Jos Letschert

Sculptor

‘Head - Lines’, ‘Possible Faces’, 'Encounters'

 


 

My sculptural work focuses on three related themes: 

  1. Human Head; 
  2. Ancient Greek Mythology;  
  3. Encounters. 


The interpretation of Greek mythology is the core of my work.



1. "Head-Lines"
The first theme  I call 'Head - Lines' and is about the formal variety, tension and expression in sculpted heads, in shapes, planes and lines. The sculpture is not assigned to existing persons or a narrative, nevertheless it is figurative sculpture and it deals with human emotions, sometimes reserved, sometimes more explicit.

The sculptures are figurative, mainly heads, shapes, masks, spatial, with texture. The shapes are often broken. Mostly you can look into the sculpture, behind the mask. The interior space of a sculpture is just as important to me as the exterior space. The French sculptor Germaine Richier says it like this: “What characterizes sculpture, in my opinion, is the way in which it renounces the full, solid form. Holes and perforations conduct like flashes of lightening into the material, which becomes organic and open, encircled from all sides, lit up in and through the hollows.” Germaine Richier in: New images of man. Peter Selz. The Museum of Modern Art. Doubleday, garden City, N.Y., 1959 

The heads are still lifes. They are alive, but silent. They keep their meaning hidden 

for the fleeting spectator. They only reveal themselves to those who are searching behind a first look. It is like language, the unsaid is often more pronounced than a lost word. 

 



2. "Possible faces"
The second theme - also related to heads -  I call 'Possible faces'. It is an interpretation of mainly, but not exclusively Homeric protagonists who stand for essential ideas and concepts. Iphigenia, for example, stands for deception, betrayal and sorrow; Andromache for love and despair; Priam for overconfidence, but also for helplessness and pain; Kalchas represents the danger of ideologies; Eumaios and Eurykleia stand for affection, dedication and friendship, but also for slavery and the repulsive idea that people could own and suppress other people. Apollo, twin brother of Artemis, is the shepherd god, but also the god of the wolf. He is protector of music and god of medicine. His character is ambiguous. He stands for the beautiful and sublime, at the same time he is an intriguer, an intrusive woman attacker, for example with regard to Kassandra, Daphne or Koronis. He is a jealous musician with sadistic qualities, for example with regard to the satyr Marsyas that he had skinned alive after a music competition. Apollo also stands for causing epidemic diseases among human beings. With his bow and arrows, he spreads deadly ailments. Apollo, the good and the evil, united in one person. Aeneas, a Trojan hero, represents people who need to flee from homeland and habitat because of war, oppression and danger of death. Aeneas initially seems to be one of the big losers in the Trojan epic. In the end, however, it is not Hektor, the intended Trojan heir to the throne, not Achilles, the virtually invincible hero who dies on the ramparts of the city, not Agamemnon, the dubious Greek army commander, who is murdered on his return home, who keep the best prospects. Aeneas flight with an old invalid father and a young son is a  tragedy and a metamorphosis at the same time. Aeneas symbolizes the last man, the last human, on an exodus to a new beginning. Nothing is eternal, everything is changing. Aeneas' son Askanios founded a new dynasty, while it lasted, of course. 

I do not depict my sculpture with signs and attributes that are characteristic for the concerned person and that refer to their function, role and meaning. No trident at Poseidon, no Aegis at Pallas Athena, no lightning bolts at Zeus. It is all about "possible faces". My interpretation of the mythological Protagonists and the names that I have assigned, are the only references. 

"What is left when

there is nothing left, 

unreasonable space 

maybe, remains of a 

membrane, vibration 

of broken connection 

perhaps, or the lack of 

wonder? "

 
My work deals with questions like our incessant pursuit of obtaining appreciation and attention, and about the pursuit of the utopia of continued life after death, in whatever form ("What is left when there is nothing left?"). The interpretations of Greek mythological figures in my work are about the human condition: the constant involvement in a search for meaning of life, and the ill-fated enterprise to get beyond the limits of our actual existence. Our contemporary life and our value systems are still partly mythologically shaped or influenced. My sculptures of faces are figurative translations of concepts that dominate our humanity. They express or stand for highlights and decadence, for glory and decay. Myths underpin morality, adjust it and explain the underlying considerations. Myths make morality understandable, applicable and manageable in an increasingly civilized community and they are beacons in the event of imminent decline. Myths are the expression of our narrative collective consciousness about the better and the worse, about joy and sorrow.

To me, my mythological sculptures often have an uncomfortable relationship with the reality in which we now find ourselves. It is as if they look at me incomprehensible, in the sense of: "you had to know that better now than we did then, of course we do not exist, invented gods we are, made up alibis for your own insecurity." The heroes of the myths have proven how useless and evil fighting is, finally all are losers. The imperialist army commanders have so often been proved wrong. Impetuous loves eventually succumbed to suspicion and infidelity. The lessons have not yet been learned. Now, stored in the muted light of my studio,  my sculptures look at me, with unapproachable looks and with misunderstanding of our slowness. Am I mistaken, or do they look at me with a pitying look. 

 




3. "Encounters"

The third theme 'Encounters' is about the mise en scène, the setting or staging of my work , or the confrontation of my sculpture with e.g. classical, baroque, or modern sculpture. The confrontation puts the figures out of their isolated context in order to see them with "different eyes". They wish your attention. Your attention is the core of their existence.


"With different eyes 

 

I wish your attention, 

your perceptiveness, 

so that you know that 

I'll be there, so that you 

perceive all what I do 

and that you hear 

what I will say to you. 

 

It's me, just look at me, 

your attention is the core 

of my existence. Who am I 

when no one notices that 

I'm there? If you really look 

at me, then you might see 

me, and maybe this time 

with different eyes."

 



"The suffering and struggling man" 

Central to my painting and sculpture, especially my work that is related to Greek mythology, are the concepts: “suffering” and “struggling”. These concepts have gradually emerged in my work, at least in a part of it. I wasn't out to thematize them. Actually, I am much too optimistic to accept these themes as guiding principles in my work, I thought. It was the Dutch scholar, researcher, publicist, curator and art collector Dr. Lex van de Haterd, who made me aware of the centrality of these concepts in my work. At first I rejected his interpretation. Of course, my work is about tragic figures in the literature of Homer and other Greek writers. I believed that it was not so much the tragedy that attracted me, but that I was mainly concerned with the aesthetic translation of main protagonists into sculpture. Thinking it over for a longer period of time, however, I have to admit that the core of my work is indeed the suffering and struggling of mankind: the human condition, in which - sorrow and struggle are essential elements. We are often weighed down by the human deficit.

 

Suffering and struggle are not necessarily polar concepts. Suffering means to be in pain, to have sorrow, to be ill. In line with that is the struggle to get back on top, to become healthy and happy again. Suffering and struggling of mankind is confronted with faith and doubt, with certainty and uncertainty, with values and dignity, with honesty and unreliability, with trickery and deceit, with devotion and negligence, with hate and with love. Nothing human is strange to us, even not to Greek gods and heroes. Priamos, the last king of Troy, is torn between pride and humility. Kassandra, his daughter, prophetess and priestess of Apollo, despairs of the curse that prevents her prophecies from being believed, which ultimately leads to the downfall of Troy. Odysseus is perhaps the most cunning warrior of Greek antiquity, at the same time he is above all other characteristics,  a suffering man , a man of sorrow who, despite successes, loses all his companions, and who is ruthlessly confronted with himself at the end of his journey. Medea of Kolchis, niece of Kirke, granddaughter of Helios, has become the role of a repulsive person by Euripides. She struggled and suffered and she became a bad reputation. The German author Christa Wolf however, describes her as victim of a patriarchal power structure, of slander and the spreading of fake news. The perspective of the observer is really influential. Being attracted to a particular sculpture, painting or drawing, or reacting dismissively, is, in addition to the method of design, often related to the biography of the observer. 
 

The protagonists in my work are determined by the names I have given them, derived from Antique myths, but they are not captured in their original context. The concepts they are representing are universal. War fanatics, like Agamemnon, are found everywhere in history, unfortunately also in contemporary times. They personate violence,  ideology and misbehavior. Andromache, another example, is the suffering wife of Hektor. She represents the tragedies from so many women through violence. In my portrayal, she is a universal wife and mother,  a victim of political intrigue or ideology. Yes,  she could even be a Madonna. And Laertes, the former king of Ithaka, and father of  Odysseus and Ktimene, personates sorrow.

Persephone represents the processes of descending and rising. In her case, the kidnapping by Hades and the abduction in the underworld (Kathodos) and the happy return to her mother Demeter (Anodos). It  is a pair of concepts - used in various mystery cults - and  strongly related to concepts like "suffering and struggle". 

 

"Troy" is a metaphor for "suffering and struggle", as well as for "romance and degeneracy". In the Iliad, Homer describes in an epic of 24 books, 51 days of the ten-year battle between Greeks and Trojans. The epic originated in the eighth or seventh century BC. The battle for Troy, on which it is based, was a few hundred years earlier. The battle was fought because, as the story goes, the Trojan king's son Paris kidnapped the wife of the Spartan king Menelaos. The various Greek kingdoms committed themselves to retrieve Helen and to punish Troy. Troy was a rich and powerful city, thanks to its position on the important trade route between the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea.  The kidnapped woman was a romantic argument to give an act of war a semblance of justification. In fact the war between the Greek Allies and the Trojans arose because the Greeks wanted to eliminate the powerful and competitive trading position of the free state of Troy. Tragically, there is nothing new under the sun in the meantime. Terrible wars are still raging for economic and ideological reasons. Apparently justifiable motives are far-fetched. We are still confronted with descriptions of inhuman suffering. In wars, human dignity is often sidelined. Achilles - the great Greek hero - defeats Hektor, the idol of the Trojans. For Achilles, however, his death is not enough, Hektor is dishonored in front of his family and his people, tied behind Achilles' chariot, dragged through the dust, humiliated. The story of Helen turns the Iliad into a Hero Saga. The romantic aspects still appeal to us today. The Dutch poet Jean Pierre Rawie writes: "I have loved a woman who would deserve a second Troy,....". However, the inhumanity of wars silences romanticism, especially when one is confronted with the tragedies of current wars. The Iliad is above all a warning that no one wins in war, everyone loses, not only goods and chattels, for all human dignity. In my paintings and sculptures I have depicted Hektor several times, in different stages. In two sculptures I depict his transience, symbolizing the demise of a human being, the degeneration of humanity, and the downfall of a dynasty. It's not pretty, art isn't always beautiful. The following examples also show the dark sides of human existence. They are about two nearly equal situations regarding political opportunism, masculine preoccupations, patriarchal dominance and violence. It is about two victim couples who have many similarities in their tragedy: Iphigenia and her mother Klytaimnestra, and Persephone and her mother Demeter. Mothers and daughters, at the mercy of power strategies of husbands and fathers. Iphigenia is lured to Aulis by her father Agamemnon, the Greek army commander against Troy, under false pretenses, to be sacrificed to a goddess he had apparently insulted. The goddess, Artemis, punished Agamemnon by the absence of favorable winds. The grumbling mob of soldiers threatened to become a mutinous gang and the army commander gave in to that menacing mob. Persephone, the second example, was kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld and the brother of the powerful Zeus who was her father. Her distraught mother desperately searched the world for her abducted daughter. Here again the father played a despicable role. Two examples, two of a kind, with thematic similarities and unfortunately in terms of intentions not disappeared in contemporary times.

 

Despite all this misery, described above, Greek ancient culture was a highly developed civilization in which all facets, the good and the bad, of being human and living together were developed, in which was tried to explain the incomprehensible, and in which systems were developed to regulate human coexistence. We still see this culture as a cradle of Western civilization. Greek culture itself was influenced by Egyptian civilization. Egyptian culture resolved, like the culture of Ancient Greeks, which passed into Roman culture. The Romans, at their turn,  had a long flourishing period, which eventually turned into an emerging Christian-oriented Western model of civilization which now, in turn, also seems to have fallen into a state of disrepair.

In dominant cultures we see a developmental course of emergence, great flowering, and a phase of decadence that heralds the end, or the transition to another system. Decadence is a process of continuous refinement, until a limit is reached after which decay of values, norms and systems sets in. The developments that lead to cultural decay are influenced and strengthened internally and externally. Internally through extreme regulatory models, losing support and engagement with and amongst people, creating social and financial gaps between population groups, and allowing a lack of responsibility to arise among individuals, groups, agencies and governments. Externally, the end of a great cultural period is influenced by epidemics, globalization, acts of war, natural catastrophes and climate change. This is often accompanied by the start of population flows between countries and continents. Philosophical views on humanity and coexistence also play a major role, just like questions about the manipulability of society, or - in basic contrast - the need of dealing the elusive, with diversity and chaos. 

 

Unmistakable signals indicate that contemporary Western society, has entered a phase of social, cultural, economic, political and administrative decadence, along with a catastrophic and mainly self-inflicted process of world-wide climate change. All this, moreover, in a context in which it is possible to cause devastating damage to the earth and humanity through the use of nuclear weapons. The Dutch author Arnon Grunberg, in his essay “Vriend en vijand” ("Friend and Foe"), (Prometheus, Amsterdam, 2019), defines decadence as the impossibility of crossing another line. That's probably a hard truth. It deals with disconnection between responsibility and involvement, or with a lack of ownership. Conflicts that are no longer manageable arise. Greek mythology is full of such situations and could be considered as a signpost to prevent them, or at least: to understand them. With a nod to mythology you could speak about a phase of "Agamemnonization", if there is a disconnection between stakeholders at different layers of responsibility, or worser: if you could speak about arrogance of power. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, was the army commander in the war of the Greeks against Troy. Euripides described the dramatic fate of his daughter Iphigenia at Aulis, caused by her father. Homer also describes the dubious aspects of his character in the Iliad. Kalchas, the priest, is of course the basic cause of the sad fate of Iphigenia. Although he acts as a messenger of the gods, his demand for retribution can also be seen as a power struggle between the commander-in-chief and the caste of priesthood. Agamemnon and the priest Kalchas are symbols of the eternal struggle for power between church and nobility. The nobility feels elevated above other people and claims the role of rulers and decision makers. The representatives of religion, the priests, prophets, and seers consider it as their divine task to mediate between the upper and the lower world, between supposed and invented gods and men. For that mediation they demand gifts, sacrifices and prestige. The perpetuation of their position of power presupposes doubtless faith, if necessary with means of power imposed. With regard to the use of power and repression, the two groups do not differ fundamental from each other. 


"Myth as signifier"

Artists, at least some of them, are Promethian activists. They are forward thinkers.  They see what is still hidden and convert that into images. They are pointing in new directions. And among artists there are, as in any profession, afterwards thinkers: Epimethianes, those who embrace the usual without questioning it. It is a classic mental divergence. Prometheus, the Titan, stole the fire from the gods because he understood its necessity for the development of people. This in spite of the explicit prohibition of Zeus, accepting that he would be severely punished. All this in contrast to his brother Epimetheus, who accepted without any hesitation the beautiful Pandora as a bride bestowed by the gods, and with her the ailments and calamities of her dowry that would bring people considerable damage, suffering and despair. 

 Rob Riemen, Dutch essayist and founder-director of the Nexus Institute in Tilburg (NL) states in his collection of essays “Nobility of the spirit. A forgotten ideal”, published in 2009 by Atlas publishers in Amsterdam, that not fire is the gift of the gods for the development of humanity, but language. It is the language that allows us to name and know the world and through which we are also known. Every poet knows that, according to Riemen. 

 

Myths are the oldest traces of the human mind. Man's experiences have become language and can be told. I do sympathize with Riemen on this issue and would like to go one step further. I believe Prometheus stole "the ability of meaning-making" and "Imagination" from the gods. Being able to give or derive meaning to and from something, is what makes human nearly divine. In a mythological sense you could say that the ability to imagine and to give meaning to something is what brings mankind as close as possible to the Olympic gods. Meaning-making and meaning acquisition becomes visible in art: through language, through images, through movement, through sound, through sculpture. Imagination is the driving force. That is why art is such an essential value in human existence. It makes us creators. That is why Zeus, the supreme god, was so terribly plagued that Prometheus gave the power of meaning-making and imagination to people. It enabled them to make their own gods, as magnifications of all the good and evil qualities of themselves. And Zeus knew what he was talking about, he too is a figment after all.

 

"Rivivere"
Greek mythology is a cradle for many aspects of contemporary culture, at the same time it is a mirror for achievements and depravities, past and present. In my work I try to realize a contemporary visual reliving (rivivere) of the dormant gods, heroes and mortals from ancient Greek culture. I pause for a moment to look ahead. It is reflecting in a continuous past tense, to the twilight of the gods. In myths we experience deep human emotions without the distractions of contemporary contexts. Myths take us straight to basic values. Maybe we need that more as ever to realize what is happening to us now. Myths are eye-openers. They make essences visible, transparent, and hopefully manageable. Oleg Ferstein, drama director, photographer, performer and lecturer argues (Instagram. Feedback on my sculpture: “Stages of Persephone”, 10. May 2022):  “I'm sure it is time to turn our heads to mythology and not only to Greeks. Mythology is a perfect mirror for humanity to look at itself. To recognize the origin of the depth of stupidity and obscurantism we can't get rid of for thousands of years.”

Another theatre-director, Themis Moumoulidis, formulates it in this way:  

"After twenty years of the Peloponnesian War, Euripides seems to be asking himself: “is a paradigm shift possible”? Two and a half thousand years later, and while we are experiencing the first symptoms of a dystopian future, which we have lost, we still wonder: “is a paradigm shift possible”? The question is unanswerable. Maybe someday civilization will shed its inherent, deadly discomfort. Perhaps one day progress will cease to ally itself with barbarism. Maybe someday…Until then, all we can do is tell the same story again and again, in all tones and in all ways, through the filter of our own time… “ 


That is what I try to do: telling the story again and again, with my possibilities, in sculpture, paintings and poetry. Those who read back the old stories with a mild look, those who are willing to put the roughness into perspective in order to be able to tolerate the atrocities to some extent, those who are receptive to the plasticity of the world of ideas and the imagination of people, may gain a better understanding of the development of our current coexistence. In this sense, the narratives and the iconography of Greek mythology are still, after all those years, a source or a reason for better understanding of what is happening today. 



"Heads"
My work is all about heads and faces. Heads and faces are challenging, both in a narrative context and in a more formal sense. My sculpture is an attempt to express the varied dimensions of the human face - possible faces - headlines. Faces are vulnerable, changeable, inscrutable and intimate. It's hard to capture faces in imagination. They appear and disappear. The traces of time can be seen in faces and transience becomes only tangible in the long run. Faces are fragile and that's how I try to show them. Faces lead their own lives, they do not allow their appearances to be enforced by the sculptor. Faces come and go, at their own discretion.

"The human face is as strange to me as a countenance, which, the more one looks at it, the more it closes itself off and escapes by the steps of unknown stairways." Alberto Giacometti in: Face to face, Christian Alandete, Jo Widoff, Hirmer Publishers, Munich 2020.