Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of H.R. Rookmaaker

Article by   December 2005

He taught me how to see. Quite literally. Once our dear friend Hans Rookmaaker was visiting us in Connecticut, and as we drove around in our car he would tell us to pause in front of a certain building. "This one is the real thing," he would declare. What he meant was that the particular home before us dated back to the 17th century, using the First Period English style of the Cape Cod house, based on the building practices of late medieval Britain, but adapted to New England's stormy weather, and its natural resources. Rookmaaker abhorred the Colonial Revival fashion, so popular at the time. For him, it was nouveau riche and lacked the simple, rugged contours of the older style. That does not mean old was always better. He embraced Georges Rouault's tragic heroes, and accepted the beauty of Jackson Pollock's abstraction. True, he hated the preachy attitude of many of the revolutionary pioneers of modern art, from Picasso, to Mondrian, to the Happenings of the 1960s. But they came out of a serious decline, the "death of a culture," as he would describe it in his best-known book. He loved authenticity, however it may emerge. And he taught many of us to see these things, whether in the car, or in lectures with slides, or in his famous museum visits.

This quality, and many others about this mentor to a generation, are wonderfully captured in Laurel Gasque's timely biography of Henderik Roelof Rookmaaker (known by the family's nickname as "Hans," or, to many, simply as "Rooky"). She connects his longing for reality in the arts with his spiritual journey. Born in 1922 into the home of a senior foreign diplomat, the brilliant young scholar was drafted into the Dutch Navy during World War II and was promptly captured. Interned in several Nazi camps, he spent hard time in Stalag 371, located in Stanislau, in Western Ukraine. There, rather unusually, he studied the Bible, at the behest of a Jewish friend he would never see again. And there, strangely and wonderfully, he met his most influential mentor, J. P. A. Mekkes, a strong Christian in the Reformed tradition. Mekkes introduced Hans, among other things, to the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea of Law, the label sometimes assigned to the school of thought developed by the immediate descendants of Groen Van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper, philosophers such as H. G. Stoker, D. H. T. Vollenhoven and, especially, Herman Dooyeweerd. Mekkes followed Hans throughout his life, and though 25 years his senior, managed to outlive him by 10 years. Most of all, he was his friend, a reality that meant as much to Hans as his ideas. Gasque beautifully captures this fundamental value throughout the book, particularly in the chapter "Friendships." Had his life not been challenged by his friends, he might easily have slouched into the nihilism he spent his professional life critiquing. And this is true of many recipients of his own friendship.

Rookmaaker's sudden death in 1977 was greeted by a large number of his followers, including this author, with shock and grief. What many of us, even his closest associates, had not realized, at least until the publication of the 6-volume complete works (by Piquant, where this biography originally appeared), is the extent of his writings. They cover subjects ranging from the visual arts, the Bible, music, especially classic jazz, to vocation, and much, much more. Some of it is quite technical, while some is more popular. Laurel Gasque gives us an intimate portrait of the man behind all these writings. He emerges as brilliant, feisty, loyal, hard working, unpredictable, and most sensitive. The heart of his pursuits is well captured in her assessment of his legacy: "Deeply embedded in reality and in love for all of creation in every detail, he perceived a perspective disclosed by biblical contiguity that was neither ecclesiastical nor secular." (p. 152)

I would urge the gentle reader to obtain this volume and read it. You don't have to be an artist or a philosopher to benefit from Gasque's lively, loving, thoroughly researched account of the short life of Hans Rookmaaker. Each reader will find certain special themes to enjoy. Here follow a few of mine.

(1) Because I first met him at L'Abri, I have always been fascinated with Rookmaaker's collaboration with Francis Schaeffer. On the surface, these two giants could not have been more different. Schaeffer was a strong-willed American pastor who had come over to Europe after the war, which he had only experienced at a distance, to help with Protestant Sunday School curricula. He soon found himself engaged in ad hoc apologetics to the university young people who wandered up to the chalet they had acquired in the Canton de Vaud. Ecclesiastically a separatist, he urged the churches toward purity with love. He learned much of his material informally, in conversations, or from shorter articles. Rookmaaker was a reserved Dutchman, a university lecturer, who would become the founding Professor of the Art History Department at the Free University of Amsterdam. He was younger, a strong academic, and free to enjoy tobacco and alcohol (according to the Dutch Reformed context, so different from the American scene at the time). He had suffered greatly during the war, which he experienced from within.

Yet there were similarities as well. Rookmaaker aligned with a separated church as well. They both strongly believed in missions. Schaeffer's wife, Edith, loved children, as did Anky Rookmaaker, Hans' wife. The Rookmaakers started Children of Christ, to teach Christian values to young families. They founded a Dutch L'Abri which is alive and well today. Both loved to interpret the Bible as well as the surrounding culture. "If Schaeffer was an evangelist who was an intellectual, Rookmaaker was an intellectual who was an evangelist," says Gasque. (p. 97) Schaeffer's first book, Escape from Reason, shows a decided influence from Herman Dooyeweerd. Rookmaaker's extraordinary masterpiece, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, owes much to that same heritage. When it was fashionable to criticize Schaeffer for his lack of academic credentials, Rookmaaker took up his defense. He even wrote extensively to Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Seminary, urging him to give his former student a fair hearing. (pp. 101-103)

(2) Another large area of interest for me is Rookmaaker's quite remarkable understanding of early jazz, blues and spirituals. He would often ask me to perform for him, and he especially liked hard-core blues. He famously compared Joe "King" Oliver's music to Bach's. Hans was the European editor for the Fontana Record's series, Treasures of North American Negro Music, for which the liner notes are still of great interest today. He traveled to America to listen to jazz and to hear gospel music in black churches. He was able to meet Thomas A. Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson. In keeping with many Europeans who embraced early jazz, Rookmaaker was something of an essentialist. He also thought that from bebop forward much of jazz was in decline. Yet he had an instinct here, just as he did in looking at the older Cape Cod buildings, for the real, the authentic. He found something in African-American music which was absent from the mainstream Western art music. He wrote one of the first serious histories of African-American music, Jazz, Blues, Spirituals (Zomer & Keuning). Originally published in Dutch in 1960, it is now happily available in English translation, again, in the Piquant Complete Works (vol. 2). Though now established fields for scholarship, Gasque notes the originality of writing on such subjects as jazz and even modern art back in the 1950s. (p. 76) Hans' interest in folk music was not limited to the world of American blacks, but included rock 'n' roll, and many types of popular music as well. He also commented extensively on Johann Sebastian Bach.

(3) Gasque manages to comment thoughtfully on Rookmaaker's aesthetics, a task not easily done. She does it not only by examining his writings, and his reviewers, but also by comparing his approach to that of certain associates, particularly Calvin Seerveld, who became the Senior Member in Aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. Both worked out of the epistemology of Neo-Calvinism. They owed a great debt to Dooyeweerd's critique of unbelief, particularly the tendency to idolize various created spheres. Yet they differed in one way, possibly because of a generation gap. Rookmaaker accepted Dooyeweerd's idea of beauty as harmony, or "loveliness," whereas Seerveld found that essence in the "allusive," or beauty's "parabolic character and quality of multivalence." (p. 115) Indeed, Seerveld has been quite critical of the notion of beauty, because it carries too much Platonism. My own notion is that we have not by any means finished exploring the idea of beauty from a Christian point of view. While I recognize the problems with harmony and loveliness, I am not sure allusiveness captures it either. I wonder if we should not move toward the means, rather than simply the end, of art. Beauty may be in the crafting itself, which certainly tells a story (ala Seerveld) but also has recognizable creative fashioning.

These issues and many more are wonderfully considered by Laurel Gasque's splendid book on Hans Rookmaaker. To read it is to glean far more about a man and his times than most standard history books or treatises on philosophical aesthetics. This biography is a marvelous resource, including books, articles and websites. It tells about a man who managed in a short life to influence a host of people and institutions, when little was being done in his areas of expertise. Most of all, I think, it draws us in to a rich, biblical Christian outlook, one which knows of no sacred-secular split.

Laurel Gasque / Wheaton: Crossway, 2005
Review by William Edgar 





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