Written by dr. Jos ten Berge
Last week, some 400 people were present at the opening of the biggest exhibition of work van Willem van Genk ever. Hardly recognised during his life, Van Genk now counts among the best of the best within the ranks of the so-called “outsider artists”, that is, people who are artistically creative but don’t think of themselves as artists. Jos ten Berge, staff member of the VU Arts & Culture division, was interviewed by the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool, as he studied the various labels that were put on Van Genk during his career, starting with psychiatric art in the late 1950s, to be followed by naïve art, Sunday painting, amateur art, art brut, para-naïve, outsider art, and more.
Such a listing of labels, Ten Berge argues, can be an interesting exercise. First it demonstrates the art historical (as well as human and always quite stubborn) need for labels. It also shows, and most certainly in this case, how labels may feel – and even become – as limiting as a straight-jacket: for a long time, the category of “the naïve” was the only context in which Van Genk could show his work, even though hit never really fitted there. Third, it shows what labels and categories a society (or at least the art critics)has available at a certain moment in time, thus revealing something of its intellectual horizon. This case-study made Ten Berge conclude that the Netherlands, in the 1960s, developed a (possibly somewhat reactionary) obsession with Sunday painting that was only superseded by an interest in outsider art in the 1990s, many decades after “art brut” was coined in France in 1945 and “outsider art” was coined in England in 1972.
Willem van Genk – ‘Zelfportret zwakzinnigennazorg’, 1978
Be this as it may, the work of Van Genk remains absolutely amazing. His early cityscapes are as big as they are detailed, looking very realistic while in fact an assemblage of buildings, streets, texts and views that are uniquely idiosyncratic. This collage aspect of his work becomes more obvious in his later work, in which he also fulminates against everything unjust in the world, which for him included the way he was treated himself by the critics…
After this, the exhibition will travel to the Collection de l’art brut in Lausanne, Switzerland (the holy of holies in outsider art), and to the Hermitage in Petersburg where Van Genk will be the first Dutch artist to receive a solo exhibition after Vermeer (or so the OAM director joked).
Flyer of the Outsider Art Museum in the Hermitage Amsterdam
Willem van Genk has just received the first prize (out of 13.000 submitted works) of the national CO-OP painting and drawing from the hands of TV personality Mies Bouwman on occasion of the festive opening of the exhibition Kunstenaars in eigen tijd, Rotterdam (“De Doelen”) 1967 (photo: Nationaal Coöperatie Museum, Schiedam).
Ten Berge’s article, ‘”Verwarrend uniek”: Een etiketteringsgeschiedenis van Willem van Genk’ will be published later this year in a book on Van Genk.