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Hans Rookmaaker’s Relevance for Today

March 5, 2011

Laurel Gasque is the Associate Editor of ArtWay and the author of Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of H.R. Rookmaaker. She is also sessional lecturer in theology and the arts at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C. and adjunct professor of art history at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., Canada.

Hans Rookmaaker’s work is still relevant today. Opinions about his work often come from an inadequate understanding of modern art in the larger scheme of Western culture and/or an uninformed knowledge of the history of art history as an academic discipline.   This has obscured accurate assessment of his views on modern art as well as his contribution to reflection on the relationship between art and faith that is still pertinent today.  Another factor that has confused thinking about Rookmaaker, and that we considered in yesterday’s post,  has been his close association with Francis Schaeffer.

Rookmaaker considered himself to be both an art critic and art historian.  He always kept his membership card for the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) in his wallet. AICA was founded after WWII to track the changing face of contemporary art worldwide. Even esteemed commentators on the arts and faith, such as, Wilson Yates, have called him a ‘theologian.’  Hans would have cringed at this designation.  He never considered himself to be a theologian or even a philosopher, although his work frequently took him to the spheres of theology and philosophy.

Why is Rookmaaker sometimes not considered to be relevant today?

First, few, if any, recent commentators (e.g., Siedell , Worley) on Rookmaaker show evidence of being familiar with The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker, 6 Vols, ed. Marleen Rookmaaker-Hengelaar (Carlisle: Piquant, 2003).  These volumes demonstrate the deep involvement Rookmaaker had in the contemporary art of his time as he roved around The Netherlands and often farther afield reviewing contemporary art for the regular columns he wrote for Trouw, a  resistance newspaper founded during WWII that endures to this day as one the of the leading newspapers of the land.

Second, superficial readings of Modern Art & the Death of a Culture (1970) outside of the canon Rookmaaker’s Complete Works have misconstrued much of what he had to say.  He was not some kind of reactionary, but a nuanced critic and art historian, seeking to show readers some of the paths that modern art took to deconstruct modernity even as he attempted to build a Christian response to this that did not exist at that time. Rookmaaker saw the achievement of Picasso’s rejection of the Enlightenment.  He also recognized modern art’s breaking down the reductive realism espoused by much 19th century academic art.  In this he was a champion of Paul Gauguin, on whom he wrote his doctoral dissertation and also arguably the first ‘post-modern’ artist.

Third, ignorance of the recent history of the discipline of Art History is another factor in obscuring an understanding of HRR’s relevance today. Incredibly few art historians nowadays are aware of one of the most important art historians of the 20th century, Henri van de Waal  (1910 – 1972), creator of ICONCLASS and Professor of Art History at Leiden University.  His distinguished and close friends, Aby Warburg and Erwin Panofsky, are well known and lauded.

Van de Waal, who was Jewish, created the largest and best system for tracing the cultural content of art we have today.  It is said that he did this in order to remain sane while detained during WWII.  Following WWII, he taught at Leiden University.  He was a brilliant man and enormously engaging as a popular teacher. Van de Waal hired Hans Rookmaaker soon after the war to be his assistant and right hand man.  Van de Waal at this stage was at the forefront of developing art historical research. Rookmaaker was there with him and learned a great deal from his engaging, non-doctrinaire style of teaching and research.  Work needs to be done on van de Waal’s contribution to the history of art historical research as soon as possible before a first generation of his students pass away.

When Rookmaaker first visited the USA in 1961 and attended the College Art Association (the CAA – now in its 100th year!), most art historians lagged behind this forefront in art history.  Instead of talking about style in art, Rookmaaker was talking about content. Latterly, this became the trend (during the ‘60s and ‘70s) in art history dominated by the views of Erwin Panofsky, though van de Waal had a more open way of treating visual literacy, less tied to literary texts (although he was qualified in literature as well as art).

So, why is Rookmaaker still relevant today more than three decades after his death?

First and foremost, it is because he is an outstanding example of a person who integrated his personal faith with his profession through a deep desire to be biblically faithful and informed in the setting of the modern university and in the wider setting of his own culture. He was also an outstanding example of a Christian who was a public intellectual.  The breadth of Rookmaaker’s engagement ranged from serving on the Dutch national film board to writing on the re-issuing of many jazz recordings that were highly valued in Europe.  He frequently said he got all his theology from Jelly Roll Morton!  He was an extraordinary communicator – whether  lecturing at the Royal Academy of Art in London (where they had to find a bigger room for the crowd) to the University of British Columbia with the chairman of the art history department presiding.

Second, Rookmaaker’s relevance for today is also based on his influence on many art historians and artists as well as educators (see Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of H. R. Rookmaaker (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005), ‘Legacy,’ pp. 137 – 178).  Subsequent to what I wrote in 2005, I have learned that of a number of other diverse and distinguished individuals also have been significantly influenced by Rookmaaker.

The relevance of Rookmaaker needs to rest on reading the whole canon of his work.  Otherwise it is like making a judgment on the whole Bible from reading two or three books of Scripture.  The original title of my biography of Hans Rookmaaker was An Open Life.  Truly Hans Rookmaaker lived an open life, open and learning to the end!  There is still much to learn from his example.  That we are still discussing Rookmaaker suggests he is still a relevant thinker to reckon with in the area of art and faith!

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