Cartoons, amateurs and unknown atrocities
The second part of a day at the Louvre, and how we capture and consume the past.
I need to wrap up last week’s visit to the Louvre and I find the only way to do that is to consider a visit to another museum almost twenty years ago, in Russia.
The museum in question is of course The Hermitage in St Petersburg and, if I am to write about the Dutch artI saw and loved at the Louvre last week, I must remember where it was that I first fell in love with this type of art — and that place was The Hermitage.
Before I can do that though, I need to share a few things I’ve come across this week that made me think about how we capture the past and how we consume the past as captured by others.
One wasnoticing just how easy it is to freeze the past into an idea; a cartoonish version of what it actually was. Another was writing on Notes that there is no untangling; only more tangling. That the story is not about what happened. It’s about what the narrator makes of what happened.
Much of it is indeed like a cartoon; scenes and images stick out in bright outlines. Key stories that get recounted. This is just in the nature of how it feels to look back and describe something that happened, whether you’re in the front row seat at a coveted event or singing along to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros in a pick up truck in the sun.
These images become part of us when we say: this is who I was. This is what happened.
It is the same when we visit The Hermitage and look at a picture of a Peasant Weddingor A Robbery in the Forest, at the Louvre. When we look at it, it becomes part of our collective past.
It is just a cartoon; it is just a moment.
But that cartoon speaks volumes.
That is because there are some moments that the words don’t reach.
(That’s from Hamilton, you may have spotted. We went to see it in London last night — why this piece is late, actually. I cried and cried. Anyway.)
Things we remember can cause us joy; they can also wound us deeply, irrecoverably so. Sometimes, the words don’t reach. We need the cartoons and the pictures we paint.
Another line from Hamilton:
History obliterates, in every picture it paints.
With every cartoon, every anecdote, we are controlling how a story gets told. We are making a choice what to preserve and what to forget. The artist makes a choice what parts of the story to tell and to forget, in whatever medium the telling is expressed.
Talking to my younger cousin about this recently she said, about this forgetting:
“You should be grateful to your brain. It protected you.”
Forgetting gives space and time. The mental equivalent of the space time interval. Space + time = distance. Or something like that.
But there is also the remembering, and the telling.
Remembering, and making choices about what anecdotes we choose to relate (the “cartoons”) and how we choose to relate them, what we make of them now, does the opposite. It forces an uncomfortable intimacy with the past.
There is no untangling. The act of remembering only tangles further — and the telling, more so.
Then factor in all the listeners listening, the readers reading, the viewers in a museum appreciating and considering and relating.
And the tangling compounds, infinitely.
All of us adding one more little rock to the pile we’re all busy scrambling up.
That rock pile is impenetrably vast.
This is how I feel about visiting a museum, looking at a picture. My take on what has been produced is the tiniest fragment of the story — but each impression enmeshes exponentially. It builds a colossal picture of how we think about the past we’re sitting on.
Back to the museums.
The Hermitage rivals The Louvre for pure spectacle. I have been to many museums but these two stand head and shoulders above the rest, above even (it pains me to admit) my beloved Met.
Surely no one needs to be told how grand The Hermitage is: a former imperial residence housing a collection started by Catherine the Great in the 1760s that exceeds three million individual pieces. You couldn’t see it all in a lifetime; not in several lifetimes.
When the collection was started, it was so hermetically sealed that very few were admitted — hence the name.
When I travelled to St Petersburg in 2007, I entered on my Irish passport, getting a visa from a rundown Russian embassy compound off the poshest street in Dublin.
The embassy itself was a riot of plastic screens and chairs, loudspeaker crackling suspiciously when I said I wanted to go to Russia.
“I want to see the Hermitage.” And take trains to China, I didn’t say.
Even then, Russia was like The Hermitage of countries. Not quite hermetically sealed, but access certainly restricted.
Now of course it is even more so. In 2007, I had a choice whether to enter on my Irish or US passport. Today, there is no choice. If I ever wish to see The Hermitage these days, I will be doing so as an Irishwoman.
I didn’t have a plan when I visited The Hermitage back then, just like I didn’t have a plan at the Louvre last week. That’s my MO in museums: the random wander.
Which was how I found myself years ago standing in the wood-panelled halls housing The Hermitage’s collection of Dutch art and discovering it for the first time.
Dutch art was, from the off, a commodity. Mass-produced for newly-urbanised globetrotting mercantilists, one of the main themes was rural nostalgia. A long-time rural-exile country kid, this speaks volumes to me: I will lap it up all day long. David Teniers the Younger can thrill me with all the country scenes, threshings and farmyards he can throw at me.
I love that the nouveau-riche city-dwellers of Antwerp hung piss-ups, humble trades and raucous country weddings on their walls to remember their roots; a sort of “stay humble” but also “look how far you’ve come” for the post-medieval age.
On this, Interior of a Collector’s Gallery, or The Amateur’s Collection — as seen at the Louvre — is brilliantly meta.
Here is the commoditised collection itself, hung on the wall and spread across dining table. Here are the arrivistes, the owners themselves at the centre, arrayed in finery, glorying and reddening at their own splendour. Here even are the neighbours, just at the edges of the scene, giddy and pop-eyed with envy (the desired reaction: paint it and it shall come).
Here too are the pathetic drunken ranks from which the collectors have ascended, a reminder of their own superiority and an awful past that is no more, captured on the walls.
And at the foot of the scene, a chained monkey, personified in robes, observes the scene, a subtle representation of the devil.
From the Middle Ages on, monkeys were reputed to be mischievous and shameless and in art they frequently appear as a symbol of the devil. In 17th-century Dutch painting, a chained monkey refers to sinful man who allows himself to be ruled by lust. … Monkeys were also considered quite exotic. Owning such a creature was a luxury only the rich could afford. Apart from sin, monkeys were also associated with imitation. In the visual arts they are often shown ‘aping’ human activity.
The monkey is us, the greedy viewer. It is the artist, as observer and peddler of commoditised wares. It is the collector, avaricious, like a dumb animal, collecting the art but knowing not what to do with it.
Later in our day at the Louvre, I was reminded of this monkey when my son and I were swept into the Mona Lisa viewing room. How sad for the other glories on the walls in this gallery, ignored and impossible to appreciate anyway in the throng. We declined to queue for the optimal Instagramming spot front and centre, but sidled along the edges. A phalanx of security guards moved us along. We stood off to the side and watched for a moment but all I could see were the thrusting crowds, desperate to get the right Mona Lisa picture for the ‘gram.
Most of the rest of the halls and galleries were fairly quiet.
Like the gallery where I saw this painting, which was my favourite of the day. It’s called Robbery in the Forest by an unknown painter in Flanders between 1615 — 1630. If it looks blurry here, that is my crap photo. In real life, it is crisp; the details perfect and distinct in all corners.
Often, paintings are famous because of who painted them, not because of how beautiful or interesting they are. One of my favourite books when I was little was the story of two kids who run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum in NY and solve the mystery of an un-ascribed sculpture that turns out to be by Michelangelo. They sleep under ancient brocaded drapes and fish for coins in the fountain. What I learned from this book is that museums are magical — and a good mystery makes a museum.
This painting of a robbery in a forest is in the Louvre because it is beautiful, not because it was secretly painted by Brueghel (although….) . Sometimes a painting is just good on its own merit.
It holds a mystery too, beyond its painter. Who are these men? How did they come to this moment of life or death for a basket of apples on a mountain pass? What unnamed atrocity is this, committed deep in the woods where no one can see or hear? Why do people commit acts of such unspeakable horror? The pain of this scene on the road, the fleeing villagers and the hopeless plea for mercy, set against the lushness, the vista of trees, the mountains and ravines stretching to the far-off domes of a hazy city in the valley, held me in thrall for a long time.
And, on that note, here is a statue of grief — Cain after slaying Abel — in the Tuileries outside the Louvre.
A long time ago I posted an Instagram story about this statue. It was during the first summer of the pandemic and I paid a hefty price (two week quarantine) to come visit my sister then, on the cusp of a pulling-off-the-bandaid kind of shit break-up.
I don’t remember how I felt then. That is the truth. All I have is the cartoon statue of grief. It felt an appropriate symbol of the age then — Covid, the break-up, plus I’d accidentally bought like four vintage wardrobes from a charity shop and ended up not being able to get any of them up my stairs. Truly did I grieve.
This time, after the Louvre, the statue hits me different.
It is a reminder that the museum, and each story in it, is a balm on the wen of humanity. The cartoons are all we have to share, to share the grief. We share the cartoons so a story of grief may be swallowed up in an unfolding of beauty and humour.
History obliterates with every picture it paints.
We have committed untold horrors. We have also produced unimaginable beauty.
If we have done that, we have also done this.
A visit to a good museum reminds me how much I’ve missed. All the stories around the edges that don’t get told; the places where the words don’t reach. It reminds me of the vast tangled swathe of humanity — that’s been and to come — about which I’ll never know anything.
How much there is still to see that I’ll never see. How there isn’t enough time in a life to see all the beauty that’s in it.
How there will never be enough time to see enough beauty to undo all the collective grief.
But, as I said to my son when we left the museum:
I’m glad I can see a bit of it at least.
And share it with you.
I use the phrase “Dutch art” throughout this piece, even though what I mean to capture is a fairly broad swathe of Northern Renaissance/ Low Countries/ Dutch and Flemish art from the early 16th century. This covers everything from van Eyck’s ultra-realism to Teniers’ pastoral; fishing markets and hunting scenes; Bosch and Brueghel and the darker sides of spirituality; large celebratory scenes full of people, but also intimate candle-lit rooms. I’m not an art historian so there may be errors in what I consider to be “Dutch” art within this remit, in which case beg your forgiveness.
A little back story to this reference. I found a reference in my 2007 St. Petersburg notebooks to having seen The Peasant Wedding by Brueghel at the Hermitage. Imagine my consternation when a quick fact-check just now revealed said painting is not in the Hermitage, and never has been. In fact, it is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna — a museum I have categorically never visited. Much perturbed Googling later, it turns out that I did see a painting of a Peasant Wedding at the Hermitage — but it is by David Teniers the Younger, not Brueghel. And I am pleased to report it is just as marvellous and cartoonish and dark (if not more so) than its Brueghelian counterpart.
If you’re interested in who I stayed with in St. Petersburg — a family I found through the marvellous old Couchsurfing website — you can read a little more about them here.
The book is From the mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg — and if you’ve never read it, there’s no time like the present.