On the 27th of October 2016, an exhibition of Jan Toorop's oeuvre with over 130 works opened in museum Villa Stuck in Munich. I didn't know Toorop's works, to be honest, but a quick look into the internet made me curious to go. And I was overwhelmed with the exhibition: how could one single person paint so excellently in so many different styles?
Johannes Theodorus ('Jan') Toorop was born in 1858 on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies, where he grew up. When he was eleven years old, Jan moved to the Netherlands in order to receive better education, leaving his parents and siblings behind in the Indies.
It was soon clear that Toorop wanted to do something in the arts. He followed courses by Herman Johannes van der Weele, a painter that is counted to the second generation of the Hague School. From 1880 to 1882, Toorop studied at the State Academy of Fine Arts (Rijksacademie) in Amsterdam, and moved to Brussels afterwards. In Belgium, he joined a group of artists around expressionist/surrealist painter James Ensor, 'Les XX', with whom he worked for four years.
Within these early years of his career, Toorop worked with various styles. His early works were Realistic, but he also worked within the areas of Impressionism and Pointillistism. Many of his early paintings show scenes of simple country life: a farmer's family in a dark kitchen, hard-working men on the field, dunes and coastlines.
But throughout the years, Toorop's works became more and more symbolic, more abstract and also darker. In fact, Toorop created his own symbolism. Interpretors today are still puzzling what Toorop could have meant with some of his depictions. He created his own 'immense and inimitable visual vocabulary'*. In a letter, Toorop noted he was in search of an art that would no longer depict the externalso of life, but that would rather represent an other, spirtitual reality. In his symbolistic paintings, he combined his eastern roots with the western influences around him. Many of his figures resemble wajang puppets and the brownish motifs remind of Javanese batik fabric patterns.
At the turn of the century, he turned to Art Noveau styles, and started working more commercially, creating book covers and illustrations, posters, and stained glass designs. Probably his most famous work is the poster for 'Delftsche slaolie' (Delft Salad Oil). Fun fact: thanks to this poster, the Art Nouveau was called 'salad oil style' in the Netherlands for quite a time.
In 1905, Toorop converted to catholicism. He met the poetess Miek Janssen in 1912, a faithful catholic girl, and she heavily inspired Toorop to start painting religious works. Between 1916 and 1919, he produced 14 lithographs of Jesus's Stations of the Cross. She was a model for several of the portraits he created in the last stage of his life. Though Toorop was married, Miek was a pillar for him in his late life, especially when his leg started paralyzing.
What I love about Toorop's work is his wide variety of techniques, materials and styles. When seeing works from his oeuvre, it is hard to believe that all of those paintings and drawings were created by one and the same man. I love the intense gaze many of his portrayed figures have: they seem to look right into the observer's soul. I am intrigued by the haunting images of fairytale woods, weeping willows, women with waving hair.