THE EXOTIC REVISITED

One may remember those days, when excited painters and poets were wandering the earth to look for what was non-Western, non-Bourgeois – the Wild and Weird Walks of Life.

 

Exotism it was – the search for the exotic – hunting for a different light on things, both painterly as well as perspectival. Thus, to be sure, in order that they would indeed find the unknown, French artists like Fromentin and Delacroix called the North-West parts of Africa the Orient. Instead of exotism, my word for it, their attitude was called orientalism, practiced as it was in the middle of the 19th century.

 

Fromentin went to North-Africa, to confront the Radically Different, whether in women, in landscapes or in clothes. In his Une année dans le Sahel he described, with a sense of admiration and awe, the black females he saw. That strange race – a species of its own, with a masculine footfall, during the day a pack donkey, woman in the night, with that robust riches of shapes, their large, immodest bodies with lots of breast, a long torso and an enormous belly. Beautiful – but disgusting. Fromentin doesn’t give one the impression to ever have touched even one of them, something his admirer Baudelaire quite often did in the middle of Paris, mating his black maîtressse Duval, though indeed with on his hands white gloves.

 

Fromentin was looking for the special oriental light and the landscapes drowned in it. In another of his other books, Un été dans le Sahara, written in 1853, he informs his reader that, while travelling the North-African desert, he wanted to achieve a symbiosis between traveller, voyage and landscape. Its nakedness attracts me. The very words that end his book – Land of Thirst – form also the title of his most famous desert painting. His Orientalist’s arid and sandy waste land was filled with what the painter experienced as a blinding light, blotting out all colour. The result was a series of paintings, all displaying a pastel serenity, as it were seen through eyelashes half-shut.

 

Whereas Fromentin seems to have painted what he saw, his brother in arts Delacroix wanted the real confrontation with the violent and the outrageous. Yet, many of his works show us lions which he must have invented, as no large lions were to be found in the Moroccan deserts. His examples mat very well have been seen in Northern-European zoos.

Delacroix: Lion Hunt

 

Or worse than a hunt, lions eating either the horses Arabs had been riding or the Arabs that had been brought down from them.

Delacroix: Lion eating an Arab horse

 

Delacroix: Lion eating an Arab

 

How extraordinary it was, when walking my favourite Dutch English Park Elswout, situated just outside Haarlem town, on the edge of the dunes that separate us from the North Sea, to be confronted with three enormous lions and a white panther. As if the anti-aristocratic, undisciplined wildness sought for in that kind of park had been suddenly realized, ready to burst out into the woods.

 

Orientalism revisited, the Exotic live! Inside the old 17th-century coach house, belonging to what had once been a grand old House, the sculptor Chris Tap has created his atelier, on bright days rolling out the trolleys on which – like a true Delacroix – he is inventing his Lions in the Dutch Dunes.

 

Sierksma, Montmorillon 6.4/2020

 

DEATH, THE DETECTIVE

Descending the Mont Blanc, out of the blue I decide to once again visit Nantua. It is in a different direction from what I had in mind, yesterday, but then again this whole journey I have travelled off hand, casting an imaginary die, urged by intuition and vague pointers which I did not even notice at the time. Nantua it shall be. One motive for this decision, looming large in the spectre of fate, is of course my very own Nantua history. I shall be going there once again, to visit a Saint.

 

Way back in the 20th century, before we started our garden tour through France, my colleague and I had been using the telephone a lot. Besides the English Gardens in France, our common field of study, I was personally interested in the Orientalists, French painters from the first half of the 19th century who considered the Maghreb of North-Africa to be “the Orient” and went out there to paint the dessert and its colourful inhabitants. Fromentin, amongst others, also wrote a delightful  little tome titled Pays de la Soif – the land of thirst, also the title of one of his Orientalist desert paintings. However, Delacroix was my favourite.

 

One of the institutions we contacted was the Museum of Lille. I had learned that they owned his Medea, the savage woman, married to a civilised Greek prince who, of course, deceived her. She then took revenge by killing his children.

 

Indeed, it is in our possession; alas, this moment it is not to be seen. No idea where it is now…  What the fuck is going on? Had the whole of Lille been hit by the mills of that urbanist fool of a Rem Koolhaas who, as an ‘urbanist’, had ‘intervened’ in the town’s ‘urban structure’ because of EuroLille, the city being chosen as Cultural Capital of Europe for that year? And, hell, which museum has staff not knowing where its top pieces have disappeared to? In Paris, in the Louvre, we looked for his other great paintings. Again, two of them were not shown, for whatever reasons. The detection of Delacroix!

 

Surprised we were indeed when a day later, in the Grand Palais, awesome Medea had been waiting for us all that time. Like the lines in The Gardener and Death, the poem by the Dutchman P. N. van Eyck, in which Death awaits anyone where He wants and when He wants. With a smile Death answered:

 

No threat it was,

That made your gardener flee. I was surprised,

When in the morning, here, I saw him still at work,

The man I had to snatch that evening in far Ispahaan.

 

Paris it was – my Ispahaan.

Delacoix’s Nemesis – His writing on the wall.

 

There must be a sweet something between me and the Frenchman’s paintings. This was not the first time that something went wrong while looking for one of them. It must be unanswered love, what else! Years before this, after visiting the Alps and Geneve my wife and I had been descending the steep Jura mountain slopes surrounding Nantua, a gorgeous little town bordering on a lake with steep high-rise, like huge arms embracing its waters.

 

According to our travel guide, there should be hanging a real Delacroix in the small St. Michel Abbatiale, a  basilica dating from the 12th century. An incredible idea, almost of an Italian idiocy. Where else in the world but in Rome could I find real Caravaggio’s hanging on church walls! Anywhere else, such art treasures are only to be seen in a museum. Not so in Italy, not so in French Nantua.

 

What a disgrace, what disappointment; the building was in a deplorable condition, rain seeping in on wet walls, once beautiful stones now grey and dirty. According to that guide, the Saint-Sébastien of my great Orientalist should be hanging on the left at the back of the church. What we did find, in a dark grotto-like, dirty transept, was a set of some five rectangle packages, bundled up in heavy plastic, hanging against one another at a ridiculous angle, moist and dirty like the basilica itself. ‘I say’ – I said to my wife – ‘my head under the Guillotine, if one of these is not what we came looking for…

 

This hurt, not only because of the derelict situation we were now in ourselves, but also because there was no way to see the painting. One is ‘not a voyeur, after all, one does not peek into such contraband. Nobody around to register a complaint.  Leaving Nantua, I was not even sure whether my Delacroix had been one in that sorry lot. To gather my spirits again, I decided then and there that his Saint-Sébastien must have travelled to Paris, to have some place of honour in an exhibition. I just could not live with the idea that such a masterpiece would hang there, rotting against a wet church wall.

 

Four years later, in the summer,  again we were in the Jura Mountains, in eastern France, and I could not resist the strong urge to once again visit Nantua. By Jove, the basilica had been restored, this not all too badly. Entering the building that evening at four o’clock, surprisingly there was a marriage being celebrated. Tiptoeing, so as not to disturb the high hopes of the couple and their guests, I slowly approached the transept where we had previously found those plastic covered canvasses. As a result  of the marriage and the present condition of the basilica I had become an optimist.

 

Nowhere a Saint-Sébastien to be found. While inspecting the walls, behind me I heard the couple phrasing their words of consent; this did not apply to my quest for the Delacroix.

 

We had decided to camp nearby and two days later we spent an evening in town. There was some feast going on in the park at the lake, it might even have been the Quatorze Juillet. A man behind the bar, himself  already quite drunk on the stuff he sold, poured us two beer glasses full of the best wine available, and we had to pay for this as if it were beer, a wink in the bargain. As always on such occasions in France, the music was deplorably bad, the crowd began to get on my nerves. We decided to go to the water’s edge. On the way to peace and quiet, I observed two young women closing up their little kiosk. Tourisme de Nantua was written on it. I decided to risk it just that once again to ask about my Delacroix.

 

Did they know of the existence of the painting by Delacroix, which supposedly belonged to Nantua? If so, what had happened to it? Sure enough! They gave me a little folder, in it a stark coloured copy of the painting which I had not seen for a long time. Plus the announcement that it could be admired in the basilica. I told them that, two days ago, we had searched in vain. Nonsense! The canvas was really hanging there, to be found at the back of the church. Was the church still open at this hour? Certainly!

 

Immediately we went back into the town again.  And again I inspected the transept. Esther walked on, suddenly crying out in the hollow silence of the building that she had found it. Up there in the Choir, some five meters high, a place of hanging probably chosen because of possible theft, there he was: Sebastian! The Gospel realised. Verily, I thee tell, the good Saint has been resurrected!

 

While that wedding had been celebrated, two days before, I could never have spotted the canvas without disturbing the ceremony. It was also not the place which was indicated in my old travel guide. So, I had been wrong-footed aesthetically.

 

At last, a Saint-Sébastien who does not appeal to the male-loving part of humanity by hanging, contrapposto, languidly against a tree, his body delicately sieved by arrows of precisely the right kind of plumage, hitting him like a saint in a painting should be. This poor man, by contrast, is lying against the trunk of a tree, obviously suffering, in pain, perhaps already unconscious, only hit by a mere four arrows who seem to have done the job.

 

One of the two women, with a beautiful, attentive  face, robed in black and with a black cape, is bending over our hero, trying to take out the arrow stuck in his left shoulder. She will save him, as the legend goes, only to see him clubbed to death later on… The second woman – tall, and bleached like only a Delacroix could bleach his women, like that dead beauty lying on her belly in the master’s great  canvas The Death of Sardanapalus  – looks backwards, down into the valley where we see the perpetrators disappear. She is hiding something under her red cape, un je ne sais quoi…

 

There it was hanging, in all it colourist’s splendour, always overlooking the ceremonies going on down there in the basilica. Yet, hold on! I move around a little, almost sitting on the abbot’s throne; from this angle, all of a sudden the painting is struck by a late afternoon’s sun, falling through very old Romanesque windows. The light hits its surface in a very peculiar manner. There seems to be a dark hole in it, if not a black pit in the middle of the canvas, in the area where the woman is bending over the saint.  I was reminded of Edgar Allen Poe. Something appears to have been fucked up. I am shocked; they have restored the painting disgracefully, it somehow is ravished like the saint himself. They have murdered my Delacroix.

 

Then I remember something serious. This painting dates from 1838, the very period in which artists were trying to trick history by mixing their browns and blacks with a shot of tar, thus trying to achieve a Rembrandtesque effect after a few years when that paint  began to show a gorgeous ‘old’ craquelure. Only decades later, their immense mistake could be observed. The tarred pigment on all of these paintings started to slide down, as a woman of pleasure may letting her skirt down – which in the case of the woman on Saint-Sébastien is doubly true.

 

Delacroix also fell for this ruse. His painting suffers from a dark hole, part of the surface not shining properly, mat and dead. Someone has scraped away the tarred paint. In Nantua’s basilica, in a curious way, there are now hanging two paintings instead of one. Depending on one’s point of view, there is Saint-Sébastien no. I, in all its Delcroix-splendour; an Abbot, however, sitting on his throne, is condemned to see Saint-Sébastien no. II, with that black, mat hole in it, as if not only arrows hit the poor Saint, but a mortar shell has struck the hole painting right in its centre.

 

Thus, once more Death was awaiting me in Nantua. This time not in the appearance of humidity killing paintings against a wet basilica wall, but in the person of a restorer who took out the arrow from Delacroix’ Saint-Sébastien, leaving it bleeding dark blood. After all those years I had finally found my Delacroix – and I did not.

 

A week ago, having climbed my Mont Blanc and this time with my own death lurking inside, I decided to return to Nantua and see what I still consider to be my Delacroix. Taking a few wrong turns, I yet managed to arrive in the town, straight away going to the small square with the basilica. Outside were standing four men, the kind of men fate has chosen to be the Professionals of Death, always dressed in black, their faces dutifully sad and impressed. Inside a Requiem Mass was celebrated by a small crowd, not a cheerful marriage ceremony like so many years ago.

 

Quietly, again, I moved along the outer aisle trying not to disturb the proceedings, aiming for the spot from which I now knew I could peek at Saint-Sébastien, high-up on the wall of the choir. No painting to be seen! As low in spirit now as the mourners, I left the building and asked one of  the undertaker’s men if they knew anything about the canvas. Yes, sir, it is hanging above the entrance on the inside. Back in the basilica, of course, there was no painting hanging above the entrance, there never is.

 

Deciding to make the most of it, I drove my car to the borders of the lake and ate a waffle sprinkled with a shot of Cointreau. When I turned around to go to my car and leave town, I saw a rather delicate little Modern, if not Post-Modern building with the lettering Office de Tourisme.

 

Inside, the women who ‘received’ me reminded of the undertaker’s men, all coming from the same mould wherever you enter such an Office. By now, I had enough experience to risk a generalisation: a little bit cultural, a little bit provincial, a little bit chic, a little bit coquettish. Uniformed types. Yes, indeed, it is still our Delacroix, but, alas, it has been ‘lent to New York’. The young lady could not tell me to which museum, I would bet on the MOMA.

 

Damn you, Mr. Delacroix. You have become just too famous; wherever I seek thee, I am confronted with your works having exited to somewhere spectacular.

 

Sierksma, written while listening to Reich’s Desert Music,

La Roche 24.9/2018

RUMP

Porn versus eroticism. It remains one of the intriguing themes of aesthetics, after all the field of philosophy in which questions are asked about the possibility of a discussion about an art work’s quality and the criteria to be used.

My suggestion for such a ‘measure’: Involved distance.

If ‘involved distance’ is at stake in a work of art, then the observer’s loses all ‘lust’ in the nudity he is being exposed to. At that moment the nude is an artistic portrayal which dominates his gaze. It is ‘art’ that he now studies – a nude, not someone naked.

Sine ira et studio, albeit with in the background a consciousness of his real lust that is related to the ‘object’ depicted. After all, one is a Mensch.

 

dscf3830

 

Recently I emigrated this drawing from the ancestral home which, by now, has been abandoned by my mother. The painter and psychiatrist J.H. Plokker once made it during his studies at The Art Academy. That context per se more or less guarantees an image that is aloof.

Both the artist who sketched her – having pulled up his chair to sit in the circle of his fellow students around what must have been a beautiful woman – and those who much later are observing the drawing, are well aware that it was a ‘model’ that is portrayed.

A neutral model, which these academy students were allowed only to watch. Their student’s clinical eye vouched for the accuracy of what would also become a clinical drawing. After all, they were given marks for it. So it was not a model like the many women with whom – after the work was done – the painter Delacroix said to have ‘tinkered’ regularly. Something you may indeed recognize in those gorgeous women in his paintings.

 

566d911a0cc0cf220bac1108097ec2a5

 

Perhaps Delacroix also gave these models marks, both as a model and as his bed mate. He may even have given marks to himself for sexual energy – his Journal is radiating smugness whenever he is reporting his little escapades.

Delacroix was indeed a great painter, though, evidenced by the fact that despite his carnal involvement with his models, precisely at the moment of depicting them he could simply forget his cock and use only his eyes to navigate brush and paint.

 

eugenedelacroix_thedeathofsardanapalus-detail

 

Curiously nonetheless: one’s gaze seems to become hornier when it begins to concentrate on the particulars of such an image. Each person has his or her fetishes, those details for which the eye is always on the look out, even in an image that shows you a nude in toto. That fetish detail then tends to become… naked.

Yet, even while zooming in on such details an aesthetic eye remains a possibility, now however the ‘arty’ gaze is seriously in need of self-control.

Plokker’s rump in detail:

 

dscf3939

 

Once the painter had escaped the shackles of The Academy, there arose brilliant watercolours, usually typified by that ‘involved distance’. Unmistakably the artist must have had deep feelings for what he portrayed, at the same time however managing to catch what he had in view in a clear objectivity.

 

dscf1762

 

Observe how he managed to express an almost carnal adoration of light and shade – a love shared with most painters. Yet, at the same time, he is playing a clinical little game with the eye of the beholder.

The first impression here is one of a world out of joint, walls and gates faltering and skewed. Only after some study you find that those delicate shadows have tripped your senses, they show you something that is not there. The little town is indeed ‘in steady state’.

Plokker at his best may be seen in this oil painting of an Indian on horseback, the animal standing in a freezing cold night with snow on the ground, the man his keen eye searching for something in the distance – perhaps a prey.

 

dscf3930

 

Girly puppy love for horses – their first lust of the flesh. Maybe she ‘sees’ the horse’s cheeks, but far more so her prince on top of it and that sweet animal’s face with the beautiful eyes. To overcome her confusion, the girl will focus on brushing the horse’s manes and hide. As if it is her own hair with which she is, daily, also occupied for such a long time.

We adults see in Plokker’s horse first of all his art, consisting in the suggestion of a real horse’s body which, with brush and paint, he made appear so well that you want to stroke its ass. So well, that you can almost feel the breath, steaming in the cold air, caress your cheek.

The detail:

 

dscf3934

 

Admittedly Plokker’s horse ass cannot compare with the beautiful black rump of his black model, at least not in my eyes. But, then, I’m not a bestialist.

And also admittedly: Sometimes, while observing her curves on that drawing I tend to lose sight of ars longa, surrendering myself to vita brevis.

Sierksma, January 2017

FRISIAN EXOTICISM

Speech for the presentation of my book Nestgeur – read by an atheist from the pulpit of an age-old little terp church in Blessum, Friesland, eye to eye with a hall full of Frisians, proud of being it.

FRISIAN EXOTICISM

Beine hat uns zwei gegeben,
Gott der Herr, um fortzustreben,
Wollte nicht, dass and der Scholle
Unsre Menschheit kleben solle.
Um ein Stillstandsknecht zu sein,
Gnügte uns ein einzges Bein.

Heine, Zur Teleologie

¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬__________________________

I would like to present you my collection of little essays Nestgeur with a little speech that I baptized ‘Frisian Exoticism’. The title will be explained.

In a distant past – as gray as my remaining hair is gray now – my parents emigrated from northern Friesland to The West – from Groningen to Leyden, where my father began his university career. They took me with them. Already before this, when I was only a year old, we departed from the Frisian capital Leeuwarden to Groningen City – incremental betrayal as it were…

Perhaps, such forced emigration at the age of seven turned you into a marginal man – someone living on edge, dancing to the tunes of two contrasting cultures, always torn by discord and in quest of a way of life that might glue the shards.

It is a bit like the transvestite living in the beautiful Proveniershof in Haarlem. Always dressed in a long outfit plus matching blouse, he plants one leg, sometimes merely a foot, outside the gate of the courtyard where he lives, skirting the limits of the busy street. This man/woman plants the other leg firmly on familiar soil – like Rumpelstiltskin almost risking a split. Sometimes he bends over, a stretched arm holding on to the steel porch. A daredevil.

A marginal man soon becomes a sensitive plant, a ‘Touch-me-not’. Or for that matter a shaman or a ruthless warrior. His fate lies in the hands of disunity. As a schoolboy of thirteen I translated voluntarily an essay by Pascal, Différence entre l’esprit de géométrie et l’esprit de finesse. No idea why and without understanding all too much of it. The teacher looked surprised, so was I.

When in those years there were guests at our house, they often spoke Frisian, a language that I would never learn. From social idealism my parents left me free to become a Groninger street urchin. Upon arrival in Leyden I spoke a heartbreaking dialect, not even a dog that understood me.

Frisian by birth, Groninger through early childhood, Leyden did not feel like homecoming. As Makine described it in his French Testament: “She handed down her French sensibility to me, a Russian, and thus condemned me to live in an unpleasant manner between two worlds.”

One might say that in the West I was nothing – a non-entity, an empty sea between strange continents. The other pupils at the new school did not fail to rub it in. In schoolyards I made minced meat of classmates. For a long time I felt a strong urge to fight all of them, which indeed I did with both fists. Teachers did separate me from victims just in time…

Was my father a ‘first generation’ marginal man, I was ‘second generation’. Perhaps this explains why I call him an exoticist and myself a cultural renegade. Let me explain.

Exoticism is the difficult to define preference for what is dissimilar, distant and strange – also the expression of a desire to be different from what one is, perhaps more pure, more beautiful.

The word exotic has its roots in the Greek notion of exootikos. For nineteenth-century Romantics to be exotic implied an aesthetic attitude. They searched for the unknown, for the unfamiliar couleur local with which they larded their paintings and books.

Delacroix
Delacroix

Colonials who, from the beginning of the 19th century, locally administered newly occupied areas, were not all too fond of this alien world. They complained bitterly about incest, stubbornness and laziness of the nations they dominated. A non-commissioned officer of the British navy reported on the occupants of one of the Gulf territories: “As to their manners – they do not have them. Regarding their habits – they are very brutal.” Occasionally, a wild native was shipped to Europe and exhibited there in a cage.

This abject colonialism did not prevent ‘Romantic’ artists from embracing their own more idyllic exoticism, artists may even have been critically inspired by that petty bourgeois attitude. They explicitly celebrated the foreign as extra nice – as much more original than their own world. Clothing played an important role in this appreciation. In the middle of Switzerland J.J. Rousseau, an 18th-century forerunner of the Romanticists, dressed up in a caftan. The Romantic painter Delacroix traveled to Morocco and deplored how Westerners “constrict themselves in corsets, in very tight footwear and in tubular garments.”

Such 19th-century Romantic poets and artists had little use for the factories and railways which at that time began to destroy their own European landscape and their old towns. In 1844 Wordsworth wrote a poem in which he stated that English soil is no longer safe from sudden attacks by trains.

Is then no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault? Schemes of retirement sown
In youth, and ‘mid the busy world kept pure
As when their earliest flowers of hope were blown,
Must perish;—how can they this blight endure?

Voilá, so much about exoticism – and Romanticism for that matter!

*

My audience can imagine how an emigrant forced to leave – not a traveler for aesthetic pleasure, rather an exile who had to leave the native land to get work somewhere else – may over time fall in love with the former fatherland which first has become a stranger to him. Such person was my father, Fokke Sierksma – more and more he began to suffer from such exoticism in reverse.

While I was living for two years in America, my father towards what turned out to be the end of his life wrote me sentimental letters about the Frisian countryside and on how he helped give birth to a calf. In reply I blamed his ‘Frisianism’ and his ‘peasant mysticism’ – both made of the purest Wadden Water, that small sea above our part of the Netherlands.

In Holland having strayed from The Source, he became more Frisian than when he was still living there. The atheist he was, he looked like a silly Calvinist in Dutch colonies like the one in Michigan State USA. They are more Catholic than the Pope.

A second generation immigrant, I mirrored his curious exoticism. This made of me a cultural renegade. Whatever my father embraced in Friesland, on the rebound became anathema for me. Heroically I tried to be a Westerner. However, as that New Earth out there was not exactly pleasant, I never felt at home anywhere – not even in my father’s house.

Thus I withdrew into myself.

Acquaintances spoke of my sharp tongue. When much later I went on to play for intellectual my often harsh criticism of almost anything was in direct line with this homelessness. By now, having grown older, my look on things may have become somewhat milder, perhaps it is not less sharp.

*

Some years ago a befriended art historian and I made a visit to Leeuwarden where I was born. We went there to see the paintings of an for us unknown Frisian painter: Bouke van der Sloot. During the trip we made many a quip about Frisian identity. The art historian’s wife also stems from these regions.

Frisians are reliable and adhere to honesty – I suggested. My travelling companion found them particularly blunt, irascible and occasionally sentimental, however, in a dry way sometimes ironic. Because we decided that such characteristics are not mutually exclusive, we concluded that perhaps Frisians are reliable, honest, blunt, irascible, dry, ironic and sentimental.

This exchange prepared us for the exhibition of Bouke’s work, according to the catalogue ‘Painter of Friesland.

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Thank God I’m neither a connoisseur nor an art historian – a lover at most. Shamelessly I allow myself the straightforward expression of what I think of art. “What a mess!” I whispered a little too hard. “Only the three still lives and these two dune-scapes are not bad. The rest is just bad painting.”

A room further we stood face to face with some young guys’ heads – “tough and hard, yet sensitive” the Dutch and gay writer Gerard Reve could call them. In the background: Really Frisian-looking fields and farmsteads. Close by I saw a horribly painted village.

S_bouke_van_der_sloot

“Rather too much Zeitgeist” I mumbled, “Maybe not Blut und Boden, but at least Boden.” Some of the works would not have been out of place in a German exhibition Entartete Kunst. Curiously enough, the most Aryan-looking canvas was signed in 1942, during the war.

However, Van der Sloot was still ‘pretty good’, or rather ‘not fault’ as Dutchmen judge people’s behavior during the war – so many grades of collaboration. Immediately after the war he went to Cologne where, by way of Widergutmachung (reconciliation), the work of Max Beckmann was exhibited. Bouke was a blasphemer, his mouth full of “Damn, how beautiful! Jesus Christ, what great!”

Screaming with excited enthusiasm he walked through room after room with Beckmanns. When he entered a hall in which a “typical German woman”, as he called her, was explaining in a gnawing manner some of the canvasses to a group of art lovers, Bouke walked past, turned and shouted “Sieg Heil”, his arm stretched. The ‘Painter of Friesland’ was harshly removed from the museum.

Why I put Bouke van der Sloot on my little stage? To make clear how unclear is everything to do with ‘identity’. You are part of the time in which you live – so was Bouke, part of the history between the World Wars. You can see this in his work.

There are however also contradictory versions of that Zeitgeist. You can be a Blut und Boden right-winger, yet there is also a little left-wing version of soil and blood. Bouke may indeed be considered a little on the left, perhaps as many an artist is an anarchist. However – now I come to my point – one does not forget all that easily the accusation, made by the family Vaatstra against immigrant asylum seekers, of the murder of their girl Marianne. The murderer turned out to be a full blooded Frisian farmer, a neighbor. Frisians tend to be a little ‘in crowd’ minded when it comes to the point.

Someone who does not know me will undoubtedly find something in me of these Frisian roots, even though I do not recognize them myself and even though I do not like them. Yet, my renegadism can certainly not have destroyed them.

You can now imagine how special it was for me – that is, after Goasse Brouwer agreed to publish my Nestgeur – to sign the contract entirely made up in the Frisian language, that is without having understood most of it. Perhaps this silly man, your speaker, ignorantly donated all his physical and intellectual property to his Utjouwerij (Frisian for publishing house…)

It was also rather a shock to my Dutch friends to receive an invitation for this afternoon, entirely phrased in Frisian, incomprehensible to them.

*
That much is certain. A marginal man is probably a better observer than someone who coincides with his so-called ‘identity’.

A marginal man never suffers from provincialism. Exactly that is the risk of the instinctive resident.

Maybe marginality sharpens the pen.

BEKIJK OOK MIJN NEDERLANDSE DAGBLOG –sierksma.wordpress.com

Sierksma, Haarlem March 2013

FRIES EXOTISME

 

Nestgeur 33 [slot]

Voordracht gehouden in het kerkje van Blessum, even buiten Leeuwarden waar ik ooit werd geboren – bij de presentatie van Nestgeur, notities van een verdwaalde Fries [2013]
_______

Beine hat uns zwei gegeben,
Gott der Herr, um fortzustreben,
Wollte nicht, dass and der Scholle
Unsre Menschheit kleben solle.
Um ein Stillstandsknecht zu sein,
Gnügte uns ein einzges Bein.

Heine, Zur Teleologie

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Graag wil ik U bij deze presentatie van mijn bundel even onderhouden met wat kanttekeningen die ik maar ‘Fries Exotisme’ heb gedoopt. Deze uitdrukking wordt in het volgende verduidelijkt.

In een grijs verleden – even grijs als mijn resterende haar intussen grauw is – emigreerden mijn ouders uit het Friese Noorden naar Hollands Westen. En ik met hen. Daarvóór al waren ze, toen ik een jaar oud was, vanuit Leeuwarden naar de stad Groningen vertrokken.

Zeg maar – stapsgewijs verraad…

Wellicht maakte deze – op zevenjarige leeftijd – geforceerde emigratie van mij een marginal man, een mens op de rand. Iemand, die danst op de contrasterende schijven van twee culturen, verscheurd door tweespalt en voortdurend opzoek naar een levenswijze die zijn scherven kan lijmen.

Een beetje, zoals de travestiet uit de fraaie Proveniershof in Haarlem. Gekleed in een lange jurk plus een bijpassend bloesje staat hij elke dag opnieuw met één been, soms slechts met een voet, buiten de poort van het hofje waarin hij woont.

Zijn andere been plant de manvrouw stevig op het vertrouwde erf – welhaast met het risico van een spagaat. Vaak ook houdt hij zich met gestrekte arm net even vast aan het poorthek. Een durfal.

Een marginaal mens wordt al gauw ‘een kruidje roer me niet’. Of een sjamaan, of een meedogenloos krijger.

Zijn lot ligt in handen der verscheurdheid. Op mijn dertiende vertaalde ik als gymnasiast eigener beweging een essay van Pascal – zonder er al te veel van te begrijpen. De leraar keek bij inlevering verbaasd op. Op schoolpleinen maakte ik gehakt van klasgenoten.

Wanneer er gasten waren, klonk thuis regelmatig het Fries in de oren. Die taal zou ik nooit leren. Uit sociaal idealisme lieten mijn ouders me verworden tot een Gronings straatschoffie. Bij aankomst in Leiden sprak ik hartverscheurend plat. Geen hond die me begreep.

Fries door geboorte en Gronings door een vroege jeugd, voelde ik me waar ik terecht kwam niet thuis.

Zoals Makine het in zijn Franse Testament beschreef: ‘Zij had haar Franse gevoeligheid doorgegeven aan mij, een Rus, en me er zo toe veroordeeld op een onaangename manier tussen twee werelden te moeten leven’.

Je kunt ook zeggen: in het Westen was ik niks – een non-entity, een lege zee tussen voor mij vreemde continenten. Schoolgenoten lieten niet na me dit in te peperen. Lang voelde ik de noodzaak me ‘in te moeten vechten’. Iets dat ik lange tijd met beide vuisten metterdaad deed.

Was mijn vader ‘eerste generatie’ marginal man, ik was ‘tweede generatie’. Misschien werd hij daarom wel een exotist – ik veeleer een culturele renegaat. Laat ik het uitleggen.

Exotisme is de lastig te omschrijven voorkeur voor het andere, het verre en het vreemde – uitdrukking van een verlangen anders te zijn dan degene die men is, zuiverder en fraaier.

Het woord komt van het Griekse ‘exootikos’ dat uitheems betekent. Voor negentiende-eeuwse Romantici was het een esthetische levenshouding. Ze zochten naar een onbekende, niet vertrouwde couleur locale, waarmee zij hun schilderijen en boeken konden larderen.

Kolonialen, die vanaf het begin van de 19e eeuw de nieuwe gebieden ter plaatse beheerden, hadden met die andere, vreemde wereld weinig op. Ze klaagden steen en been over incest, koppigheid en luiheid van de door hen overheerste volkeren.

Een onderofficier van de Britse marine berichtte over de bewoners van een Golfstaatje: ‘Wat betreft hun manieren – die hebben ze niet. Wat betreft hun gewoonten – die zijn zeer beestachtig’. Af en toe werd een wilde inboorling naar Europa verscheept en er, soms in een kooi, tentoongesteld.

Dit weerhield zogeheten ‘Romantische’ kunstenaars er niet van om een meer idyllisch exotisme te omarmen. Expliciet vierden ze het vreemde als extra mooi en als veel oorspronkelijker dan de eigen wereld. Kledij speelde een belangrijke rol.

Midden in Zwitserland liep Rousseau, een 18e-eeuwse voorloper van deze Romantici, rond in aan kaftan. De Romantische schilder Delacroix bereisde Marokko waar hij het betreurde hoe westerlingen zich ‘in korsetten snoeren, in te nauw schoeisel en in kokervormige kledij’.

Zulke 19e-eeuwse Romantische dichters en kunstenaars hadden weinig op met de fabrieken en spoorwegen die het eigen Europese landschap en hun steden destijds begonnen te vernielen. In 1844 schreef Wordsworth een gedicht waarin hij vaststelde dat ‘Engelse grond niet meer veilig is voor de snelle aanvallen’ van treinen.

Voilá! Zoveel over exotisme. De toehoorder kan zich voorstellen hoe een gedwongen emigrant – niet een reiziger uit esthetisch plezier, maar veeleer een soort balling die voor zijn werk de geboortegrond moet verlaten – na verloop van tijd het intussen voor hem vreemd geworden oude ‘vaderland’ extra aantrekkelijk gaat vinden. Zo iemand was mijn vader Fokke Sierksma – dit zelfs in toenemende mate. Hij leed aan omgekeerd exotisme.

Terwijl ik toen in Amerika woonde, schreef hij me tegen het eind van zijn leven sentimentele brieven over het Friese land en het helpen bevallen van koeien. Ik verweet hem ‘Friesisme’ en boerenmystiek – beide van het zuiverste Waddenwater.

Na zijn afdwalen van de bron werd hij in Holland meer Fries dan ooit hier ter plekke. Atheïst die hij was, leek hij toch op de malle gereformeerden in Hollandse kolonies in het Amerikaanse Michigan State. Daar zijn ze Roomser dan de Paus.

Als tweede generatie immigrant spiegelde ik dit curieuze exotisme. Het resultaat van deze beweging noem je een renegaat. Mijn vader omarmde alles wat mij in Friesland van de weeromstuit ging tegenstaan. Manhaftig probeerde ik een Westerling te worden. Omdat de nieuwe wereld daar niet bepaald prettig was, voelde ik me nergens thuis – ook niet in mijn vaderlijk huis.

Zo verdween ik in mezelf.

Bekenden wezen me op mijn scherpe tong. Toen ik later voor intellectueel ging spelen, lag mijn vaak harde kritiek op alles en nog wat in het verlengde van die thuisloosheid. Intussen is de blik milder, maar wellicht niet minder scherp.

Wat jaren geleden bezochten een bevriend kunsthistoricus en ik samen Leeuwarden.

We gingen de doeken bekijken van een ons onbekende Friese schilder – Bouke van der Sloot. Tijdens de heenreis maakten we kwinkslagen over Friese identiteit. De vrouw van de kunsthistoricus stamt ook uit deze streken.

Friezen zijn betrouwbaar en hechten aan eerlijkheid – opperde ik. Mijn reisgenoot vond ze vooral bot, heetgebakerd en af en toe sentimenteel – op een droge manier soms ironisch. Omdat we besloten dat zulke eigenschappen elkaar niet uitsluiten, trokken we de conclusie dat Friezen wellicht betrouwbaar, eerlijk, bot, heetgebakerd, droog ironisch en sentimenteel zijn.

Deze gedachtewisseling bereidde ons voor op de tentoonstelling van het werk van Bouke – volgens de catalogus ‘Schilder van Friesland’.

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God zij dank ben ik kunstkenner noch kunsthistoricus, hooguit een liefhebber. Schaamteloos permitteer ik het me om precies te zeggen wat ik van kunst vind. ‘Wat een rommel’ fluisterde ik een beetje te hard. ‘Alleen die drie stillevens en twee duinschappen zijn niet slecht. De rest is bedonderd geschilderd’.

Een zaal verder stonden we oog in oog met enkele jongenskoppen – ‘stoer en hard, maar toch gevoelig’ had Reve kunnen schrijven. Op de achtergrond echt Fries ogende akkers en boerenhoeven. In de buurt hing een in mijn ogen gruwelijk geschilderd dorpje.

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‘Wel erg veel Zeitgeist‘ mompelde ik. ‘Misschien geen Blut und Boden, maar toch minstens Boden‘. Het werk zou op een Duitse tentoonstelling van nicht entartete Kunst niet hebben misstaan. Merkwaardig genoeg werd het meest Arisch ogende doek in 1942 gesigneerd, dus tijdens de oorlog.

Toch was Van der Sloot ‘best wel goed’. In elk geval niet ‘fout’. Direct na de oorlog ging hij naar Keulen waar bij wijze van Widergutmachung het werk van Max Beckmann werd tentoongesteld. Bouke was een vloeker, iemand van ‘Godverdomme wat mooi, Jezus Christus wat prachtig’.

Tierend van opgewonden enthousiasme liep hij door zaal na zaal met Beckmanns. Toen hij een ruimte betrad waarin een ‘typisch Duits wijf’, zoals hij haar noemde, op knauwende wijze enkele kunstminnaars het werk stond uit te leggen, liep Bouke er langs, draaide zich om en riep met gestrekte arm Sieg Heil. De ‘Schilder van Friesland’ werd met harde hand uit het museum verwijderd.

Waarom ik Bouke erbij haalde? Om duidelijk te maken hoe onduidelijk alles is wat met ‘identiteit’ heeft te maken. Je bent deel van de tijd waarin je leeft, Bouke dus van de geschiedenis tussen de twee Wereldoorlogen. Dat zie je in zijn werk.

Tegelijk zijn er van die Zeitgeist tegenstrijdige versies. Je kunt rechts Blut und Boden zijn, maar ook een beetje links. Bouke mag weliswaar ‘links’ zijn, de betichting van moord richting immigranten door de Friese Vaatstra’s en consorten, na de dood van een familielid, vergeet je niet makkelijk.

Iemand die me niet kent, zal ongetwijfeld in mij iets van die Friese roots aantreffen, ook al herken ik die zelf niet en al staan ze me verre. Mijn renegatisme heeft ze zeker niet vernietigd.

U kunt zich nu voorstellen hoe bijzonder het voor mij was om – nadat Goasse Brouwer instemde met de publicatie van Nestgeur – het geheel in het Fries gestelde contract te ondertekenen, zonder daarvan veel te hebben begrepen. Wellicht schonk deze onnozele al zijn materiële en intellectuele eigendommen onwetend aan diens Utjouwerij…

Het was ook een schok voor mijn Hollandse vrienden om de uitnodiging voor deze middag te ontvangen, geheel gesteld in een voor hen onbegrijpelijk Fries.

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Zoveel is zeker. Een marginaal mens observeert allicht beter dan iemand die met zijn zogeheten identiteit samenvalt.

Een marginaal mens wordt nooit een provinciaaltje. Juist dat is het risico van de thuisblijver.

Misschien slijpt deze marginaliteit wel de pen.

BEKIJK OOK MIJN DAGBLOG –sierksma.wordpress.com
Sierksma, Haarlem, Maart 2013

ZWAGERMAN KIJKT NIET

Mijn lezer weet het – met Zwagerman als kunstcriticus heb ik weinig op. Je zou dit een vooroordeel kunnen noemen, ware het niet dat de auteur steeds weer bewijzen levert voor mijn gelijk. Ik neem er weer eentje uit de lange reeks getiteld Zwagerman kijkt, dit maal de twee pagina’s brede tekst in de Volkskrant van 20.1.15.

Het stuk gaat over een foto van Jeff Wall, genaamd The Destroyed Room. Wellicht niet Zwagerman zelf, maar een lay-out man van de krant presteert het om van deze foto een minuscule reproductie te tonen, terwijl van het doek met de geile dames erop – Delacroix’ meesterwerk Dood van Sardanapalus – een zeg maar levensgrote versie in beeld komt.

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Het vervelende aan Zwagerman is dat hij in het ongewisse laat of een door hem gemaakte vergelijking zelfverzonnen is of komt van een ander. “Jeff Wall baseerde de compositie van The Destroyed Room op het schilderij De Dood van Sardanapalus [1827].” Het ‘concept’ blijkt van de fotograaf zelf afkomstig.

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Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room

Dus gaat het vanaf dit moment in Zwagermans stuk om een geforceerde projectie van Walls eigen idee op de beelden die de lezer van de Volkskrant krijgt voorgeschoteld.

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Sardanapalus

Mij blijft het een volstrekt raadsel wat de twee werken met elkaar hebben te maken. Niet alleen vraagt het om een immense fantasie om in de ‘compositie’ van de afgebeelde kamer ook maar enige gelijkenis aan te treffen met die van het schilderij – kleuren kloppen niet, de verdeling van lichte en donkere vlakken is verschillend, de foto toont een opening in de ruimte, die van Delacroix is volledig gesloten et cetera et cetera. Er is wellicht sprake van een overeenkomende diagonaal – big deal!

Vervelender voor in een in kunst geïnteresseerde is het volledig ontbreken van enige thematische overeenkomst. Of het zou moeten zijn die uiterst abstracte notie van ‘vernieling en vernietiging’. Maar dan kun je ook een foto van de burgeroorlog in de Oekraïne erbij halen, of eentje van een stel opgeschoten hooligans die in Rome een Bernini fontein vernielen.

Zwagerman hoort bij die smalle ‘filosofen’ voor wie ‘alles met alles te maken heeft’ – voor wie de dichterlijke associatie van een vlinder die in het Amazonegebied de vleugels uitslaat met een gierende storm langs de Hollandse kust ook werkelijkheid betreft. Maar alles heeft niet met alles te maken – behalve in een wollig denkraam.

Op basis van deze nonsensgedachte komt, op aangeven van Jeff Wall zelf, Zwagerman to de volgende uitspraak: “The Destroyed Room vervormt Delacroix’ bloederige schilderij tot een naar binnen gekeerd horrortafereel.” Hoe verzint de man ‘t!

Er is geen spat bloed te bekennen op het doek van de grote schilder – die kijkt wel uit om zijn schitterende modellen niet in alle vleselijke pracht tentoon te stellen en ze niet te besmeuren, modellen waarvan hij in zijn Journal aangaf er regelmatig mee te ‘sleutelen’ (waarvoor hij, nogal preuts, het Italiaanse woord gebruikte…). Overmeestering, dreiging – allemaal waar. Maar zeker nog niet bloederig, en vooral Rubenesk prachtig.

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Detail van Sardanapalus

Ook vraagt het van de kijker de notie van een ‘conceptueel kunstwerk’ om in de wat onnozele foto van Wall een ‘naar binnen gekeerd horrortafereel’ te zien. Zwagerman ziet nog veel meer. “Wat is hier gebeurd? Heeft hier een echtelijke ruzie gewoed, of heeft een eenzame en verdoolde ziel het eigen interieur aan gort geslagen. Ik vermoed het laatste… Ik stel me voor dat de bewoonster de kamer woedend en wanhopig heeft achter te laten, om er nooit meer terug te keren.”

Hemeltje lief – het moet welhaast een kenau geweest zijn, om zoiets aan te richten, zeg maar: zo’n compositie van rotzooi. Je snapt nu ook waarom ik niet door de boeken van Zwagerman weet te komen. Het gaat hier niet om creatieve fantasie – het is een explosie van puberale verlangens, wellicht gevoed door eigen leed. Doet me soms denken aan Grunbergs lelijk geschreven romans. Beide auteurs lijken de Volkskrant intussen in hun zak te hebben.

Het artikel kabbelt vrolijk verder met wat verwijzingen naar werk van Hopper en Hammershøi. Je ziet de arme Zwagerman zijn beschikbare catalogi uit de boekenkast halen en her en der openen, om precies zoveel woorden bij elkaar te vegen dat er weer wat bij de krant verdiend kan worden. Een gedichtje van Gerrit Kouwenaar uit een bundel geplukt – en klaar is Joost.

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Beteuterde Zwagerman

Aan het slot van het stuk suggereert Zwagermans eigen, licht beteuterde fotoportret dat‘ie er zelf ook nooit in geloofde. Een hedendaagse, zelfbenoemde hogepriester van de postmoderne religie van De Kunst – een logomagicus. Wat korreltjes Rothko, wankelend op de rand van decoratie en diepe betekenis, een snufje Mondriaan en een flinke geut ‘concept’. Zijn volgende preek staat alweer bijna op papier.

BEKIJK OOK MIJN DAGBLOG –sierksma.wordpress.com
Sierksma, Haarlem 3.2.2015