Loesje, the poster girl with the cheerful one-liners, has received a biography. What seems? Her connecting statements arise from the ideas of Marx and Lenin. Biographer Fleur van der Bij: ‘I almost fell off my chair.’
‘Life is the plural of courage’ was a classic one-liner from Loesje. You know, those casually signed poster sayings. Is she actually still alive? Yes, she turns forty this month. That is definitely worth congratulating, agrees Fleur van der Bij, who wrote a biography about the cheerful ‘poster girl’. “Most action groups have only existed for a few years,” Van der Bij begins. “Loesje has been around for four decades. That is quite special.”
From November 1983, Loesje’s posters conquered the walls of Dutch cities and villages. Her slogans, printed in large capitals, first appeared in Arnhem and then throughout the country. They were almost always funny, but also thought-provoking. ‘At the end of my money I always have a month left’ is still painfully recognisable. This one also remains indestructible: ‘Whatever is going on in a country / let it be the children above all.’
The creative collective behind Loesje has always been shrouded in mystery. The makers wanted to maintain the myth that Loesje was a real woman. But who were they themselves? What drove them? And how did they always conjure up those striking one-liners?
Van der Bij was given access to the Loesje archive and spoke with the founders. She discovered that Loesje was created in response to the gloomy, grim atmosphere that prevailed among the action groups of the 1980s. During demonstrations, every slogan started with ‘STOP’ or ‘GONE WITH’: against nuclear energy, against capitalism, against housing shortage. “The fun was over,” says the writer. “You no longer reached the public. A few activists in Arnhem then thought: what if we were in favor of something? What if we look at the world with wonder and seek connection? Positive activism, that was revolutionary at the time.”
The founders of Loesje were six Arnhem activists, with Jan Verschure (now 72) as the main creator. They wanted to present their slogans from one person, a young woman of about eighteen years old. That was attractive to the public. But what should that woman’s name be? According to legend, the activists were brainstorming about this in their local café when suddenly a certain Loes, an art student, entered. Bingo!
After lengthy research, Van der Bij can confirm this story. “I found out through the grapevine that it was Loes van Schaaijk, a visual artist from Arnhem. All the lines came together in her. She will receive the first copy of my book. I said to her: ‘I wanted to offer the book to Loesje herself. Of course that’s not possible, but you’re the closest of anyone.’”
Loesje’s creators were by no means naive, as the biography shows. They were thoroughly theoretically grounded and based on the ideas of Marx and Lenin. “At that moment in my research I almost fell off my chair,” Van der Bij explains. “Loesje appears to have emerged from those kinds of anti-capitalist spirits. The makers apparently had the flexibility to transform the heavy communist theory into cheerful, positive sayings. They did not see Loesje as a girl, but as a means to overthrow capitalism and break social patterns.”
Internally, Loesje members from the very beginning followed ‘dead serious training’, Van der Bij continues. The activists were taught writing techniques derived from Lenin’s agitprop: a combination of agitation (works on the mind) and propaganda (works on emotion). “Agitprop was used in Russia at the beginning of the last century to convey communist values to the large, illiterate masses. This happened through theater, but also through posters with short texts. The Loesje makers rediscovered these techniques, such as inversion, association, exaggeration and suggestion. To this day, Loesje’s texts are made with it, although no one knows the origin anymore.”
Writing was a collective process from the start, and it still is. Members sit in a circle at the table. They first do exercises to get their creativity going. Then they start writing. They pass their paper spontaneously to the person next to them. He continues to embroider on it, and so on. Afterwards they circle the best finds. Only a strict selection ends up on a poster.
Van der Bij was active at Loesje herself, but she emphasizes that she was able to write her book independently. As a 15-year-old, she pasted posters on the only bus shelter and the only switch box in her Frisian native village of Tjalleberd. She also worked briefly at the international headquarters in Berlin, which no longer exists.
Because Loesje also had some success outside the Netherlands, usually under the same Dutch name. But the differences per country were striking. Where the Swedish Loesje was feminist, vegan and sexually liberated, the Slovenian Loesje stood for a masculine culture of meat eaters and beer drinkers. Both departments have now been closed down.
Loesje still exists in the Netherlands, but she no longer covers walls. She is now mainly active on social media and on her own website. There she struggles to remain visible; online it’s easy to get lost in the shouting. Yet Loesje proves that she can still be up-to-date. Sharp, but without a trace of cynicism. For example, about the nitrogen crisis she says: ‘Ostrich politics: burying your head in the manure.’ About the coarsening of the debate: ‘Saying what you think can also be a nice thing.’ And about the war in Ukraine: ‘War. Be careful, don’t feed.’
“Loesje will have to do something online to prevent a midlife crisis,” says Van der Bij. “Maybe she can become an influencer. In any case, the need for a unifying sound in these times of polarization is greater than ever. And as a ‘persona’ Loesje is very strong: she is etched in the collective memory. In that sense, she can last for a very long time.”
Loesje. The biography, Fleur van der Bij, Uitgeverij Querido Fosfor. 312 pages, €24.99.