30 March 2015

Happy birthday, Vincent van Gogh! Portrait of Dr. Gachet, a book review

by Angelina Giovani 

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, van Gogh (1890) First version

[Editors' note: One way to celebrate Vincent van Gogh's birthday is to reminisce about one of this most important works of art, Portrait of Dr. Gachet. Angelina Giovani reviews Cynthia Saltzman's captivating history of a painting executed by van Gogh shortly before his untimely death in mid-1890.]

The Portrait of Dr. Gachet, by Cynthia Saltzman, came out in 1998. This unusual book traces the provenance history of a portrait that Vincent van Gogh painted of his doctor in 1890, shortly before he took his own life. Saltzman provides us with the context and circumstances of the portrait’s creation, focusing on the first of two versions which van Gogh painted, the profiles of the people involved in the many transactions that marked its history and the state of the art market in Western Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

The story begins when Vincent van Gogh is 37 years old and had already created a large body of work, amounting to over 600 paintings and drawings. Even though he had not made any profit from his paintings, his brother Theo received his works, while he was based in Paris, acting as Vincent’s dealer. Their close relationship comes out clearly in the letters that Vincent and Theo exchanged during the years, which also shed light on other close relationships that van Gogh had built with other artists of his time, such as Gauguin, Signac, Pissarro, etc. Pissarro recommended that Dr. Gachet look after Vincent’s health which had deteriorated. There are still many theories on van Gogh’s diagnosis. Although we will probably never know exactly what he suffered from, the more plausible theories center on acute mania with hallucinations, depression and melancholia. He met Dr. Gachet on May 20, 1890 and immediately realized that Gachet could not help him; at times Vincent was concerned that the doctor might be more ill than he was. Nevertheless, by June 3, van Gogh had started painting his portrait. Art historical analysis and research into the iconography and history of styles tells us that the portrait is not a simple objective portrait of the doctor. Van Gogh drew his inspiration for this work from two sources. The first one was Delacroix’s Tasso in the Hospital of St. Anna, Ferrara (1839) and the other was Puvis de Chavannes’s Portrait of Eugène Benon (1882). Ever since its conception, the painting has never been viewed as just a portrait. It embodies the artist’s philosophy regarding his work. The general consensus is that it should be read on a symbolic level.
Vincent van Gogh

The period from January to July 1890 was a troubled time for Van Gogh. His condition worsened in the days that led up to July 28th when he shot himself with a revolver. Van Gogh died the next day, soon after Theo had reached Auvers-sur-Oise, a small town north of Paris. Theo inherited approximately 600 works produced by his brother, from which about 70 were produced during his time in Auvers. The Portrait of Dr. Gachet was among them. Theo moved the Auvers paintings to Paris, together with the 600 paintings and 350 drawings already in his possession. Theo struggled between trying to sell his brother’s works and trying to get him the recognition he believed he deserved while keeping his own health. Paul Durand-Ruel refused to help Theo sell any paintings, so Theo’s only option was to hang the works in hi
s apartment at 54, Rue Lepic. With the help of Emile Bernard, Theo managed to hang 350 paintings. A list of the works was compiled by Theo’s brother in law, Andries Bonger. As the story goes, Theo did not live to see these paintings sold, as he passed away, six months after his brother’s death on January 25, 1891.
Theo van Gogh


Johanna van Gogh-Bonger
After Theo’s death, his wife Johanna van Gogh-Bonger inherited all of Van Gogh’s works. Troubled and uncertain about what would come next, she decided to leave Paris and together with her son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, moved to the Netherlands. In the span of a few months she managed to bring most of the paintings with her. She was convinced that the paintings would find a broader audience and that the local art scene would embrace van Gogh ‘as a painter in the Dutch tradition’. Her instinct proved right, since by February 1890, Van Gogh’s work had already seeped into the Dutch art market. Ten paintings were on display at Buffa Galleries in Amsterdam and another twenty at the Oldenzeel Gallery in Rotterdam. A few months later in 1892, a retrospective of forty-five paintings was organized at the Hague and in 1893 an even larger show took place at the Kunstzaal Panorama, in Amsterdam. Finding a market for the paintings was an immense undertaking, but it came second to Johanna’s most major undertaking which was collecting and transcribing Theo’s and Vincent’s correspondence, which amounted to over 600 letters. She put the letters in chronological order and organized them in an edition which she completed on July 28th 1914 a few days before the outbreak of World War I, 24 years after van Gogh had shot himself. Johanna’s edition was published initially in French and Dutch, then in German. She worked on an English version until the end of her life in 1925. That edition was published in 1928. The letters played an important role in how the world would come to view van Gogh. The letters and her careful selection of what to reveal to the world helped create a myth around van Gogh, which romanticized his condition and depicted him as the tortured genius misunderstood by the society of his time.

In 1893, the first request to exhibit the Portrait of Dr. Gachet came from a Danish group called Free Exhibition (Den Frie Udstilling) founded in 1891 and headed by Johan Rohde. He considered van Gogh to be 'the greatest Dutch painter of the century’. The portrait was selected along with twenty other paintings and was singled out by critics who interpreted it as symbolic rather than an accurate description of the sitter. The choice to include works from van Gogh and Gauguin in the exhibition in Copenhagen, was not only a testimony of growing interest in these artists, but also of a rising appreciation for the French avant-garde throughout northern Europe. Most of the works on display were for sale, but The Portrait of Dr. Gachet was not one of them.

Durand-Ruel could not or did not want to sell van Gogh paintings. Even when he agreed to take some works on consignment from Johanna, he ended up returning all of them. The only other person in Paris selling van Goghs was the Tanguy family who owned a paint shop and to whom Theo had consigned works which they ended up keeping, since there was no full inventory of these works. But in the French art market, these works were fetching less than half the price of their equivalents in the Dutch art market. At a Hôtel Druout sale organized to benefit Julien Tanguy's widow, two van Gogh paintings came up for sale and Ambroise Vollard bought one of them. At that time, Vollard had barely entered the Paris art market. His gallery space was tiny but strategically placed among the more important galleries, close to Durand-Ruel and Benheim-Jeune. Soon Vollard contacted Johanna and asked her for some paintings with the intentions of exhibiting them. He sold one of these paintings, Salle de Restaurant. A larger exhibition was organized in November 1896, and included the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which hadn’t been seen in Paris since it hung in Theo’s apartment before his death. Vollard bought the portrait along with 5 other paintings and 10 drawings for 2000 francs. The sale of these paintings market the end of Johanna’s dealings with Vollard. That being said, Vollard kept selling van Gogh’s that he was acquiring from other sources, filling the gap left in the market by Theo’s death.

Alice Ruben was an artist and occasional member of Copenhagen’s Free Exhibition Group when she first came across van Gogh’s work. Upon a visit to Paris, Alice Ruben saw the portrait in Vollard’s new gallery in 1897 and bought it. Vollard’s sparse records indicate at least one payment of 200 francs on April 30, 1897 but there are no further records concerning the finalization of the transaction. Alice and her husband brought the picture back to Denmark. Her family’s upper-middle-class roots gave her financial stability that allowed her to collect contemporary art. She spoke a number of languages and had multiple connections in the art world. She knew Johan Rohde and many avant-garde Danish artists. It still is not known to us why Alice chose the Portrait of Dr. Gachet in particular, but she certainly appreciated it a great deal. The photograph below depicts Alice lying in bed. Resting on her night stand is the Portrait of Dr. Gachet along with a painting of mother and child by Maurice Denis.

Alice Ruben in bed next to Dr. Gachet
Mogens Ballin and his wife, by Felix Vallotton
Both paintings in the picture were transferred before 1904 to Mogens Ballin (1871-1914). Like Alice, Mogens was also an artist and collector. He also came from a well-established Jewish family in Copenhagen. Curiously, Mogens had been one of the few people interested in van Gogh’s oeuvre right after his passing, and had visited the apartment where Theo displayed Vincent’s works. Mogens considered bringing the portrait back to Paris to sell it. Aware that there still was little interest in van Gogh’s work and that Gachet might end up in storage, he decided to take it to Berlin.

(to be contined)...

25 March 2015

Murambi: a death camp by any other name

by Marc Masurovsky

The Murambi memorial site is, literally, in the middle of nowhere.
view of the entrance to Murambi
After reaching Butare, the second largest city in Rwanda, you take a side road that extends for 27 km, along a dirt road, winding round villages where the unfamiliar Muzungu (roughly translated as “lost and confused” to designate white foreigners) stand out like sore thumbs. No matter. Stares accompany us with the occasional motley crew of boys on bicycles trying to steer us in the right direction in exchange for coins.

We finally reach Murambi, at a dead end. The road goes nowhere else. That ought to tell you something already. A finality in and of itself. The memorial site is surrounded by villages comprised of a dozen huts and houses each, made out of the proverbial mud brick and found materials stitched together to produce a semblance of shelter.

Nothing prepares you for Murambi in the same manner as nothing can prepare you for Birkenau. The only difference is that the horror of Murambi is hiding in plain sight, whereas the horror of Birkenau is a horror left to the imagination to toggle and to sift through once the landscape of dying and suffering has been explored.

Murambi is a place flanked by bucolic landscapes of rolling hills, verdant sceneries, much like the rest of Southern Rwanda. At this place, tens of thousands of Tutsi civilians from surrounding areas were corralled to await their fate.

There are building structures at Murambi, red brick shells that look more like barracks than classrooms for a future state technical training center that was never completed, so goes the official story. One can only imagine young men and women studying to be the future engineers and technicians of a modern Rwanda at the end of a dead-end road far from everything and flanked by dead poor villages with no commercial infrastructure to support such a technical center. The story makes no sense. By default, we are left to speculate and to leave open the possibility that our worst thoughts are closer to the truth than the official “spin” of an unfinished school. Let’s say, for a moment, that there was such a plan to build a school in the middle of nowhere, difficult to reach, and that the project was nixed for one reason or another. If that were the case, the abandoned red brick shells constituted the proper edifice in which to park men, women, and children, who had reached—in more ways than one—the end of their road.

Murambi became a killing ground where every square inch was used to hack, shoot, dismember, rape, and murder men, women and children. No one is sure about the numbers, but 20,000 is the minimal safe number. Some speak of as many as 55,000 bodies buried at Murambi.

The memorial building itself houses an exhibit that resembles the one housed in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Nothing new to offer. The only interesting presence is the absence of bodies from casings inset in the floor covered by clear panels in which were supposed to be displayed the remains (or whatever is left of the remains in their accelerated state of deterioration) of men, women, and children, frozen in the position that they yielded to as they exhaled their last breath.

Several barracks house the remains of approximately 1500 people who were disinterred from mass graves and put on display. The corpses of the victims are lying on wooden racks atop improvised platforms in successive rooms. Children with one arm extending over the corpse of an adult man or woman, adults with a finger pointing nowhere as if they had tried in vain to dissuade their attackers from hacking them into death, children with smashed skulls, women with small patches of hair still clinging to the thin skin layer peeling off their skulls, children curled up as if trying to get some sleep. It is all so poignant and yet so desensitizing to be faced with the final moments of Tutsi victims’ lives, frozen as their bodies desiccate and gradually vanish at the relentless mercy of the elements.



We climb up some steps and enter another part of this desolate site where ghosts abound.

 

As we walk through the grass and in between neatly laid out rows of red brick barracks, a flash memory crosses our minds as we recognize some of the timeless architectural elements of a Nazi concentration camp. We enter one of the barracks. Some walls show evidence of bullet impacts. But the most striking feature of these rooms is their redness, red from the dust of the rich loam that covers Rwandan fields blending with the fading dark red stains left by victims’ blood, spilled on the floors and splattered on the walls. Those who maintain the site tried in vain to eliminate all traces of the blood and one can see the crude brush strokes of off-white paint splashed on the walls as added evidence of the grisly nature of these rooms. Death rooms, hacking rooms, rooms of torture and unremitting, cruel death. These rooms succeed themselves one after another and one should not even try to imagine what took place there as thousands of human beings were crammed into them, awaiting their fate, hungry and thirsty and panicked.

Victims' belongings, in the background, the  killing rooms

In some of the rooms, teenagers and adults living in the villages surrounding the memorial site have scrawled haphazard designs of cars and planes, words and sentences in Kinyarwanda. One can only wonder if they were even mildly aware of the function of these rooms. A form of unwitting desecration has taken place at Murambi. The sheer state of neglect that prevails at this death camp is simply unacceptable.

One can only hope that the Rwandan government will take urgent measures to rectify the situation, secure these killing rooms, stabilize the remains of the victims, perhaps rebury them in a dignified way so as to memorialize them the way that most people honor their dead and, just as important, recount the story of Murambi so that the visitor is not left to her own imagination to understand what happened in that hellish space.

Murambi is a death camp where breathing is labored, the mind goes numb, and death hangs in the suffocating air amid fields, rolling hills and the banality of human survival and existence in a forgotten corner of Rwanda.

The neighborhood of Murambi





















18 March 2015

An opinion piece: An epitaph for provenance research training?

by Marc Masurovsky

According to the most recent TEFAF Art Market survey, the global art market has exceeded 51 billion euros in value for 2014. Half of that value, about 25 billion euros’ worth, pertains to art objects that were produced before 1945, the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust. What percentage of the 25 billion carry an incomplete provenance? What are they? Where are they? Non lo so.  We don't know and neither do you.

Incomplete provenance simply means that the buyer cannot retrace most of the history of the object that he/she is purchasing. In other words, there is always a chance that the object changed hands illegally at some point during its peregrinations through space and time. The buyer will never know whether he/she is the rightful owner of the object until someone discovers it and places a claim.

The purpose of provenance research is to shed light on those dark corners of history. Those who acquire, display, or otherwise draw some benefit from the object’s presence in their collections need to be sure that there is no taint on their title to the object and that they will not be exposed to some third-party claim after coming into possession of the object.

Does this make sense so far?

The legacy of the Holocaust has shed light on the fact that many holes have not been filled, many gaps have not been closed regarding the fate of property owned by persons of Jewish descent who had lost their objects to unlawful acts of persecution and extermination. The Washington Conference of December 1, 1998, had been a meek attempt to reexamine how Jewish-owned property had been allowed to circulate freely in open markets throughout the world, most of which should have been returned to their rightful owners. And yet…The Washington Principles, non-binding recommendations, were designed to guide the current possessors of such objects to "do the right thing" and follow an ad minima ethical and moral course of action.

The concept of provenance was given a new sheen as of the late 1990s as well as a darker meaning. Once the exclusive province of art historians, provenance has been expanded to include History, writ large. Its demand on the researcher has been to shed all possible light on how an object has traveled and to give equal weight to the fate of past owners and to some of the most heinous moments of modern history.

A tall order for most members of the art world who prefer to operate in a state of self-imposed oblivious indifference to such tedium as History. The only history that seems to matter is the association of an object with some glamorous figure, so as to enhance its marketability. Provenance can be monetized. It has always been monetized.

The initial clamor for provenance research did not come from museums but from advocates for Holocaust survivors, cultural heritage circles, lawyers working on difficult art cases, Jewish groups familiar with property claims, and a roomful of government officials.

Fast forward…

Nowadays, there is a general recognition that a certain amount of “training” should be required to sensitize provenance research practitioners to the complexities of that “added dimension” of research that goes far beyond the strictures of conventional art history. From 2012 to 2014, five training workshops, aided by the New York-based Claims Conference, were offered under the aegis of the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), an international NGO established in Prague in June 2009 as the sad stepchild of a failed international conference on the fate and disposition of Jewish assets.

ESLI has stopped offering these workshops. No one has picked up the ball except for the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP). A proposed workshop on provenance research to be held in New York City in the second half of April has not garnered much support and this, in the heart of the global art market.

How can one interpret such obvious disinterest in provenance training?

Several possibilities:

1/ people complain about the lack of training but, when the opportunity arises to benefit from such training, they balk and stay home.

2/ art world specialists (museums, museum studies programs, auction houses) should offer provenance research training not NGOs like HARP. To date, that has not happened.

3/ the art world has survived thus far without provenance research training and will continue to do so until the ends of time. Hence, who cares?

4/ restitution and repatriation claims are considered to be part of “the cost of doing business” which is why the art world does not promote training in provenance research. Museums, art dealers, galleries, collectors, fold in the possibility of litigation as a reasonable yet annoying aspect of their trade. So, ignorance has a price, but one that they are willing to pay, for not asking questions about art objects in their possession. Hence, one could argue that the global art world plays fast and loose with the law and hopes to get away with it, one way or another. On occasion, the gambit does not work out as some antiquities dealers and art galleries have discovered in past years.

Should all of the aforementioned possibilities be close to the mark and bear some semblance of accuracy, provenance research, unless supported by governments (like in Germany), is doomed as an independent profession. To date, the art world has done nothing to promote and foster a healthy environment for such training.  The same applies to universities and colleges, except for a handful (literally!).

One can only deduce that training in how to conduct research in the history of ownership of art objects is merely an option, perhaps even a hobby, well-remunerated for a very few, which makes us wonder who can rightfully call themselves a provenance researcher unless, by trial and error, that individual has proven his/her worth. Proving one's worth is in the eye of the beholder since there exist no objective standards by which to assess the quality of one's research.  For those of you who might be offended by this remark, you should understand its deeper meaning since one cannot declare a skill a profession until there is established a universal code of behavior and "professional" standards to be followed by its practitioners.

So, for now, provenance research training is a dead letter until someone administers CPR and revives it from its medically-induced coma.


15 March 2015

Letter from Nyamata genocide memorial, outside Kigali, Rwanda.

by Marc Masurovsky
Entrance to Nyamata Genocide Memorial
The skulls and bones of more than 10,000 Tutsi murdered at Nyamata (45,000 remains are buried there from other killing sites) lie in this Catholic compound-men, women, children, infants and newborns. Their tattered clothes, covered with dried up blood, are piled in heaps atop wooden benches inside the church where people once prayed and where frightened Tutsi sought sanctuary in the bosom of the Church that they had embraced as good Catholics.


The clothes bear witness to their failure to be heard and to the failure of the Church to protect them.

Inside the church at Nyamata
The Catholic Church in Rwanda ate up its flock. Churches became killing grounds favored by Hutu militiamen and Rwandan soldiers. Hutu priests and nuns went after their Tutsi colleagues, without mercy, and handed over their Tutsi flock to their butchers.


There are bullet holes everywhere inside the Nyamata church, including through the roof. The light comes through like narrow beams.


To Hutu militiamen, the Virgin Mary was a Tutsi because of her looks-tall and elongated face, slender bones. The Hutu militia shot her and busted her left plaster shoulder. Guilty as charged.


Jesus Christ? Get Him out of the church so that He cannot side with the victims.
The tabernacle inside Nyamata Church
The Hutu shot bullets into a tabernacle, thinking that it would be sufficient to drive Jesus out.

God? The militia invoked (their) God to justify the eradication of the Tutsi saying that (their) God wanted revenge against the Tutsi.

Deaths by the thousands inside a packed church.
Skulls of Tutsi victims inside burial crypt
Once upon a time, a young Tutsi woman rejected the advances of young Hutu men. Then came the genocide. On April 13, 1994, Hutu militia reached Nyamata, on the outskirts of Kigali and the spurned Hutu men sought revenge against the young Tutsi woman who had rejected their advances. Were they her friends or just neighborhood acquaintances?

I don’t know how many of these boys there were but it must have been a pack of them who violated her. According to one source, there were 20 of them. Her name was Annonciata Mukandoli. She was 28 years old.

Based on the story told at the memorial, the young Tutsi woman was wounded, she was repeatedly raped, she was killed, her corpse was tortured (does torture still exist after death?). Then came the final act. The Hutu men drove a stake through her vagina as far as they could. Was their quest for revenge finally sated?
Instruments of death used against Tutsi at Nyamata

What is left of her rests inside a coffin in a specially-built crypt beneath the church floor. It is draped in a white cloth, a large wooden cross lain across it.
Annunciata's final resting place in the crypt of Nyamata
Physical violence, sexual violations, death, postmortem defilements and impalement. Is there a name for such behavior?

Why is there room for it amongst us, despite us?

The guide explained that the young men’s behavior could be attributed to brainwashing. Here I disagree. That would mean that one is not responsible for one’s actions. Perhaps, brainwashing is a diagnosis that makes it possible to conduct a form of spiritual exorcism, getting the devil out of you, the same one who made you impale a young woman just because she would not accept your sexual advances.

I frankly don’t believe in brainwashing. I don’t believe that the dog made them do it. If mass murder accompanied by violations and defilements of the human body is an expression of dissociative disorder or some other serious psychological condition, we need to seriously wonder who we are and what makes us tick. Failing any psycho-medical assessment of the genocidal personality, you end up believing in your own idols and you act accordingly. Willing the death of another human being is exactly that: an act of will, which means that, as a sentient creature, you decide to kill. You decide to defile. You decide to maim. You decide to violate and to rape. The devil did not make you do it. You made that decision. After thousands of years, the mystery remains whole: how to prevent such acts from ever taking place.

And yet, in an unprecedented feat of national post-genocide healing in Rwanda known as the Gacaca* (named after the short, thick grass on which villagers sat to attend these "trials", which lasted close to 12 years), tens of thousands of Hutu killers and rapists have reconciled with their surviving Tutsi victims after undergoing a very complex process, often painful and difficult, for all parties, but especially for the victims.  A number of the reconciled have even become close friends. Contrition, forgiveness and reconciliation on a national scale is unprecedented in the annals of modern history, let alone in the era of genocides. Such an outcome was inconceivable in post-Holocaust Europe, in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia after 1993. We need to understand why.

What does that say about us, as human beings? Is Rwanda an anomaly or can there truly be forgiveness and reconciliation after a crime of genocide, regardless of where it occurs?

Still, the story of human beings’ presence on Earth is soaked in blood. Grim as it is, we coexist with those who thirst to see blood spill on the ground for reasons all their own. It is the phantasmagoria called life.

For more on the reconciliation process, go to http://www.reach-rwanda.org, and the work of the REACH organization in Rwanda.

For more on the Gacaca, go to
http://www.genocidearchiverwanda.org.rw/index.php/Category:Gacaca_Court_Proceedings
http://www.gacacafilms.com

The Gacaca Archives are presently closed to the public. They are under the supervision of the CNLG (National Commission for the Fight against Genocide) and are being physically stored in the facilities of the Rwandan National Police.  There is currently underway an effort to organize these extraordinary archives. They hold an estimated 60 million pages of testimonials and rulings administered throughout post-genocide Rwanda.  These archives contain the memory of Rwanda past and future.