970, the year Rookmaaker published his best-selling book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, most students in Europe or North America were not being thought of or educated in this deeply human and personal way. On May 4 that year, the world looked on with horror as students, only some of whom were protesters against the bombing of Cambodia (a decision by President Nixon that appeared to expand the Vietnam War), were gunned down by National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. The opening words of Rookmaaker's book perfectly captured the mood of the era: "We live at a time of great change, of protest and revolution. We are aware that something radical is happening around us, but it is not always easy to see just what it is" (CW, 5:5).
He was exactly on target. Rookmaaker had written a searing account in this work of the dehumanization of life in our times as shown in the rise of modern art. These were threatening words for many who had accommodated themselves comfortably to modernity and contemporary culture, whether they were or were not Christians, or whether they were or were not aware of this conformity. When it came out, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture received wide acknowledgment and even acclaim, from a brief notice and review in Art News to Malcolm Muggeridge's making it one of his Observer Books of the Year for 1970. Muggeridge also promoted it in Esquire, where he was also a book review editor. Modern Art and the Death of a Culture was a genuine crossover book. It used a single language that was accessible to people whether they had Christian conviction or not. Its success may possibly have inspired its copy-editor at Inter-Varsity Press in England, David Alexander, to co-found with his wife, Pat Alexander, Lion Publishing, a new press dedicated to a refreshingly inclusive way of communicating with and engaging the public.
In Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, Rookmaaker resolutely faced the problematic and polemical character of modern art that denounced the nature and dignity of humanity. In the nineteenth century Nietzsche said, "God is dead." In the twentieth century, the most potent stream of modern art implicitly said, "Man is dead." Rookmaaker asked the question:
What has become of people? Miró once painted a picture of a picture. He took a reproduction of a secondary seventeenth-century Dutch picture (it could just as well have been a Vermeer or a Rembrandt) and gave his own reinterpretation. Nothing is more telling. 'Man is dead,' it says. The absurd, the strange, the void, the irrationally horrible is there. The old picture is treated with humour, scorn ... and devastating irony until nothing is left. As the image is destroyed, so too is man. (CW, 5:88)
For Rookmaaker this was spiritual combat, not simply a matter of aesthetic niceties or opinions. He was attempting to awaken spiritual sleepers to the idea that modern art was not amoral or neutral but was loaded with meaning that conveyed an impact on all of us, whether we ever darkened the door of an art museum or not, because it was an assault on our humanity. The implications were not theoretical but were as practical as how we raise our children, elect our leaders, or care for the earth's environment.
A tremendous disruption with past assumptions of Western culture regarding the nature of humankind and reality had been heralded while most people were distracted by the clever allurements of a technological age. Modern artists like Picasso, Miró, and Duchamp not only promulgated a view of human beings as absurd but also celebrated it, led the way, and propagated it through their works of art. It is widely known that early audiences of this art reacted violently to it. This did not come generally from an informed perspective but out of an intuition at some vague level of being threatened. We may smile at their reaction to the shock of the new and feel mildly superior in being able now to appreciate this art. But Rookmaaker pointed out that only those practicing an aesthetic of detachment, interested purely in formal analysis of the work of art, or somewhat naive viewers not desiring to appear to be philistines could say, "The new art gives nothing more than a human message, conveyed by new means ... [or] artists are expressing their times, and when they live in different times their forms are different."
He remarked further that "all the while the sometimes obvious content is being ignored. And even when there is an attempt to discuss content, they make it subjective and say 'This is how things are seen by this person.' In any event, to question the truth of what is stated in art is taboo" (CW, 5:196). Rookmaaker tack led both the radical implications of meaning in modern art and the studied refusal to engage that meaning.
This changing view of human beings, of course, did not happen overnight, or even in the decades at the turn of the twentieth century. Rookmaaker's own doctoral dissertation on Paul Gauguin, perhaps his most influential scholarly work, concentrated on this pivotal period at the turn of the century. However, his Complete Works attest that a monumental amount of his thinking went into analyzing and reflecting on the gradual transformation of thought regarding the nature of being human that transpired in Western culture since the time of the High Middle Ages. He focused frequently on views concerning human nature as formulated in Renaissance and Reformation thought during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and particularly on the implications of the Enlightenment view of man in the eighteenth century for an unfolding view of modernity that the twentieth century ultimately received as a dubious legacy.
He forcefully engaged these ideas in his essay "Commitment in Art":
This new vision of human beings and the world--a result of the development starting with the Enlightenment and continuing through Romanticism and positivism--was first given expression in painting. It happened around 1911: the old view of people having positive contact with reality, a contact already loosened by Impressionism, was totally destroyed. Human being [sic] as an absurdity, estranged from the world, which was in itself chaotic, accidental and apparently contingent and hostile, became the painter's new preoccupation. Some artists, like Picasso, began to paint absurd humanity, while others, like Kandinsky, turned to abstraction. In this revolution, this violent destruction of so many established values, much that was deeply anchored in the reality of human life was torn down. A great part of the alarmed public found it unacceptable. Just as people had reacted violently at the beginning of Impressionism, so Kandinsky relates how his abstract paintings had to be cleaned every night at his exhibition in 1912 because the public had spat on his work. The artist was committed and had a message. That much the public accepted and did not deny, but being themselves also committed, they retained the right to reject that message. (CW, 5:192-)
Rookmaaker's approach to these issues was not always appreciated and frequently stirred up strong reactions. Often he was (inaccurately, as his Complete Works attest) accused of not understanding and dismissing abstract art. He was criticized for focusing too much on the content and meaning of works of art. In an article written in 1972, Nicholas Wolterstorff believed that Rookmaaker looked "right through the sensory qualities of the work of art in order to discern the message beyond." Alva Steffler, an art professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, had a similar impression after reading Rookmaaker's writing and becoming personally acquainted with him in the early 1970s, though later modifying these views and coming to an appreciation of Rookmaaker's perspective.
No one may have put it in print, but there was a climate of criticism around Rookmaaker that regarded him as a popularizer. Rookmaaker's communication skills sympathetically won him nicknames like "the pipe-puffing pundit of Amsterdam" and "the Dutch Kenneth Clark" from some of his peers and colleagues. But in the academy there is often, unfortunately, a price to pay for the ability to communicate with a broad audience. Popularizing is not at all popular with most academics! The assumption is that doing this signifies that "the scholar" is "lightweight," meaning he or she is not sufficiently serious in undertaking scholarship. Such a person is frequently accused of oversimplifying complexities or even distorting issues for the sake of having an audience, whether this is well-founded or not. Both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were ostracized to a certain extent by their Oxbridge colleagues because of this prejudice. Dorothy L. Sayers was not tarred with this brush because she was not and did not claim to be a scholar, though her actual achievements belie this. But if the accusation places one in the company of people like the former, it may well be a badge of honor.
Rookmaaker seems to have borne with this well. He had a high degree of personal confidence. While he appreciated the esteem of his colleagues, it does not appear that he had any craven need for their approval. One wonders what his own awareness of his students' appreciation of him was. Did he have any sense of how far some of these inchoate artists and art historians would take his words and work and be formed significantly by them? He clearly basked in their admiration. Perhaps this approbation acted as compensation.
The extent of Rookmaaker's intellectual interests were far broader than usual for an academic. In his own field of art history, his writing was not confined to one or two areas of investigation but ranged over the whole course of Western art. At the same time he published works on African-American music and spoke about various cultural issues on public radio. Moving easily from technical philosophy and scholarship to readable, popular journalism, he was what today we might call a natural-born public intellectual. Yet he never eschewed or disparaged technical scholarship. In his association with Professor H. van de Waal of the University of Leiden, he helped pioneer DIAL/Iconclass, the most important technical art-historical research tool of the twentieth century for comprehensively classifying art-historical subject matter.
Rookmaaker deployed a broad blend of interests and competencies dynamically. He spoke a good number of European languages and had a reading knowledge of several more. Academically his ability ranged from researching technical scholarship for specialists to communicating many of these findings to a general public. He did both with equal respect. In both speaking and writing he had considerable skill to captivate. None of this, however, was in his case an end in itself to create a brilliant career or to achieve acknowledgment, though he became a full professor and received recognition. From the moment he opened himself to fully embracing a biblical faith in Jesus Christ he was on a mission that motivated him until his last breath. The light shed into his life by the true Light of the world illuminated his vision and imbued him with an immense sense of being called to be fully human in a world created by the living God in accordance with his rich reality. Essentially Rookmaaker's aim was to share this fullness of life with others, not in a reductive or one-sided way but in a way that reflected the complexity and completeness of God's sustaining love in creation.
During his lifetime relatively few people who heard him or read his work knew much about the circumstances of his life or the hard-won way he had come to be a Christian. Occasionally he would share that he had come to Christ in a German prisoner-of-war camp. But it barely needed being stated explicitly, because anyone with ears to hear could tell no matter what topic Rookmaaker talked about they were encountering a powerful genuineness based on actual experience. This tacit undercurrent of strength through struggle permeated his style. Undoubtedly this authenticity was key to his impact on an unusually wide diversity of people. He was not everyone's cup of tea or a typical mass communicator. He was often playful and implied meaning in a way that encouraged his audience to form their understanding of what he was saying in a way that integrated their thinking with their feeling, but he did not strive to manipulate emotions.
One would expect an art historian to influence other art historians. And Rookmaaker did. What is less usual is for an art historian to have influence on many artists, including musicians and writers. But this Rookmaaker also did. It is rare for an art historian to make an impact on mature scholars and thinkers in other fields. Rookmaaker did this as well. In the 1970 Summer School of Regent College (Vancouver, Canada), the distinguished British biblical scholar F.F. Bruce, who taught along with Rookmaaker during that time, made clear his appreciation for the widening of his horizons as a result of listening to his Dutch colleague. David McKenna, an influential American Christian educator, while president of Seattle Pacific University, desired to come and study with Rookmaaker because he felt that his understanding of culture was compellingly important for an understanding of higher education in the contemporary world.
Most rare is it for an art historian to make an impact on ordinary people with no singular interest in art, scholarship, or education. Yet Rookmaaker quite often could communicate with people from a variety of walks of life because he was not an aesthete, and his aim was ultimately not simply to inform people about art but to share with others through art the fullness of life and the richness of reality that God created through his love. As a result of hearing or reading Rookmaaker, a sincere housewife could stunningly be awakened to her ingrained bourgeois sentimentality or a businessman suddenly see that it might be a good thing to plant some trees and to landscape his parking lot instead of just covering it over with asphalt and cement.
He might infuriate some people on occasion. He was not totally approachable. He would have been the last person on the planet to coo over a baby. He would never have made a politician, trying to get elected. He had his shortcomings and blind spots. He could be gruff. He sometimes became truly angry. Though he never especially sought conflict, he could face it. He passionately sought to do justice to the complexities of any issue, idea, opinion, or work of art or scholarship that he encountered. He hungered and thirsted for righteousness. He was not a plaster saint but a man of many complexities and hidden depths.
Hans Rookmaaker's life rang true to reality. He unfailingly engaged his contemporary listeners and readers in refreshing and interesting ways that accorded with the experience of living in the twentieth century. It is all the more of interest for us that so much of his thought is still accessible and has application and relevance for many of the challenges of life in the twenty-first century.
Why is this so? Who was Hans Rookmaaker? What formed him?
As we follow the course of his life in subsequent chapters, these are the questions to be engaged.