153 Exception is the rule

This morning I picked up a few rolls of film I shot in the past few weeks. The photos were taken in Las Vegas, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Amsterdam, Moscow and Archangelskoye. What’s the use of pretending that I am together enough to write a normal column? I don’t have the distance. The distance has me. The best I can do is ponder the most memorable things I saw in each place.


Las Vegas. The Russian connection. A few months ago a new museum, designed by Rem Koolhaas, was opened in a typical Las Vegas gambling hall-luxury dormitory-theme park called The Venetian. The Hermitage Guggenheim is partly stocked with excellent Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from the Morozov and Shchukin collections, expropriated by the Bolsheviks and now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. That was impressive, but surprising only because it is so overdue for a wealthy American city to have an art museum like it. More moving was an exhibition in the Las Vegas Museum of Art, far from the Strip, of rather mediocre art made in America by a forgotten Russian named Ivan Djeneeff (1868-1955). Djeneeff was in America in 1918 when he was cut off from his country by the Russian Revolution at the age of 50. He lived on for another 36 years, subsisting on the production of nostalgic images of an increasingly remote pre-Revolutionary Russia.

New York. Remnants in Central Park of fortifications built to defend the city from attacks by the British in the War of 1812. There were several military structures at the north end of the park, but only Blockhouse Nr. 1 survives. The total disappearance of the others, marked not even by a plaque, in a country that makes so much of its history, I found hard to understand.

Philadelphia. The Liberty Bell, seen a day after the shrine was closed out of fear for a terrorist attack. The bell was cast in 1753 by metalworkers who had never made one before, and they botched the job, leading to the famous crack. Although it was rung to announce the Declaration of Independence as well as on other historical and everyday moments, the bell did not become an American icon, and was not even called the Liberty Bell, until it was adopted as a symbol by abolitionists in the decades preceding the Civil War.

Baltimore. My Sunday afternoon in the Baltimore Museum of Art happened to be Family Day during Black History Month. The museum was full of black families, the children drawing in workshops, the teenagers listening to a concert of African pop and the fathers and mothers enjoying an exhibition called Looking Forward/Looking Black, on blacks in modern and contemporary American imagery. What brought them in was a good American practice known as outreach. This particular instance was more like inreach. It changed the museum more than the museum affected the target audience, which showed little interest in what the museum had to offer aside from what was pre-cooked for it.

Amsterdam. Walking on the Ruysdaelkade on a bright afternoon I was grabbed by the side view of the Rijksmuseum from the south. I saw a village church; a merchant’s residence-warehouse; an alleyway crossed by a bridge; a tower; a long gallery with vast skylights; a chateau. The Rijksmuseum is not a building, it is an architectural medley, a town-planning fantasy.

In Moscow I paid my first visit to the Museum of Collections, an annex of the Pushkin Museum. Two stories of mini-museums, galleries of the relinquished holdings of private persons in a distinguished museum setting. Here and there are photographs of the interiors from which they came. In every space there are texts – in Russian only; seldom have I so deplored my ignorance – about the collector, each a Morozov or Shchukin in his own way. Many of the collections are first-rate. The two rooms of sculptures, drawings, paintings, furniture, models and photographs by Alexander Rodchenko are alone worth the trip. What stopped me in my tracks was the alcove of materials pertaining to Leonid Pasternak (Odessa 1862-1945 Oxford), another exiled artist, like Djeneeff. Not long ago, on the Internet auction service eBay, I bought a book in Hebrew on Rembrandt written in Berlin by “Akademikon L. Pasternak,” After searching in vain for an author named Akademikon Pasternak, I realized that the first term is not a name at all but a denomination. As a proud member of the Russian Academy of Arts, he signed with his title, even in exile. In Moscow I found a drawn self-portrait, a group photo of the family and other treasures.

Archangelskoye. A vast estate and palace outside Moscow that I learned was one of the 31 estates belonging to the Yusupovs, said to be the richest family in late Tsarist Russia. When asked about the crescent in the Yusupov arms, the curator told us that the family were Muslims until the mid-18th century and remained proud of this. My world view took a jolt. This was the best news I had heard in a long time.

None of these experiences was related to the reasons that brought me to these foreign and domestic destinations. Describing them, I find that they fall into something of a pattern. What seems to appeal to me are tokens of displacement, disappearance, substitution, accommodation, the groans of the exile, the irony of the victim. The so-called prevailing culture, the one that flirts with Fascism I suppose to have been there before multi-culturality came into the world, I would like to regard as exceptions if not aberrations. Are they? As far as I can see, no matter where I look, the exception is the rule.

© Gary Schwartz 2002. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 16 March 2002. Published on the Schwartzlist on 24 April 2019. Some day I will find the photos, scan them and place them here.

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Following the travels referred to above, I have been to Maastricht, home, Maastricht again, Bruges and Antwerp, for the European Fine Arts Fair, the annual meeting of CODART, and the four-yearly congress of the Historians of Netherlandish Art (HNA). My own responsibility in all of this – speaking at a panel at the College Art Association in Philadelphia, running a study trip to Moscow and the fifth annual CODART congress in Maastricht, Bruges and Antwerp, melding into a joint CODART-HNA session, went well, on the whole. After being away for five of the past six weeks, it’s time to catch up with other things.

The flirtation with Fascism I was thinking of in the last paragraph is the Dutch demagogue Pim Fortuyn, who entered the political arena ten days ago with a stunning victory in the Rotterdam elections. He is running on a list called by his own name in the coming Parliamentary elections in May, and by all signs his party will become second or third largest in the country in its maiden election. Fortuyn is as bald and arrogant as Mussolini and like him has the habit of saluting his followers. Many points in his program, which he published a few days ago in a book I admit I have not read, are only marginally right or even left of existing planks in Dutch party platforms. This is however not what won him the Rotterdam elections. It was his populist challenge to parliamentary politics in general and in particular his criticism of the refugee policy that got him his votes. He is a magnet for anti-democratic discontent and xenophobia. Even if the Dutch electorate has no particular reason to vote out the present government, Fortuyn’s irreverent style – and, it must be admitted, his personal sincerity – appeals to it. If he becomes the next prime minister, which is his stated and not impossible aim in the upcoming national elections, he intends to reduce the number of ministers from the present 15 to a handy, junta-sized six. Since he does not take well to correction or criticism, no one need have any doubt that a Fortuyn government will come closer to arbitrary, personal rule than anything the Netherlands has seen since the German occupation.

What with Berlusconi in Italy, Bush in America and Sharon in Israel, an axis of authoritarian would-be dictators is already in place in the countries I most love. They are doing inconceivable damage to the values I most love. To have an agitator of that ilk in power in the Netherlands will put to an end to the luxury I have enjoyed since moving to this country in 1965, a luxury I wish on every citizen of a democracy. This is, the feeling that casting your vote is enough to ensure that the party of your choice will be fairly enough represented to allow you to leave politics confidently to the government until the next election.

The world is being pushed towards a situation in which the exercise of raw power, day by day, is taking the place of politics and diplomacy. In addition to all the other harm this is doing, it will also bring out a like reaction from otherwise loyal dissidents, critics and progressives. If representative politics and diplomacy are overridden by the top dog, what other alternative is there?

(c) Gary Schwartz 2002 / 2019. Published in Dutch in Het Financieele Dagblad on 16 March 2002, in English on the Schwartzlist on 24 April 2019.

 

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