241 Things

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

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 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.”

'Erstarrte Unruhe' publication
age from 'Geometrisches Porträt'
'Erstarrte Unruhe' publication

Besides stencilling, Özlem Altin mainly uses the copy machine to make her booklets, which occupy a middle ground between Zines and artist’s publications. In issues such as The Primitive Mentality and Zig Zag Lady, existing reproductions are freely reproduced – from wondrous photos and drawings out of various illustrated books on primitive art and art of the mentally ill, to illustrations from anthropological or biological treatises. These images are intuitively juxtaposed to create surprising visual contrasts. Any new meanings that emerge as a result are open to the viewer’s interpretation. The booklets that Altin produces frequently (making them is like breathing to her) appear in very small editions (approx. 80-150) and are sold for little more than the cost to make them. What is important is that they exist, not that they are lucrative.

'Erstarrte Unruhe' publication
Özlem Altin, 'Survival of an Idea'
Image from 'Geometrisches Porträt'
Image from 'Geometrisches Porträt'
age from 'Geometrisches Porträt'
Image from 'Geometrisches Porträt'

Özlem Altin

Orientpress

The camera obscura is a strange and almost magical natural phenomenon where an image is created by simply passing light through a small hole into a darkened space. Where the light is cast, an image of the outside world is projected in full colour, upside down, but with all sense of depth and perspective preserved. In the summer of 2013, Teun Verheij transformed his student room into a giant camera obscura:

In the morning, I'm sitting amidst cartoonish clouds that languidly crawl over the floor. It is surprisingly light, and silent now that the fire alarm has stopped wreaking havoc. The agricultural plastic gathers all the street's heat and focalises it, bundles it into a straight, narrow beam that makes a small hot sun in between the clouds. No wind can find me here, only its shadow, which makes the leaves quiver on the trees that hang from a concrete sky. As a consequence, I have been cooking alive now for weeks but it is worth it- I love the big yellow van that is patrolling my ceiling as we speak, the playing children, the bikers looking unbearably fragile- but no fancy pictures for your hungry eyes, because with a long exposure time anyone can make it look like quite something. It is a form of cheating, exhilarating and rewarding but ultimately unsatisfying. Photographing inside is like brain-scanning a square-skulled cyclops, or taking a picture within a picture.

Instead, stay there a while, sleep in there, wake up in there. It is like living in a theatre alone while ghosts of the outside world perform their daily haunting play, oblivious to you. Yet it is completely unlike hidden cameras or spying - what you are watching is already recycled, already filtered by the one eye before you see it. It covers up more secrets than it cares to disclose.

The camera obscura is a philosophical can of worms, yet the usual suspects of comparison (Plato's cave, the Cartesian theatre, psychoanalytical and feminist accounts of the Male Gaze, even surveillance theory's wilder excursions, let alone the entire shelves written on the more ''obscure" aspect of photography) make me feel nauseous even thinking about them. What's more, I think they miss the point somehow. The magic of the camera obscura is hardly the stuff of books, yet it isn't mere optics either.

I can see a seagull lost in the area between the couch and the bookshelves, and I think of nothing at all.

Grand Tour souvenir: painting of vulcano
Grand Tour souvenir, small items
Grand Tour souvenir: painting of vulcano

The Grand Tour, a journey to discover the classics, the arts, and social conduct, was exceptionally popular with the British upper class. When in the 18th century, Oxford and Cambridge lost much of their esteem many aristocrats decided to send their post-Eton sons off to explore the world instead. Their accrued knowledge and life experience would prepare young men – and from the 19th century onwards, women too – for key positions in society. Most travellers were younger than twenty, no more than boys for whom sowing their wild oats was implicit on their journey: the first lessons in love and gambling learnt.

Paris, and especially Italy, were the most important destinations on the Grand Tour. Travelling was time consuming and programmes were filled to the brim. Usually, the Grand Tourist’s voyage would last anywhere from six months to two years. The Venice carnival, Easter in Rome, an erupting Vesuvius had all to be seen and taken in.

To ensure the Tour’s success, the young traveller was assigned a bear leader (chaperone.) This would often be a man who knew their destination well and would show the little lord his way. Depending on the budget and the duration of the voyage, the Tourist might have been escorted by one or more chamberlains and a coachman. Many travellers hired a local to make sure that there would be at least one member of the party who could make himself understandable. The family’s foreign relations, local guides, or antiques dealers provided tours and introductions.

The Grand Tourist found himself in an endless stream of site seeing; too much, perhaps, to remember upon his return home. For this reason, most travellers wrote letters home or kept a travel log.

Of course, souvenirs that served as tangible memories of the trip were acquired along the way. Sometimes these would be original antiquities, other times the Grand Tourist would buy (scale) models of artworks, architectural structures, monuments, sculptures in bronze or marble, prints, drawings, paintings, and so-called dactyliothecae, made especially for this purpose.

The souvenirs gave status to their owners, acted as ‘conversation pieces’ during dinners with relations, friends, family members, and illustrated the Tourist’s gained knowledge and experience. Ultimately, they were used in art education and had a great deal of influence on the development of art and architecture. Every important art academy in the 19th century owned a collection of plaster sculptures, cast from famous sculptures from antiquity.

Grand Tour Souvenir: Hercules Farnese
Grand Tour Souvenir: sculpture
Grand Tour Souvenir: model of a temple