GEMS in portraits: Koenraad Jonckheere

RubensOur second portrait is that of Koenraad Jonckheere, professor of Art History at Ghent University. Koenraad has published widely on a variety of subjects, and is currently writing a book on the Quaestio concept. Next to his academic career, Koenraad is active as a curator for exhibitions and is the director of publications at the Centrum Rubenianum, a research institute for Flemish art in the 16th and 17th centuries.

How did your interest for your research arise?
That depends on what you would define as ‘my research’. In the course of my career I have radically changed subjects a couple of times. I started working on seventeenth and eighteenth- century international art markets. Subsequently, I shifted my focus to something that had nothing to do with that. I was granted a research project (NWO, Veni) to investigate how iconoclasm in the sixteenth century affected art and iconography. Iconoclasm demonstrates the enormous impact art and images can have on people and on society. That’s what fascinates me the most. But today my research has turned again, towards the more theoretical, conceptual problem of the Quaestio. I’m convinced that in the early modern period it was of much greater importance to sharply define a question, than to answer it. This concept of the Quaestio is what my next book will be about: can images be conceived as quaestiones, and were they?
Apart from that, I am the director of the Corpus Rubenianum, which has as its objective to both catalogue and explain the entire oeuvre of Rubens by 2020. I’m currently finishing one of its volumes myself, a monograph on Rubens and the many portraits he copied. It is an intriguing quest into the great master’s obsession with the human face.
Curating expositions is another one of my passions. David Freedberg and I are working together on an exhibition on iconoclasm, that is scheduled to take place in 2018 in Bozar.
I love to engage in different contexts, it protects me from getting locked up in the ivory tower.

Do you consider your research in general as interdisciplinary and/or groundbreaking?
Interdisciplinary, certainly. Out of the same belief that you should keep an open and flexible mind. All science starts with having good ideas, and you don’t get those when you’re locked up in your own little field of expertise. I read a lot of things that don’t have anything to do with art history. It is so interesting and refreshing.

image1Do I consider my research groundbreaking? I don’t know. I guess we’ll know that in fifty years, when my efforts have been evaluated. But in fact all I want to do is to solve the problems or questions that I come across. And ideas are never about mere facts. Facts don’t really interest me. For instance, was Rubens born in Antwerp or Siegen? Does it make a difference in understanding his art? What challenges me are conceptual issues, like the Quaestio. When I first started working on it, I realised the classical art historian approach wasn’t going to get me where I want to go. So I started reading studies on neuropsychological issues, on how the brain functions and how it reacts to images. It helps me understand the tactics artists could have used to create an image as question. Or when you would care to take a look at my PhD thesis, you would see that it makes use of economical methodologies. This doesn’t mean I’m an expert in those fields. The bottom line remains my own discipline, art history, and that is where my strength lies. But in solving the issues at stake, I will leave no stone unturned.

Have you ever experienced a ‘Eureka moment’ during your research?
Funny, I had someone asking me the exact same question only recently. Saying there is such a thing as a ‘Eureka moment’ would be like saying there is just one moment in time where you feel like you understand it all. As if all the other moments don’t count. That’s not how it works for me. I write every day, and whenever I am writing, new ideas come up. Inventio, as it is called in the world of art, is to be found in the process of working, at least for me. Compare it to someone making a drawing. The drawing is the moment in which the virtual image is confined to the paper. Or at least that is how it is assessed in art history. But the mental image is never fixed. It flows and moves, and only through the act of drawing will the invention realise itself.
Every word, every phrase I write, is almost a moment of … well, that’s when the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. You know, I really love working. When I’m writing, it’s as if the book I’m working on is already in my mind. My working process is bizarre. In a single day, I can complete a paragraph of chapter one and jump to a couple of sentences in chapter five, back to chapter two and so forth. At the start my texts are one big chaos. It’s a bit hard to explain, but that’s how it works.

What is the most inspiring (literary) study you have ever read? And the most recent one?
Most recently I read Umberto Eco’s Opera Operta (The Open Work), during the Christmas break. It’s Eco’s most important study. It has changed the history of literature and art. I had read parts of it before, but this time I read it all the way through. When it comes to ideas, this book is genuinely brilliant.

But a book I try to read every year, usually in the Christmas period, is The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus. The 2009 Dutch translation is very good. This little book teaches you to put things in perspective, to realise that not everything you do is world-shockingly important. If it were up to me, every academic should read it once a year. One of the chapters is about intellectualism and how it can become ridiculous. And even though it’s about scholasticism and the like, just adapt the names and terms to our own time, and you’ll see it’s a truly universal story. That’s the power of writers like Erasmus. He can put complex ideas in such a way that it’s understandable and of use to almost everyone. A good idea is worth sharing. And that to me is one of the beauties of this profession, that you can inspire people with ideas. Why then, not write them down in a comprehensible way.

by Yannice De Bruyn