Sunday, July 18, 2010

Unusual Suspect.

It is with a pained if fleeting look in their Prussian blue eyes that the utterly proficient guides at Castle Doorn meet our confession – upon their eager inquiries - of never having been to Potsdam. One could be excused for being out of one’s bearing in these woods, just East of Utrecht, of tall trees and shaded paths, punctuated by patches of sandy dunes, clearances and little villages including one very oddly named Austerlitz. A few k’s down a silent winding road - only between my hears is the roar of cannon deafening as I look in vain for Bolkonsky’s position during the battle of the Three Emperors of Tolstoian memory - lies Doorn and the grounds of its castle, notorious for having been the exile residence of the late Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and for the exorbitance of luncheon prices charged by the Orangerie next door. Still, surely, this is the Netherlands? Of course it is, the ‘real Austerlitz’ is very far and away.
Nobody in his right mind should plan a visit, but if you happen to be here it is well worth a quick peek inside, especially since our National Museum Year Card affords us free entrance. As it soon turns out, the place is not geared for people to quicken through the sumptuous memorabilia of historical meaning light heartedly, but is scattered at every floor and almost every room with school teacher types, briefed through and through, all too ready and set to educate us at the slightest nod of our heads. Before we know it we are lavished a tremendous amount of notions in non stop torrents of words, and it is hard/impossible not to meet it with a benevolent smile of gratitude and at least a mild attempt at picking up some of the content.
Skipping on all the important stuff, memory fixes on trivialities and a few meaningful numbers obscurely telling if cryptic in their significance. Let’s mention a few:
Kaiser Wilhelm fled from his headquarters in Belgium, Spa to be precise, in November 1918 on news of the internal political meltdown of Germany in the closing chapter of WWI, and applied for asylum at the Dutch frontier where he was kept waiting three days whilst suitable accommodations were hastily sought for. W. was an embarrassment of tremendous proportions for the neutral Dutch government, but he was family of the Queen and simply had to be let in. After all any royal abhors the very thought of regicide on principle and could never sanction or concur to one taking place. Privilege breeds solidarity.
Given a place to put up for a few days in Castle Amerongen by a fellow Chevalier of the Maltese Order, he outstood his welcome by one year and a half, at last to find permanent residence in Castle Doorn, a property that he was to buy with money eventually released by the Weimar Republic and part of his former Imperial Estate. He used to keep 60 palaces, now he was down to one house - fairly large on our standards but definitely petit on his – in which to house 59 railway carts of furniture and other personal possessions that came over the border. Matching these numbers with my perception of the rooms, I conclude that much has disappeared down the funnel of history but a general impression is still left for us to behold. The place looks and feels as if the man is about to enter any minute – quite frightening a thought actually, judging by the marble torsos and the paintings his gaze is not one that you would ever enjoy crossing not to mention the rest of his persona – but for a faint telling smell of the many decades gone by.
The display, although well kept and eagerly presented, suffers fatally from a chilling sense of historical amnesia, hopefully not so much a wilful attempt at deception but nevertheless a sin of omission. It is as if his responsibilities in the huge tragedy of WWI – which he himself sternly refused to admit to in his lifetime – and consequently WWII are to go practically unmentioned if not downright forgiven. Many thought that the man deserved to be put before a firing squad, there were even attempts at his life in the early twenties, but the gilded cage would hold until 1941 when he was to die in his bed, not without having had a taste at Germany’s revenge in the conquest of France and Holland itself. It would seem as too little retribution for this after all unsavoury character, the last of the Kaisers, whose fierce fixed look of aggression bordering on madness seems strangely similar to that of the other Fuhrer, Hitler.
So I would like to volunteer a concept for a piece of land art. If the bust of the Kaiser is to be kept standing at the head of the lawn in front of the castle, the rest of the field all the way to the gate house should be filled with the same crosses that mark all the war cemeteries in northern France, in remembrance of the inherent murderous madness of the values that he proudly embodied and that brought such unfathomable misery to so many. Only, I fear, few would have a stomach for lunch or imperial chinaware’s after such a walk.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Silence of the Limbs.

When temperatures soar into the thirties ÂșC any northern European capital plunges into tropical debauchery. Leave is taken from an otherwise stern working ethic and any dress code of decency, producing a particular brand of mindless street nudity and a tendency to drift towards shady parks, unguarded fountains or, in some cases, art galleries with airco.
On such a day I was to visit two museums in a row, partly for their being conveniently placed in front of one another but mostly upon invitation of Mrs. B. who wanted to introduce me to the work of one of her fellow artists on show in one place and catch another thing in one swift movement, allowing a sideways step in between for her customary 12 o’clock cappuccino and bagel.
Blame it on the heat, I was least inclined for pugnacious art criticism and of a somewhat subdued mood wich affects me still as I write about it the following morning, in the lofty greenhouse of my flat on the fifth (floor, not Avenue) , suspended between the lush park below and a perfectly radiant sky above. No potentially libellous ranting but a wish to find beauty and good on my path, to the point of knowingly chosing self delusion rather than self exertion. Set on not letting anything raise my temperature I do what any sensible soul does and let things roll over me with the least resistance because that would generate attrition which invariably turns into more heat. If this feels brainless, so be it.
Almost a parody of Dante and Beatrice, MRs. B. and I walked through the spires of a complex installation, narrow alleyways lined with impossibly large prints, steep staircases, down the pit and up, to end in the cool limbo of two rooms with a display of vintage prints by Karl Blossfeldt. Around us a delicate array of detailed close ups, botany specimen mostly, on seamless cream white.
With the crystal clear discipline of a Neue Sachlichkeit photographer, KB reaches a deep level of abstraction and poetry that may have exceeded his prior intentions but is too consistent to be put down to mere if blessed serendipity. Slighty mellowed by the stains of time and the occasional tiny tear at the edge or dust spot, his prints speak volumes.
I would define still life at this level as the genre that focuses on letting things reveal their hidden eloquent meaning, ie talk to us. It may seem a tall order, by why settle for less?
The same can be applied to all other genres in photography, like landscapes, portraits obviously, and the human figure. Unfortunately much imagery seems to do just the opposite: making things that are most eloquent often appear totally silent.