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Lucebert

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Amsterdam 1924, Alkmaar 1994

During the 1949 Cobra exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, experimental poets recited their work from behind the bars of a ‘dichterskooi’ (which can be translated as poets cage or poet’s cage). One of them was Lucebert, who also wrote history as a visual artist.

Avant-garde movements rarely confined themselves to the visual arts. Like the cubists and futurists before them, Cobra maintained close ties with a group of poets: the Vijftigers (Those of the fifties). Various people involved with the groups were both active in the field of visual arts and in the field of literature. Most of them eventually became known for their work in one of these two disciplines – but Lucebert is a notable exception. He won an impressive four oeuvre prizes for his poetry, and his line of verse ‘alles van waarde is weerloos’ (‘everything of value is defenceless’) is part of the collective memory of the Dutch. Yet his poetry does not outshine his visual work. Lucebert’s paintings and drawings, for example, are still regularly exhibited in museums. Moreover, both sides of his oeuvre regularly intertwined, as shows from his poetry-drawings, the covers he made for his own poetry collections, and programmatic lines such as ‘nu komen ook de kooien van de poëzie / weer open voor het gedierte van miró’ (‘now also the cages of poetry / will open again for the beasts of miró’; test: read these lines and just try not to think of the poets cage).

Magazine Braak no5. 1950

Lubertus Jacobus Swaanswijk was born in Amsterdam in 1924. Already at an early age he was interested in both literature and art, with a fascination for German romantic poetry, modern painting (Picasso, Klee, Ernst) and comic strips. The latter influence can still be clearly seen in the caricatural and cartoon-like nature of his drawings and paintings. Other clear influences are surrealism – including the impression of automatic/subconscious painting, and the way in which human and animal figures blend into one another –, and even the horrors of war by Picasso and Goya. Take, for example, the distorted figure and the unmistakably Guernica-like horse in Lucebert’s painting Strijd (Battle).

Lucebert, Strijd (battle) 1951 Collection Cobra Museum of Modern Art

The young Swaanswijk often helped his father, a house painter, with his work, and one of the murals he made caught the eye of someone who just happened to pass by. He arranged for Swaanswijk to enrol in the Institute for Arts and Crafts, which he had to leave after only six months for financial reasons. In exchange for board and lodging, he also made a mural painting for a convent; the nuns, however, disliked the deliberately deformed human figures so much that they eventually had the wall painted over with white paint. After the war, he did end up in the right place: the also young poet Gerrit Kouwenaar discovered Swaanswijk’s experimental poetry and recognised a kindred spirit in him. He became a member of the Dutch Experimental Group, an important predecessor of Cobra. Lubertus started calling himself Lucebert: a combination of the Italian ‘luce’ (light) and the Germanic ‘bert’ (bright, brilliant). This associative variation on his first name, which both holds and changes meaning, would later prove to be illustrative of his poetry.

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De 5tigers. Lucebert zit op de voorgrond in deze foto van Paul Huf

A comparison between Lucebert’s poetry and his art reveals striking similarities. The physicality of many Cobra paintings – the thick paint and the matter-painting, the penchant for physical subjects – has a remarkable equivalent in Lucebert’s poetry. For his poetry is often lyrical-associative in nature, full of variations on words – both in terms of content and in sound. According to expert in Dutch Thomas Vaessens, Lucebert wrote ‘poetry that shows his own genesis. […] Some of his poems are not just about their origin […], but they are the [process] as well. For example, because they show the same visible, linear-associative progress as a jazz musician’s solo: […] in a combination of chains of associations and spontaneous shifts, the poem is created.’ The famous ‘lente-suite voor lilith’ (‘spring suite for lilith’) is a good example. The following excerpt reads as if you were watching the wild movements of a Cobra painter:

lilith

she is sweet die liebe suite of delibes

who say you

who

she

who is she

lilith

who is lilith

lilith

she is sweet die liebe suite of delibes

 

Source: Lucebert, The Collected Poems Volume I. Translated from Dutch by Diane Butterman.

Lucebert’s visual art makes a similarly spontaneous impression, as if his paintings and drawings were sudden inspirations; that they simply originated from a blot of ink or paint and the rest grew naturally. Lines are seldom tight and straight, but rather shaky and irregular. For him, there was no such thing as a mistake, only an accidental lead for the artwork to be taken in new directions. Or as the title of Dutch expert Cyrille Offermans’ book on Lucebert’s work on paper aptly summarises it: Vlek als levenswerk (Blot as a life’s work). This wonderful quote by Lucebert himself indicates how physical (or physically oriented) his visual practice was:

 

Every painting has a bloodstream, let the painting breathe, let it raise its heart rate, so let it have its own will, own opinion and its own yearning, let it be fulfilled what it ultimately strives for, that the painting will be able to make a painting itself. Paintbody live!

Lucebert Pythia 1960 Collection Cobra Museum voor Moderne Kunst

Lucebert and National Socialism

The 2018 Lucebert biography by Wim Hazeu revealed that Lucebert had had Nazi sympathies and that he had expressed himself in letters in an anti-Semitic manner. Understandably, this raised great controversy. Although Lucebert never spoke about this in his lifetime, he seems to have clearly distanced himself from it after the war. His poetry is full of references to Jewish mysticism and his art is largely based on what the Nazis condemned as Entartete Kunst (degenerate art). Time will tell how these facts will colour the interpretation of Lucebert’s work, but the Cobra Museum chooses to continue to show Lucebert’s work and to inform visitors about this black page, in order to facilitate a discussion about it.

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