Jan Gerrit Jordens was born in Wageningen in 1883. After training at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and the ‘Rijksnormaalschool voor Tekenleraren’ in Amsterdam, he was appointed in 1907 as a teacher of drawing at the ‘Rijks HBS’ in Warffum. A year later he became director of the evening drawing school there. In 1916 he moved with his family to the city of Groningen, where he accepted a position as an art teacher at the ‘Rijks HBS’ in Groningen. Two years later he exchanged this position for the ‘Stedelijke HBS’ in Groningen. Inspired by the ideas of Austrian drawing educators Franz Cizek and Richard Rothe, Jordens introduced a new way of teaching based on free expression. In the 1920s he published regularly about his teaching method. In 1925, De 1e twintig en De 2de twintig en in 1930 De 3e twintig, three bundles of linoleum cuts by his students appeared.
Jordens and De Ploeg
Due to his busy work as an art teacher, Jordens was able to spend relatively little time on his free artistry. Nevertheless, he managed to become proficient in the most diverse disciplines and he played an important role within De Ploeg, of which he had become a member in the founding year 1918. He resigned in 1921 because of a disagreement about judging at exhibitions, but soon became a member again. Jordens was chairman of De Ploeg in the periods 1924-1925, 1930-1932 and 1935-1941. During the international exhibition, which De Ploeg organized in 1933 on the occasion of its fifteenth anniversary, he gave art-guided tours. In 1939 he wrote the first article about Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman in the Kroniek van Hedendaagsche Kunst en Kultuur.
Jordens was one of the few members of De Ploeg who maintained close contacts with art life in the western part of the country. In the period 1906-1916 he was a member of the Amsterdam artists' association St. Lucas and from 1916 onwards of the Independents. He would exhibit with this association well into the 1920s.
Jordens’ early painting shows similarities with the work of the artists Henri LeFauconnier, Piet van Wijngaerdt and other Dutch expressionists that he had met in The Hague and Amsterdam. With Jan Wiegers, he was the most important representative of local modernism in the early years of De Ploeg. His work is characterized by a palette of warm ochres, blues and browns, sharp deformations reduced to almost abstract values. Influenced by German expressionism introduced by Jan Wiegers in 1921, his style related to Symbolism that had dominated his graphic work until then disappeared. In his woodcuts and etchings, he found a connection with the expressionism of Jan Wiegers, Jan Altink and Johan Dijkstra. In his paintings he remained remarkably true to his original principles. Although he experimented with wax paint and opted for more flat image solutions for a short time, his work retained a tone and expression inspired by Dutch and French painting.
In the 1930s, the decade in which most of the artists of De Ploeg returned to moderate forms of Expressionism and Impressionism, Jordens experimented with the visual possibilities of French Cubism. In his paintings from this period, the scene was broken open and scattered rhythmically across the image plane in fragments. This cubist phase was the prelude to his later abstract compositions.
In 1945 Jordens again became a member of De Ploeg, but eventually he left the association in 1950 to join more contemporary-modernist groups. In the early fifties he formed Het Narrenschip with kindred spirits - including Jan van der Zee, Ekke Kleima and Abe Kuipers - and in 1960 he joined the recently founded artist group NU, which mainly consisted of younger artists. Although many of them later characterized him as distant and difficult to approach, his membership was a great moral support for the youngest generation of modernists in Groningen.
Jordens reached retirement age in 1948 at a time when contemporary visual arts were changing radically. The free expression, which he had always put at the center of his teaching, was seized upon by young artists to break free from old values. For Jordens, who from that moment was able to devote himself entirely to his artistry, a period of great productivity and creativity began. Among the highlights of his post-war work are the series of lyrical abstract impressions in watercolor that he made of spruce forests and of the Wadden island of Schiermonnikoog, the series of template prints and the abstract paintings from the period 1956-1962.
For Jordens the creative process - dealing with materials, shapes and arranging - proved more important than the final result. During that process, the artist reduced forms derived from reality to separate fragments, which entered into completely new relationships with each other within the composition.
Although Jordens was mainly inspired by the painters of the École de Paris in the post-war years, his work retained a strong authentic character. While the work of the French painters usually showed subtle lyricism and decorative aesthetics, Jordens' work was mainly rugged, unruly and emphatically subdued. His strong involvement with the creative material eventually led him to mix his paints with grit and sand and to incorporate rope and textiles into his paintings. Such experiments typified his constant urge to renew himself. Jan Jordens died in 1962 at the age of 79.
During his lifetime, Jordens took part in many important group exhibitions. Already in his Warffum years he participated twice in exhibitions in the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum. He was invited by Le Fauconnier to exhibit his graphic work in Paris. In 1934, his graphic work was awarded an honorary diploma in Budapest. In 1956 a solo exhibition of his watercolors was organized in the Stedelijk Museum and in 1958 the Groninger Museum organized a large exhibition of the work of Jordens and Jan van der Zee.
After his death, the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague organized the exhibition J.G. Jordens 1893-1962 lino's en aquarellen (1962-1963); a retrospective exhibition was organized in the Synagogue in Groningen in 1994 and in 2006 two exhibitions taking place simultaneously were centred around his work: Jan Jordens en tijdgenoten in the Groninger Museum and Jan Jordens - Het vroege werk Jan Jordens - Museum Het Hoogeland in Warffum.
Text: Han Steenbruggen
Alma Buruma en Han Steenbruggen (eds.), Jan Jordens, ‘Geen kunstenaar der voleinding, maar des wordens’, catalogus bij de tentoonstelling 18 februari 2006 - tot 18 september 2006. Groningen: Groninger Museum 2006. W. Jos de Gruyter, 'Jan Jordens: spar, waterverf 1949. Groninger Museum'. Groningen. Cultureel maandblad, 1959, nr. 1, p.115; W. Jos de Gruyter, 'Jan Jordens en Jan van der Zee', in: W. Jos de Gruyter (red.), Beeld en Interpretatie. Den Haag: Bert Bakker / Daamen N.V.1964, pp. 124-130. Cees Hofsteenge, De Ploeg 1918-1941. De hoogtijdagen. Groningen: Benjamin & Partners 1993. Cees Hofsteenge en Caspar Wechgelaer, Jan Gerrit Jordens, leven en werken. Groningen: Benjamin & Partners 1994. Peter Jordens, 'Virtuoos en vitaal. Jan Gerrit Jordens', Afslag Noord, nr. 5, 1998, pp. 4-7. Adriaan Venema, De Ploeg 1918-1930. Baarn: Het Wereldvenster 1978.