"eyes that have seen more than human sight can handle"
Jan Montyn was born in Oudewater in 1924, where he spent a carefree childhood as part of a large, close-knit, orthodox Protestant family.
As a 17 year-old in the Second World War, attracted purely by the promise of adventure, he became a member of the Jeugdstorm (Dutch National Socialist Youth Movement), and participated in two Weersportkamps (Endurance Camps) in Austria. In order to escape the Arbeitseinsatz (forced labour) and the restrictiveness of Oudewater, he joined the German navy in mid-1944. In the Baltic Sea, his ship was sunk by a torpedo attack, and he barely survived. He was transferred to the trenches in Courland, where he was wounded. Upon his recovery, he was bussed to the front line at Oder, where he witnessed the bombing of Dresden first-hand. When the Russians crossed the Oder, he fled to West Germany where he was eventually captured by the Americans. He managed to escape to Marseille, where he joined the Foreign Legion. After a short period with the Foreign Legion, he deserted and gave himself up in Straatsburg. In August 1945, he was transferred to the camp in Vught, and then on to the Duindorp camp in Scheveningen. He was sentenced to three years’ internment: firstly in the re-education camp in Katwijk, and later in Nunspeet. At weekends, he would return home to Oudewater or visit the artists’ bars on the Leidseplein in Amsterdam. He returned to Oudewater in May 1948.
However, once again, Oudewater proved too restrictive and suffocating for him, and he signed up for military service with the UN. After undergoing commando training, he was shipped to Korea, where his love affair with the Far East, particularly South-East Asia, began. He was wounded while serving on the front line. After his recovery, he was once again wounded, and admitted to a hospital in Tokyo with partial paralysis. After his rehabilitation from this latest war wound, he was transferred back to the Netherlands, whereupon he returned to Oudewater.
However, after a while, he realised that he had completely outgrown Oudewater and decided to become a professional soldier, accepting a post as instructor for the infantry division of the Dutch Army. Physically, he was in top condition, but his experiences at war had taken a toll on his psychological well-being, and he suffered from fits of rage. During this period, he also began to sketch more and more. After a while, he was given the task of setting up a museum for the Dutch Grenadier Guards. As curator of the museum, Montyn led a double life. By day, he tended to the museum, but by night, he would organise wild parties, orgies and drinking binges. His rage attacks got worse, and he was eventually admitted to a psychiatric institution in Utrecht. He brought his psyche back into balance by writing extensively about his experiences. In April 1957, he was declared unfit for service and discharged from the armed forces.
He then set up home in Amsterdam, on the Oudezijds Kolk, where he lived on the fringes of the art world. He made friends with Anton Heyboer, who instilled Montyn with his passion for sketching and showed him numerous techniques. This expressive medium and refined techniques were perfectly suited to Montyn, and together with Heyboer, he embarked upon a long journey through France, Spain and Morocco.
In 1961, Montyn met the young artist Thom Gerrard. They then moved to Morocco, living and working in Rabat for nine months. Upon returning to the Netherlands, they went their separate ways. Tragically, just after Montyn’s first solo exhibition in 1963, Thom took his own life.
In mid-1963, Montyn met Elja Julien, with whom he moved to Provence in 1964. With his own two hands, he renovated a tumbledown building for the couple to live in. It had no running water or electricity, but it did have a studio, which he used to create his etchings. His use of colours became more and more pronounced, and his first series of etchings flowed onto the canvas. He was featured in numerous exhibitions. He then embarked with Elja on journeys through Spain, Morocco, the Sahara Desert and the Atlas Mountains. Together with Elja, he accompanied his first child-refugee transit from South Korea. The couple broke up towards the end of the 1960s.
This marked the beginning of six years of long journeys, often for months at a time. Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam became homes from home. Montyn travelled through rainforests, across hills, through valleys and along and across the Mekong river. He travelled through war zones, such as the Plain of Jars, Hué, Haiphong, Saigon, Hanoi and the tunnels of Cu Chi. He was caught in air raids, and he stood eye-to-eye with the Vietcong. He combined these extreme circumstances with temple retreats and with rest & recuperation in Bangkok. On his travels, he would create sketches and paintings, and back at his house in France, he would translate his experiences into etchings. The powerful etchings that he created during this period portrayed subjects such as war, air raids and casualties, but also the serenity of the temples, the mystic quality of the landscape and the burning desire for liberation. They were years of intense contrast: the tension and emotion of South-East Asia, hard work in Provence, and the worldliness of Amsterdam and Paris and the countless other cities in which his work was exhibited.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, enough was enough for Montyn, and he returned to Europe. In Amsterdam, he met Hi-en Tjia, who he would marry later that same year. The two of them embarked on many journeys together, and the touring party was increased to three with the birth of their daughter Carolynne. They travelled far and wide, to Morocco, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia.
It was at this period that the Khmer Rouge came to power. Once again, Montyn offered his services as a volunteer to humanitarian organisations. He illegally crossed the Mekong, citing his work as an artist as his motivation. He met Roumpha, ‘the Khmer Rouge girl’, via whom he came into proximity with the regime. He witnessed the waves of refugees fleeing Poipet, and visited the refugee camps on the border with Thailand, such as Khao-I-Dang. He witnessed the cruelty that took place in the Tuol Sleng torture camp in Phnom Penh, and the suffering of the victims of the omnipresent landmines, both in the forests and in the fields. He assisted in the transportation of child refugees and the supply of medication for Doctors without Borders, and also worked to clear land mines. His knowledge of the country also enabled him to help track many missing persons for Amnesty International.
When the military regime took power in Burma, causing a desperate shortage of medicines, he participated in many illegal shipments of medication. In this capacity, he was once again confronted with floods of refugees and the camps in Mae Sot, on the Thai border with Burma. This was once again a period of extreme contrast, with the tension and humanitarian crisis in Cambodia and Burma interchanging with relaxation in Bangkok and family and work life in Amsterdam and Provence. The sketches and etchings that he created during this period have a completely unique style of imagery and their overwhelming power of expression is hugely impressive.
In the second half of the 1990s, the situation in South-East Asia had calmed. However, Montyn continued to travel through Asia, accompanied by his trusty sketch pad, pencil, paintbrush and water colours. He recorded the experiences of his travels at home via his etchings, using his own unique imagery and his characteristic colour scheme.