Adolph Jentsch (1888 - 1977)
Adolph Jentsch was born in Dresden, Germany in 1888, to a well-educated family that encouraged his interest in the arts. Jentsch studied at the Staatsakademie für Bildende Kunste in Dresden, under Gussmann, Zwunscher and Kühl. At the academy, he was acquainted with George Grosz and Max Pechstein, along with a number of other young artists who later would become founders of modernist art movements around Germany. During and after his education, Germany was a place where the arts were flourishing. “The last decade of the nineteenth century saw a sudden blossoming in almost every sphere of human activity, including the arts. Long accepted theories were confuted and traditions questioned,” writes Levison (1973:20). While he was still studying, the Jugendstil movement arose as a challenge to artistic conventions, looking towards the arts from Oceania, Asia and Africa in search of new influences; in 1896 the artists forming part of the group published their ideas in the magazine Jugend.
Having completed art school, Jentsch was awarded a medal and travel stipend from the Köngliche-Sächsische Staatsmedaille für Kunst und Wissenschaft – which he used to travel to Italy, London and Paris. In Paris, the work of Cézanne, Rousseau, Millet and Corot had a great influence on him. After his travels, Jentsch was employed at an interior design firm based in Bohemia (current day Czechoslovakia), working on commissions for the Dresden City Hall and travelling throughout Bohemia and Germany. Although Jentsch’s interior design work had influences from Jugendstil and he worked on a few Jugendstil commissions, Jentsch did not form part of any of the modernist art movements in Germany (Levinson, 1973). According the Levison (1973:19), he “continued to work in his own conservative way.” These movements, however, would have an impact on his later career.
Die Brücke, another movement of artists with a new vision, was formed in 1906, impacting the arts in Germany with their “violent colours, a sense of doom, figural distortion and emotional humanism” (Levinson, 1973: 22). In 1911 a group of artists under the name Der Blaue Reiter, that included Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Marc and Macke, held an exhibition in Munich which caused a sensation. Their “emotional, expressive and intuitive” works became known as Expressionism. They were influenced by primitive art and the subjective element in the creation of works of art, valuing intuition and individual experience. “Jentsch was not unaffected by these attitudes and shares some of their views”, writes Levinson (1973:24). Kandinsky’s book, published in 1911, about the spiritual element in art, resonated with Jentsch’s personal philosophy on painting. Jentsch wrote about his own art and his ideas about his work later in his life: “My painting is pure intuition concerning the essence of life. In the arts all the spiritually vital experiences are gained intuitively. My experience of the landscape is shown in the spiritual vision which I put into my painting – arising from my inner self” (quoted in Levinson, 1973:24).
Convulsed by the First World War and its devastating effect on Germany, the political and economic unease affected the work of artists. The 1920’s was a difficult time in Germany, with inflation and unemployment rising and a turn to the far right of the political spectrum by the early 1930’s. Fascism began to affect all spheres of life, not least the arts; many artists were declared “degenerate”, works were seized and removed from museums and galleries, the famed Bauhuas was closed down, and the result was that many artists chose to emigrate. Unable to obtain commissions any longer, Jentsch made the decision to emigrate in 1938, after his cousin invited Jentsch and his family to visit him in South West Africa (Namibia). He would never return to Germany.
Jentsch arrived at his cousin’s farm in February 1938. “There, at the farm Kleepforte, he spent his first few months of painting in the South West, revelling in the vast open spaces and endless horizons. This was the freedom and harmony for which his spirit yearned: unspoilt Nature and – above all – peace” (Levinson, 1973:35). The immense space and dramatic colour, light and shade of the local landscape had a profound affect on Jentsch; it was the ideal climate for him to work and he immediately began to paint prolifically (Berman, 1995). He held his first solo exhibition in 1938, at the Grossherzog Hotel in Windhoek. It received positive reviews in local newspapers and was described in the Windhoek Advertiser as “the reaction of a highly artistic and sensitive mind to the essential aspects of our landscape” (Levinson, 1973:42). Following the exhibition, he travelled around the southern parts of SWA, staying on the Eirup farm, bordering on the Kalahari. Jentsch was invited to stay with different families on their farms, spending seven years with the Krafft family and four years with the von Funckes – who became his lifelong friends.
Jentsch’s collection of Chinese calligraphic paintings and his interest in Chinese philosophy and yoga, which had started earlier in Germany, influenced his landscape paintings in South West Africa. Landscapes were his primary subject matter, and he often painted the same scene several times. “It is a great art of Adolph Jentsch that he can paint the same landscape over and over – and yet every time it is completely different. Similarly, the Chinese painted the same things again and again – but were never repetitive (Levinson, 1975:68).”
Jentsch painted in watercolour and oil, usually working en plein air, and was equally deft in both mediums. His brushwork defines his style, which has been compared to Chinese painting. “His style demanded enormous concentration because he seldom altered or obliterated a stroke,” explains Berman (1975:106). More importantly, “Jentsch has distilled the essence rather than portrayed the features of the South West African landscape and is therefore regarded as the first significant interpreter of the region” (Berman, 1975:107). Few modern artists from the region are not influenced by his style, writes Berman (1995:225).
Regarded as a spiritual painter with mystical inclinations, Jentsch’s work illustrates the impact of the modern art movements from his native country in terms of the value given to subjectivity in art, and the break with formal academic landscape tradition. At the same time, his work does not conform to modernist approaches, but rather display a timeless quality – as “realism in an eminently poetic mould” (Berman, 1995). Jentsch wrote about his art (Levinson, 1973:58): “I pour my deepest feelings into my art. One can always sense sincerity, whether it be in art or prayer. A stuttered truth is still a truth. […]”
Jentsch participated in several significant exhibitions in both Namibia and South Africa, such as the exhibition of SWA artists at the National Gallery in Cape Town in 1962. He had a studio at the Art Centre of the Dr. Erich Lübbert Stiftung Building that was made available to him by the South African Association of Arts (South West Africa) indefinitely, in recognition of his contribution to the art world of his adopted country (Levinson, 1973: 64). In 1968 a retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the South African Association of the Arts in Windhoek, coinciding with his 80th birthday. Sadly, in 1975 a fire destroyed the von Funckes farm where a large number of Jentsch’s paintings were stored, resulting in the loss of much of Jentsch’s oeuvre from around 40 years.
Adolph Jentsch passed away in 1977.
Berman, E. (1996). Art and Artists of South Africa, Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape, 225-226.
Berman, E. (1975). The Story of South African Painting. Cape Town: AA Balkema, 105-107.
Levinson, O. (1973). Adolph Jentsch. Human & Rousseau: Cape Town and Pretoria.
Ogilvie, G. (1988). The Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptors. Everard Read: Johannesburg.
© Johans Borman Fine Art