Jaap Schreurs (1913 – 1983) was born at The Hague, The Netherlands, as the son of the impressionist painter Jacobus Lambertus Keijzer and his common- law wife Nelly Schreurs. As a child, he often accompanied his father when he went into the country to paint the Dutch polder landscapes and allowed the child to have a go at it too. His parents always extended a warm welcome to all visitors. Because of their hospitality the family created around them a circle of all kinds of people; respectable and disreputable; rich and poor; ordinary and flamboyant; many of the familiar characters at The Hague. Certainly a stimulating environment for a talented child as Jaap Schreurs.
In his teens Jaap joined a peer group of boys who went to the polders for the day making paintings and drawings. Afterwards the boys’ efforts were seriously examined and commented on by Jaap’s father, as he encouraged them to continue.
After he had finished his studies, he installed himself as a professional painter, and led the usual life of the poor but hardworking artist. For financial reasons he could only afford models whom he found at the Salvation Army’s Centre for the homeless – meaning alcoholics, ex- prostitutes and cripples. This introduced him to the world of the social outcast and he pitied their fate. His fascination with outcasts and his impotent rage about the way society treated them were reflected not only in his early but also in his later paintings.
Although his parents themselves were rather hospitable, Jaap now gradually disengaged himself from the social and artistic life in The Hague, including the contemporary leading schools of painting. He had no intentions to work as a career painter or a trendy painter. He said: I don’t wish to conform to some school of painting, or to create art just according to some theory of art. Art that needs explaining may be acceptable for career hunters, but as for me: my paintings should do all the talking, not me!” The development of this concept in Jaap’s view of art is clearly reflected in his work, considering the chronology. While his early paintings evidently show the influence of much admired painters like Jan Sluyters, Charley Toorop, and Constant Permeke, rather quickly his work changes as he explores new ways, evolving with a growing independent style.
Then disaster struck in the form of an eye disease. Nowadays the disease probably could have been cured, but at that time it couldn’t. So Jaap lost the eyesight of one eye. No need to say that this had an enormous impact on his artistic career, as he now had to do without the ability to see depth – three-dimensional vision. His handicap left a strong mark on Jaap’s further search for his identity as a painter. Jaap could no longer rely on colours for creating depth in his paintings. He discovered, however, that he partly could overcome this mischief by balancing between light and dark. And so due to this rather unfortunate handicap Jaap Schreurs’s artistic career changed in yet a further different direction.
After a period of experimenting with highly stylized two-dimensional figures, lie settled for creating depth by emphasizing contrasts of light and dark. Also he chose to return to the themes of his earlier work: the mutilated, the outcast, the abandoned and rejected women. Now, however, he over accentuated their deformities and loaded them with a high emotional voltage. ‘This work also expresses the deep impression that war-time experiences in nazi-occupied Holland left him with: the deportations of the Jews, the strenuous experience of being in hiding, the famine and all of its concomitant scenes of survival of the fittest – at the cost of others. He saw how people came to destroy their own humanity, how the war exposed their inner motives and deformities, their debilities and disabilities. An insight too powerful to be ignored. Once he had gained a clear view of these dehumanizing mechanisms, he recognized it over and over again. World War Two had given him a clear demonstration of how scarcity and oppression could lead to dehumanization, how ultimate inhumanity victimized vulnerability. After the war the most cruel and manifest phenomena of inhumanity of course disappeared, but Jaap saw how the very same mechanisms were still operating below the surface, leaving post-war society again with the more ‘ordinary inhumanity’. ‘Ordinary’ inhumanity – but still the inner reality of destruction in disguise! Sometimes he almost cried it out “Can’t you see how we are all destroying ourselves and others?” At other times he wept with compassion, struggling with it all.
The paintings of this later period indeed don’t need any introduction; they speak quite eloquently for themselves, as he had wanted them to. And after all, contrary to earlier statements, he gave them a name: ‘psychological realism’. But even so the paintings don’t really need a name. They do indeed scream, they do warn, they do weep, with or without any particular label.
Painting this kind of work costs the artist dearly. Although he kept being a gentle and caring husband and father, he became rather more introvert and isolated himself increasingly from friends and colleagues. Jaap Schreurs painted continuously but, however, he never bothered to try and sell or exhibit some of his work. As for his isolation this did not include the eccentric or rejected people, they still had his attention and received hospitality in his home. They may have given him the support and motivation to continue his voluntary estrangement from what he felt to be the straitjacket of fashionable trends in contemporary art.
Through the years Jaap Schreurs was also working on another major theme. As mentioned before, most of his previous paintings were full of darkness and screamed accusations of human misbehavior at the spectator. But as for Jaap Schreurs, he also really desperately wanted to paint in lighter colours a brighter theme: human harmony, inner peace, life fulfillment. Jaap himself called this “painting the light”: in golden colours, an atmosphere of what he called “a fulfilled silence”. Towards the end of his life he was mainly preoccupied by that one goal, painting the light, as if to counterbalance his ‘darker’ work.
His last but one painting hints at just such a golden fulfilled silence: it shows a group of rather meditative people gathered around a golden bird that is held by a child. Although the silence in this painting is not yet fulfilled, there is clearly an anticipation of it in a mysterious atmosphere of waiting. The adult figures are rather introvert, they don’t look at each other nor at the golden bird, they gaze pensively in the distance. However they seem on the verge of awakening to the light that already touches their faces. The two children are looking outwards not inwards as are the adults, while one child looks up to the bird, the other faces the onlooker.
Indeed the last painting Jaap Schreurs worked on, never completely finished, reflects the atmosphere of fulfilled silence that he had been trying to create for such a long time. For months he had been struggling with this particular painting, adjusting it time and time again until one day he succeeded and was satisfied with his creation: the golden light he had been striving for, the fulfilled silence. He was very happy that day, full of hope and joy. Alas that joyful day was also the day of his sudden death from a heart attack. His very last words were “This is the turning point in my life! From now on I will be able to paint the light …”
After his death, Jaap Schreurs left behind a few hundred paintings, etchings, and drawings. They represent nearly his whole oeuvre, as he wasn’t interested in selling anything of his work. There is an amazing variety both in size and theme. Some, especially the very large ones, are shocking in their undisguised representation of human darkness and suffering, though even the most disturbing ones never condemn nor despise. All are permeated by a deep compassion and love, born out of his own sharing in the depths of human suffering.
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