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THE VISIONARY REVUE
Spring 2003

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JOHFRA: THE LIFE
L. Caruana

INTRODUCTION

      Standing alone in the studio where Johfra painted for the last twenty five years, I see on the easel an unfinished landscape, its grey underpainting still to be glazed. On the table lie his sketchbooks and journals, his brushes and paints. And on the shelf nearby repose optical instruments and animal skulls, twisted tree trunks and geometric figures. Among them stands a bust of Michelangelo. Meanwhile, on the walls are Da Vinci prints and a photo of Dali. I take in each object, decyphering its signifigance.
      Right next to the studio, through a low curtained doorway, lies the small dark bedroom where he slept. It is crowded with books, many of which I recognize. To my delight, he even has the same comic books and monster magazines I read as a child.
      What is this strange desire in artists - to reach out and seek the source of the images? Had I met Johfra when he was alive, would that meeting have explained the images any better? Did his meeting with Dali in 1959 explode the enigma of Dali’s works?
      All we are left with is the silent dialogue which unfolds between one artist’s work and another’s.
      Now, back in my studio in Paris, I find I’m already implementing some of Johfra’s techniques - the grey underpainting, the atmospheric blues. Our silent dialogue has begun. On the table sits his large monograph, Highest Lights and Deepest Shadows, a gift brought back from Dordogne. I’ve poured over its images many times - my eye roving, seeking, and then stopping suddenly in startled recognition - the opening of the eye.
      And I remember that first glance. In the window of a bookshop on Yonge Street, I stopped to admire a poster of The Water Bearer from the Zodiac. The image intrigued me, drew me in, and I searched out the name of the artist - Johfra. The year was 1978, and I was still a teenager then, living in Toronto.
      Over the years, more works by Johfra captured my gaze and demanded its attention. In an Esoteric Bookshop in Munich, I found his little Astrology book, with all 12 signs of the Zodiac explained by the artist. In Paris, I acquired a poster of his Unio Mystica. Alone in my studio, I dedicated an evening to meditating on its images - entering through their rich symbolism to the Sacred they invoke.
      Finally, I decided to make contact with the artist himself, to learn more about his work, his ideas. But - too late - Johfra died a few years ago. Still, the invitation came from Ellen Lorien to visit their home in Dordogne. And that is how I found myself alone in his studio, attempting to see it all through his eyes, and engaging him in silent conversation. Though dead, he still has so much to tell me.
      So, from his autobiography Symphonie Fantastique and from conversations with people who knew him, I’m now piecing together a brief account of Johfra’s life. Reading the Dutch texts is like looking through a dusty window - I can just make out the shapes and their meaning. It is the same with my understanding of his life - a life too rich to be contained even in his numerous journals, sketchbooks and canvases. The most I can offer here is a silhouette - a brief outline of a rich and eventful existence.

YOUTH AND ACADEMY YEARS

      
      The artist signed his works Johfra, an acrostic of his full name, Franciscus Johannes Gijsbertus van den Berg. At times, he added the name Bosschart to his paintings, taken from his mother’s maiden name. With the sun in Sagittarius and Aquarius ascendent, Johfra was born on Dec 15, 1919 in Rotterdam.
      According to his second wife, Ellen Lórien, “He was a dreamer as a child, very contemplative, who had difficulty concentrating in school. As opposed to his algebra lessons, he prefered to observe the minute patterns manifest in stones, roots, and the bark of trees. Clouds fascinated him especially, as he'd search them for faces and the play of light and shadow.”
      A talent for drawing manifest itself very early, and was recognized by the Royal Acadamy of Arts in the Hague when they accepted him, as an exceptional case, at the age of fourteen.
      In fact, he gained little from the lectures and spent most of his time studying copies of antiquity from the collection in the cellars of the academy. Particularly the works of Da Vinci and Michelangelo appealed to him, and these masters remained a source of inspiration throughout his life.
      However, a certain professor Meier introduced Johfra to Max Doerner’s classic work, The Materials of the Artist, and this book revealed to him the methods of the old masters. While at the academy, he began applying these methods.
      In a Nazi propaganda pamphlet denouncing ‘Ontaarde Kunst’ (Improper Art), Johfra came across the Surrealist works of Dali, Ernst, Tanguy, and Magritte. Particularly Dali’s works struck a chord with him, and this modern master was added to his more classical pantheon. He began painting surrealist works with a classical technique in 1941.
      Since his studies (1934 - 1942) co-incided with the Second World War and the German occupation of Holland, the teenager suffered all this time through food and fuel rationing, hunger, and even Allied bombings. In 1945, an Allied bomb destroyed all the works he’d accomplished up to that time - some 400 paintings and 1000 drawings.
      Rather than feeling depressed and defeated, this tragic event inspired him to begin anew. He continued to produce his Surrealist works in classical technique at a time when figurative art was pronounced ‘dead’ and Surrealism deemed ‘outmoded’ and ‘kitsch’. Some of these works were allegorical self-portaits; others depicted dream-like landscapes with slender organic forms, their torn draperies moved by invisible winds. His first exhibition in 1943, under the name Johfra, received negative critiques.


THE HAGUE PERIOD
1945 - 1962

      In 1945, Johfra acquired a studio on Willemstraat in the Hague. A different genre of works emerged at this time: classical nudes on mythological subjects - Andromeda or Queen of the Night. Anatomically perfect, an intense eroticism also emanates from these figures. Though Johfra kept a diary from his early youth, in 1945 he began writing these in code - a habit he would keep up intermittantly for the next five years.
      One year later, in 1946, he met the painter Angèle Thérèse Blomjous, whom he knew initially as Diavola. He considered her to be dangerous. In his Journal, he confided “when I saw her, I was seized by an inexplicable panic and an urge to escape.” . Still, through a series of April Fool circumstances, the two of them became intimate. He called her, at various times, Angel, Anushka, and Diana. They soon became engaged and, in 1952, they married. Keeping one of those nicknames and adopting his surname, Angèle Thérèse Blomjous eventually became Diana Vandenberg.
      Diana had studied painting at the Academy from 1941 to 1943 and had already spent some time in Paris. As this was one of Johfra's long held dreams, the two went to Paris together in 1947. They discovered the Existentialists at Cafe de Flore in St. Germain de Pres, visited le Dome in Montparnasse, and took in the view of the city from Montmartre.
       In this way, each summer became a time of travel and discovery. In 1948, they went to Rome to study its antiquities. In 1950, they went back to Paris, where Johfra made a number of studies at the Louvre, admiring the paintings of the old masters and the Attic Greek scupture. In 1951, they returned to Rome where Johfra intensified his study of antiquity and experienced ‘his own personal renaissance’. Particularly the fountains of Rome became a major source of inspiration for him.
      Meanwhile, back in the Hague, the two continued to work on their painting. They took a studio together on Prinsestraat and often worked side by side. Despite the finely rendered copies of antiquities in his Sketchbooks, Johfra’s paintings pursued strange, surreal, and even humorous themes. The ‘drummels’ made their appearance in unending variety - bizarre, growing, organic forms combining human and animal anatomy. Johfra garnered a series of solo exhibitions at Galerie Bennewitz in 1947 and 1948.
      The year 1953 marked a turning point in their lives, when Johfra and Diana became acquainted with Cor Damme, a Dutch American who commissioned esoteric illustrations from Johfra. Through him, they became acquainted with the Lectorium Rosicrucianum in Haarlem. The two began what Johfra called their 'apprenticeship' in the study of Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism and other esoteric teachings. During this time, Johfra illustrated a number of esoteric texts printed by the Rosicrucians."These were years of intense work,” he later reminisced, “that occupied us totally. It was our society, our world." (Symphonie Fantastique p. 89) In the end, he would spend nine years at the Lectorium. Diana would stay on, spending eleven years there. And, his future wife Ellen spent a total of six.
      All this time, Johfra and Diana continued to paint and often exposed their work together. Johfra’s surrealist works underwent a slow metamorphosis as more and more classical motifs began to appear: here some roman ruins in the background, there an attic torso in the foreground.
      In 1959, the two artists made a pilgrimmage to Port Lligat in order to meet Salvador Dali. After seeing their work, the Surrealist took the two painters into his confidence, seriously discussing painting technique. Afterwards, Johfra wrote a long account of the event, reflecting on the nature of the artist in his Journals. He also rendered a portrait of the Surrealist in pen and ink.

ALPES MARITIMES
1962 - 1973


      It was during this period that Johfra met Ellen Lorien, who had studied painting at the Grande Chaumière in Paris for several years. Initially, she was a friend of Diana’s from the Lectorium. She even lived with the couple for a time to learn their old masters’ techniques. When Johfra’s relationship with Diana fell apart, he followed Ellen to Amsterdam. They eventually married in 1973.
      In 1964, Johfra and Ellen built a small wooden cabin in Aspremont, a mountainous region in the South of France. Thus began his self-imposed exile from his native Holland, which was to last for the remainder of his life. The hut where they lived was small: one room loaded with books, a bunk bed, canvases and a cat. To stand back from his painting, Johfra had to go out the door. Nevertheless, the two artists lived happily in these small confines, producing work after work.
      While he continued to expose his paintings at Galerie Mokum in Amsterdam, Johfra also had his first French exhibitions in 1966 - first in Cannes, then in Monaco. Soon after, he had his first Paris exhibition in the bookstore gallery Le Soleil dans la Tête on rue Vaugirard.
      But it was only in the 1970’s that Johfra would begin to experience some success. During this time, he exhibited his works as part of a group of 7 painters called the Meta-Realists, including Diana Vandenberg and Ellen Lórien. This exhibition toured through the Netherlands and Belgium, and attracted much attention.
      A book by Hein Steehouwer called De Zeven Metarealisten gave the group further recognition, while another book by Pierre Borgue (Johfra, op de grenzen van het avontuur) concentrated on Johfra’s works exclusively.
      Then came the 1973 commission to paint the Zodiac as a series of posters for Verkerke Reproductions. The international publication and distribution of his work brought him world-wide recognition. In 1973, Johfra also completed his masterwork, the triptych Unio Mystica. The Hermetic canvases which Johfra produced in this period are among his best-known works. The artist later wrote a book called Astrology: Signs of the Zodiac (1981) which offered his own meditations and interpretations of the Zodiac series.


1974 - 1983 - PERIGORD NOIR


      In 1974 Johfra and Ellen bought a property in the Perigord Noir, a richly forested region in the south-west of France. This area was famous for its Paleolithic cave paintings, Celtic remains, and eventually became a centre for Buddhism as well. In this crossroads of so many cultural influences, Johfra and Ellen converted an old mill into their home, preserving the stream which ran under the house.
      Over the years, Moulin du Peuch and its surrounding gardens expanded. At first Johfra maintained a studio in the tower, which overlooked the garden with its small waterfall, meditative pond with goldfish, enchanted forest and small pine tree which the two had brought from the Alpes Maritimes as a seedling.
      Eventually, they built an addition which housed their newly-founded Galerie la Licorne, and Johfra transferred his studio to the space above the gallery, using a small adjoining alcove as his bedroom. In this way, he could sleep and wake with his paintings, or work through the night if necessary. By habit, he rose and began painting extremely early in the morning.
      Aside from her own painting, Ellen managed the gallery and its publishing house, le Chant des Toiles (which means The Song of the Canvases. But, des Toiles sounds exactly like d’etoiles, giving it the second meaning The Song of the Stars). Though both of them continued to expose abroad, they became increasingly involved with the artists in their own region, publishing and exhibiting their work. At the same time, Dutch artists and students would descend from Holland to paint with them in the inspiring ambiance.
      After the Zodiac Series, Johfra spent the next couple of years on a commission for Walter Kamp called the Maldoror Series. These constituted his darkest and strangest works. A definite change came over Johfra’s painting in the following years, as he moved away from Hermetic subjects and produced more Pantheist works.
      These began with a painting of Hecate, then large depictions of witches’ sabbaths, and reached their peak with the huge Adoration of Pan triptych. Here as well the subject matter was dark and gloomy. But over the 80’s, a different light emerged in Johfra’s works. Satyrs, elves, griffons and unicorns were depicted in rich bucolic settings, the sun’s natural light diffused through the trees. Rather than the esoteric symbols of Hermeticism, it was the elementals of Pantheism that fascinated Johfra now - the woodsprites and water nymphs that inhabited nature. A series of elf pictures by Johfra, Ellen, and Carjan were collected in the book Elves, Fairies and Gnomes.
      Landscape became increasingly important, as Johfra investigated the play of light and atmosphere over earth, air, fire, and water. Some of the landscapes became complex allegories, populated by hundreds of minute, accurately rendered figures. The fountains of Rome which he had sketched with Diana thirty years ago became the subject of a large series of paintings. It was particularly the movement of water and its transparency to light that fascinated the artist. Many of these works were exhibited in Holland at Galerie Utrecht run by Eric Morren and Severine van Garderen.

1983 - 1998 - MATURITY


      In 1985, the French Minister of Culture awarded Johfra and Ellen with the distinction of the ‘Société Arts-Sciences-Lettres. Four years later, in 1989, Johfra was named a ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres’ - a rare distinction indeed, particularly for a non-French subject.
      During all this time, Diana Vandenberg continued to paint, garnering much recognition in Holland for her Hermetic works and portraiture. Several of her students also went on to become well-known. In 1997, she died at the age of 74.
      Johfra’s last years were the most productive, creating an average of one painting per month. But, in 1998, he became progressively weaker as cancer spread through his body. On the 31st of May, he completed The Journey Home, his last painting. That evening he confided in his Journal “I cannot paint anymore...” In his final months, he corrected the final drafts of an account of his life, Symphonie Fantastique, fondly remembering each of its phases. He and Ellen spent more quiet moments together in the garden of their home, with its waterfall and forest.
      They spoke of death, and the journey that awaited him. His last completed canvas bore the image of a Venetian gondola, and a figure being ferried peacefully to the ocean’s other side. Early in the morning of November 6th, 1998, Johfra died at the age of 78. Friends descended from Holland and those in France also gathered round his grave in the cemetary of Fleurac. And the gondola was pushed out to sea.


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