Adolph Jentsch — Prayers in Paint

First published in Gallery magazine in Winter 1984. Reproduced with permission

The art of Adolph Jentsch, colossus among Namibian painters, is still regarded by many as either mere scenic landscape portrayal, or alternatively a form of eccentric obscurantism cloaked in the disarming garb of simplicity and unassuming subject matter. To the attuned eye and responsive spirit, however, his work is refreshingly free of solipsism and cant, and is available intuitively even to the viewer uninitiated in the mysteries of formal art appreciation. It is to these sympathetic viewers, who might wish to know more about Jentsch’s thoughts and philosophy, that this article is addressed.

For a fuller understanding of Jentsch’s art it is necessary to have a working knowledge of the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, to which Jentsch adhered, and which informed so much of his oeuvre. When he arrived in Namibia from Germany in 1938 he left behind him an estranged wife and teenage son, a politically explosive Europe, and an art scene that, with its growing emphasis on existential values, was becoming increasingly philosophically unfulfilling for him. His early work in Namibia is almost entirely figurative and largely unremarkable. His spirit had not yet penetrated to the heart of the landscape, and at this stage depictions of domesticated landscapes featuring farm animals, buildings, native huts, roads, fences and the like were common. A turning point came in 1941, when Jentsch was invited to stay with the artist Marianne Krafft and her husband on their farm Ibenstein, near Dordabis. The Kraffts had assembled an extensive library that included several whole shelves devoted to Taoism and Chinese philosophy. Jentsch, who was already familiar with and admired the Sung era of Chinese painting, had many quiet years to delve deeply into the thoughts of the Chinese sages, whose works date back thousands of years, and so consolidate his purely visual appreciation of Chinese art with metaphysical insight. From this point on the artist restricted himself to the depiction of untrammelled nature.

The timeless philosophy of Taoism substituted the idea of an anthropomorphic deity with an impersonal primal force, Tao, which in its turn was identified with nature.

There is something obscure which was complete
before heaven and earth arose;
tranquil, quiet,
standing alone without change,
moving around without peril.
It could be the mother of everything.
I don’t know its name,
and call it Tao. (Lao Tzu)

Jentsch, to his delight, found confirmation of his already deeply held beliefs about life and art, such as that by freeing himself from ambition and the sense of duty to a public life which brought much misery, and by discarding the load of book-learning and returning to a simple country life he could bring himself into harmony with the universe – thus obtaining insight into the divine spirit. Jentsch recognised the holiness of nature and desired that spirit should triumph over the black onrush of materialism.

The culture of the Western world is one which is generally sustained by faith in a personal God, and thus cannot seek reality in nature. The Chinese, without that faith, were able to find a reality in nature beyond our understanding. Landscapes virtually without figures were painted in China at least one thousand years before they appeared in Europe. There was nothing faked about the Chinese painter’s rusticity; often he led the equivalent of a peasant life, and always he desired the simplicity of direct physical contact with nature, just as he sought intellectual knowledge of natural principles. So too was Jentsch’s life one of poverty and simplicity – he lived mainly off maize porridge and mince, never owned a motor-vehicle or real estate, eschewed fame and self-glorification, and lived in a humble, almost derelict building without electricity or even a bathroom on a friend’s farm for most of his life. He sought a monastic lifestyle honed down to the absolute essentials, and one which helped to purify his spirit and concentrate his mind.

An acquaintance of Jentsch’s tells the story of how he found a long lost wallet stuffed with more than a thousand rands (enough to purchase a new motor vehicle at the time) among bric-a-brac in one of Jentsch’s boarding rooms in Windhoek. The wallet contained a few old photographs dating back to Jentsch’s life in Germany. Jentsch, on being handed the wallet, ignored the money completely and exclaimed: “Ah! my dear old photographs.” He was unworldly to the point of eccentricity. Jentsch came out to Namibia with ten or eleven pairs of shiny black leather shoes that were bought some time before in Germany. During the next forty years he never replaced them, preferring to resole them again and again.

His dislike of publicity and fame made life very difficult for his biographer Olga Levinson. She remembers how Jentsch would not allow her to tape his conversations with her. She was forced to scribble whatever she could remember into her notebook as soon after leaving him as possible. He offered similar objections to being filmed during the filming of the documentary feature on his life and art produced by Olga Levinson. She recalls with amusement that she had to instruct the cameraman to film Jentsch “only when he wasn’t looking.”

Jentsch knew from his own experience that our sense of the divine can be most powerfully mediated through our relations with the world of nature. Wordsworth refers to something similar in The Excursion:

. . . Rapt into still communication that transcends The imperfect of offices of prayer and praise. (II.215-6)

Jentsch, who often stated that “Truth lies in simplicity, which is stronger than complexity”, perceived that in nature man could discover his own deepest mind, and understood that the unsophisticated experience of life Namibia afforded him brought him closer to a sort of pantheistic epiphany.

The river breeze urged me to sing;
The mountain moon bade me drink.
In a stupor I fell down before the flowers,
With the sky as my coverlet and the earth as my pillow. (Yang Wan-Li)

He had an intuitively felt aversion to the raucous melodrama of so-called ‘modern art’, with its fashionable trends and supposedly revolutionary innovations. Indeed Jentsch believed intuition to be a most important part of the creative process.

Only be willing to search for poetry, and there will be poetry:
My soul, a tiny speck, is my tutor.
Evening sun and fragrant grass are common things,
But, with understanding, they can become glorious verse. (Yuan Mei)

He told Levinson: ‘Artists, unlike scientists, are irrational. What they attain intuitively, science is unable to do. Science cannot produce artistic, moral or religious values. Landscape painting especially is a form of art that offers the opportunity to reveal experiences of the spirit intuitively. My painting is pure intuition concerning the science of life. In the arts all the spiritually vital experiences are gained intuitively. My experience of the landscape is shown in the spiritual vision which I put into my painting. Intuition is the spring of my painting arising from my inner self. It is an instant matter.’ (Adolph Jentsch, Olga Levinson p. 24) This emphasis on intuition links him in outlook with the Chinese concept of yin (dark/female/receptive/intuitive) and yang (male/forceful/rational), and the duality inherent in all things. The Chinese believed in the implicit unity of all opposites – an idea difficult for the Western mind to accept. It seems most paradoxical to us that experiences and values that we’d always believed to be contrary should be, after all, aspects of the same thing. In the East, however, it’s always been considered essential for attaining enlightenment to understand this duality, and then move beyond it.

The polar opposites of yin and yang are represented in Jentsch’s work in both form and colour. His skies are often diffuse and blurred, while the land mass is jagged, flinty and distinct. Even individual bushes are sometimes composed on the one side of clear hard-edged strokes while the other side is broken and ambiguous. In the sphere of colour he was acutely aware of the combination and contrasting of complementary pairs of colours. In some paintings the sky is a cool blue shade on one side and a warm orange shade on the other. He was not averse to painting the sky a strong pink to balance a densely green land mass. Jentsch also took great care to hang paintings in complementary pairs based on the subtle nuances of yin and yang the works had in relation to each other. Moreover he chose the very fluid medium of watercolour to portray the parched aridity of Namibia – a perceptive and rewarding choice based on an understanding of the importance of the combination of opposites.

The Chinese believed it essential to be in the proper frame of mind before beginning to paint:

Following the heart, the brush executes,
Selecting forms without doubt.

Chinese writings abound in tales about the preparation of the artist in order to become attuned to the universe with its unfathomable thoughts (shên-ssu) and its unnameable ideas (miao-i). Jentsch also believed mental preparation before painting to be very important. He would rise every morning at about four and make his way quietly into the cool stillness of the Namibian dawn, walking sometimes for mile upon mile into the virginal bushveld surrounding his home. Finding a suitable vantage point, he would sit contemplating the scene for quite a while until he felt ready to begin. He could never predict the moment when his accumulating creative tension would overflow into the act of painting – when the moving power of heaven would suddenly be disclosed. The act of painting was an act of prayer for him. His paintings are products of meditation on landscapes that exist in material substance but which soar into the realm of the spirit.

Jentsch lived for about thirty years on the farm Brack, painting almost all his paintings there (excluding those painted near Swakopmund). Yet his work is not repetitive or monotonous as one might expect, for the artist himself never ceased to derive renewed insight into and pleasure from his surroundings. Like the Chinese artist Tsung Ping, Jentsch could truly say: “The mountain and I never grow tired of one another.”

You ask me why I dwell in the green mountains:
I smile and make no reply,
for my heart is free of care.
As the peach-blossom flows downstream
and is gone into the unknown,
I have a world apart that is not among men. (Li Po)

Jentsch’s art, in keeping with his lifestyle and spiritual beliefs, became an art of extreme elimination, simplification and suggestion. In his aquarelles, form often seems reduced to a kind of ideographic skeleton. Foreshortened aspects of any object, such as a bush, are omitted in favour of the lateral relationships. The voids between the forms vie with the forms themselves in importance, creating a rhythmic sequence that lends much vitality to his work. Negative and positive space have equal validity because, philosophically, life and death, being and non-being, have equal weight.

In his art there is a very oriental emphasis on brushwork. As the art historian Esmé Berman accurately observes, “Jentsch’s brushwork is the centre of his style.” Unlike most Western watercolourists Jentsch uses individual and separate brushstrokes almost exclusively. He believed that every stroke was uniquely important, and this is borne out by his linear style. As in calligraphy each brushstroke is a force sending off energy in different directions, and as each stroke is added a new tension is set up until the completed ideograph becomes an equilibrium of interacting forces. His urge to reduce content to its essentials resulted in designs of the fewest possible elements, so that eventually he was forced to say much with little and compelled to concentrate his meaning into a few forms. The inexorable progression of this drive towards refined simplicity can be clearly traced from his early work through to his mature style.

Adolph Jentsch painting

In the past certain myopic commentators have tried to play down the Eastern aspects of Jentsch’s art and philosophy, believing perhaps that so clearly demonstrable an influence must surely detract from his stature as an artist of import. Such a view is entirely unnecessary, for Jentsch’s work achieves not only a much sought after wedding of spirit and matter, but also a marriage of both East and West seldom achieved elsewhere in the world. The Chinese influence in his work is undeniable – nor should we try to deny it. A sober consideration of aspects of Jentsch’s work, such as the use of subdued colour, the preference for linear rhythms, the isolation of motifs, the importance of the three levels of landscape, the adherence to the Golden Mean, and the economy of brushstrokes, does not allow room for debate. However one must add to this list the Western aspects of his style, such as correct perspective (to name but the most obvious), before coming to any evaluative decision. The synthesis he achieves between Western logic and Eastern irrational and intuitive values is one of the great strengths of his work, not a flaw.

In the early 1970’s Jentsch suffered a mild stroke that left him with a marked shake, making painting very difficult. Shortly afterwards the stored collection of over three thousand of his best paintings was destroyed in a mysterious fire that gutted his quarters while he was away in Swakopmund. He spent the last few years of his life in an unpretentious little house on the outskirts of Windhoek, far from his beloved dry riverbeds and rolling hills. He was very withdrawn and calm in those last years, his life having come full circle. His condition at this juncture is reminiscent of the old Chinese painter and wanderer whose ill health had put an end to his ramblings:

Now I am old and infirm. If fear shall no more be able to roam among the beautiful mountains. Clarifying my mind, I meditate on the mountain trails and wander only in dreams.

It could be argued that the problem of what to do with one’s life is chiefly the problem of finding a suitable form of worship. If this is indeed so, then Jentsch is one of the few human beings fortunate enough to have found in great measure and with wonderful consequence the solution to this problem. His understanding of life, art and spirit was based upon a priori principles that he reached intuitively, not through any systematic approach, and bespeaks a highly sensitive and poetic intelligence.

While he lay dying of pneumonia in the Windhoek State Hospital well-meaning but misguided medicos put plastic tubes into his nostrils to help keep him alive; tubes that were immediately pulled out by the dying man, eager to complete the harmonious sequence of his life, and impatient of delay. Eventually the nurses were forced to tie down his arms with leather straps to restrain him. Restrain his body they could, but not his spirit. He died on April 18, 1977, aged eighty-nine.

Living, I am but a guest,
Dying, I return home. (Huai-Nan Tzu)

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