Friday, February 24, 2023

The comic genius of Jan van Haasternen

Celebrating the comic genius of  Jan van Haasternen on the occasion of his birthday, with a brief look at his artwork, alongside Dutch 'Golden Age' paintings.


Jan van Haasteren (b. February 24th 1936 - ) was born  in Schiedam in the region of South Holland in the Netherlands.  His early childhood years were lived through the second World War. He later attended technical school, where he learned to become a home decoration painter, and then studied Publicity and Advertising at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam. After his military service he began his career with a small Rotterdam-based advertising agency. He joined the Marten Toonder studios in 1962 and began freelancing in 1967. Throughout the 1960's and 70's Jan worked with a wide variety of  magazine advertising  agencies and comic strip publishers. 

Jan van Haasternen joined Jumbo puzzles in 1980 and has now supplied the jigsaw manufacturing company with over two hundred of his inventive, action packed tableaux in which almost anything and everything is happening at the same time. An early example of Jan's comic strip art style can be seen in his popular 'Baron von Tast'  series. (Below)

In 'The Bachelor' (below) an unmarried man engaged in domestic chores, tidies away his pet octopus. A mysterious hand grasps to stop the pendulum of a Grand-father clock which has the ages of 30, 40, 50 and 60 years inscribed upon its face.

Two regular characters in Jan's comic puzzles are featured in his earliest artwork for Jumbo. In 'The Classroom' (below) a teacher screams in fright at a mouse whilst a cat sleeps undisturbed on top of a locker. The school children are absorbed in their own fun and games and aren't concerned at all with their teacher's alarm !

'Get that cat !' an early artwork supplied by Jan for Jumbo puzzles (below) displays a variety of architectural styles which are the background to a pack of dogs gathered to catch a cat. They've surrounded a tree in which the cat sits, calm and safe above them all. A spotty Dalmatian dog and a tabby cat are the oldest characters regularly featured in Jan's puzzle art. 

With his industrious inventiveness,  ability to supply a near endless variations upon a theme, accompanied by a humorous multiplicity of action, its not too bold to state that Jan's skillful draughtsmanship, along with his astute observation of people, shares characteristics with artists of the 'Golden Age' of Dutch Art. Indeed, Jan's own hometown, Schiedam, was also the birthplace of the gifted 'Golden Age' artist Adam Pynacker. Like many Dutch artists of the seventeenth century, Adam Pynacker (1622-79) had a relatively short life. He's noted for painting in the fashionable and popular Italian style which often featured ancient ruins in a rural setting lit by a glowing, south of the Alps sunlight, as in his Landscape with a Goatherd (Below)

Adam Pynacker -Landscape with a goatherd

There's one Dutch painter in particular whose art shares fruitful comparison to Jan van Haasternen's, its by another Jan, the most Dutch of all Dutch names, the artist Jan Steen (1626-79). Jan Steen's paintings capture the lives of the ordinary Dutch citizens enjoying life, often drinking, music-making and playing pranks upon each other. The chaos and disorder often to be found in Jan Steen's paintings is not so removed from Jan van Haasternen's comic art, but without Steen's moralising. In  Jan Steen's 'A School class' the moral lesson that its bad teachers who make bad schoolchildren is underscored with anarchy and chaos reigning supreme in the classroom.

Jan Steen - A School Class (circa 1670)

The prosperous times of the Dutch Republic resulted in an estimated million paintings being bought and owned by ordinary citizens in a short, historical era. The art genres of landscape, portraiture, still life, maritime scenes and depictions from mythology and the Bible were all popular, as was a genre known as 'merry group' art, such as in Jan Steen's, 'As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young' dated circa 1668-1670 (above).

Sometimes allusion to famous Dutch or Flemish art is easily detected. Michel Ryba's 'The Seasons' (detail below) explicitly alludes to Pieter Breugel's famous painting known as ' The Hunters in the Snow' (1565).

The Dutch nation have long been renowned for their peaceful and tolerant attitude whilst living in close proximity to each other. In Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 'Dutch Proverbs' (below) over 126 proverbs are referenced, including, 'Horse droppings are not figs' meaning appearances are deceiving, 'There's more in it than an empty herring' meaning, there's more than meets the eye, 'to hang one's cloak according to the wind' meaning to adapt one's viewpoint to the current opinion, and 'he who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again'. (Don't cry over spilt milk.) The sheer profusion of people in Bruegel's 'Dutch proverbs' is suggestive of the thriving, dense population of the Netherlands during the Renaissance and equally true of modern-day Netherlands.

Jan's view of art and of the public viewing of art in galleries is encapsulated in a puzzle below.

Jan van Haasternen's comic art for Jumbo puzzles often involves a crowd of participants, male and female, young and old, cheerful and annoyed, engaged in a multiplicity of antics and pranks, not least in his 'Acrobat Circus' (Below). Several regulars characters in Haasternen's puzzles including a bishop (swinging on a rope) a convict, a pink octopus and Jan's signature motif, a shark's fin cutting through the action, can be spotted. By the way double-clicking on these images enlarges them for greater detail, especially if using a lap-top.

'Acrobat Circus'

'St. George and the Dragon'

'The Holiday Fair'


The outdoor scene 'Winter Games' (below) is one of my personal favourites. Its exemplary of Jan's superb draughtsmanship skills, bringing alive a wide expanse with great depth of field perspective. As ever Jan's signature motif, a shark's fin can be spotted by the sharp-eyed, silently cutting its way through the hilarious action.

In 2013 Jan van Haasternen became a Knight  of the Order of Orange-Nassau for his contributions to Dutch comics culture and for his role as an inspirer of comic artists and illustrators. And in 2021 he and other members of Studio Van Haasteren (notably Dick Heins and Rob Derks) were awarded the P. Hans Frankfurther Prize for special merits. 

But perhaps the greatest award and achievement of the comic genius of Jan van Haasternen is the simple fact that Jan's puzzles gave cheer to countless puzzlers, young and old, during the long days and nights of the global pandemic (2020-22). At a time when many were time rich as never before, socially isolated and in need of mental stimulation, jigsaws, not least by Jan van Haasternen occupied the minds of many world-wide, effectively offering escape from gloomy days, giving a challenge and a chuckle during their construction, along with a real sense of accomplishment upon completion. 

I'm confident that admirers of JvH jigsaws will today raise a glass on the occasion of the artist's 87th birthday, and toast with me to the good health of the comic genius, Jan van Haasternen. 

See also