Robert Jasper Grootveld dies
Wednesday, 20 May 2009
Robert Jasper Grootveld: Artist and activist who helped found the
Dutch Provos in the 1960s
No single person can be said to have created the worldwide cultural
phenomenon we call "the Sixties". But the Dutch anti-smoking
"magician" and voodoo showman Robert Jasper Grootveld has a better
claim than most. In the early Sixties, his surreal, dadaist
"happenings" in Amsterdam electrified the city's bored youth and
led to the creation of the playful Provo movement (short for
"provocation"). With the charismatic, flamboyantly transvestite
Grootveld as a spokesman, Provo was a catalyst for cultural
revolution. The group provided free bicycles, subverted a royal
wedding and humiliated the stiff-necked Dutch establishment and
Amsterdam police force so effectively that both groups – and the
country - underwent a near-total personality change. Provo lasted
only from 1965 to 1967 but the spirit of what Grootveld dubbed
"International Magic Centre Amsterdam" broke old Holland, inspired
hippies in San Francisco and musicians and artists in London and
paved the way, among other things, for the summer of love, Dutch
total football and the green movement.
In 1960 the Netherlands had been a sleepy, isolated, puritan
country, guilt-ridden and sombre. A decade later, it was a dynamic
and liberal society. Early associate Jan Vrijman called Grootveld
the "announcer of the international spirit of revolution".
Yet the former ice-cream salesman, window cleaner and shipyard
worker who left school at 15 had no agenda and was apolitical.
Grootveld's only desire, he said, was for personal publicity. He
first attracted attention in 1955, floating through Amsterdam on a
tiny raft like some ship-wrecked sailor, mocking diners in fancy
restaurants. In 1961 he defaced cigarette advertisements with the
letter K (for cancer), was arrested, and a new career beckoned.
Soon he was drawing crowds to the Spui square and spreading
mysterious graffiti, including the slogan "Klaas is Coming!"
(inspired by his belief that Sinterklaas – Father Christmas – was
Grootveld's war against boredom and the consumer society switched
to his anti-smoking "K-Temple", an old garage near the Leidseplein
where he performed shamanistic anti-smoking rituals while a crowd
chanted "Bram bram! ugga ugga!". Regulars included a writer called
Johnny the Selfkicker, who talked himself into a trance and threw
himself from high places, and a "half doctor" (a failed medical
student) who tried to achieve a state of higher consciousness by
drilling a hole in his forehead. When Grootveld tired of this, he
set fire to the temple and danced on the roof as it burned.
Writers and artists adored Grootveld for his wild invention and for
doing things they never dared. But apart from a two-year love
affair with the writer Gerard Reve, Grootveld, son of a west
Amsterdam carpenter, was wary of intellectuals. His experience of
hunger and poverty during the Nazi occupation also set him apart
from younger, ideologically driven Provo leaders like the
anarchists Rob Stolk and Roel van Duyn. While they sought violent
confrontation with the police, Grootveld, whose grandfather had
been a policeman, steered the group instead towards a far more
original and influential strategy of playful, witty, non-violence.
In 1967, Grootveld moved to the margins of the counter-culture
where he gave away marijuana but railed against hard drugs. Over
the next 40 years he became forgotten, spending much of his time in
Amsterdam's former docklands, creating floating gardens out of
chunks of polystyrene. Seeing no contradiction with his anti-
tobacco activism, he also smoked heavily and became alcoholic.
Increasingly severe mood swings, caused, he said, by bipolar
disorder, led to him falling out with most of his old friends.
He never really recovered after his wife Thea, an assistant TV
producer, left him in 2000 (she died in 2005). But friendship with
a young writer, Eric Duivenvoorden, brought one last moment in the
limelight. Ten days before his death from lung disease, Grootveld
attended the launch of Duivenvoorden's biography of him, Magiër van
een nieuwe tijd ("Magician of a New Time") and spent the evening
beaming, smoking – and shouting at anyone who dared sit beside him
on a throne left vacant for Sinterklaas.
Robert Jasper Grootveld, artist and activist: born Amsterdam 19
July 1932; married 1972 Thea Keizer (marriage dissolved 2000; one
daughter); died Amsterdam 26 February 2009.