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Introducing Transpositions’ Symposium: The Life and Work of Hans Rookmaaker

February 27, 2011

Hendrik Roelof “Hans” Rookmaaker was born today 89 years ago (1922).  He died on March 13, 1977.  Transpositions is hosting a symposium that lasts for six days and that takes place between the dates of his birth and his death.  It is a celebration of his life.

I am too young to have ever known Hans Rookmaaker, but I have heard much about him from those who did know him, and from those who greatly admire his work.  I remember hearing about his book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture when I was in college, and when I finally read it I was not disappointed.  It is a book that shows his versatility as an art historian, philosopher and theologian.  And now I look forward to the day when I can pick up a copy of his Complete Works and discover in those pages a mind that his fully awake to the pressing questions and issues of his time.

In this symposium, we have the opportunity to hear from four scholars (E. John Walford, Taylor Worley, James Romaine, and Laurel Gasque) who have been influenced by Rookmaaker’s work.  As we will see, his influence cannot be contained within Rookmaaker’s profession as an art historian, but it extends into the Christian life as a whole.  Numerous Christian scholars and leaders are enthusiastic about the influence that Rookmaaker has had upon Christianity in the twentieth century.  David Lyle Jeffery (Baylor University) says that Rookmaaker is “one of the most intriguing and dynamic figures in 20th century Christian intellectual history.”  Mark Noll (Notre Dame University) claims that ‘If there is even anything resembling an evangelical intellectual renaissance underway today, Rookmaaker must be given some of the credit.”  And J. I. Packer describes Rookmaaker as “a brilliant and magnetic people-person who was in truth one of the great Christians of his time.”

If Rookmaaker has contributed to an “evangelical intellectual renaissance” it is because his life and work lead by example.  Over the next six days, we will hear a great deal about his work.  But what about his person?  In reading Laurel Gasque’s excellent biography, Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of Hans Rookmaaker, I was intrigued by Rookmaaker’s character as one who faced life with utmost playfulness and seriousness.  She notes that, although he “displayed considerable personal professional dignity … academic aloofness played no part in his expressive style or the content of his work.” (122)  According to Gasque, Rookmaaker exhibited a great ability to engage the imaginations of his audience, and this is due to Rookmaaker’s own capacity to look at life in a participatory and integrated way that “did not drive a wedge between the physical and spiritual realms.” (122)

There is, of course, no substitute for knowing a person face to face.  But I would like to leave you with a couple of anecdotes that point towards a mixture of playfulness, seriousness and humour.  The first is from Laurel Gasque’s biography, and I received the second in a correspondence with John Walford. Gasque writes:

We [Laurel and Ward Gasque] almost killed ourselves suppressing our laughter on one occasion at seeing Hans trying to be as tactful as possible in giving his opinion of a work of art in which one of our colleagues had invested a considerable amount of money despite his wife’s disapproval … When Hans was not immediately forthcoming, he finally asked, “What do you think?”  There was a significant interval of silence.  There we all were, including our colleague and his spouse and children, waiting with bated breath to hear Hans’ expert opinion.  Fiddling with his pipe a bit, he finally looked around at all of us and then at the painting and said, “Well, it really should be entitled, ‘Tunnell of Love.’  It would be best if you put it under your bed.” (6)

John Walford, who will be reflecting on Rookmaaker’s thought in tomorrow’s post, says that Rookmaaker taught him that a Christian perspective can permeate the whole of human life.  Therefore, each moment has the potential for reflection and learning.  Walford writes:

One sunny summer afternoon, a year after my arrival in Holland, to study at the Free University, Amsterdam, a group of students—myself among them—were at a country house retreat for a L’Abri discussion around the works of Sartre. After a long session indoors, we came out into the sunshine, I looked around, feeling hot and restless, and lamented the lack of a swimming pool. Rookmaaker tore into me with ferocity. “If you think like that, you are thinking like a Romantic, not a Christian, who learns to accept the world, as it is, not as it might be….” He detected in my comment an underlying outlook on life, or a ‘world view,’ a Romantic yearning for what was lacking, which grated on his Realist celebration of the givens of life, even in their imperfection.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 28, 2011 8:01 am

    HRR’s ‘tact’. I remember walking with him, with a group of students, past a display of our work. He had a comment on each one til he came to a particular painting.
    After a moment of what I took as deep thought, he looked ar his pipe, and said, “Well, watercolour is a difficult medium.”

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