255 Pictures of the prophet

The Somali-Dutch political heroine Ayaan Hirsi Ali operates from within the (conservative) Liberal Party in the Dutch Parliament. In her fight against Moslem intolerance and anti-feminism, she appeals to the thinking of liberals like Isaiah Berlin. Schwartz argues that Berlin would not have shared her stance with regard to the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, and would have been sickened by the stand on immigration of Hirsi Ali’s fellow "Liberal" Rita Verdonk.

Reading Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin, I felt like Ayaan Hirsi Ali was reading over my shoulder. In her appeals to the liberal tradition, she of course refers to and quotes Berlin (1909-1997), one of the great liberal thinkers of the 20th century. Since my own impression of how Berlin would have reacted to an issue such as the Danish cartoon riots differs from the behavior of Hirsi Ali, I was alert to clues in Ignatieff’s book.

What I found is that Isaiah Berlin’s values are like Scripture, a source for God and the devil alike. In 1958, defending himself against left-wing friends for refusing to join the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Berlin wrote, “Unless there is some point at which you are prepared to fight against whatever odds, and whatever threat may be, not merely to yourself, but to anybody, all principles become flexible, all codes melt, and all ends in themselves for which we live disappear." (P. 234.) This is the spirit in which Hirsi Ali defended the right to offend and did not let herself be affected by pity for the victims of riots, even mortal victims.

But there is another Berlin, who draws the line well this side of offense. In 1974, he expressed the opinion that “variety, including moral variety, was built into the constitution of humankind. Such differences, if within the human horizon, were entitled to respect and should be guaranteed by a regime of liberty." (P. 285.)

That statement could be used in defense even of Ahmad Abu Laban, the Danish imam who stirred up protest in the Islamic world against the cartoons. As far as I can see, his outrage at what he saw as deliberate public ridicule of the most precious thing in his life fell squarely within the “human horizon" that Berlin wished to protect. Living as we do in a country in which blasphemy is punishable by law, how can we deny to Moslems the right to demand that such laws be applied to insults of Mohammed?

(As an art historian, I was curious whether it mattered that the medium of ridicule was visual. I quickly decided that it was not. The uproar in 1988 over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic verses was similar in all major respects. The common feature is the perceived insult to Mohammed.)

What I do see as a departure from the realm that Berlin wished to protect is the behavior and rhetoric of Hirsi Ali’s fellow party member Rita Verdonk. What Verdonk makes our country look like to the world was put into words on 3 April by Jane Kramer in The New Yorker, the most consistently liberal voice in the United States: “The Minister for Immigration and Integration is a former prison warden named Rita Verdonk, whose solution to any problem involving immigrants is to throw them out."

Isaiah Berlin was an immigrant whose vision of a liberal society was based on pluralism. However ambivalent he was about other things, I am convinced that he would have repudiated Rita Verdonk and everything she stands for. That the immigrant Ayaan Hirsi Ali remains in the same party with Verdonk diminishes my great respect for her.


© 2006 Gary Schwartz. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 6 May 2006

During the past two weeks I have spent tense days at a lithographic firm in Noord Holland correcting the color proofs of the 649 illustrations in my forthcoming book on Rembrandt. I first did work of this kind in the 1960s; since then the process has changed unrecognizably. The color separations are corrected not with swab, pincet and solvent on film, but on a computer screen, through digital manipulation of the four colors into which the ektachromes or digital files – also new – had been divided on the scanner. Control over the results, with the high-powered equipment used by this firm, is limited only by the craftsmanship and taste of the operator.

The more outspoken the color of a painting or drawing, the easier it seemed to get the proofs right. The most difficult works to reproduce are the etchings. Since I had convinced the publisher to order color images of all the 125 or so etchings illustrated in the book rather than black-and-white photos, which would have been less expensive, it was especially important to me to get this part right. A good four-color reproduction of an etching can be far richer than a black-and-white litho. The color of the ink is sometimes warmer, sometimes cooler than straight black; the paper is subtly off-white, with small differences from print to print. That offness, however, does not roll neutrally out of the photographic images and the scanner, which are themselves interpretative instruments. On the proofing screen, the paper color has to be expressed in so many percentages of cyaan (blue), magenta (red), yellow and black. The picture in the operator’s mind of what old paper looks like will inevitably influence the results.

The first proofs of the etchings were pinkish, resembling the tint that is sometimes put behind black-and-white reproductions of prints to make them look older. To correct this misconception, I took a Rembrandt etching off my wall and brought it to the plant as a model. The lithographers were surprised that the color of the ink was so much blacker and that of the paper so much flatter than they expected. In correcting for this effect, they went further than they should have, giving the prints a metallic-greenish cast. To rectify that, I brought another model: my copy of the Dutch edition of Abraham Bosse’s book on etching (1662), from which the lithographer had scanned five illustrations. At first, they corrected only those five images, which they got exactly right. At that point, with time running out – actually it had already run out, the layout was already on its way to the printer in southern Italy – I asked them to use the Bosse experience in order to calibrate the corrections necessary to arrive at the proper paper color of all the other etchings. Whether the operator did exactly that, or whether he just substituted the color of the Bosse paper for his standard settings, as I suspect, the third set of proofs gave a far more satisfying, lifelike and varied effect than the former ones. The publisher saw this as well, and allowed the new lithos be mounted in the files in the place of the former set.

This kind of thing makes the production of art books, if you want to do it right, immensely demanding. In addition to everything else, you have to have the nerve to go back for a third and a fourth time to ask for new corrections. The lithographer, I must say, was the soul of cooperation. Once a technician sees the problem, he wants to solve it. It has happened to me in the past that when I arrived at a point when I was ready to compromise in order not to be seen as an impossible pest, it was the lithographer who insisted that I go on until the proofs were as near perfect as possible.

As near perfect as possible – that’s my dream for the illustrations of what I still think can become the most gorgeous Rembrandt book ever.



I will be providing more information as the publication dates come closer, but I can now say that the following editions are appearing:

Mercatorfonds, Brussels (Belgium)
Waanders, Zwolle (The Netherlands)

Harry N. Abrams, New York (US)
Thames & Hudson, London (English-language outside the US)

Flammarion, Paris
France Loisir, Paris

C.H. Beck, Munich

Biblion, Moscow [P.S. 18 July 2010: the Russian edition has yet to appear.]

Lunwerg, Barcelona

The originating publisher, Mercatorfonds, will produce an imprint edition for itself, for sale from Brussels, in all languages.

My review of vol. 4 of the Corpus of Rembrandt paintings was published last Wednesday in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Aside from the review by Christopher White in the Burlington Magazine, I have seen no others to date. The Rembrandt Research Project still seems to intimidate people.

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