5 May – Liberation day and an exhibition

In the Netherlands freedom and liberation are celebrated in the 5 May. On 4 May at 8pm a reflective two minutes of silence is held across the country to remember and reflect on those who died during the Second World War and conflicts since. Wageningen, the town in which I live, is in party mood today, the somber remembrance ceremony that I attended last night is followed up with a festival and processions that will draw tens of thousands to the town.

It is not an inappropriate day to be visiting an exhibition in the far north of the country though, before I too return to the Wageningen celebrations. In the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden in the north west of the country an exhibition entitled Burdened Landscape is on display until 5 June.

The exhibition explores how landscape can function as a sort of physical memory storage for history, and in particular, parts of history that while not being occasions that we should forget, are periods that don’t make for easy reflection. As the exhibition guide puts it:

“Violence, war and conflict leave their traces, even in the landscape. The past is visibly and invisibly gouged into the soil. Some places have become tangible monuments to history. However, more innocent-looking locations can also bear heavy burdens. Time and again, memories give the ‘crime scene’ its charge.”

It is an interesting and engaging collection of work, covering locations such as the landscape around Auschwitz (Oświęcim), Kuwait, Hanover, Ukraine, Armenia, Stalingrad and most recently, the Mediterranean Sea and its role in the suffering of migrants because of conflicts in North Africa.

Discovering works by Anselm Kiefer within such a context isn’t perhaps that surprising but there are plenty of less familiar works that open thoughtful windows on their own landscapes.

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Hans Citroen’s photographs show intimate corners of domestic landscapes, between vegetable gardens perhaps, yet there between the slightly overgrown fences are the remains of a railway line. The track lies, seemingly forgotten, in Oświęcim a short distance from the nearby Auschwitz. You are challenged, no, forced to reflect on those who passed through this space towards such a terrifying and uncertain future. Yet now, here it is, the line slowly being reclaimed physically by the landscape, but at the same time a landscape that is so heavily loaded by its history of seventy-five years ago.

The way landscape recovers and reclaims is also visible in the large-scale series of photographs by Sophie Ristelhueber. They show images of the Kuwaiti desert and the way it holds a physical record of the Gulf War (1990-91). In some images the relics, the evidence is slowly being covered over, fading from view.  In others though you can’t help feeling that these remnants will remain every bit a revealing in the distant future as Hadrian’s Wall is to us today.

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On a more recent note, but maybe more disturbing for it, the video work Liquid Traces the Left-to-Die Boat Case by Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani tells of the tragic fourteen days adrift at sea experienced by a group of seventy-two refugees from Libya. The result of the two-week period without rescue, was that only nine of the seventy-two survived to recount their experience.

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The exhibition deals mostly with the traces that war and conflict leave on the landscape, but departs from this a little to end with the image of Frenk Windels, sitting next the place he, without the necessary permits, buried his wife after her death. The result is a small domestic landscape with a huge emotional charge.

Back home in Wageningen, the landscape that surrounds me is beautiful, green and for the most part peaceful.  But look at little more carefully and the same Burdened Landscape can be found. There was heavy fighting on the nearby Grebbeberg in 1940 and the parachute landing for operation Market Garden of A Bridge to Far fame occurred just north of the town. These and other periods during the 1939-45 conflict are still all too present and 4 and 5 May of all days are the days to reflect on this.

 

 

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Alma-Tadema – an artistic love/hate relationship

The work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema didn’t feature heavily during my years at art school. No, maybe I should be more specific, as far as I can remember, it didn’t feature at all. Perhaps not surprisingly, for despite being one of the most financially successful artists of the nineteenth century and ending up being knighted and buried in St Paul’s cathedral in London, Alma-Tadema’s work and the works of the closely related Pre-Raphaelites were something of a forgotten sub-tributary in the flow towards a more modern world. Many would argue that it wasn’t even a tributary, and more of an isolated pool that was completely detached.

This may well be the case, and also the reason why his work fell so far out of favour in the twentieth century. But in recent decades there has been a renewed interest in Alma-Tadema’s luscious fantasy world.  My own first, and rather accidental encounter with his work was in 1996 when I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.  There was a temporary show of his paintings and now, twenty years later there is a second show in the Friesmuseum in Leeuwarden the capital of the Dutch province in which this Dutch-Anglo artist was born. The exhibition has attracted unprecedented numbers for this relatively small town in the north of The Netherlands, well over 100000 visitors in the first three of its four month run. The exhibition then tours to Vienna and onto London.

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The memories of my visit to the Van Gogh museum exhibition back in the nineties prompted me to make the trip up to Leeuwarden to renew my something of a love-hate relationship I have with the artist’s work. What I remember from my first encounter with the paintings was the colour, the light and the overwhelming lushness of it all.  At their best these are paintings that ooze an almost oppressive detail and rich colour.  Although, it must also be said that other works feel at times like the artist has beaten any life out of them through his astonishing eye for detail, whether it is pressed up against the picture-plane in the fore-ground or seemingly miles away in the background.

These reservations aside, there are some gems in the exhibition, paintings that are extremely difficult not to be drawn to; the likes of The Roses of Heliogabalus, Unconscious Rivals and A Coign of Vantage. Over the top the paintings definitely are, and also out of touch with the world and time in which they were made, but simultaneously they display a phenomenal work ethic, patience of execution and eye for detail.

The exhibition goes to some trouble to draw comparisons between Alma-Tadema’s work and the influence it has had on the visual styling of various Hollywood epics over the years. Fragments of films such as Gladiator and Cleopatra are also on display.  The artifice and escapism of the movies would seem appropriate. This whole exhibition and body of work is a quite huge display of the fantasy world that must have occupied the artist’s mind. He consistently painted image after image of a distant and mythical world, a world that spilled over into the high life of soirées and parties that were also known regularly to require costumes that fitted the artist’s visionary world.

Guardian article reviewing the exhibition