Jan Grinwis Plaat Stultjes (1898-1934)

Jan Willem Grinwis Plaat Stultjes

 

A South African expressionist in Belgium.

 

Jan Willem Stultjes was born in Pretoria (South Africa) on the 10th of October 1898[1]. His father, Gerard Stultjes, worked there as an agent for a Dutch insurance company. In 1909,  Gerard Stultjes sent a request to the Dutch Queen, asking on the behest of his son, if his wife Caroline’s family name could be joined to the Stultjes family name. His request was granted, hence Jan Willem got the double family name Grinwis Plaat Stultjes. It is very likely that the family had already returned from Pretoria to live in Amsterdam. In 1911 the Stultjes family moved from the Dutch city to Gent[2].

Jan Stultjes probably started his artistic career in the school year 1913-1914, date of his entry in the inscriptions book of the Gent Academy, as a pupil of the fourth grade[3]. At that time the Stultjes family lived at the Citadellaan, number 40. This street, or more correctly boulevard, was one of the largest streets of Gent, located in the vicinity of the then newly expanded Museum of Fine Arts, and part of a newly built ring way around the old town centre, connecting the various streets leading to the main newly built railway station and the soon to be developed areas of the Gent World Exhibition of 1913.

In his first year at the Academy, Stultjes was second in his class, the fourth grade, to Gaston Pauwels, who became one of Stultjes' closest friends. He also won a second prize in his History of Art class and had a 7/10 for dissection, both classes suited for the lower grades[4]. Unfortunately, with the outbreak of the war, the classes in the Gent Academy were not the main concern of the Stultjes family, and it seems that the young artist had to halt his studies. We did not find any traces in the archives of the Academy indicating that Stultjes followed any classes during the war years, albeit that the archives, especially for the last years of the occupation, are incomplete. However in 1922-1923 Jan Stultjes continued studying at the Gent Academy of Fine Arts.

At the end of the term Stultjes was third in his class for painting and also for composition (Professor Oscar Coddron). In the school year 1923-1924 he qualified fourth for painting and second for composition. In 1924-25 Stultjes finished first of his class for painting and was awarded second place for composition. In 1925 he also won the “Prix Jeanne Pipyn”, a prize given by the Academy to the most promising young artist[5]. In the second half of the 1920’s this prestigious award was consequently given to modernist artists. Painters Jan Mulder in 1923, Jos Verdegem in 1926, Gaston Pauwels in 1929 and female painter and sculptor Jeanne Van Cauwenberghe in 1931 were all laureates of the price and all involved in the rapidly developing expressionist milieu in Gent. In winning the Pipyn prize, Jan Stultjes gained the respect of his peers and brought his academic career to a very successful close.

In 1917, Jan Stultjes married Jeanne Seriacop (1897-1961), daughter of an important family of industrialists. They had two children: Paul Grinwis Plaat Stultjes (1920-2006), a renowned ballet danser and choreographer (he also designed costumes and theatre or ballet sets) and Eric Grinwis Plaats Stultjes (°1922), who became an important interior designer, but whose brilliant career was cut short by his sudden death in Paris in 1965. Although Stultjes’ marriage meant he was supposed to take over the leading of his mother-in-laws chicory factory, Jan Stultjes obviously had other plans; he wanted to pursue a career as an artist, much to the dislike of his mother-in-law. As he made his choice definite in 1922, the widow Alice de Ronne-Seriacop (1863-1941) sold the factory[6]. The difficult relations with his wife’s family and his bohemian lifestyle could have been one of the reasons for the move to South-Africa in 1932, leaving both wife and children behind in Belgium.

 

Stultjes' first work showed an influence of the post-impressionist style that was popular at the end of the 19th century.

 His drawings from around 1913 were expressive, and tried to capture the psychology of the sitter. Stultjes drawings were heavy and cultivated a sort of unfinished look, similar to the drawing techniques used by turn of the century illustrators. By contrast, the only early oil painting that came to light shows a completely different approach. Dated 1911, the stillife shows a primitive sculpture sitting on a table. The treatment of the fetish and the use of colour is reminiscent of the work of the Nabis and Gauguin in particular. This work seems to have been an experiment in the early work of the artist, which had no apparent influence on his work before 1925.

The drawings of the beginning of the 1920’s again differ from Stultjes’ previous work. Pencil makes way for ink and the sketchy technique is replaced by a painstaking observation of both nature and people. The artist focuses on composition and subtle contrasts in dark/light or in the juxtaposition of empty versus dense spaces. Stultjes reveals to be more of a draughtsman than a painter. Slowly colour creeps into his imagery, but preferring black and white, Stultjes tries to enliven his work by the use of shadowing. Sometimes an odd detail is picked out by colour.

It seems that Stultjes came to maturity as a painter and colourist under the influence of his studies at the Gent Academy and maybe through his friendship with fellow painter Gaston Pauwels (1897-1983). It was probably Pauwels who encouraged Stultjes to use pastel, and it could be this friendship that pushed the painter into a new direction. Stultjes’ paintings show this new approach clearly: by constructing his composition with planes of colour, which are distinctly put next to each other, the artist creates an angular space with an abstract feel to some of his images. Unfortunately we could not find more than a handful of paintings illustrating Stultjes work in oil, so we can not be sure if the works we saw were mere experiments or studies, whilst the body of his work could have been either more conventional or more expressionist.

Stultjes definitely frequented the expressionistic milieu of the 1920’s in Gent. The so-called artist colony of Sint-Martens-Latem included some of the most important expressionist painters and sculptors of their time. Albert Servaes, Gust De Smet, Constant Permeke, Frits Van den Berghe, the brothers Jan Frans and Jozef Cantré either lived and worked near or in Gent, or had regular shows in the city. In Gent there were a lot of artists, slightly younger then the above mentioned, who were also experimenting with fauvism, cubism and expressionism Kopelis Simelovitz, Jan Mulder, Jules De Sutter, Charles Réné Callewaert, Oscar Colbrandt, Emile Poetou and Gaston Pauwels, to name but a few, were all switching from a post-impressionist and/or fauvist style(s) to the credo of expressionism between 1920 and 1925. A lot of the artists were introduced to the new arts by seeing slides of the work of Marc Chagall, Picasso and Braque in the art history classes of Jean Delvin, the most influential arts teacher at the Gent Academy, who died in 1922.

Gaston Pauwels for instance was clearly influenced by the work of Chagall, whose work was also to be seen at the 1925 Salon in Gent. His entry was much talked about:

 

“[…] Marc Chagall […] est un Russe parisianisé. A voir ses oeuvres, on le croirait un peu fou. N’a-t-on pas dit de lui que c’était un ‘homme dans la lune’ ? Dans ses œuvres tout va de travers, les bouteilles volent dans l’espace, les personnages courent après leurs tête, les têtes elles-mêmes ont deux faces, des femmes volent par-dessus les dômes d’églises orthodoxes. Nous ne comprendrons pas tout à fait. […]”[7]

 

The author, Georges Chabot, an influential art critic at the time, concludes though by praising the use of bright colours in the work of Chagall, which he apparently did not quite understand. It goes without saying that the works of the young Gent avant-garde, working in a similar manner received the same mix of incomprehension and mockery. When Georges Chabot reviewed Gaston Pauwels' 1929 show at the Gallery Billiet in Gent[8], he spoke of the parentage between Chagall and Pauwels, and seemed to have made peace with the art of Chagall and modernism as a whole. The favourable comments on the paintings by Pauwels show how modernism became accepted by most art critics as the foremost artistic attitude. Most of the critics also stressed the difference between foreign and a more typical ‘Flemish’ character in the work of these young artists.

Although Stultjes was one of the best friends of Gaston Pauwels, his work never showed ‘Chagallesque’ influences. Pauwels probably had a great influence on Stultjes’ work, especially on his treatment of volume and his use of colour in drawing and painting, but Jan Stultjes did not agree with his colleague’s vision of expressionism. It seems that Stultjes was much more drawn to German expressionism and had difficulties in relating to the art of Constant Permeke or Gust De Smet, which was deeply embedded in the Flemish culture.

Stultjes’ expressionism has to be seen rather as an intellectual ‘play’, in which the protagonists are put in place by the artist to tell a story, which, in parallel with the plays of the Vlaamsche Volkstooneel, was to imbed a social or artistic comment. As such, Stultjes’ art was not merely an expression of an individual feeling, the artist wanted it to fit a purpose, he wanted his art to convey a story with a relevant message. His love for German expressionist narrative and style and his literary penchant made Stultjes look for suitable examples to follow. He quickly came under the influence of the work of Frits Van den Berghe, a painter who embedded his art with a strong and more abstract narrative. It might not be a coincidence that Stultjes’ created his expressionist body of work around 1925-1929, just when Frits Van den Berghe was hailed as the most important and renewing artist of his generation[9].

Stultjes was also an admirer of the work of Frans Masereel, who had studied at the Gent Academy. Next to Masereel, he certainly knew the work of the other woodcutters of the so-called Group of Five: the brothers Jozef and Jan-Frans Cantré, Henri Van Straeten en Joris Minne. He was also acquainted with the prints of Van den Berghe and Gust De Smet. It comes as no surprise then, that Stultjes started to experiment with printing techniques.

 

Again, Gaston Pauwels might have been helping Stultjes, instructing him the technique, although maybe Stultjes could have learned his skills at the Academy, following the classes of Carl De Cock, actually a sculptor, which were frequently attended by foreign students or already accomplished artists who came to study printmaking. The etchings and woodcuts by Stultjes are the largest body of work that survived to this day. Most of the prints are made on very small numbers, only up to seven proofs. Some of the prints are unique, and often Stultjes decided to hand colour them, making every print a miniature painting, each proof coloured slightly different from the other. Comparing his prints to his drawings, it seems that the slightly indirect medium of print suited the artist best in creating images wich conveyed both an artistic statement and a social comment. Stultjes’ drawings often lack the confidence or boldness found in his printed work. It seems that in making prints, the artist was able to shed his images of superfluous detail and to create an essential expressionist miniature.

Apart from the expressionist prints are a couple of works seemingly made under the influence of Picasso. Here the artist replaces his very condensed and ambivalent imagery with clear and boldly drawn single line compositions. The most striking example of this is the print ‘Sleeping Child’, witch incidentally is also one of the largest known prints made by the artist. Another print shows the artist himself, a self portrait in profile. Unfortunately it is not known if these works are building on his expressionist work, or if they were created at the same moment.

 

Jan Stultjes was not only active as a draughtsman, printmaker and painter. Probably in 1925, Jan Willem Grinwis Plaat Stultjes joined the Vlaamse Volkstooneel group[10]. This theatrical ensemble was fairly progressive and tried to play modern and even avant-garde productions in the Flemish language. Especially director Johan De Meester was considered as an important renewer, who sought to come to an expressive and realist theatre, as seen in Russia and Germany. The group was based in Gent, and had an important role to play in the forming of a modern Flemish cultural network, building bridges between the arts, theatre and literature. 

How Stultjes became involved with the group is again a mystery. We know that he made costume designs for the play ‘Elckerlyck’, which the group played on 30th of august 1925 (in open air at Sint-Niklaas, a town near to Gent) but we are not sure if Stultjes’ designs were executed. We also discovered a collection of costume designs for the play ‘Beatrijs’, under the direction of Herman Van Overbeke, some of which were published in 1926. These were executed and the artist was also responsible for the scenery. Evidently Stultjes played two roles in the 1925 staging of the play ‘Tijl’, directed by Johan de Meester[11].  It comes as no surprise that in a listing of the group for the season 1926-1927, Stultjes was listed as an actor and not as a designer in the ‘arts department’ of the group, which included the abstract painter Victor Servranckx[12]. Contemporary sources hailed Stultjes as an important actor. He eventually starred in the ‘Barabbas’ play by Michel de Ghelderode, directed by Johan De Meester in 1929. It seems that Stultjes involvement with Flemish theatre ended with the demise of the Vlaamsche Volkstooneel around 1930-1931. A year later we find the artist back in South Africa, where theatre remains his passion.

It seems that from the moment Jan Stultjes decided to join the Vlaamsche Volkstooneel, his art became secondary to his career as an actor. Stultjes the artist became more and more Stultjes the designer of costumes and theatre sets.

When Stultjes returned to South Africa, he did so as an actor, not as a painter. He decided to form a theatre group, called the “Plaat-Stultjes Toneelgeselskap” and tried to bring modern theatre to South Africa. The troupe played, according to a poster, “East Lynne”, “Wania”, “die Teken van die Kruis” and “In die Kloue van Satan”[13]. It was during the fifth tour, playing the play “Moederloos” that Jan Stultjes died at Vanrhynsdorp on the 22nd of September 1934. Jan Willem Grinwis Plaat Stultjes was buried in Pretoria on the 26st of September 1934[14]. His theatre group continued the tour without their leader.

Jan Willem Grinwis Plaat Stultjes was truly an amazing artist who, for a very short period, belonged to the Gent avant-garde in art and the performing arts between 1920 and 1932. Within these years he created stunning expressionist works of art that alas have been overseen by contemporary History of Art research. The small body of his work still surviving is one of the reasons why his art has slipped into oblivion.

As an actor and director, Jan Stultjes helped to introduce modern European theater in South Africa, but due to his premature death, Stultjes was only 36, he never had the chance of developing his art in his native country.

We hope, through this text and online catalogue of some of his works, to revive the interest in the art of Jan Stultjes and to restore his reputation as one of the most interesting artists of his time.

 

 

Selected Bibliography.

 

Prijsuitreiking Koninklijke Academie van Schoone Kunsten Gent / Palmarès Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts Gand 1922-1923 & 1923-1924, Gent / Gand, Koninklijke Academie van Schoone Kunsten / Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts Gand, s.d. [1924].

 

Prijsuitreiking Koninklijke Academie van Schoone Kunsten Gent / Palmarès Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts Gand 1924-1925 & 1925-1926, Gent / Gand, Koninklijke Academie van Schoone Kunsten / Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts Gand, s.d. [1926].

 

Monteyne L., Spiegel van het Moderne Tooneel in Vlaanderen, Antwerpen, Jos. Janssens, 1929, p. 17 & p. 96 (fig.).

 

Godelaine C., Het Vlaamsche Volkstooneel – Keurboek nr. 21, s.l., Davidsfonds, 1939, p. 71-72 & 83.

 

Leemans P. (red.), Het Vlaamse Volkstoneel, Leuven, Leuvens Universitair Kunstcentrum, 1956.

 

Piron P.,  Dictionnaire des Artistes Plasticiens de Belgique des XIXe et XXe Siècles, Bruxelles, Art in Belgium, 2003, second volume.

 

B. Baillieul, Wonen  in Gent in Ghendtsche Tydinghen – Tweemaandelijk Tijdschrift van de Heemkundige en Historische Kring Gent V.Z.W., 38e jaargang, nr. 1, januari-februari 2009, p. 2-17.

 

 

[1]Stadsarchief Gent, ASK 307, IV.105 : « Section de Dessin 1913-1914 /Inscription d’élèves 1913-1914 », s.p.

[2] B. Baillieul, Wonen  in Gent in Ghendtsche Tydinghen – Tweemaandelijk Tijdschrift van de Heemkundige en Historische Kring Gent V.Z.W., 38e jaargang, nr. 1, januari-februari 2009, p. 5 & p. 16.

[3]Stadsarchief Gent, ASK 307, IV.105 : « Section de Dessin 1913-1914 /Inscription d’élèves 1913-1914 », s.p. He is mentioned as « student » and having a high school degree. In Baillieul 2009,  p. 16,  the beginning of his artistic career is placed in 1911 (through deduction). However, no mention of Jan Stultjes before 1913 is to be found in the archives of the Academy, therefore it is very likely that the young student started in the 4th grade.

[4]Stadsarchief Gent, ASK 240, IV.59: “Koninklijke Academie van Schoone Kunsten Gent, Programma der Prijsuitreiking voor het schooljaar 1913-1914, Gent, October 1914.”, s.p. He had Carlos Tremerie as main professor, a post impressionist landscape painter who specialised in the depicition of the Flemish “begijnhoven”.

[5]Gand Artistique – Art et Esthétique, n° 5, Mai 1925, 4ième année, p. 116: “Prix Jeanne Pipyn. Le prix Jeanne Pipyn pour la peinture a été accordé cette année à M. J. W. Plaat-Stultjes [sic]. Les œuvres présentées au concours seront exposées au local de l’Académie Royale des Beaux Arts de Gand du 17 au 31 mai […] ».

[6] Baillieu 2009, p. 4-5.

[7]Chabot G. Le Salon Triennal de Gand in Gand Artistique – Art et Esthétique, n°6, juin 1925, 4ième année,  p. 127.

[8]Chabot G. a.o., Gaston Pauwels in Gand Artistique – Art et Esthétique, n°8, août 1929, huitième année, 183-188 .

[9] Stultjes possessed the 1928 catalogue of the Van den Berghe exhibition in Galerie l’Epoque, it is likely that he visited the exhibition. It is not known how he reacted to the new, ‘surrealist’ works by Van den Berghe.

[10] According to Geert Opsomer, Stultjes followed acting lessons in Antwerp. Baillieu 2009, p. 16 (note 16)

[11] Leemans, 1956, s.p. He played the roles of ‘Le Marquis Saturé de Bel-Esprit’ and of the ‘Chemist I’.

[12] Other important artists providing costumes and stage designs were Floris Jespers, Felix Timmermans and René Moulaert who was hailed for his constructivist stage design for the ‘Tijl’ play. Leemans, 1956, s.p.

[13] Baillieu 2009, p. 9, afb. 9 (picture of the original poster).

[14] Baillieu 2009, p. 9, afb. 10 (picture of the obituary).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Self portrait in profile, hand coloured print, signed "J Stultjes" in pencil bottom right,  21 x 16,5 cm (image).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

The old fence, pencil and watercolour on paper, signed bottom right "J Stultjes", 24,5 x 21 cm (day measures).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

The man with the bowler hat, pencil on paper, signed with full monogram and dated bottom right "JWGPS 5/15 Gent", made in May 1915, 30 x 23,5 cm.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Landscape with hut, pencil and watercolour on paper, signed and dated "J Stultjes sep 1923" bottom left, 21 x 25 cm (day measures).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Boy with large hat, charcoal on paper, signed with monogram "GP" bottom right, 26,5 x 19 cm.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Landscape in the neighbourhood of Gent, pencil on paper, signed "J Stultjes" bottom left, 20,5 x 24,5 cm (day measures).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

The railway fence, pencil and watercolour on paper, signed "J Stultjes" bottom left, 21 x 24,5 cm (day measures).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

An oil on cardboard panel, announcing an exhibition by the artist Jan Stultjes, probably made by the artist himself , written in South African and English.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Stillife with cactus, pastel on paper, 22,5 x 22,5 cm, (day measures).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

A barge on the river Leie, pastel on paper, 21,5 x 31 cm (day measures). This work is a preparative study for an oil painting.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Woman knitting, a study, pencil on paper, 22 x 18,5 cm (day measures).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

The wonderful bird, pencil and coloured crayon on paper, signed "J Stultjes" bottom left, 21 x 15,5 cm (day measures). On the back: pencil study of a woman reading.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Woman reading in a club fauteuil, charcoal drawing with red/brown hue, on paper, 26,5 x 24 cm (day measures). The woman could be the wife of the artist.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Man reading the paper, charcoal drawing on paper, 26,5 x 23 cm (day measures).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Double self portrait, a study, pencil on paper, 26 x 19 cm.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Thinking woman, a study, pencil on paper, 25 x 20,5 cm (day measures).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Self portrait with closed eyes, pencil on paper, 20 x 20 cm (day measures).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Study of a girl sitting in a chair, and a profile study, pencil on paper, 34 x 25 cm.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Costume design for the play Elckerlyc: a rich man, pencil and watercolour on paper, signed en dated bottom "J.W. Grinwis Plaat Stultjes 1924", 30,5 x 27 cm.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Costume design for the play Elckerlyc: a bishop, pencil, watercolur and bodycolour on paper, signed and dated bottom right "J.W. Grinwis Plaat Stultjes1924", 34,5 x 22,5 cm.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

The writer, a slightly hand coloured print in blue, signed and numbered in pencil bottom right "J. Stultjes 6/7", 10,7 x 11 cm. 

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Costume design for the play Elckerlyc: "Death", pencil and watercolour on paper, 36 x 26,5 cm.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

A "garçonne" and her suitor, a slightly hand coloured print in blue, signed in pencil "J. Stultjes" bottom left, 10 x 11 cm.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Costume design for the play Elckerlyc: "Beauty", pencil and watercolour on paper, 34,5 x 26 cm.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Costume design for the play Elckerlyc: "The Force", pencil and watercolour on paper, signed and dated bottom right "J.W. Grinwis Plaat Stultjes 1924", 34 x 22,5 cm.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Costume design for the play Elckerlyc: A figure with a cane, pencil and watercolour on paper, signed and dated bottom left "J.W. Grinwis Plaat Stultjes 1924", 34 x 22,5 cm.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Costume design for the play Elckerlyc: Nobleman in blue, pencil, watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 34,5 x 22,5 cm (day measures).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Costume design for the play Elckerlyc: Two figures, pencil, watercolour and bodycolour on paper, signed and dated bottom left  "J.W. Grinwis Plaat Stultjes", 34,5 x 22,5 cm.

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

An old lady on a bench, charcoal and watercolour on paper, signed bottom left "J. Stultjes", 12,5 x 10 cm (day measures).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Stillife with fruit and chair, pencil and water colour on paper, 14,5 x 11 cm (day measures).

Jan Stultjes

Jan Stultjes

Dandy at the café terras, print in blue, signed and numbered bottom right "J Stultjes 2/7", 10,5 x 9 cm.

Jan Grinwis Plaat Stultjes

Jan Grinwis Plaat Stultjes