A short overview of the history of the Plough will be provided in chronological order. It will focus on how the group came into existence, their stylistic developments, and their other endeavors. The Plough was a diverse group of artists, with different specialties and styles, and although these differences ultimately broke the original group apart, The Plough still exist to this day.
The Beginning (1918 – 1921)
During the summer of 1918 a group of young Groninger artists, consisting of Jan Altink, Toon Benes, Johan Dijkstra, Willem Reinders, and Jan Wiegers gathered to discuss the future of art in Groningen. The reason for this meeting was an exposition held the year before at the Kunstlievend Genootschap Pictura, which they felt didn’t pay enough attention to young and upcoming artists. This meeting led to a new public meeting which was to be held on the 5th of June 1918. Although the interest for this meeting was modest (only seven additional people showed), the meeting would be a great success. It was at this meeting that the 12 artists present founded the Groninger art circle The Plough.
Jan Altink had suggested the name The Plough, as it symbolized their goal to plough through the Groninger art-fields. The first months after its formation the group was immensely productive. Their first exhibit was held in February 1919 and displayed 111 works of art. Besides the works of the founders, the exhibition showed work of newer members such as Jan Jordens, George Martens, and, the first female member, Alida Pott. That same year the print-artist H.N. Werkman also joined The Plough. In the early years, the goal of The Plough was to search for new paths to take and to cleanse the artistic palettes. Besides these philosophical goals, they also set a number of practical goals, such as finding a shared atelier or clubhouse. Due to Jan Jordens’ position as art teacher at the state’s HBS, this goal would quickly be realized.
Of great influence to the members of The Plough was F.H. Bach, who taught most of them during their time at the Minerva Art Academy in Groningen. Bach would occasionally take his students to Blauwborgje, a farm north of the town of Groningen, to sketch outside in the fresh air. Blauwborgje would prove to be one of the most important places of inspiration and gathering for The Plough. Besides this educational influence during those first years, The Plough were greatly influenced by the developments in art outside of Groningen. Jan Wiegers, for example, traveled through Europe and became acquainted with the developments of the 1920’s. Another outside influence was the Bergen School, which Charley Toorop was a member of. The acquaintanceship with the Bergen School came through Jan Jordens, who enjoyed his artistic education in The Hague and Amsterdam, and who, during his studies, came into contact with the work of the Bergen School.
The Three Styles of The Plough (1921 – 1930)
It wasn’t long until Jan Wiegers got diagnosed with consumption (TB). With financial aid from the other Plough members, Wiegers went to a rehabilitation center in Davos, where he would receive treatment. Wiegers’ stay in Davos would later prove to be of crucial significance to the development of The Plough.
During his time in Davos, Wiegers met the German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880 – 1938), a member of the German art group Die Brücke, who represented an expressionist movement now known for its sharp color contrasts, angular lines, and impulsive brushstrokes. Kirchner, also suffering from consumption, and Wiegers would regularly work together during their stay in Davos. Wiegers became an admirer of the style of Kirchner and brought his newfound enthusiasm for this particular style of expressionism back to Groningen when he returned in 1921. Within The Plough, an expressionist movement was formed that included Jan Altink, Jan Jordens, George Martens, Hendrik Werkman, Johan Dijkstra, and, of course, Jan Wiegers.
Wiegers also introduced a new painting technique that mixed paint with beeswax and petrol. This new technique was soon adopted by several other members of The Plough. Typical The Plough paintings were portraits, of each other and of friends. But also the Groninger landscape, which played a prominent role in many works. A relatively high placed horizon, with a perspective that was emphasized by a road or little waterway, combined with contrasting color blocks are signature stylistic aspects of The Plough’s work during their heyday. Open-air painting was greatly favored by the members. The previously mentioned Blauwborgje was, besides being a place frequently used for meetings and discussions, a favored place for portrait and landscape painting.
It was also during this period that Wobbe Alkema and Jan van der Zee developed their own interpretation of constructivism. Van der Zee and Alkema became members of The Plough in 1923 and 1924 respectively but had already been working together on their geometric-abstract style well before that time. Together with John Faber, they founded the advertising agency ‘Atelier Voor Artistieke Reclame’ (AVAR). In 1923 Hendrik Werkman published his ‘druksels’, in which the constructivist influence of Alkema and Van der Zee was very much apparent. In the magazine The Next Call, also published by Werkman, the same constructivist influence can be recognized again, alongside with traces of Dadaism. Jan Altink is seen as the catalyst of the more impressionistic movement that began to develop within The Plough around 1927. Before that time, Altink evidently was a member of The Plough’s expressionist movement. A.M. Dommering wrote in Nieuwsblad van het Noorden that Altink’s style had changed significantly over the course of a year, which was best seen in the change of use of color, from the deep purplish red to the lighter and more frivolous colors of impressionism. Following Altink’s example, Ekke Kleima and Jacob Gerard Hansen had also begun to adopt this style.
Peaks and Valleys (1931 – 1941)
The international character of The Plough was greatly exemplified by their 15-year anniversary exhibition. This exhibition consisted of a great overview of modern art (137 pieces) from all across Europe. Besides works of The Plough members themselves, big European artists such as Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee, James Ensor, Wassily Kandinsky, Constant Permeke, and Pablo Picasso were also shown.
After this great peak of international recognition, The Plough’s development would stagnate in the 1930s. Whilst The Plough kept setting up collective exhibitions, the diversity among them grew. Individually, the members kept growing, but the cooperation and sense of collectiveness from the previous period were lost. As a result, the drive to be experimental and novel became less and less strong, and most artists became more moderate. Werkman warned his fellow members against complacency in his pamphlet Preludium, but to no avail.
In 1941 The Plough would halt all their meetings and labors, as they refused to work under the Reichs Chamber of Culture (Reichskulturkammer).
The Post World War Period (1945–2005)
In September 1945, the members of The Plough reassembled to prepare for their first major post-war exhibition. In January 1946, the usual annual exhibition of artworks made by The Plough was held in the Pictura gallery. During the first 15 years after the war, the image that surrounded The Plough was still dominated by the older generation. By that time, Jan Wiegers had become a Professor at the State Academy for Arts in Amsterdam, while Jan Altink, Jan Jordens, Johan Dijkstra and Hendrik de Vries received the cultural award of the municipality of Groningen. In response to the moderate attitude of The Plough’s older members, a countermovement called ‘Het Narrenschip’ was established.
A great incentive for the artistic endeavors of The Plough was when Jos de Gruyter was appointed as director of the Groninger Museum; he sought to promote the local art scene again. This resulted in the resuming of the yearly tradition of ‘Koppermaandag’ in 1963, a tradition where the members of The Plough would jointly present the mayor of Groningen with an engraving.
This boost, however, would prove short-lived, as criticism on the work of The Plough was increasing. The main point of critique was that The Plough were ignoring the developments in modern art, largely due to the fact that there were almost no young members. Around the 1970s almost no members of The Plough were younger than 55. In 1978 a successful recruitment of a large number of younger artists took place. This, however, would lead to a very fractured number of styles and movements, which resulted in fellow exhibitions being replaced by thematic exhibitions instead. At the start of the 80s, The Plough became further divided as some members’ wish for expansion clashed with other members’ wish to remain a close group of friends. This led to a new countermovement called ‘Het Groninger Kunstenaars Kollektief’, founded on the 21st of January 1981.
After this fracture, The Plough was saved by painter Jan ten Hoope, who in 1996 provided The Plough with their own gallery called ‘Het Ploeghuis’. This Ploeghuis, which was settled in the former Pictura, would become the center for all The Plough activities (such as monthly exhibitions), but it also functioned as living quarters and workshop. The Plough became more active again and housed some of the bigger modern Dutch artists such as Lizette Veenhuizen, Petra van Kalker, and Peter Wortel. This period of renewal and growth came to a halt in 2005 when – due to financial problems, internal discord, and arguments with the landlord – the Plough gallery had to close its doors on the 4th of May 2005.
The Plough still exists to this day and organizes yearly exhibitions in the province of Groningen. Though the group still exists, it is nowhere near its former glory. The heydays of The Plough lie back in the 20s of the previous century.
The Plough as authors
It is important to remember that The Plough was an art circle, and not just a collective of painters, printmakers, and drawers. Besides their pictorial significance, the members of The Plough also published regularly.
In their prime, The Plough and her members published numerous monthly magazines, the first of which was published in October 1921, titled: Blad Voor Kunst. It was a magazine about modern art, printed and published by Hendrik Werkman. A total of 6 issues were published. The editorial office consisted of Jan Wiegers and Jan Jordens for the visual arts, Auguste Defresne for literature, and Daniël Ruyneman for music. The cover of the first magazine was designed by Jan Wiegers.
Although many members of The Plough contributed to Blad Voor Kunst, it wasn’t their official magazine. This would be published in 1924 under the name Het Kouter, which literally means plough blade, or plough iron. It was meant to create more exposure for the ideas of The Plough, containing lectures, comments on cultural events, and wood prints. Only 5 issues were published. The fourth issue, of October 1925, was also the exhibition-catalog.
Besides these monthly magazines, The Plough also published a number of books. The first official ‘The Plough book’ was published in 1923 and was called Schemer, Verzen, and was written by Jozef Cohen, and illustrated by Johan Dijkstra. The Second publication was Teekeningen: J. Wiegers, J. Altink, H.N. Werkman met bijschrift van J. Hansen, which was published in 1924.
In 1926, a The Plough calendar with individual graphical work was published. In 1927 they published another book called De Ploeg Groningen Holland 1927.
In 1936 Werkman created Zwart-Wit boek (Black-White book), with additions from Jan Jordens, Jannes de Vries, Jan Altink, Ben Walrecht, Ekke Kleima, and George Martens. This would be the first publication of a small series.
 J. van der Spek, De Schilders van De Ploeg, p. 9.
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