03 Influences in the 70’s: Discovery of the extremes of the caricaturesque drawing and surrealism, versus the most rigid abstraction.

In 1975 I saw the film Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks, with Peter Boyle (the monster), Gene Wilder (Doctor Frankenstein and co-scriptwriter), Marty Feldman (Igor) and found it most hilarious. I always teased my sister by playing the monster. 


Robbert Ruigrok, ‘Young Frankenstein and his Monster’, Gouache on paper, ca 42 x 30cm, 1975 (age 14)

Here I rendered the monster’s eeriness with a blue gouache empty, fetureless face, blue arm and leg and white spiky fingered hand. The doctor contrasts with his green suit, a contrast emphasised through an empty white zone of the monster’s chest (perhaps expressing the monster’s lifeless inner being) against a bloody red area that separates the two figures as if it was an aura of fear, a fear that overtook the doctors’ core being in his face, hat and tie, a fear that  


Robbert Ruigrok, ‘Young Frankenstein and his Monster’, Detail, Gouache on paper, ca 42 x 30cm, 1975 (age 14)

got exacerbated by the monster’s blue hand that holds the doctor’s right shoulder tightly in his grip, so the doctor has no escape from his monstruous creation, it even totally overpaints his normal green facial features and drips like blood via his tie to the buttons and the inside of his jacket… 

1976 was a pivotal year for me. A publication in the monthly art magazine Openbaar Kunstbezit by the Belgian abstract artist Dan Van Severen (b. 1927, Lokeren, Belgium) had a great influence on me at the age of 15. I embraced the philosophy of simplification, reduction to the essence of art, composition, and  the perfectly divided surface in painting. Van Severen called painting the ‘art of silence’. For him the arch fathers of this philosophy in modern art were the medieval inventor of oil pain Jan Van Eyck, the post-impressionist Paul Cezanne and modernist Piet Mondrian, who all aimed for the same simplification of form. Their art is a search to express, through visual means, he essence of reality. These influences resulted in such paintings of mine as ‘‘t Zonneke, Nukerke’, 1975 (see illustration below.)

 Robbert Ruigrok, ‘Cafe ‘t Zonneke, Nukerke’, 1975. Oil on canvas.

A dark tree trunk divides the canvas into two asymmetric zones, in a Barnett Newman-eske abstract manner. I discovered at the age of 15 the  ‘golden section’ or ‘divine proportion’ – already used in ancient Egypt and Greece – as the mathematical principle of composition. I discovered the power that vertical and horizontal axises of the golden section can have in a composition, off-center, around which the forces of an artwork revolve. Van Severen called this ‘the key of the composition’. The theory was that this principle is present in all great works of art and nature. I was not consciously aware, though, of the mathematical side of the golden proportion until much later – my experience remained limited to the aesthetic experience of this principle, as expressed in harmonious divisions of lines and surfaces, with a major influence on me of the post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard. He wrote in his aforisms (often scibbled next to his sketches) of the need to have a hole in the center of each composition, around which everything revolves. I also applied this in my photography, taking views of nature cropped through framing that creates the same divisions of the surface. In the photography of the film ‘One flew over a Cukoo’s nest’ the golden section was greatly present in my view. Photography became a great factor in my framing, that I applied in drawings, pastels and paintings.
In art, I discovered the few modernist propagators of these same views, for instance the Russian Kasimir Malevich (especially in his ‘White on White’ – a white square on a white background, or ‘White Cross on Grey’, see pic. below).


In his article Van Severen made me aware that modernist Constantin Brancusi’s ‘Torso of a Girl’, 1923 (see below) perfectly compares, in its simplicity and essence of form, with the hip profile of Van Eyck’s nude Eve in the right outer panel of the Ghent Altarpiece (1436). Brancusi’s modernism did not appeal to me as a time-bound fashionable phenomenon, but rather as a synthesis, an expression with minimalist compactness of some of the greatest eternal values: beauty, serenity, purity, motherhood, etc.


It was also from Van Severen’s article that I came to know some other contemporary artists who represented the same spirit of expressing the essence of such eternal values as silence, simplicity and harmony; they were the following:

The Americans Barnett Newman (who was strongly inspired by Jewish mysticism), and Robert Ryman (a minimalist of the 60s and 70s, again playing with white on white paintings).

Barnet Newman, Etchings

Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis (heroic sublime man), 1950-51, at MoMA , New York
Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis (heroic sublime man), 1950-51, at MoMA , New York


Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1960.
Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1960.

Van Severen, who became famous in Belgium for his minimalist, very thinly painted abstract geometry and his linear abstract charcoal drawings of simple shapes and crosses, called himself a worldly monk.

(h) 20 x (w) 48 cm. Provinciaal Museum, Ostende.
Dan Van Severen, Without title, 1968, Chalk / board, drawing: (h) 20 x (w) 48 cm. Provinciaal Museum, Ostende.

From early on, I realised that the essence that drives artists through the ages on their path of self discovery and authenticity is close to universal spirituality. In this same period of my mid-teenager years, I started to become interested in Sufism and Chinese wisdom.

After very creative years at the Royal Academy for Fine Arts in Oudenaarde until mid 1975 (with teacher Carlos Anckaert) and a foundation year under the highly sensitive Gilbert Vandenberghe (who actually introduced me to the ‘golden proportion in 1975), I moved in September 1976 to the graphic department lead by Etienne Hubleau, concentrating on the etching technique. Under the influence of Max Ernst and surreal Eastern European graphic artists (Roland Topor being only one of them), I tried to uncover unexpected imagery from the unconscious. I first worked in pencil on paper and then transferred this to the etching plate. I further developed my photography, still focusing on the framing. My choice of ‘Etching’, was a choice forced by the limited choice of art departments; it was more the drawing and development of ideas that fascinated me. I am still in the process of photographing the countless sketches and visual experiments I made at the time.

Searching for subject matter, I dabbled into surrealism. I juxtaposed highly detailed natural fragments that came from disparate contexts, resulting in a surreal mystery of free associations. I did not intend to convey a message through a symbolic image that needed a literary reading. I had a problem myself in understanding what these images could mean. I concentrated on organic forms of nature, driven by concerns for the environment. This went hand in hand with uncovering emotions and translating these into form. A few examples of this are the etchings ‘Cockrel with Egg’ (1976) and ‘Selfportrait with Squirrel’ (1976), also sometimes called ‘Selfportrait with Rat’. The latter was inspired by the Dutch expression of having ‘muizennissen’ in the head, which literally mean something like a nest created by a mouse, with an intertwined materials – metaphor for a confused amalgamation of thoughts.

‘Selportrait with Squirrel’, 1976. Etching.
Robbert Ruigrok, ‘Selportrait with Squirrel’, 1976. Etching on watercolour paper, ca 29 x 19 cm

Robbert Ruigrok, ‘Cockrel with Egg’, 1976. Etching on watercolour paper, ca 20 x 10 cm.

In ‘Cockrel with egg’, the cockrel’s upward look and strong grasp of an egg – might symbolise his search for answers regarding the source of life – although this meaning did not occur to me when I drew it – in fact it was my teacher who suggested I put an egg in his hand. These etchings touched upon questions without clearly formulating them, leave alone giving answers.

This surreal style contrasted with my great interest in the creation of compositions according to almost musical principals of the ‘divine proportion’ and division of the surface according to the “golden means’. I was aware that this principle in art gives both the mind that creates it and that looks at it – in a mystical way – an inexplicable experience of the ‘here and now’ – simply because a perfect harmony is reached, and consequently thoughtdisappears.

I ended up combining, unconsciously, the two opposed artistic approaches that already existed in the romantic battles in 18th century France of the ‘Rubenistes’ (the baroque impulsive painters of organic forms and dynamic composition revealing the torments of the psyche, followers of Rubens) and the ‘Poussinistes’ (the followers of Poussin, constructivists of the Age of Enlightenment who composed their imagery according to classicist principles of balance and mathematical laws).

My first etching, ‘Mystic Branch’ (‘Mystiek takje’), made in 1976, combined these two contrasting artistic credos: on the one hand my loyalty to the ‘absolute’ composition, with a dark branch off-centre again dividing the surface in two unequal Newman-esque halves, and on the other the urge to represent spiritual meaning and content or ‘imagery of the soul’.

Robbert Ruigrok, ‘Mystic Branch’, 1976. Etching.

Robbert Ruigrok, ‘Mystic Branch’, 1976. Etching, 10 x 12 cm.

The branch in this etching, placed slightly off-centre, creates a vertical division of the surface into two unequal areas, of which the relative proportions are perhaps not far off the “Golden Means” (which is 1.618 : 1 : 0.618). However, symbolically, the branch, which grows upwards, and reaches out towards the light – the very source of its growth – represents a desire for spiritual evolution towards the source of life, the unknown or the ‘higher ideals of life’. It was not a conscious choice of mine to represent this idea, but while I made this image I experienced a deep empathy with nature, which, in my view at the time, represented the life force that would guide humanity to realising its higher values. At the same time I was very aware that nature had also become a major victim of civilisation.. just like the pure desire for a higher or more authentic life, was not given any attention in the contemporary industrialised world. Thus, the ‘Mystic Branch’ remains, for me, a highlightin my career.

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