Monday, August 24, 2015

Caravaggio in Dublin, Triumph of the Soulless

Having once been in Malta and failing to see that island's sole Caravaggio painting, I was determined not to make the same mistake when recently visiting the island of Ireland. The Taking of Christ can be found in Dublin's delightful National Gallery of Ireland - delightful because of  the courtesy of the museum staff, the fine collection of art, the lack of crowds and the fact that it is free of charge. So, perfectly reasonable to drop in, in pursuit of a glimpse of a single work.

The Taking of Christ is the latest Caravaggio to be discovered. Half the art history world (admittedly, a small, select world) had been wondering for years where could Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ be? For a half-dozen or so passionate academics (not an oxymoron by the way)) the hunt for the missing Caravaggio was the equivalent of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And it was eventually found in, of all places, Dirty Old Dublin Town. It had been hanging for years in the dining hall of the Jesuit order in Dublin without the Men in Black quite knowing that they had a treasure from the master himself. They believed that the painting that greeted them every morning while they eat their simple porridge was a copy of Caravaggio's missing masterpiece. In the early 1990s it was discovered that what they had thought was a copy, was actually the real thing!  Now it hangs proudly, all cleaned up, spic and span, in the National Gallery.

Let's skip the fact that Caravaggio, between wild nights of debauchery, regular fighting and murder was an incomparable master of his craft, possessing a knowledge of light and shadow that puts him almost on a par with Rembrandt. All that is a given. But there are a couple of quirky things about this work that I must say I love. Firstly, there is the centre of the piece. It is the chap's armed shoulder. In a painting that depicts the arrest of Jesus Christ, Caravaggio dares to make the exact centre of the picture the luminous orb that is the soldier's metal shoulder. He has literally given us the cold shoulder. What a dare-devil. And incredible that it works. We are drawn towards the reflective surface, half expecting to see our own image staring back at us.And where does the mysterious light that illuminates the long metal arm come from? Certainly not from the rain-swollen Dublin sky.

Then there is the face of the guards. We only catch a glimpse of of the first one. But it could be your Dad. For some strange reason his nose is eerily 21st century.  And the chap to his right looks like he could be standing on the terraces cheering for St. Patrick's Athletic. His beard is red-tinged, making him very at home in Dublin. He is just a bearded, working-class lad, doing his job. 

I also love how Caravaggio has inserted himself into the painting. He is in the top right, holding the lantern. Yes, holding the lantern that throws a bit more light upon the scene, but not to help out the soldiers in their filthy work, those obedient, brutal footmen of the establishment. No, he is holding up the lantern in order to lighten up the scene, so we can enjoy it. That's right. The artist is someone who holds up the light so that we can see. As Matisse wrote, happiness comes from "illuminating the fog that surrounds us." Look at his eager face;  he doesn't want to miss a second of the scene that he is illuminating, the scene that he is painting.

One more thing that I love about this picture, and maybe it is purely personal, but it so very obviously reminds me of Star Wars, or any mythic-science-fiction-fantasy in which freedom is threatened by the mindless robots that serve the conformity of the machine. For that is what the armor does to the guards arresting Jesus. There is a third guard hidden behind Caravaggio; we can only see his helmet and one staring eye. The faceless eye of surveillance. That's what armor does to all us, doesn't it? Maybe in the weekend we cheer our children's football team, or sink a few pints with the lads. Maybe we're good fathers, loving husbands. But let us clamber into our shiny, squeaky uniforms and we become exactly what is needed in order for the soulless to triumph. Such are the ideas that seeing this Caravaggio puts into my head. I dare you: see Caravaggio and tremble.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Zurich's Kunsthaus Could be the Receiver of Stolen Jewish Art.

Manet, La Sultana (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Sometime ago I wrote about the new extension planned for Zurich's Kunsthaus, designed by the British architect David Chipperfield. The extension will house the impressive Bürhle collection, part of which was last exhibited a few years ago at the Kunsthaus. The collection will, when opened to the public in 2020, torpedo Zurich's Kunsthaus into the top tier for public collections of French Impressionism. In fact, Zurich will be second only to Paris.  But tomorrow a book will be published from which the fallout is sure to complicate matters.

During the past few decades most major art museums have been forced to audit their collections, or at least give an impression they are doing so, in order to ascertain whether they hold any art that was wrongfully taken from Jewish owners during the era of Nazi rule in Europe. This can be in the form of art that was simply robbed by the Nazis, or art that was bought by an innovative collector at knock-down prices because the unfortunate Jewish owners, fleeing from the Nazis, were being forced to sell.

A couple of years ago the world was intrigued by the Cornelius Gurlitt story, when over 1,000 formerly Jewish owned works of art were discovered in an apartment in Munich. Gurlitt has since died and, for some strange reason, he bequeathed his collection to an art museum in Bern. This was a nice windfall for the museum, but brought rather a lot of unwanted attention - was Switzerland simply going to accept a gift, even when the gift is stained with Jewish blood?

Cezanne, Paysage (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The new book that will appear in bookstores tomorrow, Schwarzbuch Bührle [Blackbook Bührle] makes the argument that the Kunsthaus might be the receiver of stolen goods via the controversial Bürhle collection. The fact that the industrialist Bürhle supplied Nazi Germany with weapons is already somewhat embarrassing, but now the Kunsthaus will have to deal with this added complication. The grave accusations will certainly lead to further public discussion as co-editor and one of the authors of the book is Guido Magnaguagno, who happens to have once been Vice-Director of the Kunsthaus. The opinions of this esteemed art historian and museum leader will be taken seriously. Indeed the pending appearance of his book has already made front page news in Switzerland this weekend.

In the new book Magnaguagno lists 12 works that are particularly suspicious because of the so called gaps in provenance, works from Cezanne, Courbet, Manet, Utrillo, Monet, Van Gogh, Modigliani, Kalf, Braque and Corot. No doubt we will hear a lot more about this before the new extension opens in 2020.
Monet, Poppy-fields at Vetheuil (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

On Late Rembrandt at the National Gallery and the Rijksmuseum

In the spring I spent a few days in Amsterdam and happily went along to the newly renovated Rijksmuseum. This was my first visit to the museum in many years. Although it had been closed for a few years for renovation, a part of its collection had still been available to the public at Schipol International Airport. This was an excellent example of Dutch innovative thinking - what other international airport offered for contemplation the works of masters like Vermeer and Hals to passengers in transit?

I was impressed by the renovation, especially the new entrance hall, which reminded me of a scaled down version of the entrance to the Louvre in Paris and even the British Museum in London.  But the main point of my visit was the exhibition "Late Rembrandt", which had already been shown in London's National Gallery in 2014-1015. Now, however, the artist's late works were all coming home. to the city in which he had lived and worked.

The Jewish Bride
Surprisingly, this was the first exhibition ever dedicated exclusively to Rembrandt's late works. I particularly enjoyed seeing two of my favourite paintings. "The Jewish Bride" and Bathsheba with King David's Letter.

The so called The Jewish Bride is properly known as Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca.  Vincent van Gogh told a friend that he would gladly give ten years of his life just to be able to sit in front of this painting for two weeks. Let's be grateful that he didn't, for a van Gogh dead ten years younger would have cheated the world out of a great number of  his masterpieces.  But we can all understand his sentiment. The moving embrace and the loving yet sad expressions on the faces make this one of the world's most intimate paintings.

The tender embrace

But seeing it in the flesh, so to speak, what struck me most was the complexity of the texture of the painter. It is no wonder that Rembrandt was considered a revolutionary.  The jewelry sparkles and seems to reflect the light on the room. The paint is caked onto the canvas. And I use the term caked deliberately -  I was tempted to lick it! Rembrandt layered the paint on thickly using his palette knife, or probably multiple knives.  Look at this sleeve for instance. You can almost reach out and tug it.

A close up of his sleeve - you feel like you could tug it
Close up of her dress, layered on with a knife
The other painting of Rembrandt that I love is Bathsheba with King David's Letter. It rivals The Jewish Bride for its tenderness. The force of this painting is extraordinary in the way that it makes the invisible visible.

It is the inner emotional turmoil of the mind that is the subject of the work - should Bathsheba agree to the king's demands outlined in his letter that she holds in her hand, or should she remain faithful to her husband. Recently X-radiography has revealed that originally Rembrandt had painted her with a shocked expression on her uplifted head. But in a stroke of genius he changed this. Instead, the picture is almost entirely motionless, she is profiled against a dark background, her white body illuminated by light. Our eyes travel upward, from the servant at her feet, to the letter in her hand, along her nude body and arrive at her face, exquisitely rendered, lost in contemplation. It is, I would venture, one of the most beautiful faces in western art.

One of the most beautiful faces in western art

Late Rembrandt brought together many exceptional works by one of the most exceptional artists. That said, not everyone was impressed. This young lady for instance. While she might share the beauty of Bathsheba's face, her expression does not reflect an inner moral dilemma, just plain irritation. She is clearly thinking, when is my dad going to be done and we can get out of here.

Friday, June 26, 2015

One Hundred Days by Lukas Barfuss

Lukas Barfüss, One Hundred Days (Granta Books, 2013)

I’m sure you’ll agree, translators are the nicest people in the world, (teachers excepted of course). Just think about it, some poor, asocial sucker, with the loneliest job in the world, has spent the past year or so locked up in a room writing a book.  Along comes the translator and, in return for a pittance, sits for the best part of half a year or so locked up in a room and miraculously turns the foreign words into something you can understand, thereby allowing you to break out of the narrow-minded parochialism that comes with being an English speaker and actually hear what other people (the majority) are saying in other languages. So three cheers for Tess Lewis (whoever she is), for translating the novel One Hundred Days by the young Swiss author Lukas Barfüss.

In this contemporary version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, steamy sex and genocidal murder make for a potent mix, told in deceptively simple, taut prose. The protagonist is a naïve chap by the name of David Hohl. He has always been moved to fight against injustice. Had he gone to Zurich International School he would have won the ZIS Cares Award. So he gets a job in economic development and his first post is in the sleepy African backwater of Rwanda. But, the surface is deceptive and Rwanda is about to explode into the 1994 well planned genocide of Tutsis. In the one hundred days of the title the Hutus slaughter nearly 800,000 people. Because he is obsessed with a beautiful, but racist Hutu woman, David Hohl refuses to be evacuated, and instead stays and witnesses the slaughter. No wonder his name is Hohl (which means hollow).

Barfüss reveals the hypocrisy that lies at the root of Swiss development work. His book is a meditation on how a strong sense of virtue can gently lead to passive participation in the most horrifying cruelty. Most of all, his book works as a metaphoric warning against being sucked into any organisation that comes to see efficiency as an end in itself - surely a lesson for us all. Peaceful, well organised Rwanda was sometimes called the Switzerland of Africa. Barfüss sees that you can reverse this, seeing Switzerland as the Rwanda of Europe. He reminds us that Switzerland is a well-oiled machine that runs smoothly, where order, routine, discipline and respect for institutions holds sway, but adds: “These characteristics are not impediments to mass murder, but necessary conditions. Evil loves nothing more than the proper implementation of a plan, and in that domain, you have to admit, we are world champions.”

This book has garnered Barfüss a number of literary prizes, as well as nominations for the biggest book prizes in Germany and Switzerland. He is, of course, almost unheard of in the insular, provincial English speaking world.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Maria Dermout and "unremembering" lost time

It has been nine months since I last wrote in this blog, basically because I needed to focus my energy somewhere else - researching the cultural legacy of decolonization in the Netherlands.

This, I am happy to say, has resulted in an article of mine appearing in the Canadian Journal Of Netherlandic Studies. Nevermind that it is the 2013 edition of the journal - it only appeared last week.

My article provides an analysis of two Dutch novels. In the early 1950s  Only yesterday (Nog pas gisteren) and The ten thousand things (De tienduizend dingen), appeared from a new writer, Maria Dermoût. In this essay I argue that both of these works helped to shape a collective memory of the recent colonial past and that with the loss of place, the Indisch community was threatened by a potential loss of identity, but that literature was able to provide the memory of a sense of place, and collective memory could be retained. I argue that this memory took on a nostalgic form, helping to shape a collective identity based partially on a melancholy sense of common loss. But dwelling on nostalgic loss did nothing to help explain the loss of the colony, and thereby inadvertently contributed to a general unremembering, or refusal to remember, the painful final years of decolonization. A post-colonial analysis of her novels reveals that they were written from the viewpoint of colonial privilege and that, as such, they silenced alternative narratives and thereby further contributed to unremembering the painful process of decolonization. I conclude that Dermoût’s work helped to create a mnemonic community based on nostalgic remembering, but by trivialising or ignoring Indonesian nationalist aspirations, her work inadvertently served to unremember the reality of decolonization. I hope you'll go to this link and read my entire article, or download this version. I would love to hear back from you.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Go-Betweens: The World Seen through Children

View of Tokyo from Mori Art Museum, Roppongi Hills
 Post-colonial theorists, such as Homi Bhabha, have problematized what he refers to as "the irresolvable, borderline culture of hybridity that articulates its problems of identification and its diasporic aesthetic in an uncanny, disjunctive temporality."[1] Edward Said himself provides a case in point: raised as an orthodox Christian Palestinian with American nationality, he was born in Jerusalem, educated in Cairo (attending an English primary school and American secondary school) and he gained renown as a professor at an American university. With such a background, it is not surprising to read in his memoir of his childhood that "the overriding sensation I had was always being out of place."[2] What he remembers yearning for, throughout his life, was the wish that "we could have been all-Arab, or all-European and American, or all Orthodox Christian, or all Muslim, or all Egyptian, and so on."[3] This feeling on not quite fitting in, of in-betweenness, animates Said's work but also, he claimed, lent it a strength, because being able to identify with both sides of the "imperial divide" allows the hybrid to feel that he or she belongs to more than one group, more than one history.[4]
               A problem for the in-between or hybrid is that he or she can gain the feeling that they belong to neither here nor there. Take the author Pico Iyer, for instance: born to Indian parents who resided in the USA while he attended school in Britain, he has written: "The country where people look like me is the one where I can't speak the language, the country where people sound like me is a place where I look highly alien, and the country where people live like me is the most foreign space of all."[5] This emotion of always being the outsider was summed up by Salman Rushdie: "Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures, at other times that we fall between two stools."[6] But Iyer too, like Said, sees the fortunate repercussions of belonging to more than one group, more than one history, as it enables one to "live a little bit above parochialisms" and allows one to see "with a flexible eye".[7]
A current exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan, focuses on the hybrid nature of childhood - the ways in which children inhabit mental states that continually cross borders - borders that separate the imaginary from the real, the living from the dead and, most significantly, the borders that separate cultures.[8] During my enjoyable visit to the exhibition I couldn't help but ponder upon the words of Bhabha, Said, Rushdie and Iyer.
Jacob A, Riis: How the Other Half Lives, c. 1890
The exhibition takes its beginning point from the work of the 19th century Danish photographer Jacob A. Riis. He documented the lives of children in the USA who had to act as translators for their non-English speaking immigrant parents. These children were forced to play the role of being bridges between languages and cultures and Riis gave them the name "Go-betweens".[9] But as curator of the exhibition Natsumi Araki has pointed out, being a translator between cultures was not uncomplicated as the children provided a link between the old homeland and the new country, but also, they were "often caught between the two".[10] As Sandra Holstein pointed out, there is a natural connection between seeing immigrant children as "go-betweens", as Riis did, and the post-colonial predicament of subjects, adults as well as children, who find themselves to be "in-betweens".[11]
Kim Insook: Great-grandmother and I, 2008
Today it is easier than in the 19th century to acknowledge and recognise the in-between status of many of the world's population. For instance, the Korean photographer Kin Insook has movingly documented the lives of Korean families in Japan - outsiders in Japanese culture but equally, if not more so, strangers within Korean culture.[12]

Zhang O: Daddy and I,No.12, 2006

Chinese photographer Zhang O has created a series of images of adopted Chinese girls with their Caucasian American adoptive fathers, providing a stark visual statement of the in-betweenness of these young girls, who look Chinese but are outsiders to Chinese culture, but who look different than the common citizen of the culture into which they have been adopted and are raised, examples of the unfathomable richness and complexity of the father-daughter relationship.[13]  
I attended the exhibition with my three daughters - born on two different continents, none of them has a passport from the country of her birth and none have lived in the country of their father or of their mother. Rising above the narrow parochialisms of the nation state, perhaps the future lies with these in-betweens. 

[1] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994) 225
[2] Edward Said, Out of Place: a memoir (London: Granta Books, 2000) 3
[3] Ibid., 5
[4] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London: Vintage, 1994) xxx-xxxi
[5] Pico Iyer, The Globa Soul: Jet lag, shopping malls and the search for home (London: Bloomsbury, 2001) 24
[6] Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, (London: Granta Books, 1991)15
[7] Pico Iyer, The Global Soul, 24
[8] Go-Betweens: The world seen through children. Curated by Natsumi Araki. Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. May 31st - August 31st, 2014
[9] Natsumi Araki, "Go-Betweens: The power of children to transcend boundaries". In: Go-Betweens: The world seen through children edited by Natsumi Araki,Hitomi Sasaki and Chinatsu Kuma (Tokyo: Mori Art Museum, 2014) 32
[10] Ibid.
[11] Sandra Holstein, "From Go-Betweens to In-Betweens to Hyphenated Americans". In: Go-Betweens: The world seen through children edited by Natsumi Araki,Hitomi Sasaki and Chinatsu Kuma (Tokyo: Mori Art Museum, 2014) 150
[12] See the catalogue Go-Betweens: The world seen through children edited by Natsumi Araki,Hitomi Sasaki and Chinatsu Kuma (Tokyo: Mori Art Museum, 2014) 62-67
[13] Ibid., 58-61