“It does make me feel like going out there and doing it again”, says Verkamman while walking among his works, which are currently on display at the Erasmus Gallery. He put away his drawing tools after his Quod Novum adventure. The only illustrations he creates these days are the Christmas cards he sends to his friends and family. “But when they told me about this exhibition, I found myself thinking: maybe I should have another go at it.”
Many of the works displayed at the Illustratum exhibition (a selection of cartoons published by Quod Novum in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s) are by Figee, 82, and Verkamman, 56. Between the two of them, they contributed illustrations to the university’s weekly newspaper for nearly thirty years. So how are they now? And what was it like, taking the piss out of absolutely everything and everyone?
It turns out the key to success is to have a good working relationship with your editor-in-chief. “Hein Meijers [Quod Novum editor-in-chief from 1971 to 1986 – ed.] basically served as my scriptwriter”, Figee tells on the phone. The exhibition is too far away for him to attend it in person, and he can’t drive any more. “On Fridays I’d call him to ask what was going on. By that time he’d usually have a pretty good idea of what the issue was going to be like.” Figee would draw on the weekends, and on Mondays he’d submit the work in person. He created hundreds of illustrations like that.
Verkamman needed more pressure. He used to call the editor the night before the deadline. “I was only able to get the work done if a hard deadline was looming. I’d work all night to meet it. I did nearly all my drawing lying in my bed. That’s how I produced my best work.”
Leftist court jesters
“Not one proposal was ever rejected. It was a time of considerable freedom, if not actual madness”, Figee says, chuckling. “I remember a drawing in which I took the piss out of Prince Bernhard [the present king’s grandfather – ed.] due to the Lockheed affair [the prince was accused of accepting a $1.1 million bribe from the aerospace company – ed.]. I wonder if I’d get away with that today.”
Verkamman: “We leftist illustrators were the court jesters in the right-wing bastion that was Erasmus University. For instance, I’m proud of a cartoon in which I poke fun at the university. It’s named after a great thinker, even though the emphasis here is on economics and management. And let’s face it, that thinker didn’t have an awful lot to do with Rotterdam to begin with.”
“Jokes are a lot more sensitive now”, Figee says, sighing. “The fact that a newspaper such as The New York Times has quitted publishing cartoons is a sign of the times. People are quick to sue these days.” Verkamman: “Creating cartoons has become dangerous, as the Charlie Hebdo shooting proved. I subscribe to the magazine out of solidarity.”
Figee feels that a good illustration exaggerates and does a good job of ridiculing something or someone. “Which will perhaps result in some self-reflection or self-deprecating humour. I preferred not knowing too much about a subject, or else I’d find myself hemming and hawing. It’s vital that you keep a bit of distance.”
Both men quitted submitting cartoons the moment their editors-in-chief resigned from their positions. Figee, a trained visual artist, became a draughtsman in architecture and also kept painting.
Verkamman, too, had a hard time earning a living by being an illustrator. “It’s a job for weirdoes. At the same time, you have to be able to sell yourself, and I wasn’t particularly good at that. Quod Novum was my first client, and Erasmus Magazine was the last.” He now works at the Rotterdam Municipal Archives, where he met his wife. “So I’m not too sad about that.”
The owl of Minerva
Figee, a pensioner, is spending his old age in a small village in De Achterhoek, a rural area in the East of the country. “No doubt twenty-somethings will think: my God, nothing ever happens here. But I love it. After 23 years I’d had enough of the busyness of Rotterdam.” Due to an intracranial haemorrhage, he lost sight in one of his eyes, ‘a disaster’ for someone who is a visual artist by profession. Even so, he manages to shrug it off: “It got to the point where there was more paint on my hands and on the door handle than on the canvas, so I quitted. It helps that I’m a little older. I used to want to achieve all sorts of things, but now I’m having fun reminiscing.”
What sets their work apart from other cartoons when you look at the illustrations exhibited at the Erasmus Gallery? Figee: “I worked in the style of the underground. This was a subculture in the 1960s and 1970s that rebelled against society and mocked the authorities.”
Verkamman: “I nearly always incorporated an owl into my feature. It symbolised wisdom, I think. The owl of Minerva, long before a politician took it and ran with it [a reference to Dutch right-wing politician Thierry Baudet – ed.]. I symbolically had it shot to death in my final illustration.”