In the old days, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, art was very much a craft and painters were very much artisans rather than artists. Painters would have workshops, apprentices and a list of important clients who would commission paintings from them. René Jacobs is very much of the old school, using many skills and importing many others, in order to achieve his unique oeuvres. And it’s not only his techniques that are idiosyncratic. His inspiration, his raison d’être, is also unique. His subject matter is satirical, rife with political and social observations, much like Hogarth or James Gilray. In fact, he describes his work as “tragic realism”.

His book also carries that title and is part catalogue, part biography and part survey of fifteen years work. In the opening pages he goes through, year by year, the decade and a half of his career as an artist since he was made redundant from his job with a shipping company in Rotterdam. It takes us through the highs and lows, the two separate tussles with cancer, the birth of his twin daughters, riding the recession and important commissions from important institutions. Beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated the book contains a comprehensive selection of his work from 2005 when he started painting and opened his first small gallery in Delft. We see the progression and development of his work, as well as gain insights into the unconventional and often controversial way much of it is produced.

His eponymous gallery in Delft’s Nieuwe Langendijk is also his studio where he can be seen at work. This is where the pictures are created, exhibited and sold – although lot of the work used to be farmed out to studios in China where the paintings were created to René’s specifications. He would add the details and finishing touches. Others are doctored/collaged photographs printed on large canvases by commercial processes. Very much the pragmatist, René is willing and happy to use any technique or expedient that is necessary to create his works. And it’s not just pictorial. There are lots of three dimensional works included, repainted and recycled objets trouvé and painted wood blocks. His most recent innovation is using hundreds of tiny plastic figures (I imagine originally intended for model railways and suchlike) to create complex tableaux, often representing a maze of some sort, exploring the human condition and the herd instinct.

Jacobs has half a dozen distinct paths along which he regularly ventures in order to produce his work. As far as the paintings are concerned, there are the ones based on original, often PhotoShopped compositions and then there are the paintings superimposed on other paintings – let me explain. René will scour the flea markets, auctions and antique shops, finding old oil paintings, often of landscapes, sometimes of domestic scenes, and paint over them, imposing incongruous elements like a MacDonald’s in a picturesque country cottage, a motorway intersection set in a tranquil Dutch landscape or a huge container ship in the middle of a nineteenth century seascape. These, to me, are the wittiest of René’s work. In a similar vein, he takes genuine old seventeenth century Dutch blue and white ceramic tiles and replaces the original figure or scene with a new one – like the girl taking a selfie.

And, it being Delft, home of Vermeer, of course, The Girl with the Pearl Earring does not escape René’s wicked eye. She is there, drunkenly downing a beer and, in another, with braces on her teeth. No one can hide from the painter’s punishing, although affectionate scrutiny, not even King Willem-Alexander – especially King Willem-Alexander.

If you are unfamiliar with the work of René Jacobs, reading his book or visiting his gallery will be an enjoyable experience and one not without a few giggles and smiles.    Michael Hasted   April 2021

Tragisch Realisme/Tragic Realism by René Jacobs is available at Art Jacobs in Delft’s Nieuwe Langendijk.

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