Jan Nieuwenhuijs Painter Cobra Artist

I paint the way I laugh

The Dutch painter Jan Nieuwenhuijs is probably the most mysterious artist of the European CoBrA movement. He was one of the early active founders of the Dutch ‘Experimentele groep’ that later became part of CoBrA. With this site we try to give some more insight in his work, his life and backgrounds.

Jan in his artelier around 1955Jan lived and worked his whole life in Amsterdam from 1922 until his dead in 1986.

Around the age of 14 he and his two year older brother decided to become painters. From 1938 to 1941 he attended the ‘Rijksnormaalschool’ in Amsterdam. Later in the Second World War he also took lessons at the ‘Rijksacademie’ in Amsterdam. At the Rijksacademie he met Karel Appel and Corneille.

In the Second World War Jan painted almost only clowns, nudes and couples making love. Just after the war he started painting fantasy animals like aggressive cocks, cats and bulls.

He and his brother Constant had lots of arguments about his paintings. During the war Constant himself painted only, catholic scenes like piëtas and Maria portraits or still life’s and thought that Jan chose his subjects too lightly.

In 1948 Appel, Elburg, Kouwenaar, Wolvekamp, Corneille, Constant, Brands, Rooskens and Jan Nieuwenhuijs founded the ‘experimentele groep’ that a few months later became the European group CoBrA. Jan was in his paintings of this period influenced by dreams, children’s drawings, the artistic expressions of mentally handicapped people and primitive art. Animals such as birds and cats play a leading role in most of his works, along with fantastic creatures and beings that are made up of a combination of human, animal and mechanical elements. A lot of the creatures balance on a rope or wear boats as a hat.

Jan was soon disappointed in the members of the CoBrA group, some of them were more interested in fame than being an activist , he couldn’t stand the fighting that was going on between the members and so he left the group in the middle of 1949, some other members also left but they joined again, for the great exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum.

In 1964 he says in an interview; ‘ The group was not founded as an exposition group but as a group of activists. We wanted to put an effort into that, to fight against the softness in art at the time and using our imagination to change that. Regrettably I must ascertain that a lot of the Experimentalists of that day also became esthetics. Everything official stops to be combatant. I think that work of some of them look very dormant these days’

Jan went his own way, desillusioned, and concentrated only on his work. His paintings became more and more liberated and he experimented with different materials like fluorescent paint and everything he could get his hands on. Everything could become a painting.

In an interview from 1964 he says; ‘I start with my material and my color. With that I express myself. From the material I come to my subject and that is maybe contrary to what painters did in earlier days. I paint the way I write, the way I laugh. That’s why I paint differently all the time, because my moods change. That’s the way I feel.’

‘As a painter I don’t want to paint a particular situation. I am not abstract, not really non-figurative. I try to be expressive and therefore I need certain images. Today I am in China, tomorrow in Paris, after tomorrow some other place. We are confronted every day with what happens in the world. You’re living on a specific spot, but also in the whole world. It’s maybe therefore that we become so ignorant and hard, because we experience too much. Hunger, war. That particular situation doesn’t mean anything anymore.’

From the same interview; ‘ I wish, if they see my work later on, that they can see the twentieth century. The artist must give his time a suit. And it doesn’t matter if he is an architect, poet or painter. In abstract painting I miss the beat of this time, the rudeness. We, the people of today we are living with the fear of an atom bomb. The abstracts are building only a superficial world for you.’

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