Seven years after his death, the memory of the Utrecht illustrator and draftsman Peter Vos is enlivened in an exemplary edition of his illuminated letters. The letters enriched the lives of their recipients, and now they do so for us all.
In the early 1990s I had a study in a Utrecht University building on Domplein, Cathedral Square. I shared the facility with young postdocs on the threshold of careers whose promise, I am happy to say of the ones with whom I still have contact, has amply been fulfilled. Working in the heart of a city that has long held magical power over me was an exceptional blessing. Walking around the square one day, my eye was drawn to a bench on the north side (it has since been removed) giving a view of the Domtoren, the great cathedral tower; of what was left of the cathedral after the nave was blown down in a storm in 1674; and between them, the street leading to the birth house of my love, Loekie. Taking a decision that I have made ununderstandably seldom in my life, I sat down and just started to look. It felt like a daring move, even suspect behavior. I had things to do, commitments to honor, and here I was stepping for no reason out of the realm of the purposeful into – what? Almost as soon as I sat down, I wondered in some confusion what I was doing.
I hadn’t been seated longer than a few minutes before someone sat down beside me. When I saw who it was, my heart leapt. It was a Utrecht artist I had known by then for longer than twenty years and whose company I cherished, Peter Vos. “What are you doing?” he asked at once, getting straight to the nitty-gritty. “I don’t know. I just sat down to look around, I have no idea why.” He nodded and smiled, and with no further words all became clear. I was doing something he did many times every day. I was taking a bit of distance from the world to get a quiet, unforced view of things.
Unforced? Whether it was that for Peter I am not sure. As sociable and smiling as he always was, he was driven. In various ways he was incapable of exercising the kind of self-control that keeps most of us in some semblance of balance. The boundaries we maintain between various modes of experience were porous to him. One aspect of this phenomenon has now become the subject of two exhibitions and a stunning book, Peter Vos: getekende brieven (Drawn letters).
Take this mild example of the way visual reality melds with Peter Vos’s verbal thought. The beginning of the letter to his wife Anneke Bakkum (22 April 1970) goes like this: “Dearest, The sun is shining on this card through the open window, sounds of a tit from the bare trees. Traffic a bit further away, along the facing bank. Frank is cutting passepartouts and mumbling numbers.” Vos is taking all of this in simultaneously and is passing it on to Anneke, in words enriched with images, a form of synesthesia.
When his graphic imagination completely got the better of him, Vos would send folding letters like this one (late September 1966) to his fellow Utrechter – poet and publisher – Theo Sontrop.
Above with the edges folded back, below open. The undermost fold, to give the merest sample of the riches of the letter, is a drawing of St. Sebastian, whose arrows are formed by these lines of writing:
O yes, there’s something I almost forgot.
A while ago I lent you an issue
of Paris Match, with
elephants. Could you
return it sometime; I need it
for a story by Koolhaas
in a collection of his stories
to be published by Geert van O.
that I have to illustrate, but if you
have pictures of lemmings
I’d appreciate it
you can’t find those s.o.b.s anywhere,
– bad, no?
P.S. this one I shoot straight into the balls!
The penetration of Christian iconography into daily life Vos derived from his Catholic upbringing and education, fed by his own embellishments to classroom lessons at the St. Bonafacius-Lyceum. The poetry and music that he loved were always seeping through the frazzled dividing walls of his overstocked mind; he was an irrepressible declaimer of poetry in five modern languages and Latin and a singer of chansons and masses.
Aside from the delectation it provides, the book impresses me mainly with Peter Vos’s sheer generosity. To receive a letter like this – often in an artistically augmented envelope, some with invented but nonetheless postmarked stamps – is to receive a gift of everything the writer has to offer, in the service of a relationship that at that moment is all-absorbing. The recipients of those letters, 157 of which were chosen for the book, possess everlasting boosts to their self-esteem, simply by virtue of meriting such an outpouring of humor, talent, erudition and artisticity for themselves alone. (The letters illustrated above are still, it need hardly be said, owned by the recipients.)
The letters have a full measure of a quality that is shared by all of Vos’s work: the artist is there with you. He was defenseless against his own need to connect with others through his art, up to and including his evergreen card game Beestenkwartet and illustrations in books and magazines. Even viewers who did not know Peter Vos personally feel that he is taking them into his confidence. To look at his work is to become a beneficiary of his magnanimity.
Tracking down the letters and compiling the book was a labor of love for Jan Piet Filedt Kok. Since his retirement as director of collections of the Rijksmuseum he has been performing one invaluable service after the other, in projects that no boss would have assigned to him. The brilliant introductory essay (“De eenheid van schrijfpen en tekenpen”; The sameness of the writing pen and drawing nib) is by Vos’s oldest friend in art history, Eddy de Jongh, who together with the artist’s widow Saïda Vos provided much of the personal information about Vos and his cronies.
The Hague, Gemeentemuseum: De jonge virtuoos Peter Vos: grafiek, tekeningen en getekende brieven 1952-1970
The Hague, Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD): ABC Peter Vos: digitale publicaties van het RKD – an extensive, aiming to be exhaustive digital presentation of Peter Vos’s work, accompanied by a small exhibition on the premises.
Jan Piet Filedt Kok and Eddy de Jongh, with the cooperation of Saïda Vos, Peter Vos, getekende brieven, Amsterdam (Rubinstein) 2017. With transcriptions of and commentary on the illustrated letters and valuable chronologies of the artist’s work and doings.
© 2017 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist 6 March 2017.
Last month another Utrecht artist and illustrator was lost, Dick Bruna (1927-2017). He was a long-time acquaintance from the years when Loekie and I lived in Utrecht, 1965-1968. See my comparison of Dick Bruna and Karel Appel (which Dick didn’t like) and a column on his Miffy in bronze.)
With Schwartzlist 350, a newly expanded and improved website is launched. It was designed by Egbert Clement of Studio Jan de Boer and implemented by Gijs Wilbrink and Martijn Nieuwenhuizen of Occhio, both in Amsterdam. This is the place to thank most wholeheartedly all those who over the course of the years have made donations to the Schwartzlist. Your moral as well as material support has led to a result that I hope you too find more attractive and useful than previously.
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