Verbeek’s Japanese Roots
by Jeet Heer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Readers of Art Out of Time will remember the pages devoted to the eery art of Gustave Verbeek, an early 20th century master of imaginative freakiness. Now more of Verbeek’s work is available in a beautiful new book from Sunday Press Books: The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek: Comics and Art 1900-1915, which has just hit bookstores this week. As with all the other books from Sunday Press, this volume is lovingly designed, with long moldering art restored nearly to their pristine perfection. Hitherto, very little was known about Verbeek so editor Peter Maresca has done amazing work in digging up his paintings and illustrations, which immeasurably deepen our understanding of the context from which he emerged. Along with Chris Ware and Seth, Maresca has raised the bar for reprinting classic comics.
In an essay I wrote that is part of the book, I argue that Verbeek’s work owes much to its Japanese roots. Here is an excerpt:
Verbeek’s life and art emerged from a unique historical moment. In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry forced the isolationist Tokugawa shogunate to open up Japan to the West, thereby initiating a new era of international relations and also, unexpectedly, creating the groundwork for an artistic revolution. For the next century, Japan fired up the imagination of countless artists, influencing everything from Vincent van Gogh’s shimmering color to Frank Lloyd Wright’s airy sense of space.
Japan runs like a thread through Verbeek’s life. Born only slightly more than a dozen years after Perry’s famous exercise in gunboat diplomacy and belonging to the European nationality (the Dutch) that had the richest history of interacting with the Japanese, Verbeek was in a perfect position to absorb his native land’s artistic heritage. He first studied art in Tokyo. As poet Hildegarde Hawthorne (granddaughter of the famous novelist) noted in 1916, Verbeek’s “inerrant capacity for leaving out the inessential owes something to his Japanese masters.”
For those who think the connection between Western comics and Japan started with manga, The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek will be an eye-opener.