177 Amateurs and professionals

Professional astronomers, ornithologists, entomologists and other scientists have a symbiotic relationship with amateurs, who do the boring fieldwork for which they have no time. Schwartz was able, as a publisher, to foster a bond of that kind in the study of Dutch still-life painters.

“In praise of amateurs” is the title of a glowing review essay by the British physicist Freeman Dyson in The New York Review of Books of December 5, 2002. The book under review, by Timothy Ferris, is an encomium on the work of amateur astronomers. Dyson and Ferris make the important point that the work of amateurs in science is not an inferior version of what professionals do. The best amateurs take on work for which professionals have no time or in which they have no interest. With their store-bought telescopes and cameras and computers, amateurs look at closer parts of the sky and more easily detected bodies than the scientists on the staff of billion-dollar observatories. “It often happens,” writes Dyson, “that an amateur makes a discovery which a professional follows up with more detailed observation or theoretical analysis, and the results are then published in a professional journal with the amateur and the professional as co-authors.”

Another field of which the same may be said is ornithology. While academic scientists conduct expensive experiments on bird migrancy and ethology, it is the amateurs who go out into the field weekend after weekend to do the counting on which the ever-changing databases of bird behavior are based. In this field, the professionals simply could not do much of their work without the contribution of unpaid volunteers.

Timothy Ferris has a theory about the relation between amateurs and professionals. Each science goes through three stages of development: an exploratory phase in which amateurs and butterfly collectors are in the ascendant; a phase when specialists take over, introducing precise measurements and quantitative theories; and a third phase in which the gap between amateurs and professionals is closed, thanks to new technologies.

While reading the article, my mind was racing to test this interesting view against the history of my own field, art history. Basically, though, all I could think of were differences. For one thing, art history never really left the first stage. Despite regular attempts to break into heavier intellectual or theoretical ground, we are still doing the same kinds of things that the explorers Giorgio Vasari and Carel van Mander did in the 16th century and the butterfly collector (print cataloguer) Adam Bartsch did in the 18th. For another, art collections and research resources have always been more or less equally accessible to amateurs and professionals. Our basic tool of observation remains the eyeball. Considering this, it is surprising how little collaboration there is between amateurs and professionals in art history.

These thoughts are by way of a prelude to the presentation of one of those rare examples. It happens to be a project in which, as an art publisher, I brought the two co-authors together. The amateur who approached me in 1990 had my total attention even before I opened his letter. It was the name on the return address that did it: Adriaan van der Willigen. At first I thought it was a practical joke. Adriaan van der Willigen was the co-author, with Roeland van Eijnden, of the first history of 18th-century Dutch and Flemish art. He died in 1841. Then there was Adriaan van der Willigen Pz., his nephew, whose Geschiedkundige aanteekeningen over Haarlemsche schilders of 1866 is still a standard source. He died in 1876. As it turned out, my correspondent was a descendant of these namesakes, with whom he had much in common. All were men of action who turned to the documentation of Dutch and Flemish art as mature men. My Adriaan van der Willigen was a diplomat for 34 years. By his own account, he turned to art history early in his career out of a “desire to make some contribution to hard knowledge” and because he “needed a ‘violon d’Ingres’ for balance.”

Even had the name on the envelope not grabbed me, the contents certainly would have. Van der Willigen had compiled what he called a “Codex of Dutch and Flemish still-life painters working in oils, c. 1525-1725.” The sample he sent convinced me that his work was competent and thorough, and that he had added significantly to the number of names in the standard lexicons. What I also realized was that the manuscript had certain imperfections that detracted from its usefulness. It was too good to be turned down for publication, but to bring it out in the form in which it was submitted would have been a disservice to the author. The professionals would have shot it down in the journals.

I picked up the phone and called a dyed-in-the-wool professional, Fred Meijer, the still-life specialist of the Netherlands Institute for Art History. To my great satisfaction, he was willing, after inspecting the manuscript and speaking to the author, to take on the job of revising van der Willigen’s work. It is a tribute to both of them that they consented to share the work and the credit for this job. In the course of the years, years during which I left art publishing, Meijer largely rewrote the book. But if it were not for van der Willigen, it would not have been written at all.

Aat van der Willigen died two years ago. Yesterday his and Meijer’s book appeared in print. Their lexicon of nearly 900 still-life painters sets a new standard for reference works of this kind. May it also be an inspiration to other gifted amateurs to pick up their art-historical violons d’Ingres and play the stars from the sky. (But before you start writing – do consult a professional.)

Adriaan van der Willigen and Fred G. Meijer, A dictionary of Dutch and Flemish still-life painters working in oils, 1525-1725,  Primavera Press in Leiden in cooperation with the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD), Leiden 2003.

© Gary Schwartz 2003. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 15 February 2003.

For once, I have been able to double up on the text of a column. I had been invited to speak at the launching of the Dictionary of Dutch and Flemish still-life painters. The above, in Loekie’s translation, was the first part of my talk. I continued with a recommendation to the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) to do more for amateurs, perhaps opening a school for art documentation, the way the Dutch archives hold courses on paleography and genealogy. The director of the RKD, Rudi Ekkart, a friend of long standing, promised to consider my remarks, which of course were not an idea he had never thought of. The RKD is going to be moving over the next two years from its 5th-floor perch in the Royal Library complex to a ground-floor location in the same building. Ekkart promised that the threshold, which is now forbiddingly high for non-professionals, would be leveled.

The original author of the Dictionary was represented by his daughter Tessa van der Willigen. It was a dignified and pleasant occasion.

The next day I spoke at another commemorative event. It was a half-day long symposium on the life and times of the late Bas Kist, retired curator of Dutch history at the Rijksmuseum. From 13:00 to 17:30, in the Zuiderkerk, an uninterrupted parade of speakers took the floor for 10 minutes each, talking about their work in relation to Bas. What a man! He was one of the activists behind the saving of the Nieuwmarkt neighborhood, where the service took place. The entire historical area of Amsterdam was threatened with total renovation in the 1960s, when the township dug a metro line through it. The struggles to preserve it were a model exercise in successful non-violent (well, nearly non-violent) civic protest.

Bas Kist was also one of the fathers of modern marine archaeology and a pioneer in the use of models to study the construction techniques of 17th-century ships. One of the most unexpected talks was by the Englishman E.V. Gatacre, born in the Netherlands as the grandson of the legendary Victor de Stuers. In the 1970s Gatacre was the director of Madame Tussaud’s, and he brought Bas in as consultant for the Amsterdam branch.

The most moving contribution was the final one, a tape of Bas telling about being deserted on Spitsbergen in the late 1970s. An expedition was bring organized to reconnoiter the remains of the Dutch whaling post there, but there was not enough money for a full-scale venture, so it was scaled down to two men. But when it was time to leave, it was Bas alone who shipped out. He was dropped on the uninhabited Arctic coast all alone. When the time for the return voyage came, he saw to his dismay the ship that was supposed to pick him off sail by without seeing him. (This part of the story remained unclarified, but it happened.) After a week of walking up and down the beach wondering just how and when he was going to die, he ran into another lone traveler. It was a Swedish solo sailer, who took Bas on board and saved his life. Barely. They were first carried off to sea by high winds, and by the time they turned course, they were so exhausted they fell asleep and woke up only when the vessel ran aground on the rocks. “This was a really interesting experience,” Bas said in the taped interview, “for someone who studied shipwrecks all his life.” “I learned things I could not have learned in any other way.”

It was a mercy for those of us who miss him to hear from his own lips that he thought of his life since then a miracle. He had more than 20 years of grace, which he put to astonishingly rich use.

The evening before the van der Willigen-Meijer presentation I was on a Dutch television talk show, Rondom Tien, in a program about anti-Americanism. I had the chance to tell what I think about Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Pearle and how their values relate to what I was brought up to love in America. “Anti-American,” I said, is a successor to the label “un-American,” which was coined in the 1930s by the worst kind of reactionaries in the U.S. government – people like the above – as a means of demonizing domestic political opponents. Responses to my remarks in the program and afterwards were very positive. By Saturday, when millions of people all over the world – in New York as well as Amsterdam – marched against the threatened preventive war, I felt, for the first time in a long time, that my feelings about America were no longer those of a dissident but of the masses. To my mind, this has nothing to do with the challenge of disarming Iraq, which everyone wants to do. It is a matter of how you react when a powerful government adopts the tactics of a schoolyard bully.

The Nederlandse Opera has an altogether admirable production of Fidelio, produced by Robert Carsen and directed by Edo de Waart, with sets and costumes by the Romanian couple Radu and Miruna Boruzescu. The setting, a vast dungeon in an abandoned factory, reminded me of things I heard about Ceausescu’s prison in Pitesti. The curtain rises and rises and rises on an overwhelming space, in which the cast is dwarfed. I had never seen Fidelio, and when I read the synopsis in the theatre booklet, it sounded like your typical Romantic soap. It is nothing of the kind. There are hints of burlesque, but they do nothing to break the extraordinarily concentrated mood. The story is about the comeuppance of a cynical official who abuses his power to intimidate a political enemy. May all such stories end this way.

The new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Vincent’s choice, made a stunning first impression. But that was at the opening night, with far too many people, and with my mind on the talk show I was going to be on that evening. I’ll be going back as soon as I can.

FFDys 176, on the new Rembrandt, was published in German by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 12 February. I was told today that my alternative theory in that column about the changes to the painting was referred to in De Telegraaf, the largest Dutch daily, and that it was repeated in Spits, a popular giveaway paper for commuters. I’m not sure that all this prime time television and exposure in the mass media is good for someone who is used to writing for you 605 subscribers to ffdys.

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