Hazel Tour: Art
On the 10-minute train-ride from the airport to the Central Station, the siding facing the tracks is covered with American wild-style (giant, psychedelic, hard-to-read) graffiti the entire distance. It's a little hard to determine the exact style or quality because it's 8 feet away at 60 miles an hour. Looks pretty good, though.
As a general rule, Amsterdam lacks the intrusive tagging that covers so much of big U.S. cities. For the most part - and this will be the case all over Europe - it only defaces places strictly deserving such a fate - fast-food outlets, cigarette machines, the most banal freeway stanchions. It's certainly all over the more touristy and commercial areas, but the only places I could really object to tags were over the faces of others' murals.
There are many murals, of many types, of which the main ones might be Graffiti, Naive/Hippie, and Imitations of Masterpieces. 'Commercial' murals, so common - and so exceptionally ugly - in the U.S., are nonexistant in Europe. (You wouldn't want to count the small, original, and charming Hungarian cola signs as such.)
Many pieces of public sculpture, usually somewhat modest. Starting with one at once great and small. At the airport, one enters an extraordinarily clean men's room, addresses a beautifully hemispherical urinal, and is surprised to see juxtaposed to the rather staggering cleanliness of the whole operation, a fly, right in the bowl - but it is not a real fly, but a very fine tiny realistic etching of a fly. Of course, the extreme cleanliness is essential for the piece to work.
On E.C. Huygenstraat, there's a mural combining Dungeons & Dragons motifs with straight-ahead wild-style. My first trip to the Van Gogh Museum is deflected by a massive mob of tourists, so I turn into a side-street and find a kindergarten playground faced by a magnificent piece by the international legend, Dutch graffiti-artist Delta Gust. It's not Van Gogh, but it assuages my art-jones.
In the yard of the church whose marvellous bells mark every quarter-hour of my (and Anne Frank's - but that's another story) stay in Amsterdam, is a food-kiosk, the back of which is painted in the style of Michelangelo: God giving Adam a thing of french-fries. On Rozengracht there is a little mural in the style of Rembrandt, and on Prinsengracht one in the style of Van Gogh. On Niew Liliestraat there is a gorgeous mural in the exact colors, and partly the style, of Gaugin, somewhat marred by tags, but still lovely. Last but not least, around the huge site of the Van Gogh Museum expansion, there are plywood hoardings covered - on both sides - by very fine graffiti-art, a wild diversity of wild-style variations. Each panel appears to have been painted by a different artist. There is a large steel skateboarders' half-pipe nearby this construction site, and the same day that i repeatedly try killing myself on it with my near-bmx adapted one-handled folding-bike, I notice a pair of artists working on a panel - a girl and her boyfriend, desultory, enjoying the day, none of the surreptitious or hurried air that might be expected of their American counterparts.
There are three major art museums right here. the Rijksmuseum, humongous, full of historical art, old masters, and what they call applied arts - ceramics, furniture, some tapestry and woodcarving and dollhouses; the Stedelijk Museum, containing modern art, impressionists onward; and the Van Gogh Museum. In that order, and on three consecutive days, I visit them.
The Rijksmuseum is very very wide, with a triple archway passing under the middle of it, admitting an intermittant meandering stream of cyclists, tourists, mopeds, and pedestrians, and offering an echo - excellent enough to trigger incontinence - to its everpresent virtuoso street-musicians. As I arrive, it is a woman cellist accompanied by a young guy on clarinet.
I pay 7 guilders - about $4 - and enter the historical wing where the very first painting is the Capture of Prince Dipo Negoro by General de Kack, very detailed, about 3' x '4, the prince with a sad, faraway look, and an array of his subjects looking quite grief-stricken. The helpfully bilingual notice on the wall explains a few things: the artist Nicolas Pieneman was commissioned to do the picture by the very general depicted. And Dipo Negoro, prince of Java, has lost 200,000 of his people in the war that has cost the Dutch 15,000. The latter, unable nevertheless to win the day, have offered the Prince safe-passage for "negotiations", but of course this is a clever ruse. It seems to me that the general has been more self-revealing than he intended by hiring this particular artist, and that the Dutch museum has in turn, been more self-revealing than intended by displaying this very frank painting and its very frank accompanying explanation. On the other hand, the general level of openness here in Holland is positively unAmerican.
There are a dozen large rooms full of paintings in this wing, of exemplary realism, but of little interest to me, largely static and unemotional, documenting Dutch royalty, military, and business accomplishments. I am suddenly frozen in my footsteps, however, by a vision of monumental surreal splendor - the gargantuan 20' x 50' depiction of Franklin D. Roosevelt's triumphant victory at Waterloo. 1000 horses and 10,000 weary soldiers and FDR astride his muscular horse, larger than life, at the center. Turns out it is actually the Dutch Prince William of Orange, a dead ringer.
On to the Old Masters section, where I'm decidedly nonplussed. Franz Hals doesn't do a thing for me, just an interminable succession of aristos and burghers, none of the exquisite landscapes I had expected. After about nine rooms of nothing special to this untrained eye, there is an Italian, Lorenzo Monaco, never heard of him, no explanation why he's among these Dutchmen, 16th century, 3 very small, but very touching and delicate portraits of the crucified Jesus and two woman saints. They make me catch my breath a little and hang out near them for a while.
Several more boring rooms and I am getting squirrely, and starting to lope through the galleries at an unseemly pace, when the apposite words to describe my action are - a screeching halt: Vermeer.
Tears come to my eyes as I write and remember. The painting, Woman Reading a Letter, is not especially emotional, and I don't cry at the time. My immediate thought is - my god, I would trade this one painting for everything else in the whole damn museum. I've never been hip to Vermeer. I knew some elitist types have always thought him the cat's pajamas, but really never paid them no mind. This one is a fairly straightforward profile of a slightly corpulent woman in a blue dress, reading a letter. But, the paint is perfect, the colors are perfect, the light is perfect. There is an honesty and a quiet feeling that makes this picture more real than "realism". I think this is what they call art.
There are a couple of more Vermeers: The Street and The Loveletter, and they are very beautiful (the Loveletter is kind of disturbing - there is a story here that one can't know the details of), but I have been so taken by the one, that I can't properly look at them.
Finally, the Rembrandts, well-surrounded by tourists. I kind of like the Self-portrait as St. Paul, though not understanding the reference, and the portrait of his son as a monk. In contrast to all the other paintings save the Monacos and Vermeers, there is some emotion here, and patent honesty. It's funny how such non-visual qualities come through so crystal-clear. And I wander off, not able to make much of Nightwatch or his formal portrait of the honchos of the Drapers' Guild, or (I'm standing next to an equally perplexed-looking African woman) the Denial of St. Peter, and not even noticing Isaac or Rebecca.
I practically jog through the applied arts section, getting some hard looks from security. Lots of fairly lavish old stuff, but little worth even a first look, with some interesting exceptions: In the middle of a room filled with otherwise unexceptional furniture and ceramics, a quite arresting sculpture by Geraert Lambertz from 1615, called Frenzy of the Madwoman. It's a slightly smaller than life-size, carved beige stone figure of a woman wildly contorted, pulling one great swath of her hair directly up, and another, with her other hand, down. Her face is in agony, and her pedestal depicts four bearded men peering from four windows. It is not greatly beautiful or rendered by special sculptural skill - it is once again the frankness that astounds. The helpful caption on the near wall informs us that the piece stood for most of its life in the courtyard of the local lunatic asylum, where for a small fee (7 guilders?) tourists might gaze through the cell-door windows at the damned.
There is an enormous room full of the most intricate and elaborate model ships, testimony to the great Dutch naval empire, but I really have other fish to fry. Of about 5,000 plates and dishes and such, there are about 4, all in the same slightly blurry style, painted blue and red, that appeal to me. Likewise, of a veritable plethora of presumably plundered Asian vases, there is just one that knocks your eyes out.
Then, after 5 rooms of uninteresting wood-carvings, mostly religious or domestic, there is one little one, about 6 inches tall, called The Repentant Thief and the Unrepentant Thief: two little figures, crucified, but with ropes instead of nails, struggling against their bonds - it is quite impossible to tell which is which, wherein lies the small humor of the piece. Dated 1525.
In the stairwell from the Rembrandts down to applied arts, there are three sets of square earthenware tiles, a couple of hundred years old, just darling. One set depicts 2 children on each tile, each pair playing a different old-fashioned child's game, perfectly charming. Another set depicts 5 or 6 different ways to make money, (each way covering 4 tiles in a row in a little panorama), such as growing a garden, or fishing, or making beer. I don't quite remember the third, I think it depicted agricultural implements, but it was nice, too.
In a small gallery for special exhibits, there's an exhibit of small prints of nudes. Booooring. 'Fraid so, except a very simple Degas brothel sketch and an also very simple Man-Rayish photo by the Russian Albert Rudomine.
The labyrinthine ways of this giant museum fling me back out into the main gallery where the Rembrandts are. The tourists have thinned out some, so I stroll back for another look. The Drapers's Guild's table has a really incredible, well, drape on it, and here are Isaac and Rebecca garbed in really the most amazingly sumptuous fabric. Rembrandt uses the texture of his brushstrokes to capture light to altogether supernatural effect.
Back to the Denial of Peter. The old guy can't be Peter because he's too old, and his expression isn't indignant, it's confused; but the young guy is too young to be Peter. The notice points out that that's Jesus deep in the murky background, turning his head to see Peter from behind, so the old guy must be Peter, and the young guy has a lamp, so he must be the one who has spotted Pete and questioned him. Sudden as that, I see it. What Vermeer didn't quite manage, Rembrandt has done, and tears are, as in the cliche, rolling down my cheeks. I see the African woman whose perplexity I'd sensed before, way across the other side of the gallery, and want to run fetch her back and show her what I've found.
There was no indignation in Peter's denial, he was just somewhat at a loss as to how to respond. Very understandable, typically human, consummate tragedy. And now I love Rembrandt, as I now also love Vermeer.
And on this note, I make my way down the stairs and out the front of the Rijksmuseum, to be greeted by heavenly music floating out of the echoing archway. There is now a middle-aged, dreadlocked alto saxophone player of African descent wailing most exquisitely, and again, so soon, the tears just start welling.
Next, the Stedelijk Museum and the Van Gogh (va khokh, fool) Museum. The Stedelijk is full of fairly good work, hardly anything I would consider outstanding, though several things that are lovely and many things - almost everything - interesting and/or respectable. I'll just list what I found of interest, giving, as did the attached notices, the artist's place of origin and date of birth. Paintings, unless indicated:
Georg Herold, E. Germany, 1947 - stark, ironic figures
Stanley Brouwn, Paramaribo, 1935 - a line
Bridget Riley, London, 1931 - geometric horizontals
Thom Puckey, England, no date - scary pristine baroque Popeye wall-sculpture
Jean Arp, Strasbourg, 1887 - giant torso sculpture
Jaap Wagemaker, Haarlem, 1906 - slate and shell assemblage
Robert Zanduliet, Terband, 1970 - huge bobbypins
Piero Manzoni, Soucino, 1933 - framed minimalist plastered linen
Domenico Bianchi, Rome, 1955 - encaustic grey swing
Marlene Dumas, Kaapstad, 1953 - messy water-based self-portraits
Franz Marc, Munich, 1880 - blue horses painted on wood
Daniel Spoerri, Romania, 1930 - fully-accoutered cafe tabletop, hanging on the wall like a painting
- a chair, truly wack
Antoni Tapies, Barcelona, 1923 - black sand and hay wall-assemblages
Domenico Gnoli, Rome, 1933 - giant woman's butt
- giant black hair-parting
Jan Beutener, Netherlands, 1932 - semi-realist paintings of exterior village walls
Also there are modest but friendly pieces by Klee, Chagall, Ernst, Mondrian, Dekooning, Guston, Christo, and Rauschenberg. The Rauschenberg is large, and very nice, and the Christo is, with the Spoerri tabletop, my favorite piece in the museum. It is absolutely tiny, for him, about the size of a breadbox, something wrapped of course - who knows what - and wrapped a little haphazardly, in slightly soiled and threadbare grey linen. I don't know, there is something sad and homey about it.
In its main entry hall, the Van Gogh Museum displays its new acquisition, a small simple Monet, a Mediterranean hillside with trees, just stunning in its plainness and perfection and an absolute tonic for anyone tired of all those waterlilies.
Once again, I never really got Gaugin, and really wondered about his seeming to think he had the right to fuck all those young Tahitian girls, but now I become a convert on the basis of two pictures here: his self-portrait with a drawing of Emile Bernard in the background (cutely hanging next to Bernard's self-portrait with a drawing of Gaugin in the background), and his portrait of Van Gogh painting sunflowers. Whether the exquisitude of these pieces mitigates or belies the man's transgressions (both, to some degree, I suppose), it opens the other pivotal question, the overwhelming over-representation of men artists in general (in these museums, less than a tenth of 1 % of works have been by women). Although I suppose it's really no great mystery to anyone who's ever had kids - women just haven't had the time.
On the top floor, there is a whole wall hung top to bottom with "minor" Van Goghs, including some very cute and tender and wacky things - the child on a potty, the skull smoking a cigarette, potatoes - this man cared so intensely about the smallest, most forgettable things. You can feel his loving tenderness for a god-damn potato.
Also on the top floor are his 3 Japanese imitations, which I've never had any inkling of. Absolutely wild, and the one of the bridge in the rain, absolutely beautiful. The moment I am seeing them, 2 Japanese tourists appear, and consent to translate the kind of sloppy calligraphy along the pictures' borders, explaining that they seem to identify the sites depicted. When she can't quite make out one set, I find myself, as a sort of joke I guess, apologizing for the raggedness of the master's attempts. They duly laugh, and I do hope it is not only out of politeness.
Down on the main floor among the great mass of major works - maybe l00 paintings - I am looking at a late work called Roots and Treetrunks and start to think that it was finally Van Gogh who created modernism, for here is a piece nominally representational, but really, really leaping away into the abstract.
Here, so incredible a repository of tenderness and caring and just wrenching beauty this is, I start fucking crying again. I roam the gallery, looking at Van Gogh after Van Gogh through my tears, and at the hundreds of other tourists, and wonder why no-one else is crying, until I am done, and go back out to my bike.
The briefest of stays in Nuremburg reveals some very handsome hard-edged wild-style graffiti and a most deranged piece of public art. At the center of the ancient and extensive central unsquare square, next to a great medieval bell-tower, and at first glance looking medieval itself, is a huge rambling roughly-circular bronze fountain consisting of an oversized menagerie of nightmarish mythical creatures, each more grotesque than the last and seemingly designed to scare the crap out of children. The nude hag in a murderous frenzy and the expression on the face of one of the sea-monsters give even jaded old me a chill. Later, I'm told it was installed in the 1970's - I'd assumed it was a holdover from centuries in which it was considered hygienic and funny to terrify kids.
Speaking of hygienic and funny, Berlin is penises galore. Just about all the (officially-sanctioned) public art I see, and much of the decor on the humongous public buildings, features penises.
Ok, here's one without a penis: there's a small park right up the street from Tacheles (where we're to play) with the bust of, close as I can tell, a children's writer, seems quite old.
Tacheles means, in Yiddish, the nitty-gritty, the heart of the matter, the truth. It was the downtown block-long 6-story Jewish public market a hundred years ago. The Jews were removed from it in the 1930's, and much of the building was bombed and removed in the war. One of its glories now is that a whole end-section is missing its entire back wall. Tacheles was squatted by artists when the Berlin wall came down and it gives off a vibe that suggests that it lay empty before that. The people who have been inhabiting it and running it will in their turn be removed this October, for fancy shops and condos.
There's a city-block-sized courtyard in back, featuring large sculptures, like a city bus stuck in the ground at a 30-degree angle and a life-sized unseaworthy sheet-metal trawler, and dotted with creatively constructed food-vending stalls that proliferate after nightfall. The building-complex itself has huge collaborative murals on its exterior - and lots of its interior - walls. The largest and most beautiful covers the generally windowless end of the building, can be seen for a quarter-mile, and is crowned in enormous letters, "WO IST K'A'PT'N NEMO ?" Where is Captain Nemo? Apparently a call for a technologically-savvy luddite avatar to come save us. One of the 90-foot-tall murals on the back of the building can't have had fewer than 30 collaborators, sufficiently mindful of each other that the piece achieves great matrixes of unity.
The ground floor is divided between our nightclub and a cavernous metal-sculpture studio. The club's furniture, bar, and decorations are all welded artifacts, including dozens of barstools, no two the same. The second floor is a cinema and an exhibition hall which is currently showing a collection of proposed renovations of Tacheles in the form of architectural drawings and models. If these pretty banal examples are a guide, public ownership will be infinitely more simplistic and profitable than collective ownership. The third and fourth floors seem to be studios or living space, and the fifth floor, galleries and offices. The main galleries are showing a fairly wide selection of drawings and low-tech paintings, mostly by men, much of it nice but none too interesting, but there is an intriguing installation-room crammed to the gills with a bewildering selection of glass and discarded things, among which are glowing vacuum-tubes of unfamiliar contour. The artist is here, sitting in a folding-chair nearby, and turns out to be an old compadre of Barry's from San Francisco.
photos by pete krebs
Bremen has wonderful graffiti murals. The wild-style action goes off in multiple fresh directions, and here are clear homages to 50's car-customizing cartoonist Big Daddy Roth, 60's underground newspaper artist Vaughn Bode, and deranged 70's Zap Comics abstractionist Victor Moscosco. Here also, a short ride from our club, is an artists' co-op - wild human-sized metal insects in the stairwell, an opening of a show of rather beautiful semi-abstract cityscapes in stark ink and pencil and etching, and on another floor, a small gallery-show of transgressive po-mo paintings by about 4 artists, where some technicians are setting up a performance-piece that will be taking place simultaneous with my own.
In the Gruga, the great public gardens in Essen, there is a stunning succession of idealized young athletic female nude bronzes placed centrally and strategically throughout the park. Their beauty and frankness is a happy shock, though I must say the juxtaposed eagle-cages make for an eerie effect.
In downtown Essen there are 2 notable spherical public sculptures. One is a simple 7-foot-in-diameter rough-surfaced iron ball on a short pedestal in a vest-pocket park - some kind of tribute to Essen as a traditional mining center, I suppose. The other is right on the sidewalk, 4-foot-in-diameter maroon and cream, marbled exactly like a bowling-ball, sitting in a small pool of water and mysteriously but solidly turning and turning, with no imperfection of surface that can explain the mechanism by which it seems that the flow of water from beneath makes it move.
At the apartment of my opera-singer 2nd cousin and her family is an absolutely wizardly tri-lingual visual pun, drawn by Geoffry Wharton. It is an elegantly executed ink-drawing of the front of the famous cathedral at Cologne (Koln), Germany, consisting entirely of a piece of sheet-music on its side, the details of the facade fully represented by the staff-lines and notes and phrase-marks. It looks playable, if quite short, and it's entitled "Ode de Cologne".
The never-ending walls facing the train-route east out of Essen towards Dortmund are rich with excellent, largely wild-style graffiti, most dramatically on the plexiglass overpass security-fence that occasionally passes by overhead.
In Enger it is especially noticeable how, in Deutschland, pay-phones are scarce and cigarette machines (small ones, that hang on the exteriors of stores) are plentiful. I quite dig the phenomenon whereby the only graffiti in this whole pristine little town is on the cigarette machines.
In a small central public park in Linz, Austria, is a sculpture of a giant opened book, with a cluster of wickedly sharp weaponry bursting through the middle of it. Nearby, in the cobbled downtown mall, is a small modernist marble fountain in the shape of a hand with many decorations inlaid in the style of the Watts Towers.
On the wall of our club's dorm in Linz is a beautiful hard-edged and stylized drawing of a guitar, that incorporates the name of the band that left it - Brain Drain from St. Petersburg, Russia.
Flex, on the canal in Vien (Vienna), is a hundred feet long and its whole facade is covered with a meticulous, clever and original painting of an extra-planetary bar-room scene and, seated on the practically endless succession of bar-stools, a menagerie of rough-and-ready near-human bar-patrons, painted in ultra-violet paint, and made to glow by a hundred-foot bank of ultra-violet lamps. The sharp-edged style and visual puns are reminiscent of the great Dan Gosch rock portraits at Lupo's in Providence, Rhode Island. The real bar-patrons mill about in front of this long mural, and not a few sit at rows of roped-in picnic-tables. Right in the middle of the wall is a concealed doorway to the band's couch-filled waiting-room/back-stage area that features a pair of television monitors showing two live views of the scene out front, that allows band-members, whiling away the hours between sound-check and show-time, to covertly observe the humans come to observe them, and in the process, add a good layer of metaphor to the mural's voyeuristic subtext. When Flex finally closes the next morning, shutters are folded over all the windows, to reveal the completed set of wicked details. The signatures read:
Georg dienz, entwurf und MALEREI
Jessica bendele, farbe
Georg Dienz put up the design and Jessica Bendele painted it, I think.
Bremen and Essen had a very few billboards and those all at pedestrian-level - it makes such a difference to the skyline - and Austria had occasional ones as well, and now Hungary has the odd billboard, but something is definitely wrong here. Well, two things. First, marketplace English has not penetrated Hungary as it has western Europe. So all the advertising is suddenly bereft of English, with the exception of a slender elite of product names. (The only use of a descriptive English word in Hungarian advertising is Kent Super Lights - still technically a product name.) So subtract supremely banal advertising English, and add exotically beautiful Hungarian fonts and spelling and ads start being pretty. It's the most subversive thing imaginable. Now compound with this the fact that all three Coca-cola billboards we come upon are kind of attractive off-beat original paintings, and I begin to truly comprehend communism for the very first time.
Hungary's paper money is beautiful, even by the colorful European standard. And the portraits thereon depict a cool selection of national heroes, like Bartok. I neglect to make a list, but do note the pervasive influence of communism. On the money.
Since Hungary already had a fascist government in place when they came, the Nazis ceded a degree of control, and by a convoluted path, the result was that many of the Jews of Budapest survived, leaving the only large community of Jews in Europe. All the remaining, urban and rural, Hungarian Jews were exterminated.
I'm unaware of this distinction when setting out on my bike. After examining a map, my intention is to visit the Jewish Museum and the National Gallery on this, our precious day-off in Budapest. As I enter the grounds of the old Synagogue and Museum, security is tight and thorough, but very gentle. I carry the cheapest kind of travel alarm-clock, very small, but the man sweetly asks me if I would please leave it with him. And briefly probes the steel tubes of my bike.
I expected a holocaust museum, but here is a historical museum, documenting Hungarian Judaism through the ages, a literal gold-mine of exquisite relics. The last two rooms ascend by a step, and the last room, quite small, is indeed a holocaust memorial, very moving in its simplicity. It is darkened, and consists of an arrangement of illuminated black & white blown-up photographs, mostly of people, and a couple of vertical glass cases showing some articles, such as a striped uniform, from the camps.
Up the stairs is - an art museum. It's a permanent collection of pretty exclusively 20th century Hungarian Jewish artists, plus, in contrast to the rest of the art I've been seeing, it includes a decent number of women artists. Between the size of the collection and the dearth of space, paintings are hung in at least three tiers, and, except in the last two rooms where the post-modern art is, cover all the wall space, including the stairwell.
This stairwell and the landing above proffer older work, many portraits and a few landscapes, in a very great variety of styles, including some bordering on the naive, and tending either to the very beautiful or the charmingly quaint.
Over the archway leading into the first main gallery are these words, in block letters, in English: "With their hind legs they still stuck to their fathers' Judaism, and with their forelegs they couldn't find ground. Despair became their inspiration. ~ Franz Kafka" But this seeming demarcation between prewar and postwar art also marks an imperceptable transition between quaint and holocaust. There continue to be many portraits, for example, though perhaps the number of self-portraits increases.
(This advanced web-page program can't make an acute accent, so please imagine one on at least every other syllable in the names of the Hungarian artists below. Incidently, Hungarian names, as in Japan, list the surname first, but on anything for tourists, they tend already to have switched it for you. )
The first masterpiece is a small painting of a reclining nude woman, maybe a little like something by a female second cousin of Egon Schiele. According to the ambiguously located label on the wall, it is entitled, 'Study of a Head', and painted by Margit Graber (1895-1993). I seek out an English-speaking museum employee and ask her about the discrepancy, but she can't figure it out either.
Here is a sharply moving Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) drawing: 'Wounded Soldier in Bed'.
And another awkwardly-translated block-letter English-language archway-traversing quotation: "Being 'on another place' and the hopeless desire 'to be at home': this two together is deep, productive, and destroying at the same time. - Gershom Scholem"
Here are excellent line-drawings by Agnes Hay (1952 - ), and an elaborate minimalist light, shadow, and etched-glass narrative installation based on a text (an old German children's tale) and a photograph (from a 1933 National Geographic) called 'Black Forest Requiem', by Judit Hersko (1959 - ). Wrenching.
Hanging from the ceiling, a charming blue papier-mache 'Dreaming Artist', by Robert Swierkiewicz (1942 - ). And the equally charming 'Variations on Self-portrait #1' by Laszlo Valko (1946 - ) - one sharp-focus, one relaxed pencil, one folded together - all looking like renegade American performance-poet Jesse Bernstein.
Peter Donatu (1938-1996) has a marvellous piece that looks like striated wrinkled mud. And Nyaris Istvan (1952 - ) presents 2 tricky and meticulous high-tech sculptures, 'The Moment of the Bite' that utilizes printed circuits, radio tubes, photographs and a chillum; and 'Tora - Sputnik', a tribute to Man Ray.
Torn between taking detailed descriptions and just enjoying the pieces, by the time I reach the last room - quite recent works (most with political or conceptual elements) by a younger generation of artists - I throw up my hands and resort to counting. Of the 15 articles in this room, 10 are of the highest quality.
Small, crowded, and limited, yet this place is world-class - a showcase of sharply political art, unparalleled anywhere I know of, and as such, both a refutation of the idea of art abstracted from - more lofty than - political concerns, and an exemplary laboratory showing where decorative propaganda ends and politically compelling art - what R.B.Kitaj calls "diasporist" - begins.
Back on the bike to ride through the fantastic poignant megalith that is downtown Budapest. I'm rapidly onto the Szechenyi Lanchid - Chain Bridge - over the Duna (Danube), and smack in the middle come around a corner where right facing me is a small, stark and isolated graffiti of a crazily minimalist fish, weeping a single tear. Oh, yeah.
Up a steep, almost unused anymore, cobbled street in a slightly sprinkly rain to the old castle courtyard and a jaw-dropping view of central Budapest. The dark clouds literally open before me and drop a gigantic pillar of sunlight onto the so freshly-democratic Hungarian Parliament. Here is a human-crafted landscape comparable to the grandeur of natural wilderness - a Yosemite of cities. The sheer age of this town is an element, the virtual absence of advertising is another, a third, the spectacle of the living cartography of the Hungarian body politic. That the sky should at this moment choose to amplify the metaphor for my personal consideration is mighty clear proof of the connivance of some all-seeing benevolent deity. At the very least.
What once was the south wing of the royal palace overlooking the city is now the Magyar Nemzeti Galeria - the Hungarian National Gallery. I skip the ground floor because it seems dark and historical, and make my way up what's got to be the widest stairwell in the world, and which is bedecked, all the way up, with 40 young nude women - head and upper torso for the most part - in stone, all by male artists. All post-1850 - some touching, none spectacularly great - and kind of wierd. The nudes in the German botanical garden were comically appropriate in a twisted kind of way. These oppress a little, in fact the more touching ones seem the more oppressive. It is not really upsetting so much as odd and sad. Maybe it's the missing legs and arms.
Past a couple of rooms of pretty but nondescript nineteenth-century landscapes and portraits one comes to Janos Vaszary (1880-1920), where I begin to see that between the Jewish Museum and this one, are around 15 Hungarian painters (I think all of them male) who from around 1870 to around 1940 defined a style of art that bridges what is a broad gulf in West European art, that between the pre-Raphaelites and the Impressionists: utterly neglected in the West - I've never heard of a single one of these guys - these pieces work the continuum between a romantic encapsulated-in-time realism, and the intuitive coloring and magically photographic light techniques of Impressionism.
There are several Vaszarys, the most remarkable a sunlight-dappled nude called 'The Living Key', with an unbelievable art-nouveau frame that is integral to the picture.
Here is a substantial trompe-l'oeil collage featuring a dinner-plate and a skeleton, by Sandor Trayer (1906-1929).
In another 2nd-floor wing are the 18th century and early 19th century fore-runners of the art-deco-realists, the best of which have a definite erotic slant. Not only are there are hardly any women artists in the whole National Gallery, these men seem to be all sexed up. Patriarchal, these Hungarians, but they're passionate and they know how to paint. The cream of these erotic romantic realists are Janos Donat (1744-1830), Agost Canzi (1808-66), and Karoly Lotz (1833-1904). Donat's 'Venus' and Canzi's 'Arabian Girl' rather catch my eye.
The top floor of this museum is devoted to very boring 'modern' art, either mediocre artists, or just secondary pieces by otherwise good artists. Hardly one of these would have made it into the Jewish Museum. As if to underline my judgement, here is a very small Moholy-Nagy drawing from 1923, minimalist, no great shakes, but sweet, which is more than I can say for most of the rest of this, dare I say it, crap. (Moholy-Nagy, incidentally, seems to be the only Hungarian artist with a world reputation. He was one of the avatars of Constructivism, the movement that sought to engage art with society through incorporating design elements, and was evicted from Russia by the Stalinists, and in turn from Germany by the Nazis.)
On one of the huge landings between floors is a huge garishly-colored landscape that doesn't make sense to me, so I basically avoid looking at it - besides, it's not hung where you can get far enough away to get any kind of grasp. I also avoid anything more than a quick jog through the big ground-floor military-historical wing, but not without noting that the huge military paintings are much more exciting and interesting than their Dutch counterparts due to the fact that the enemy is the wildly-garbed fierce and colorful Turks - a more interesting-looking adversary than the boring old French and Spaniards.
Back downstairs, one of the wings I skipped is indeed full of work that is dark and historical, mostly that of the master, Karoly Ferenczy (1862-1917). Most of these paintings are very dark - darker than Rembrandt, whose work a couple of these resemble, especially 'Abraham and Isaac'. Another, 'Evening with Horses', is practically black, reminiscent of 19th century American master, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and exquisite. A third, 'Painter and Model', is more visible, and manifestly a predecessor to the fine realist/impressionist pieces upstairs.
Beyond the Ferenczy, is an unexpected continuation of the ground floor, and consistant with the general time-running-backwards trend of my progress through the museum, it is full of 16th and 17th century architectural flourishes and knick-knacks, complete with a 1526 coffered - meaning in wooden sections - ceiling. This, though, is merely the passage to an inner sanctum.
This last couple of rooms is deserted, I am the only visitor, save the elderly security-matron who follows me in and keeps a really quite unobtrusive eye on me the whole time. Here is the very fount of the colorful realism I have discovered upstairs and at the Jewish Museum. Turns out, that tradition hasn't so much derived from western Europe and the schools of painting we westerners are so used to, as from their own sacred native traditions. Here are the great Hungarian national treasures. Let me rephrase that. Here are a set of art treasures second to none, Sistine Chapel, whatever.
Okay, this is nothing like the size of the Sistine Chapel. This is about 25 or 30 painted wooden panels from the 15th century, all of them full-body, maybe one-third life-size, portraits of religious figures, singly or in combination: saints, apostles, baby Jesus, Mary, possibly Mary Magdalen. I don't really take down any notes, unless you want to count: "MEGA - 15th c".
These paintings strive to be two things above all: colorful and meticulous. Or, if you will, impressionist and realist. After the bland religious art I've seen all my life, this is a revelation. Granted almost the only Michaelangelo or Raphael or Massaccio you and I ever see is in cheesy reproductions that render otherwise magnificent things down to blandness. Still. I begin to wonder when Monet and Cezanne and Van Gogh might have travelled to Hungary to see these wonders, so nearly do they seem to anticipate their experiments with light and juxtaposed color.
After tearfully thanking the beaming security-woman, I leave in a daze, with barely a backward glance at the still very out-of-place looking gargantuan surreal landscape on the central landing.
Since we are heading for Pecs, our courtly host Daniel Antal insists that, as long as I am doing museums, it would be criminal for me to miss the one there devoted to Hungary's greatest artist Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka (1853-1919), generally known as just Csontvary.
The museum is up a narrow side-street in Pecs old-town. It is not very grand from the outside, blends in with the buildings on either side to the point that I have to ask a teenage boy for directions when I'm standing practically in front of it. It is all white and starkly empty inside. Up a great immaculate flight of marble stairs, here is the gallery, dimly lit and with no-one around, until a diminutive and comfortably-fleshed woman of sixty appears from down a long hallway, calls to me, scurries about, makes her way in my direction starting to switch on lights, and leads me through an antechamber hung with a few small paintings to a smallish room full of large pencil-drawings on brown paper, indicating that I am to start here.
Large fabulous pencil-drawings - and all portraits of regular folks. There is one in particular that is a knock-out. It's a portrait of a painfully plain young woman who is suddenly and mystically far more compelling than any of the 150-odd Impressionist/Realist Pre-Raphaelite/Art-Nouveau young pleasants that so beautifully and ubiquitously inhabit the Hungarian National Gallery. She puts the lie to their entire attendant mystique. The size of her soul, and that of her renderer, are right here. As are those of several of the wack-looking codgers either side of her.
These are very realist, but it is a tender realism where most of that pre-Raphaelite work is strictly tendentious. Their beauty, their tenderness, and their gossamer hint of the romantic remind me of work (brown paper, indeed) that could not be more contrastingly executed: Rembrandt.
I head for the paintings, and these take a while to sink in. My attendant woman is back to turn more lights on, and the paintings are getting much bigger very fast, and now I'm in front of this 15-foot by thirty-foot absolutely otherworldly landscape. Its depicted locale seems more towards the middle east than Hungary. There is a most dramatically lurid sky behind a sort of ruined cityscape whose various elements seem impossibly juxtaposed. I start counting the number of cultures represented by the various styles of ruins and get up to seven when I begin to grasp not only that this is a real place, but that, at the right distance, and with a very slightest blurring of the eyes, this place - Baalbek, it's called - is here rendered with a positively photographic degree of realism. It's funny, because up close it looks positively naive. It is a trick. I'm stopped in my tracks with awe, and in the pause, assemble the information that the huge garish landscape I was unable to deal with at the National, was Csontvary's. I go: My god - what did I miss? But then again, it wasn't possible to view from a crucial distance.
My throat has literally become dry, but when I try the door to what looks like it might be a rest-room, my woman protests anxiously, and disappears to find help. Soon a beefy, almost-elderly, man approaches to say,"Toilet? Toilet?" and pointing the way. But I don't want to go all the way down to the other end, I want to stay and look at this stuff, and though I am able to shrug apologetically, from here on in he will repeat his approach at 10-minute intervals for the rest of my stay, going, "Toilet? Toilet?"
Here is another - 'Taormina' - like 'Baalbek' both the name of the place and the name of the painting. It is a volcano framed by ruins with the moon overhead. Incredible mega-painting.
There are three or four of the huge ones and probably 40 more conventionally-sized paintings, mostly natural landscapes with some urban elements or the other way around. Many have people, but the figures tend to be quite small. There are a couple of night-time or darkening-time scenes that are remarkable.
One more room, and once again it is smallish and full of pencil-drawings on somewhat ragged brown paper. Only this time, they are huge sheets, and apparently close-to-full-size preliminary studies for very large paintings. These are interesting but, unlike everything else, not so very gorgeous.
The murals at the Pizza Hut down in down-town Pecs were created by Sztojka and Rozsahegyi. The rock mural features Hendrix, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Springstein, Michael Jackson, Bowie, Jagger, Sting, Aretha Franklin, Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Prince. Shades, once again - and so soon (the mural on the club in Vienna) - of Dan Gosch. The movie mural is in the form of the Last Supper, with Marilyn Monroe as Jesus, and as her apostles - Brando, Karloff, Cary Grant, Astaire (right on - a dancer!), Bogart, James Dean, Chaplin, Gable, John Wayne, Elvis (Elvis?), and Laurel & Hardy.
Italy to Euskal Herria
In Rome, though Carmelo would have me head for the Sistine Chapel, I fear the crush of tourists and get him to find for me on a street map the major modern art galleries. The first one is huge, but closed for changing shows. The second one is huge, but closed for repairs. The third one is pretty big, and the whole ground floor is getting remodeled for a new show, but the second floor has a labyrinth of galleries that every so often debouches onto the balcony overlooking the construction happening below. And on display in this labyrinth is a show, 'Art and the City', which seems to be an exploration of how a fairly broad and eclectic, if entirely male, selection of artists responds to urban 'themes', a decent excuse for a show, I suppose, though I frequently find myself at a loss to make the connection.
Nonetheless, there are a few neat things here. Exhibit A: a vast table upon which sit about 20 small semi-conceptual sculptures by Piero Manzoni (there was a piece of his I liked at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, too), that include an egg with a thumbprint and the piece de resistance, a small sealed can, slightly larger than one for cocktail weiners, with an olive-green label proffering 'Merda d'Artista'. A nearby notice provides a full translation:
Contents: 30 gr. net
Produced and tinned in May, 1961
Now here is a room full of pieces by Joseph Beuys (1921-86, one of the great innovators of conceptual art - his performance repertoire included, in the words of his biographer Stachelhaus, "talking for a hundred days, wrapping himself in felt, standing on one spot for hours, living with a coyote, peeling gelatin off a wall, sweeping out a forest, explaining pictures to a dead hare, organizing a political party for animals, bandaging a knife after he had cut his finger"), including: a number of quasi-architectural drawings, including plans for '7000 Oaks', the piece that resulted in a massive strategic tree-planting in the German city of Kassel; a felt suit, with the explanation, "The felt suit is not a gag...felt was used in all the categories of warmth sculpture, usually in connection with fat," a reference, I'm later to discover, to those materials having been used by ethnic Tartars to save his life after he was shot down on the Soviet front in World War II; and a yellow light-bulb screwed into a simple socket-plug unit, that is, in turn, plugged into a lemon. The lemon looks quite real, but the plexiglas case prevents one from investigating why it is not decomposing. A very little and silly piece, but like the graffiti fish in Budapest, quite strong in symbolic whimsy.
160 pitted bronze olives, by Lucio Fontana.
The incredible 'Quick-Change' (1897), by Leopold Fregoli.
A huge beeswax corridor (1997), by Wolfgang Laib.
Finally, the conceptually most interesting piece, by Salvatore Falci, an oddly-shaped plantation of grass derived (the notice explains) by contriving that the pedestrians observing the piece distributed the seeds by the itineraries of their footsteps. There is an accompanying commentary by one Fontana Bargo, "More than in conceptual art, Falci's roots are in organic textural art, where materials are in a continuous and natural evolution and transformation. He visualizes the continuity between humans and nature, rather than the difference."
Back at Forte Prenestino, I finally summon the courage to follow Carmelo's cryptic ("You won't regret it") directions down the long, wide, cluttered, and steadily darkening stone corridor to a now steep and pitch-dark ramp down and down, straight into the inky-black bowells of the dank and primordial ruin. Where finally a glimmer of light beckons, and I emerge at the threshold of a series of about 50 linked arched chambers, each admitting muted sunlight through a foliage-obscured firing-slit - it's a fort, remember? The clutter is now gone - the approach is scary enough to daunt the casual visitor - it is cool and quiet and alarmingly private here. The dankness, thanks to the ventilation, is also gone, as is most of the anxiety attendant to the sensation of premature burial. Leaving me to marvel at the succession of murals, one in each chamber, left by a truly eclectic and adventuresome assortment of wandering souls. Carmelo, damn and bless him, knowing my predilections, had breathed not a word of these clever and masterful handiworks. Highlights:
A man in plaster relief riding a stallion that is mounting a mare
A gold-leaf hammer-and-sickle with a gold-leaf fish
Narrow, straight, minimalist, blue lines
Faux white tile
A beautifully slap-dash gothic trompe-l'oeil doorway
A woman's black leather boot, huge, lying supine
A tarot-style hanged man
A big, photographically gorgeous, African profile
A stunning mod woman wrestling orange tarantulas
the forte (photos by pete krebs)
The absolutely most incredible artwork in Italy is the agriculture. The multiplicity of fields and farms, especially along the northern seaboards, seems positively centuries more advanced, serious, meticulous, and downright beautiful than anywhere else - it makes me reassess the very meaning of the word, culture.
Next to the great municipal escalier - staircase - in crowded old-town Marseille, is another great homage to Vaughn Bode (bo-day) covering the front and side of a bohemian cafe (kah-fay).
Along the freeway walls into Bilbo are some abstract decorations in blue glass.
Here the freeway signs, and then the street-signs, are all bilingual, the former listing the Euskadi (Basque) names first, and the latter the Spanish names first. The Euskadi word for 'street' seems to be 'kalea'.
In Bilbo (Bilbao), there's an assortment of murals, and for the first time in Europe, a strong mural presence that is not so greatly influenced by wild-style or other American styles. My sense is that in Euskal Herria, murals and sharply-pointed graffiti are a very old tradition.
Here is a nice wall of silhouettes of pedestrians. On Juan de Garay Kalea is, as mentioned in the bike chapter, a marvellous trompe-l'oeil landscape of a fenderless city-bike leaning up against the wall, with a perfect shadow and a string-bag of groceries hanging from the handle-bars. Credit is attributed as follows (with tildes on 1st and 3rd n's):
Dabid inakimo mo pontso
pablo poni jabi vecino escalero
"BIZI" | petra | landa |
Here is a great leafy mural, and another Bode-influenced mural. On Xenpilar Kalea is a chest-high wall covered with a mosaic whose tiles are all words or broken words, in many type-faces. Here is an enigmatic pictorial graffiti, and here, high up, to be seen from blocks away, is a choice 6-foot diameter concentric arrangement of bands of artfully disparate widths - from outer to inner: white, grey, slightly pale blue, grey, white, blue again, and in the center, a large yin-yang symbol. In several places, there are block-long mosaiced flower-boxes, and in several other places, both here and in the little coastal town of Gorliz, mosaic marble walls.
On J. Echevarria "Camaron" Kantoia (I'm guessing that 'kantoia' means 'alley'), is a charming and spectacular magical realist mural featuring a unicorn, a motley-fool puppeteer, a dragon, a caged wizard, eight marionettes - 5 of whom are tucked into an open toy-box, a stork, an anthropomorphic sun, a castle, and a damsel. The credits read:
There are occasional billboards in Bilbo, but not many, and not too intrusive. And there is one, in fact, for some kind of cellular computer something-or-other, that is not half-bad. What with all the images of Che Guevara around, maybe it's the communists again.
At Mogambo, the altogether shakin' tropical-themed squat-run nightclub in Donastia, here again is Euskadi artist and performance-art lover, Maite Fernandez Betelu, who befriended us 2 days ago at our show in Onati, and now she raves about conceptual-artist Vito Acconci and describes in charming breathless detail a performance she's just witnessed - she likes that it was between Hazel shows - by choreographer/painter Juan Ruiz de Infante, that begins in water and ends in fire, elements central to my stuff, too.
Silo and the Tropic Museum
There's some decent modern municipal art in Lyon and Groningen, and, as in Amsterdam and the cities of Deutschland, it's all pretty modest and seems around 20 years old. But we barely have time for passing glances, and the only examples I bother to note are Groningen's attractive bronze pony and charming glass fountain.
This last night's venue is a dinky little club in the far end of a mammoth grain silo building on the Amsterdam waterfront. Along the roadway beside it are a number of sculptures, starting with an inscrutable bicycle-derived piece on the roof of a parked van, whose inhabitant notices my interest and emerges to say hello.
Then there are two works on small metal wheels with plaster bull-heads with real bull-horns and pendulant stone blocks attached to complex ratcheted pulley-systems that seem to suggest that if the hanging weights are set to swinging, their momentum will somehow propel the sculpture menacingly forward. Here is a tall, elaborately geared windmill with sails of bone, and an impossibly-geared pedal-powered combination steam-roller and crane-hoist that has to be seen to be imagined. It is so rust- and weed-covered that I'm suspicious of its practicality. And here, hanging 15 feet overhead, is a magnificent and graceful junk-object predatory bird, swaying and gently threatening to swoop down and kill.
At a lively supper in the cafe where we're to play, we're joined by the third band on our bill as well as my van-sculpture friend, who now introduces himself, by way of an oft-told anecdote, as Jerry Reality, a.k.a. Jerreality. After which, there arrives a punkish gentleman who stands upon a chair and invites anyone who wishes to observe the 'fire-performance' now to follow closely behind him, as if we were school-children on an outing.
I couldn't really be less interested - it will be all I can do to perform myself later on - but go along anyway, thinking I'll be able to slink away once I see what the hell it is. We are led 75 yards (about half-way) back along the side of Silo to a narrow doorway, along a narrow corridor to a very steep and narrow stairwell, then up and up and up a series of tightly winding stairs, some of the flights deeply worn by generations of workers' footsteps. I am really regretting this, but am smack-dab in the middle of the snaky single-file of curiosity-seekers and it is literally impossible to back out now, so I tuck in my fatigue, nausea, and claustrophobia, and proceed to where we emerge into a dark, cold, cluttered, and filthy little room high above nighttime Amsterdam. The room is already half-full of a disarray of steel pipes leaning up on things and large ducts emerging from walls and ceiling, and we crowd in, having no idea what we should do or where we should direct our attention. There is a little bit of artificial light behind the ducts, where a small man can be seen turning knobs on, or making adjustments of some kind to, a very jury-rigged item that looks remotely like a concert sound-board. As my eyes adjust, I realize that it is my voluble friend Jerreality, and a little bit of my apathy recedes.
With a chem-lab striker, he lights a welding-torch and lays it on the floor at the mouth of a 12-foot long, 6-inch diameter steel pipe whose far end is propped a couple of feet off the floor, and the small roar of the flame is somehow amplified by the pipe into a dull roar. A few minutes pass before he's able to get a second one going. This time, the pipe is 4 inches in diameter, and the flame feed has somehow been made to pulsate, so the resulting dull roar is at a higher pitch, and sets a regular beat. Another long interval, while Jerry bustles around like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain. This time he positions a torch at knee-level, pointing upwards, right in the center of the room. With violent suddenness, and to a chorus of shrieks from the audience, a four-foot tall blue fireball explodes directly above this torch, and as it flames out it discloses what no-one has noticed: what looks like a crumpled piece of kleenex the size of a baby's fist, and held in place by a piece of bent baling-wire. If the pulsations of tube #2 are one per second, this torch's phase is set at one every 4 seconds - enough time to recover from the last explosion, but not enough to prepare for the next.
Over the next twenty minutes, the maestro sets up maybe three more roaring and/or pulsating tubes - diameters and lengths clearly calibrated for harmonic effect - and two or three more phased exploding fireballs, until it is a roaring pulsating symphony of light, sound, and heat. The sense of group-panic (this seems really experimental and dangerous, what if one of the tanks should explode?) subsides, and as it begins to get uncomfortably warm in here, Jerry starts shutting things down one by one.
My major remaining piece of business in Europe is to chase down some - any - display of Indonesian art. I know there has got to be something in Amsterdam - why have a colony for hundreds of years if you're not going to loot their prettiest things? There is no major museum of Native American art in the Pacific Northwest, but I somehow expect Holland to be more advanced. But no-one at any of the major museums or art-book store or import shop knows of such a place. Our most extraordinary hosts, who are putting up with us at their squat on Bloemstraat, suggest the anthropological museum, called the Tropenmuseum, or less formally, the Tropic Museum.
It's quite a place. Months later, I will still not quite know what to make of it, the combined spectacle of the place is so thoroughly crammed with layers upon layers of tragic irony, paradox, euphemism, truth-telling, atrocity, and exquisiteness.
Like the modern museum in Rome, it it a great atrium, the central area on the main floor rising all the way to the roof, and surrounded on all four sides of both upper floors by balconies. It helps you keep track of where you are, lets in light, and feels spacious - which is important because a number of these exhibits are a little claustrophobic.
Only about one sixteenth of it is devoted to Indonesia, but it will take me a while to get there because first I must pass through Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Amazonia, pre-Columbian Latin America, Mexico, The Phillipines, New Guinea, India, and the hill tribes of Thailand, Burma, and Laos. There are painstakingly disassembled, transported, and reassembled little precincts of modern-day shanty-towns, down to tiny tin-roof homes, and tiny shops and vending-carts, and graffiti, from seven cities: Mocha in Arabia, Deshinga in Nigeria, Capetown, Mexico City, Manilla, Madras, and Jakarta (which the museum still calls by its Dutch name, Batavia). The little slice of Manilla features 2 little shops which respectively purport to vend exclusively Kodak products and Pioneer products. I guess it's to lend authenticity: the fix is in. There are lavish exhibits on ecologies and traditional cultures. There are four art exhibits: A veritable plethora of superb naive Latin American advertising paintings (I just knew it - commies everywhere you look), some bright, smart, and radical little 'naive' paintings by Afrikaans painter "Clean" Clark-Brown, painted chronicles of Ethiopian social groupings by an elderly man, and a bunch of cute if not spectacular pre-Columbian pots.
Here, through a wide picture-window, is an African drumming class in a sound-proofed room, about 25 people, but they're not doing anything interesting at the moment, so on I go.
And here are some fantastic groupings of Indochinese hill-tribe shamanic artifacts, 'costumes', and equipment. It seems something of an intrusion to view these things, so I really kind of glide by, but I'm nevertheless struck in the eye by an incomparable crimson mutated-terry-cloth boa.
At the start of the Indonesian galleries is a historical signboard in Dutch and English describing some of the colonial history: how from 1602 to 1796 the Dutch East India Company extracted sufficient spices, wood, and fabric to make it the dominant power in Asian trade. As the native cultivators were gradually reduced to poverty, though, the company's buy-cheap, sell-dear policies doomed it to bankruptcy, and it was taken over by the Dutch government, which then ruthlessly crushed native resistance (cf. the dastardly capture of Prince Dipo Negoro at the beginning of this page) and proceeded to compel monoculture and institutionalize totalitarian control, to their great enrichment, and compelling Indonesian culture to devise strategies of self-preservation.
The central example of the latter is wayang, the shadow-theater. Wayang is musical shadow-puppet plays that commonly begin at dusk and reach their climax near dawn and are based on the ancient Hindu scriptural texts, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. There is generally an improvisational element, which allows the plots to allegorically comment upon current affairs while sustaining the protective mystifying cloak of tradition. As a result, wayang has often paralled social and political developments in the region to the degree that Indonesian politics itself is seen as an elaborate shadow-play. Examples of this art-form's flexibility abound: early this century, wayang incorporated many elements derived from the then-trendy precepts of Dutch Theosophy, and later this century, was a vehicle for radical youth to transmit anti-colonialist instruction. Here in the museum are a set of anti-Dutch shadow-puppets, including a marvellous panoramic cut-out of two opposing armies, one armed with guns, the other with spears.
By 1940, though Holland was one of the most prosperous countries on earth due to the rubber, tin, and oil extracted from Indonesia, management positions and the vast colonial bureaucracy were still largely closed to natives - 50% of the 204 high-school graduates (out of a population of 67 million) could not find jobs commensurate with their educations. Any vocal nationalists were sent to a concentration camp in New Guinea. (There are precise parallels to American treatment of our natives, so it's awfully appropriate that the U.S. stepped into Holland's extractive and repressive shoes following World War II. There's a fine book by Audrey and George Kahins, Subversion as Foreign Policy, that retails black irony upon irony in this monumental shadow-play, such as how the Marshall plan can be seen as a subsidy allowing the Dutch and French to mount exterminatory wars to regain their at-long-last liberated Southeast Asian colonies, Viet Nam and Indonesia. And how, when Nationalist leader Sukarno decisively put down the communists, it threw the American and Dutch propaganda efforts into a tailspin to the degree that, to preserve extractive opportunities for American companies, the U.S. switched sides, much to the dismay of Holland.)
And here is a fully-rigged model of a merchant ship constructed entirely of cloves.
George Tillman (1882-1941) was an Austrian, I think, who willed his collection of Indonesian artifacts to the Dutch public. The particulars of his life are briefly disclosed on a notice as one enters the milieu of his collection, and it's an extraordinary and poignant saga, but I don't really have room on my note-pad, and I'm hot to see this stuff.
For once, the explanatory notices seem a trifle disingenuous. The work here is all religious/shamanistic, but the accompanying descriptions and explanations are simplistic and anthropologically suspect. It is just as well, in a way - it allows the work to speak for itself. And speak it does. Though the march of cultures through Indonesia over 2000 years has been very wide - from animism to Hinduism to Buddhism to Islam - and greatly varies from island to island - Bali alone, for example, stayed exclusively Hindu - the work here has an eternal unity that belies all the inner conflict. This Tillman collection consists all of carvings, mostly wood, but some of bone. Many masks. Everything, absolutely everything, exquisite.
frueher: juden ("then: jews
heute: schwule + lesben now: gays + lesbians")
(in college student union rest-room stall)
WO IST KAPT'N NEMO? ("where is cap'n nemo?")
Ausfh'Art Alexakis (the band room at the Forum is full of American rock graffiti, including Everclear autographs with the above alteration that refers to the ubiquitous autobahn sign that means 'exit': ausfahrt)
jewish pee (in the club stairwell)
GIN TONIC (a tag showing up many places, I guess it's a band)
Long Beach (tag)
Blow Job (tag)
I (heart) Hund (painted over as if it was obscene)
FUCK ALL DA NIGGAZ (huh?)
(crying fish) (on Erzsebet bridge)
LIVE BY THE GUN OR DIE BY THE LAW (on the river-wall)
(beneath, and in different script:)
LIVE BY THE HEART, YOU WON'T NEED A GUN
JA WAM MOWIE,
KOMUNIZM TO JEDNAK
(below this, with an arrow pointing up to it:)
IL FORTE NON SI TOCCA ("don't touch the fort")
WI RAUFNZIS JAEIN ("we're going after the nazis
WIR AUF NAZIS JAGEN we're hunting the nazis
WIR NAZIS SCHLAGEN we're beating up the nazis
WIR GANZ SCHOEN BLOED ODER we're pretty stupid, or
ZUMINDEST GENAUSO BLOED at least as stupid
WIE SELBIGE as they are
VIELEN DANK thankyou very much")
('nazis' has i's dotted with x's, 2nd line has been crossed out)
Euskera Batua (in many places)
PRESOAK KALERA ("free the jailed")
EUSKADIKO EZKERRA (?)
ETA (m) (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna - "Basque & Liberty" - military wing)
ETA = Mafia (at Arantzazu)
(town name - number of jailed) (in many places)
je t'aime, grosse salope ("i love you, fat whore")
NEW ORDER (the o is a swastika)
You ask someone "do you like birds singing in the morning, do you think it's beautiful?"
and the person will most probably answer, "Yes." And then you ask the person,
"Well, do you understand them?" and the person will go, "Well, no."
And then you say, "You don't have to understand something for it to be beautiful." ~ Bado (French)
Amsterdam - ahm-ster-dom
Van Gogh - va-khokh (second syllable stressed, 'kh' as a really hard H)
Anne Frank - on fronk
Nuremburg - nyoorn-boorg
Berlin - bear-lean
Tacheles - tock-less
Bremen - bray-men
Linz - lince
Daniel Antal - don-yel on-tall
Csontvary - chont-var-ee
Euskal Herria - eh (as in "heh") -oose-cal heh-ree-a (slur together the eh and the oose, roll the r's, and stress the "ree")
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