239 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

The immense hangar, an old converted bread factory, is lined with market stalls where families sell their old wares: junk that, pulled from the bottom of cellars and the dark corners of garages and cupboards, momentarily regains value, however slight. Hands grope through second hand clothing, mostly chain bought and cheap, grouped in slightly musty smelling endless piles.

At the far end of a table covered in yellowing art books, old editions of classics frayed at the edges, and stacks of thriller pulp, sits a large folder. It opens to a collection of drawings, watercolours and sketches that are mostly abstract and frantically scrawled. I look up and catch the gaze of a tall, melancholy man with long mousy brown hair and silver rimmed circular spectacles. With a nervous excitement, the seller explains that these are the remains of his artist days that he sells alongside the used books. I buy an odd, demonic depiction of a creature drawn with Indian ink over a printed pencil drawing.

One late night sitting around my dinner table, a friend notices the ink drawing on the wall, and after taking a closer look, asks if it’s a genuine Han van Meegeren, the great master forger. As it turns out, the backdrop to the demon creature is a copy of Han van Meegeren’s most prolific pieces, namely ‘Hertje’ (or ‘Little Deer’), reproductions of which hung on the walls of thousands of Dutch homes in the 1920’s. But van Meegeren’s style was caught in the past and completely irrelevant in a world of Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism, and he was derided by the art world for his lack of originality.

At the start of the 20th century, detecting a forged painting was a fairly simple process: a swab of alcohol was wiped over the dubious canvas, a needle carefully inserted and checked for any oily residue. This would be the mark of a forgery, as an age-old canvas would be thoroughly hardened and deliver a clean needle.

Han van Meegeren bought cheap 17th century paintings to scrape off the original painting. Instead of oil, he used an early form of plastic named Bakelite to mix his pigments into paint. He would then bake his freshly painted antique canvas until the plastic fully hardened, and finished the simulated aging process by rolling the canvas and cracking its surface. Voila, instant Dutch Master!

Relatively few paintings by Johannes Vermeer have survived the ages. When in the 1930s a series of paintings began emerging from his supposed unknown religious period, they were eagerly snapped up by collectors, including the Rotterdam museum Boijmans van Beuningen, who paid what would today be more than 4,5 million Euros for Vermeer’s Supper at Emmaus. The painting, revered by art critics as Vermeer's masterpiece, was nothing more than a carefully executed van Meegeren.

Having foiled the art world that rejected him, van Meegeren lived a wealthy and lavish life all through the Second World War. But his life of decadence was disrupted when, after the end of the war, a Vermeer was found in Nazi henchman Herman Göring’s largely misappropriated art collection, and was traced back to van Meegeren, who refused to name his source. The outrage was immense: how dare he allow Dutch national treasure to fall in the hands of a Nazi? He was arrested for treason, a felony that at the time was punishable by death.

His plea to innocence was simple. He couldn’t possibly be a traitor, because the painting he had sold to Göring was not a Vermeer, but a forgery by his own hand. A sensational trial was carried out in a courtroom hung full of van Meegeren’s fakes. The art world was stupefied – how could they have been so utterly mistaken – and he was deemed to be a liar.

A space was cleared within the courthouse and fashioned into an artist’s studio where, in the presence of reporters and court officials, van Meegeren was summoned to forge his last Vermeer. This proof of innocence transformed him into a national hero, and he was championed for his trickery of the art establishment, but most of all for being the man who swindled Göring. Despite the many millions he cheated out of his customers, van Meegeren was only sentenced to a year of confinement for fraud.

As a free man, Van Meegeren passed away from a heart attack before he could begin his prison sentence, and after his death, his paintings became so desired that van Meegeren forgeries began to flood the market.

My own Hertje still hangs on my wall, covered by the market man’s inky black drawing. Is he still no longer an artist? A failed artist can become a most tragic creature, overcome by vanity, envy, and consumed by bitterness. But Han van Meegeren’s exclusion from the art world led him to what is probably the most extensive art scam ever. “But sir, I'm sure about one thing: if I die in jail they will just forget all about it. My paintings will become original Vermeers once more. I produced them not for money but for art's sake.”

"The most perfect, most versatile, most famous of American models, whose face and figure have inspired thousands of modern masterpieces of sculpture and painting."

At the turn of the 19th century, the socialite Audrey Munson, known also as Miss Manhattan, was the muse of many and the most sought after model of all New York, becoming a ubiquitous figure on canvas, tapestries and stone. Still, her likeness graces many corners of Manhattan: from the Pulitzer fountain to the Civic Fame statue atop the Manhattan Municipal building, the city's largest sculpted figure after the Statue of Liberty.

Civic Fame building, NYC

Her fame and popularity had grown so vast that during the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition, it was her image that was cast onto nearly every work shown.

In 1915, Audrey moved to New York to California to extend her career into the brand new film industry and boarded at the house of a doctor. His wife sent Audrey away when she began to suspect that the doctor had fallen in love with her. When his wife was found murdered not long later, the doctor was convicted of murder in the first degree. He hung himself before they could take him to the electric chair.

SStill from the silent film, Inspiration

After the scandal, her reputation was destroyed and her career fell flat prompting the downwards spiral into which she would descend. She blamed “powerful forces” for the disintegration of her career, and fabricated an engagement to a certain Joseph J. Stevenson. When, according to her, the non-existent Stevenson broke off their betrothal, she ingested a solution of mercury to try and end her life.

Melvin Memorial, Massachussets

Although she recovered from her suicide attempt, her mental health would continue to deteriorate and she was placed in a mental ward at 39. Here, she would reside for the next sixty-five years, and pass away in 1996 at the age of 105.

Pulitzer Fountain, NYC

The newspapers named him Giant of Rotterdam, the tallest man in the world. Rigardus Rijnhout, born in Rotterdam (1922 -1959) measured 2.38 metres and wore shoe size 63. He weighed 230 kilos.

Slippers for the Giant of Rotterdam, 1992

A pair of his brown, slightly worn shoes are laid out in the shoe museum in Waalwijk, on display for all to gawk at. The shoes are an oddity, while at the same time simply being an every day garment for an overgrown man. The Markiezenhof in Bergen op Zoom has a replica of these shoes.

Slippers for the Giant of Rotterdam

Property: Boijmans-van Beuningen

Maria Roosen made “Slippers for the giant of Rotterdam,” two soft classic house slippers with an identical right and left foot, meaning that they’re shaped through wear. “Art provides answers for issues that life cannot resolve,” says Maria Roosen. The shoes are made, that’s the size. “Maybe it’s not the human but it’s life itself that determines the size of things.” And while not everything that life offers is soft, the size of the slipper brings to mind the overgrown man and slowly conjures images of a gnarled, bulky and fatigued foot. Maria Rossen makes sure the giant’s feet stay warm.

Sculpture by Herman Lamers

In the Old West, a statue has been erected (Herman Lamers). This Giant of Rotterdam stands close to the house on the Gouvernestraat where he lived his entire life. The statue is scaled to life so that you can compare your own stature to that of Rijnhout's enormous size. We won't forget him, this giant man.

The extraordinary life of James Tiptree and Alice B. Sheldon (1915 – 1986.)

The author Julie Philips, residing in Amsterdam, won a prestigious American prize with her biography of sci-fi legend James Tiptree. His life story is hard to believe.

At the start of the seventies, the sci-fi world was mesmerised by a mysterious author. James Tiptree Jr. supposedly worked for the CIA and could therefore only communicate via an anonymous postal box. He had travelled sinister territories and knew how to use a weapon. His energetic, possessed stories of sex and death were extremely masculine while always remaining attentive to the ‘unseen’ woman. A feminist jock? A sensitive macho?

No, it turned out in 1976, when the write was at the peak of fame: James Tiptree was a woman.

In Julie Philips’ National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book, James Tiptree Jr., the Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, the mystery of Tiptree’s hidden life is unravelled. The Dutch-American biographer Philips reveals an unlikely history. Born a child to rich travellers in 1915, Sheldon travelled the darkest reaches of Africa as a young child. As a teenager, Alice ran away with a violent drunk whom she left after six years to join the newly formed female division of the army. She struggled with homosexual feelings, but all her greatest love turned out to be femme fatales, who all either went insane or died young. She became a photo analyst at the CIA, where she met her husband, Huntington (Ting) Sheldon. Together, they bought a chicken farm, upon which she decided to study psychology (bipolar career planning!) As a researcher, she was a failure. Falling into a depression, she swallowed every upper and downer she could lay her hands on. Never did she feel like she could be her true self. This idea had much to do with the dominating presence of her mother, who wrote travel stories and was a prominent member of Chicago’s high society.

From a young age, Sheldon read science fiction, a guilty pleasure for which she often felt she needed to be apologetic. However, since the war, her pulp sci-fi had undergone a great transformation. No longer were the stories about green men and scarcely clothed women undoing their bras, but they had becoming reflections on nuclear war and overpopulation. The ambitious young hounds of the New Wave added a literary sensibility to the genre. Science fiction would not only be a literature of ideas, but come to fruition both stylistically and psychologically.

It’s this climate in 1967 in which Alice Sheldon began writing science fiction under the pseudonym James Tiptree. Leading editors like Frederik Pohl and Harry Harrison saw potential in her early work. Her stories would soon start becoming more personal and grim: the expression of frustrations that Alice could not ventilate in her every day life. The joke started becoming serious. Tiptree gave meaning to Sheldon’s meaningless existence.

A number of Tiptree’s novels became classics. In “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” (1969) the protagonist flies around the world to save his love – and this becomes gradually clarified: the Earth itself – from demise. To do so, he releases a deadly disease to eradicate the whole of mankind. “The Women Men Don’t See” (1972) is a satirical story in which federal agent Don crashes into the bush with two women. He constantly wondered about their motives, until they chose alien abduction over being “cared for” by him. And in the gripping “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” (1971) we follow the sexual awakening and the progressive dying of an insect. Under a second pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon, she wrote “The Screwfly Solution” (1976,) in which alien abuse the aggression inherent in male urges, which results in the men annihilating all women in a frightening, all-natural way. Tiptree’s stories nearly always end in death and usually relate to sex in some way. Between man and woman, and between man and the “other.”

The very personal charge to Tiptree’s stories and columns would end up destroying him. It happened when Sheldon’s mother died in 1976. Someone compared a column by Tiptree describing his mother’s death next to the recent obituaries. A rumour started, claiming Tiptree was actually Alice Sheldon and lived in McLean, Virginia.

This revelation shook the small sci-fi like an earthquake. How could a woman be so well versed in the mechanics of sci-fi? Sheldon had thwarted all role patterns and through doing so, might have made a more radical feminist statement than a militant colleague like Joanna Russ ever could.

For Sheldon, the discovery was the beginning of a nightmare. She began to grow paranoid, and feared that her work was criticised more heavily because she was “just a woman.” In actuality, her work was becoming weaker because she “lost” the voice of Triptree. She saw herself as an empty shell, a failed human, a half-hearted version of the man she could be on paper. And she was growing old – unforgivably and unbearably old. This ended in a violent conclusion. On the 18th of May 1986, Sheldon first shot her husband before shooting herself. Seeing as suicide was constantly in her thoughts, she had chosen life for a long while. Now she chose death, so prominently present in her stories.

Sheldon’s life was a succession of supernovas. Philips has retold her life story with compassion and understanding. The feminist debate becomes tangible and gives us a glimpse into different worlds, poles apart: the adventurers who made the unspoiled earth their playground, the CIA’s subculture, the female division of the Second World War. But most of all: science fiction, a warm haven for “aliens” like Alice Sheldon was at the core of her being.
James Tiptree Jr. is a poignant analysis of a woman torn in tow. Her self hatred, both her love and aversion for women; her mother’s omnipresent shadow, the conflicting powers of the expectations forced upon her and her desired self-realisation, her hidden desire to be a man; Sharon spent many years wrestling “herself.” The fact that she could only be herself through Tiptree is cruel and all telling. Still, Sheldon’s story is not only a dark one. It’s also a celebration of literature’s ability to liberate. These layers combined give this biography an emotional punch. In a sense, Sheldon’s remarkable life is a gift to the biographer. Phillips recognised the value of this gift and wrote a fascinating book that makes you hope it will attract a much greater audience that the usual lovers of sci-fi.
Nain Bebe luneville
Nicolas Bebe
Nain Bebe luneville
A mini-drama was nestled within a little notice in the newspaper; a great fire had destroyed the castle of Luneville in Lotharingen, also known as the small Versailles. Its extraordinary collection of porcelain is lost, and with it, the ceramic statue of Le Nain Bébé, King Stanislas Leszcinski’s court jester. After being driven out of Poland, Stanislas was appointed Duke of Lotharingen in 1737 by his son in law, King Louis IV, who granted him the castle of Lotharingen, completed in 1723.

Le Nain Bébé, or dwarf baby, was born as Nicolas Ferry in 1741 to a family of farmers. He was twenty-five centimetres tall and weighed less than five ounces. He never grew to be taller than eighty-nine centimetres. Although not directly visible, he was most likely mentally impaired. When he was brought to court, they unsuccessfully attempted to teach him how to read and write. All he really could do was dance. They described him as being stubborn, temperamental, lazy and jealous, even ‘sensual’ and also gluttonous.

He was an enormous attraction and was treated as a living doll. A miniature castle of a metre and a half tall was built for him and was fitted with furniture scaled to suit his size. If ever he became angry, he would retreat to his castle, and when Stanislas called for him, he’d open the windows and gracefully declare, ‘tell the king that I am not in.’

He had a great intolerance for noise. When the king played backgammon, Bébé would make such a whopping fuss that the king would have no choice but to stop. He’d then set him on the table, upon which Bébé would build towers from the game pieces. He also had his own miniature carriage drawn by goats that he would tend to himself in the gardens of the palace. He also enjoyed hiding under the skirts of the ladies of court, which is very likely what granted him the description of being ‘sensual.’ I believe that, because he was considered a non-person, he overheard much of the gossip, which allowed him to act as a spy for the king. Poor Bébé. He was a plaything for the nobility.

Empress Elizabeth of Russia once even tried to steal Bébé by sending an envoy. The Duchess of Humniecka, who was related to Stanislas, visited the palace in 1757 when Bébé was eighteen years old. Accompanying her was a twenty-two year old Polish dwarf who called himself Boruslawski with whom she travelled on her visits to the royal houses of Europe. He was exceptionally well developed and could even speak three languages. He ‘beamed with youth and vitality,’ while Bébé was already aging visibly. Boruslawski, who was only seventy-five centimetres tall, apologised to Bébé for being smaller than him. Bébé explained that he had been ill and had grown because of it! He was so jealous of the Pole that he tried to throw him into the fireplace (the Polish dwarf, by the way, lived to be ninety-eight years old and married a woman of normal posture at forty with whom he had four children).

Bébé rapidly declined during the last years of his life. While he was withering away, a suitable wife was found for him: Therese Vouvray, ninety centimetres tall. However, before the engagement could commence, Bébé fell terminally ill. Stanislas sent for his mother and Bébé died in her arms at twenty-two years of age on June 9th, 1764. Despite being distraught by Bébé’s death, Stanislas allowed his Swedish doctor to dissect the body from top to bottom. His skeleton was sent in a glass casing to the museum of natural history in Paris, where it still resides to this day. Even in death, the little man was poked and prodded.

Not all mementos to the little court jester are lost. His portrait hangs in the historical museum of Nancy, where he is depicted wearing a magnificent blue uniform adorned with trestles. He stares back at us with a look of defiance, while his right hand rests on the head of a large dog. In the case next to the painting, various pieces of his now deteriorating little shoes and little clothes are on display.