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Jan Elburg

1919,Wemeldinge -

Wemeldinge30 November 1919 – Amsterdam13 August 1992

Jan Elburg was one of the poets in the ‘dichterskooi’ (‘poets cage’ or ‘poet’s cage’) at the (in)famous Cobra exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1949. That he did so does seem pretty logical, but when you think about it, it is also quite remarkable. Elburg is best known as a poet, and when his poetry is discussed, his connection to the Vijftigers (‘those of the fifties’) always comes up quickly. This group of Dutch-speaking, experimental poets maintained close ties with Cobra.

However, Elburg was also a visual artist (and a teacher at the later Rietveld Academy, and an advertising man – he coined the famous DAF slogan ‘het pientere pookje’ (‘the smart stick shift’)). A substantial part of his oeuvre consists not only of poetry, but also of paintings, collages, drawings and objects. Part of it belongs to the collection of the Cobra Museum and is regularly exhibited during collection presentations. The paintings fit in well with the Cobra style; think for example of Zwaaiend kind met parachute (‘Waving child with parachute’), clearly influenced by children’s drawings. The collages, on the other hand, bear a much stronger resemblance to dada and surrealism. In his literary work, too, he was recalcitrant and liked to turn language upside down. One of his best-known lines reverses a well-known cliché: ‘Prijs de dag voor het avond is’ (‘Praise the day before the evening has come’. A good English equivalent would be: ‘Count your chickens before they hatch.’).

Jan Elburg, Zwaaiend kind met parachutist

Elburg was born in a village in the Dutch province of Zeeland in 1919. He made his debut as a poet in 1941. He was the first poet who came into contact with the Dutch Experimental Group, the artists’ group that was the direct predecessor of Cobra and that included members such as Constant, Asger Jorn and Corneille. Later, Elburg joined them, and then fellow poets Gerrit Kouwenaar, Bert Schierbeek and Lucebert. The art branch turned into Cobra; the literary branch into the Vijftigers. Elburg ended up in the latter group, but didn’t really seem to mind: ‘I always focused on poetry and kept my drawings to myself because Appel, Corneille, Constant and the others were already taking very good care of the visual side. But there were only three poets.’

Jan Elburg, De beschaafde verkoopster

Elburg’s poetry was included in the high-profile anthologies Atonaal (Atonal) and Vijf 5tigers (Five 5tyers), which were important for the way the Vijfigers’ poetry was received. Curiously enough, Simon Vinkenoog, who composed Atonaal, wanted to keep Elburg out of his anthology, because he didn’t think him experimental enough. But Lucebert pressured him to change his mind. As said, he was present in the poets cage, but he also made a visual contribution – a controversial one at that. The fourth edition of the Cobra magazine was also the catalogue for the exhibition, and it contained Elburg’s collage La putain de classe: the whore of class. It showed the body of Titian’s famous Venus of Urbino, but with the head of an older American woman. Three voyeurs were staring at her. This led to such a commotion – at an exhibition that was not devoid of scandals – that the issue in question was no longer allowed to be sold in the Stedelijk.

Jan Elburg's bijdrage aan het Cobra Magazine no.

Elburg died in 1992. He had won important (oeuvre) awards for his poetry, but he was still somewhat undervalued. Poet Wiel Kusters wrote an in memoriam for him in the NRC newspaper – in which he rightly calls him both poet and visual artist already in the first sentence: ‘Jan Elburg was a praised poet. In 1976 he received the Constantijn Huygens Prize and the P.C. Hooft Award cannot have been far away. Yet he never received it: he was not written about very much and that makes a difference.’ Kusters also noted ‘that the critics often found his work too hermetic or too dogmatically experimental. Especially the latter was often said. With a laziness that may be called unjust’. Remarkable, given Simon Vinkenoog’s initial criticism.

Helemaal rechts staat Jan Elburg

At the beginning of the 2010s, Elburg was in the spotlight again – albeit in a rather small circle, but still – thanks to a number of publications. In 2012 Jan van der Vegt’s Elburg biography De man met de drietand (The man with the trident) was published, as well as the anthology Ik zie scherper door de taal: Een bloemlezing uit zijn gedichten (I see more clearly through the language: An anthology of his poems). A letter book was also published which contained part of his correspondence with the largely unknown fellow Vijftiger Koos Schuur (1915-1995). ‘Rehabilitation’ or ‘rediscovery’ would be too big a word, but Elburg was once again being written about – and his visual work was regularly discussed again too.

Jan Elburg, piepschuim werk 1961

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