Jan Cremer was born 58 years ago in Enschede. Since then, like the proverbial cat with nine lives, he has lived at 100,000 volts. Globetrotting journalist, writer and planetary reporter, painter and graphic artist, man of letters, of theatre and of cinema, this existential privateer leads at least seven lives at the same time - and notice carefully, I term him a privateer, and not a pirate: he has earned his letters of marque with distinction, and it would be both too easy and unjust to call him merely a professional provocateur, or an adventurer who thumbs his nose at everything and everybody. His love for art is the guarantee for his love for humankind.
It is precisely in his art that we find immediate and tangible evidence for this. Since 1965, the tulip, the national flower of The Netherlands, has assumed a recurrent thematic role in it, first and foremost at the level of the landscape, in rows and, repeating themselves, in tulip fields. The accumulations of scarlet or multicoloured rows of blooming flowers do much to enliven the flat land and long horizon which endlessly fascinates Cremer in the latent expansiveness of the farthest corners of the world: the taiga of Siberia or Lapland, the steppes of Mongolia.
The tulip also functions at the level of individual symbolism. Seen alone, the flower's vase-shaped crown opens up into a heart, the symbol of feeling par excellence: the wounded heart, the broken heart, the distraught heart, hearts melted together, lonely, desolate hearts in the midst of the crowd. Thus we move from dutch glory (1965) and koninginnedag (1974), through the tulip of St. Tropez or the twin tulips or the passionate tulip, to the 1991 dutch glory, and wild tulips, from 1998. As a thorough investigator of his own emotional life, throughout the course of his whole oeuvre as a painter and graphic artist Jan Cremer has taken care to clearly mark out the points of reference.
For that matter, he also does the same in his other lives, in words, photos, film, and as a director. Rereading 'I Jan Cremer', his international best-seller from 1964, after seeing this exhibition of his visual art, you will be struck by the analogy between word and gesture in this effervescent work. Jan Cremer's expressive syntax originates in a high-voltage core that discharges in shockwaves of images: he writes just like he paints.
With regard to Jan Cremer's seven lives, I am reminded of an anecdote about Nam June Paik. It was in 1993, during the Venice Biennial, where Nam June had erected a Mongolian yurt in the German pavilion. In the round tent he installed seven masks of his own face in front of a candle-lit Buddha, as a metaphor for a Mongolian proverb: if you have looked death in the face seven times, you will be immortal... a message that is particularly apropos for Jan Cremer, the fervent reporter from the steppes.
His powers of graphic expression have earned this existential Dutch privateer his letters of marque and his patent of nobility. This survey catalogue, which assembles his works from 1956 through 1998, would seem to be a collection of the choicest pages from a ship's log, from which we can read the secrets of the pure and hard gaze of a man of action, a gaze that rests on the world of man, and which carries along the thunderous explosions of the breath of freedom, of the indomitable wanderlust that renews itself with every return. Graphic gestures translate the state of the spirit of the cosmic wind that makes the tulips tremble, that makes the slopes of the Altai trill, that makes the blue tree bend, and that dies down in the shadows of Tuscan cypresses, in the intoxication of summer. If he had taken the time, as you and I do now, to further study this vision that arises from the great tradition of deep expressionism, Yves Klein would have discovered there the ineffable presence of immaterial pictorial sensitivity.
Looking back on the art of the 1950s, from which Yves Klein thought he was so distant, a half century later we see such distances somewhat more clearly. The breath of barbarism à la Cremer arose naturally, to disturb the pompous vehemence of Cobra and the clever effects of abstract matter. Lingering above the tulip fields of The Netherlands, this breath that animates Cremer's activities loses nothing of its vital surge. It reinforces the spirit of extreme intensity and absolute vitality found in the gesture that compresses vehicles, brings scrap iron to life, wraps beaches or whole valleys, or loosens posters from the skin of the wall. And moreover, while we are speaking of the skin of the wall, this breath proclaims the extraordinary revival of urban cave painting that is the emerging characteristic of all marginal neighbourhoods on our planet. Wall paintings and graffiti have become the cry of the immense choir of all the wretched of the earth, the ultimate language of survival of the urban ghettos or ethnic minorities, from Africa to the Caribbean, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, from Los Angeles and New York to Berlin and Moscow, the ultimate manifestation of the human being's struggle for liberation, on the part of all those who are cast out of society and see only one alternative to death from shame, misery and hunger: the wall painting of armed insurrection.
Proletarians of the graphic gesture, unite, and tomorrow..., tomorrow! We know that every jubilant tomorrow is destined only for the rich to become still richer, and certainly not for the poor, who become ever poorer. Think of the posters of May, 1968. They were produced in the heat of the moment, by students challenging all of Western Europe. That is now thirty years ago, and to mark this anniversary they are being resurrected from oblivion and shown in a number of exhibitions. We smile now at their extraordinary pathos. But still, it can not be denied that the breath of barbarism à la Cremer, with its vital and liberating force, presided over their creation in those days. Note well! The slogans which they illustrate were not as innocent as they seem; after all, they announced a sea change in society which has actually taken place, the impending arrival of the third millennium, with the rise of postindustrial society and the recognition of the inviolable right to be different. By proclaiming that 'Black is Beautiful' and that 'We are all German Jews', May, 1968, acknowledged not only the difference of the other (the eternal ethnic, sexual, socio-economic, political minority), but also the normality of difference.
During his ceaseless travelling all over the world, Jan Cremer must often have encountered this problem that is crucial for social harmony and cohesion. Jan Cremer's whole oeuvre is an enhanced reflection of his own vision of the perception of the other. It is through the constant enrichment of this intuitive existence that the firebird of 1958 becomes the eagle of 1986, or that two of the flowers standing in a row in dutch glory step forward out of the anonymity of the field in order to take their place in the foreground in the form of two fused hearts in tulips in blue (1992).
The lesson to be distilled from the years 1956 through 1998 is clear. The vital charge of the graphic gesture has lost none of its suggestive power in the course of the years, under the magnifying influence of the other. Jan Cremer lives his life and weaves the web of his commentary from the skein of his diverse talents. It is his own way of embracing 'la normalité dans la différence' (the normality of being different), and with it, being fully synchronous with the spirit of the times. Rowing after events like Cremer the privateer is not an easy thing, but on casting myself into the water, I must say that I experience a definite pleasure.