Why does Ben Jakober collect children´s portraits from the period of the 16th to 19th centuries? Why is blow-up the most important stylistic device of his own works of art? What does he want to communicate to the world in this way? “Have a look into my books, there you’ll find the answer”, the president of Ben and Yannick Jakober Foundation replies. This man speaks in enigmas and he doesn´t contribute a lot to help unravel them. Terms like “apotheosis” or “the medium is the message” only outline his style. The “sphinx” Ben Jakober (77) is Mallorca’s grey eminence of art and, along with Miquel Barceló, one of the island’s outstanding artists.
It’s almost impossible to label him with a nationality. In fact he’s a British citizen. But he was born in Vienna, scion of a Jewish-Hungarian family. After that he lived for several years in Paris and many different places around the globe – until he finally settled in Mallorca. He’s not often at home, however. Mainly the couple resides in Costa Rica at the moment. In spite of his considerable age Jakober can’t resist the desire to travel constantly to the capitals of art, like he did in the 50s, 60s and 70s. He’s polyglot and speaks alternately Spanish, English, Hungarian, French and German “without any preferences”, he remarks.
He’s regularly accompanied by another global citizen. Jakober’s wife Marie-Claire Yannick Vu (65), daughter of a Vietnamese father and a French mother, is a celebrated painter and sculptor. No wonder: her parents’ family consisted of painters, sculptors and pianists.
One quality with which Ben Jakober describes his collection is “humour”. In fact, if one decides to start the journey to the museum in Alcúdia following the signs “Fundació” (foundation), one feels gently teased in a certain way. To start with, it’s easy to miss the last exit at the roundabout in Alcúdia. Only the bus drivers know the way, carrying tourist groups to Jakober’s museum every day. Having discovered the small road it transforms into a dusty track after one kilometre. Along the four kilometre route, one constantly questions whether one hasn’t got lost here at the world’s end. Suddenly the car has to stop in front of a closed iron gate. Adjacent is a sign bearing the words “private area – dead end”. It doesn’t sound inviting. Inching forward in the car to a white line, a strange electrical mechanism slowly opens the gate. There’s no speaking system.
Welcome to the strange beauty of Ben Jakober’s world. A park of installations prepares the visitor step-by-step for the experience ahead. Antique columns of stone and labyrinthine paths attract one’s gaze. Far behind, a circle of stones similar to Stonehenge is visible. Reaching the end of the road one becomes aware of Jakober´s typical works of art. A giant cat, a giant Japanese dog and a giant pigeon without feet stand in front of a magnificent “Passió”, a Mallorcan castle in the countryside, which is the foundation’s headquarters. The animal figures are plain and simple in shape, leaving space for interpretation.
“The sculpture park inaugurated in 2007 is a special feature for families, with children being allowed to touch the granite animal figures”, the foundation’s art historian Isabel Palou Amer explains.
Not touchable at all are the children´s portraits from all over Europe, forming probably the core of the Jakober collection. Entering the corridor with the illuminated paintings from medieval times the viewer falls into a serious mood, experiencing a strange, melancholy, gloomy and sad atmosphere. Undoubtedly the paintings have a very high artistic value. But they were created in order to frighten off death and evil. Affluent townsmen and members of the nobility commissioned portraits of their offspring in times of high infant mortality. The children’s clothes are equipped with magical amulets with the purpose of holding off bad spirits. The boys and girls are dressed with adults’ clothing, because from the very beginning of life they weren’t granted a playful childhood. The Jakober collection is so huge that other museums are able to borrow works for temporary exhibitions.
Another room is dedicated to celebrated German cybernetic-minimalist artist Rebecca Horn. Being a good friend of Ben, she designed the rooms herself. It’s a crazy performance-art that creates an artistic ambience similar to David Lynch’s sci-fi movie-classic “Dune”. Two welded pistols in a glass box signify an “eternal kiss”. On the left wall there’s a box fixed with a snail-shell on it and an electric clockwork inside. The mechanism puts a brush in motion that fondles a stone. In another glass display cabinet there’s a metallic butterfly waving with blue wings. The ambience is surprising and humorous – we have to concede a point to Ben Jakober. Even the colour smudges on the wall have a nihilistic meaning. There are many examples of amusing cybernetic toys everywhere in the museum.
The showrooms are a must for every art connoisseur – and both are related to Yannick Vu: the works of her first husband, Domenico Gnoli, who died too early at the age of 36, and of her father the Vietnamese artist Vu Cao Dam (1908 to 2000). His paintings and sculptures are suggestive of the culture in Hanoi in the early 20th century. We don’t have enough space to describe the fantastic Spanish rose garden and the meditative “Socrates” basement.
It’s not easy to obtain profound explanations about all this from Ben Jakober, because he only expresses his inner thoughts conditionally. He says that he would never present “lovely and sweet” art, because it’s not authentic. His goal is “to leave one’s mark and to gain certainty at the end of life that realization has been extended at least one inch thanks to our effort”.
During conversation he proves to have a calm personality. He exudes positive energy. Professionally he claims himself to be a perfectionist: “We simply claim to be the best on the market with our museum. If a visitor has thrown away a fag end anywhere and I pick it up I ask my employees why they didn´t clean the area better.” He’s not always that severe, possessing a bizarre subtle humour, which is recognizable in his art collection. But along with this goes a spirit of abstract anarchy, of profound calmness surrounding the secluded estate, of solemn heaviness holding the lightness by the hand.
Remember the books about Ben we should read. In the addendum of an appreciation written by Achille Bonito Oliva, one finds the curriculum vitae of Yannick and Ben. Two entries attract attention. Firstly the death of Domenico Gnoli, who had been friend and inspiration for Jakober, in 1970 in New York. Secondly stands out the tragic passing, caused by a traffic accident, of Maima Jakober in 1992. The only biological child of Yannick and Ben, who had married in 1972, was born in 1973. In the same year the artist couple started to collect antique children’s portraits. A little bit of the mourning for Maima, who will always be in the hearts of Yannick and Ben, can be recognized in the sad infant paintings.
The historical town Alcúdia is considered one of the most beautiful on Mallorca. With lots of shops, bars, restaurants and boutique hotels. A visit is highly recommended! […] Alcúdia