Author: Marijke Peyser
Piet Ouborg was a passionate draughtsman. Beside his bed he had a sketchbook in which he recorded the images and visions that he saw during the night or in a state between waking and sleeping: ‘The dreams are eagerly consigned to paper. They usually get no further than the start. From there it is a long road to the finished thing.’ The long road the artist was referring to went hand in hand with experiments and led to abstraction.
Twee figuren (no. 94a), a gouache on paper from 1946, shows a static figure on the left and a dynamic adversary. This gouache may have been the precursor of an oil painting from the same period, Nachtelijk tafereel (Nocturnal Scene, 1944-46). The figure in the nocturnal scene and the static figure depicted in the gouache look very much alike. The use of bright colours in the gouache and the painting are also similar.
Ouborg’s drawing Untitled (no. 94c) of 1948 was made with brush and ink. This work reveals the artist’s interest in eastern calligraphy, in particular Chinese characters, with which he became acquainted during his years in the Dutch East Indies. At first, Ouborg stayed close to the examples he had at his disposal and worked with a brush and ink. The curved lines call to mind heavenly bodies, human forms and animal figures. One motif, typical of Ouborg, is a creature that looks like an insect. It has tentacles and can use them to hook on to something or someone and never release them. This is depicted in the drawing Achter elkaar aan (Chasing Each Other, no. 94b). The little figure in the middle is making a run for it to escape from its pursuer. This motif refers to Ouborg’s years in the Dutch East Indies and actually to swastikas, the decorative motifs for hip-belts from Ceram. The swastika was originally a symbol of the sun, a good luck symbol that can occur in different forms. An insect-like creature also dominates the colourful Met tentakels (no. 94d). Unlike Achter elkaar aan there is no evidence of a pursuit.
The gouache Koe (no. 94g) is a detailed version of the 1948 Untitled. In the gouache Ik grijp U aan (no. 94f) the tangle of graceful lines and separate elements resolve themselves into body parts that can be traced back to two figures. The figure on the left squats with legs spread and turns away from the person reaching for him or her with arms outstretched. The third work on paper dates from 1950 (no. 94e) and is untitled and harder to interpret. The artist used black chalk to draw a few symbols he borrowed from Chinese script. The granular black chalk produced lines of the same thickness. In the untitled drawing of 1948 Ouborg used a brush and black ink, thus mimicking the lines of the Chinese symbols which alternately swell and taper.
In the summer of 1950 Ouborg, the as yet unknown introvert, suddenly found himself in the spotlight when he won the prestigious Jacob Maris Prize for Graphic Art and Drawing. By a majority of votes the panel of judges, which included J.C. Ebbinge Wubben, the recently appointed director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, decided to award the thousand-guilder prize to Ouborg for his drawing Vader en zoon (Father and Son). The controversy this award caused in the art world and elsewhere was extensively aired in the press. The tenor of the letters to the editor was that if money can be earned with a drawing like that, my little boy ought to take part as well. The fact that Ouborg was dismissed as a clever profiteer and his integrity was called into question hurt him very deeply: ‘Yes, I’m experiencing a good deal of grief as a result of this Jacob Maris Prize. The entire country is up in arms. The few who are in favour are not (or were not) heard.’