Anton Rooskens

Anton Rooskens
Griendtsveen 1906 – 1976 Amsterdam
Sculptor – painter

‘Originally it was not the Cobra movement, it was the Experimental Group. Because the experiment was pivotal to how we worked: improvisation. Creating from the material; not thinking first of a concept, but finding your motif in the material! That was important; it was a completely new facet that had never been done before in the fine arts. The experiment was so important it was the reason why we called ourselves the Experimental Group,’ said Rooskens.

Rooskens also said, ‘I only paint things that interest me. Animal, fish, bird. People can say: this is a bird. But it categorically is not a bird. It has the form of a bird. Primitive communities have magical figures. Priests would dress like birds. That was magic.’

Writer and member of the Experimental Group, Bert Schierbeek: ‘Rooskens, the craftsman-type, the artisan, who, from sinister worlds, allows lines and stars to grow out of his imagination. He believes in the disclosure of forms from the dark recesses. He creates a new firmament and does so through great toil and dogged perseverance. In every kind of black he senses the red and the white, the green and yellow and the limits that blue and grey pose upon black. Out of black he discovers a conglomerate of colours, which is analysed in the prism of his own eyes.’

Life history
Rooskens was born in 1906, which makes him the oldest member of the Dutch Experimental Group and Cobra. The house where he was born was in Griendtsveen, in Limburg. From 1924 to 1934 he attended Technical College in Venlo, and went on to become an apprentice instrument builder. He had meanwhile also developed an interest in art and travelled often to Amsterdam to see exhibitions. In the Stedelijk Museum he discovered ground-breaking modern artists such as the cubists Picasso and Braque, the fauvist Modigliani and the Belgian expressionists Frits van de Berghe and Constant Permeke.

This prompted him to move to Amsterdam in 1935, where he was offered a job as an electrical engineering teacher at the Don Bosco College. In his free time he painted in the expressionistic style of Permeke and Van Gogh. He made his debut five years later in a one-man show in gallery Aalderink, in Amsterdam, which dealt in ethnographic works of art as well.

The war was, in Rooskens’ own words, ‘a golden opportunity to break with the past’. This period of time signified, for him, ‘liberation’ from the old. He wanted to embrace a new era. This awareness was reinforced by Art in Freedom, an exhibition shortly after the war in the Rijksmuseum, where work by artists who had been banned by the Chamber of Culture was shown alongside work by Queen Wilhelmina. He regarded it as pre-war art that was old hat and past its day.

What Rooskens did find inspiring in the exhibition were the exhibits from non-western countries, such as New Guinea. They made a huge impression. In particular, the simple and intuitive visual language caught his imagination. And he wanted, unlike Picasso whose interest was primarily in the ‘primitive’ visual language, to find the essence and the meaning of this art.

In 1946, Rooskens got to know Appel, Corneille and Brands at the group exhibition Young painters in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He met Constant two years later, after which developments snowballed. Rooskens said, ‘It was at the Klee exhibition, on 9 April 1948, that Karel introduced me to Constant; he said that Constant had written a good article. There were plans to set up a group and they asked if I wanted to join. On 16 July 1948, the ‘Experimental Group’ was set up in Constant’s home. Corneille was chosen as chairman, Constant became secretary and I was treasurer. …There were some fairly lively discussions at this initial meeting about the various aims of the group. …The experiment was to be the most important means of achieving a new form. We were all very aware of the fact that we had severed ties with the past; we had also gained unlimited freedom. We were only sympathetic to primitives, children and psychopaths.’

He believed that the meetings were highly significant in developing a common language. ‘It became good common practice to bring along the latest piece of work to discuss. It contributed quite a lot to the fairly quick creation of a typical style that became so characteristic of the group.’

However, because of his job Rooskens was unable to attend all the meetings. He was even the main subject of a meeting, according to Lucebert in a letter to Jan Elburg in 1981: ‘one meeting at eugène brands’ home stands out. constant asked the members present to expel anton rooskens because he was catholic and still went to church and wasn’t revolutionary. goody two-shoes anton was, of course, absent because that afternoon he was working his fingers to the bone as a teacher in a technical school. that went a step too far for me, and also, fortunately, for the others who were there, but it did teach me a lesson.’ It is unclear how accurate this recollection is, but Constant did continue to keep an eye on what he called quality.

Since Rooskens was the only one on a salary, he became important to the other artists as their supplier of paint and canvas. The reason he was elected treasurer was because he was the only one in the group who had a giro account. Rooskens said, ‘I thought it was a horrible job. And, what’s more, it often led to conflict.’

The Experimental artists were not the only ones he was affiliated with. He also belonged to a similar movement known as Vrij Beelden (Free Images). Rooskens accompanied several of its members on a trip to Paris in 1947, and it was his visit to Musée de l’Homme in particular that made a big impression. He started incorporating the geometric forms he saw there from pre-Columbian art into his own work. He exhibited the resulting artworks late 1948 in the Stedelijk Museum in an exhibition showing work by the Free Images artists.

His involvement with the Experimental Group was more intense than with Free Images. They jointly published periodicals like Reflex and in their urge to experiment they jointly produced ceramic work in a location Rooskens had found: a brick manufacturer in Tegelen. In 1948 they merged into the international Cobra movement.

Furniture designer and collector Martin Visser invited a few of the artists, including Rooskens, to show work in the Bijenkorf department store in early 1949. This was the second time he did so and once again the exhibition attracted a large audience. Visser said, ‘The audience talked about it, laughed at it, cursed it and wanted to scribble on it with pencils. Well, they can in a department store … as long as they turn up, whether it’s for the escalator or something else … The bigwig directors loved it, even though they didn’t think much of it.’

A few months later the ambitious artists were given their big opportunity in the Stedelijk Museum. This time, however, things were serious. Competition reared its head. Rooskens: ‘You could feel the hostile tension in the air. Canvases that had been allocated a fixed place were hung elsewhere for one reason or the other. As a result, various participants kept watch over their paintings on the last night.’

The ensuing riot that broke out during an experimental poetry evening made Rooskens leave the Cobra movement and the Experimental Group. He said, ‘I was sitting right in the middle of the exhibition room when I suddenly saw various fights going on. Lucebert tried to restore calm, but was unable to make himself heard; people were shouting ‘Think about Sandberg’. And while the audience fled to the exit, you could hear the Marseillaise being sung. The fights continued outside in the dark.’

The effect these events had took Rooskens somewhat by surprise, ‘In the days that followed a veritable storm broke in the Dutch press, so it ended up being one of the most visited exhibitions in the history of the Stedelijk Museum.’

Although Rooskens was one of the first to leave Cobra, he is still regarded as a typical Cobra artist. Even after he left the movement its influence continued. His work started developing its own language with magical, experimental imagery. A fine example of this type of ‘possessed’ image can be seen in one of the paintings in the Ambassade Hotel Collection. It could be a totem pole figure. Perhaps with a Catholic cross? What is striking are the angular geometric forms he was using in his work that year, in 1954.

It is likely that this piece in the collection was made after his first trip to Africa.

Anton Rooskens, Figure. Mixed media on paper. 1954. Ambassade Hotel Collection

Of all the Cobra artists, it was Rooskens and Corneille who were inspired the most by what they called ‘African primitive art’. However, Rooskens did not travel to the African Continent until 1954, where he visited Congo, Uganda and Kenya. He returned slightly disappointed. ‘I’d hoped to find sorcerers, but that had gone. I painted the colour of Africa, the colours of the Congo, and the red earth, baked by the sun.’ In spite of his disappointment, the trip left an imprint. Rooskens used more black in his canvases as well as the red, ochre and green colours so typical of Africa.

Rooskens remained in the artists’ group Free Images; he took part in Creation, set up in 1950, and later joined the New Images League, which was a fusion of Free Images and Creation. He kept in touch with the Dutch and the international members of Cobra right up till his death.

Rooskens died suddenly in Amsterdam in 1976.

Lucebert believed that artists should give themselves unconditionally to the material and in a note he addressed Anton Rooskens as follows:

‘let it make itself

let it surreptitiously form itself

like the eye forms the stela of light

in light forms’.

In the 1960s, Rooskens reverted to his Cobra period, producing improvised and experimental work. In one of Rooskens’ paintings in the Ambassade Hotel Collection he probably started with a blob of paint on the canvas, which finally ended up as a conversation between two imaginary figures.

Anton Rooskens, The conversation. Oil on canvas. 1968. Ambassade Hotel Collection.

Work by Rooskens is included in almost all of the large museum collections in the Netherlands. In addition, it has been collected worldwide by Cobra aficionados.

Cobra : Sint-Niklaas, Stedelijk Museum, 21 Sept.--26 Oct. 1975 : Namur, Maison de la culture, 14 Nov.--7 Dec. 1975

Dr Willemijn Stokvis, The language of Cobra, Cobra Museum for Modern Art, Amstelveen/Uniepers 2004

Dr Willemijn Stokvis, Cobra. The Road to Spontaneity, V+K Publishing, 2001

The Cobra collection, DVD compiled by the Cobra Museum for Modern Art and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision

Ons Erfdeel (Our Inheritance). Volume 14. Stichting Ons Erfdeel, Rekkem / Raamsdonk-Dorp 1970-1971

De Gids (The Guide). Volume 150. Meulenhoff Nederland, Amsterdam 1987

Jan Elburg, Geen letterheren (3) Uit de voorgeschiedenis van de Nederlandse literaire beweging der Vijftigers. (Not literary gentlemen. An historical backdrop to the Dutch movement in literature in the 1950s.) The years 1948 and 1949 Reflex 2