Many contemporary students of art find interest in Surrealism. It is one of the few art movements with the ability to alter the viewer’s perception by simultaneously disturbing and settling the waters of reality, distilling elements of the known world into uncomfortable juxtapositions. Born in reaction to the absurdity and carnage of World War I, Surrealism spread from 1920’s Paris and Belgium to capture the process of ideas stirring in artists across many countries. The roots of Surrealism can be found deep in the 19th century’s Symbolist and Romantic movements, with a further 500 year reach through the strata of the Renaissance to the late Medieval Netherlandish artist, Hieronymus Bosch. Artists also found fertile ground for ideas in the emerging profession of psychoanalysis and attention to the subconscious world of dreams. Five etchings by J. M. Prange (1904-1972), on loan to the Crisp Visual Art Center, provide a lens into Surrealism’s effect on one relatively unknown artist from this period in time.
As a visual artist, Jacobus Marie Prange, also known as “Ko,”came of age between the two World Wars. Born to Dutch parents in the colonial city of Surabaya, Indonesia, in 1904, Prange spent most of his life working in and around Rotterdam and The Hague, and was in his early 20’s when the first wave of Surrealism broke across Europe’s aesthetic shores. Principally a graphic artist, Prange taught printmaking, practiced photography, and, after WWII, wrote art criticism for Het Parool, a social democratic paper formed in resistance to the Nazi Occupation and one of the first papers to be widely published after their withdrawal. Embracing Surrealism and extremely suspect of the any acceptance of non-objective abstraction by artists and collectors, Prange remained a critical voice until his death at The Hague in 1972.
Artistically, Prange’s etchings and lithographs reflect consideration of the darker side of surrealistic fantasy. Several of the etchings in this article, all untitled and from the 1930’s, reveal Prange’s fascination with surrealistic transformation of the commonplace. Untitled: The Seedpod is a prime example of such unexpected transformation. At first sight, we see a seedpod, possibly a thistle or milkweed, about to open. Unfortunately, the pod also has an eye, though it is not clear if it is looking at the viewer. The spikes on the pod’s skin flair outward, like an old man’s whiskers on the chin of an opening mouth, morphing the pod into a creature reminiscent of Symbolist eye imagery of Odilon Redon, yet eerily looking forward to the plant character “Audrey,” in the American B film and Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors.
The most fear-filled image is Untitled: The Tree. Unlike the almost cartoonish fruit faces in Untitled: The Forest, (seen above) with the mustached chicken capturing a snake, Untitled: The Tree seems as if it records an actual event. Here a dazzle-eyed lizard monster climbs over an oak tree, frightening birds and beasts into retreat. The sky is darkening with wind and rain following the monster’s path. The tree seems about to break from its weight as the monster attempts to vault over it. Given the time ascribed to this work, mid to late 1930’s, it is easy to imagine Prange’s vision reflecting the tenor of the times, as the German army once again began to march across Europe.
The only work, seen here, that does not seem to easily fit into Prange’s Surrealistic oeuvre, is the only one with a formal title. We know this because Prange inscribed it into the etching plate itself: For my wife, etched in October, 1939. It may actually be heartening to see a dedicated Surrealist placing theory aside in order to please a loved one by depicting a pair of worn buckle-over “Mary Jane’s.” Popularized by child-star Shirley Temple in the 1930’s, “Mary Jane’s” were actually named for an early 20th century character in R. F. Outcault’s Buster Brown comic strip, first published in 1902. Not limited to children, “Mary Jane’s” were a preferred dancing shoe for women in the 1920’s. Therefore, this wonderful etching, done for the artist’s wife, could be a sensitive celebration of marital love. Yet, we should not abandon our awareness of Prange’s attentive fascination for the Surreal. Might we find something biomorphic here? Oh, if these shoes could talk!