Remembering what we see

Me at a museum: “How am I supposed to remember what I have seen here if I cannot take a photograph and if there are no postcards or other images available?!?” I do recognize that I am spoiled. Little more than 100 years ago, the only ways to record what one had seen was to simply store it in the brain or to make a drawing or describe it in words. Were people more attuned to retaining images in their minds? Has the camera, especially the digital camera, had a deleterious effect on brains? One of the clearest mental images I retain is from our trip to Turkey in 1992: an elderly man, plainly dressed, but with a regal bearing, standing in front of an VIII century church in Bergama holding his young granddaughter in his arms as he gazed into the distance. We were in a car, and there was no opportunity to snap a picture. At the time I had to be somewhat frugal with film, which might be one reason why the unphotographed image remains with me. Now I snap whatever catches my fancy. Am I looking more superficially and therefore forgetting more images than before? Am I losing the ability to remember images?

Three recent expositions challenged me to remember, because photography was prohibited and post cards were not available.

Sous le vent de l’art brut 2 at La Halle Saint Pierre in Montmartre is a large show of a small portion of a Dutch collection of art produced, for the most part, by self-taught artists who do not follow the norm. Some of the artists live with mental disability or illness, but, as exemplified by Vincent van Gogh, that is not necessarily a hindrance when it comes to creating wonderful art. To me, “art brut” (also called “naïve art”) is misleading; some of the work is very finely wrought and sophisticated. Of note:
– detailed ink drawings by Herman Bossert (b. 1940) who drops colour onto paper, then decides what to make of the blobs: cityscapes, flowers, faces, etc.;
– Marie-Rose Lortet (b. 1945) uses yarn, sometimes stiffened with sugar or starch, to create airy buildings or faces;
– Michel Nedjar (b. 1947) works mostly in black, brown, and white, in paint or organic matter such as sticks, raffia, cloth;
– Sai Kijima (b. ±1954) creates very simple, vaguely human figures from found wood; his monk fashioned from a piece of charred wood and three stones is exquisite.

The second exposition is at l’Orangerie, where one is allowed to take photographs of the permanent collection (except Monet’s waterlilies), but not of temporary shows. I returned (with Gordon) for another look at the works of Émile Bernard (1868-1941). He and Paul Gauguin were the the ones around whom the Pont Aven School developed. Over his lifetime, Bernard changed his focus and his style several times, passing through impressionism on his way back to realism of a sort. In his early works, whether landscape or portrait, people are fully clothed. At the end of his career he concentrated on female nudes.
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>> Poster for the art brut exposition showing part of an intricate, found-object being by Markus Meurer (b. 1959).
>> A bottle-cap throne on the ticket counter (not part of the show, but could have been).
L'Orangerie: expo: Emile Bernard. poster
>> Poster for l’exposition at l’Orangerie.

Gordon and I went to une exposition at les Archives Nationales, which is housed in l’Hôtel de Soubise, an opulent mansion built for the prince and princess of Soubise at the start of the XVIII century. L’Exposition is yet another indication of the new willingness of the government and people to recognize some less glorious aspects of French history, in this case La Collaboration 1940-1945, documenting those who willingly, and sometimes eagerly, supported the German occupation and what it entailed. Most of the display was print material (letters, documents), but there were enough posters and photographs for me to get a feeling for the subject.
Some of the propaganda posters were chilling. One showed France in flames, with statistics: in 6 months Anglo-American aviators killed 3112 French men, women, children, injured 5228 persons, destroyed 25 hospitals, 44 churches, 118 schools, 31177 homes. Another poster had a proud crusader behind a man on one knee making the Nazi salute. It lists the 21 points against the old regime and for the new order. Some of it sounds just fine: against apathy, anarchy, influence, for enthusiasm, discipline, merit, but tucked away in there is the Jewish leprosy vs the French purity.
After making our way through l’exposition we wandered into a wing of the royal living quarters, which are sparsely furnished, but have enough architectural detail to show the former glory. We also enjoyed a display of archival materials and techniques.
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>> Poster for La Collaboration 1940-1945: Adolf Hitler and Philippe Pétain.
>> Ceiling in the mansion.
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>> A charter on parchment, dated 1230, with 17 of the original green wax seals of 30 barons accusing  Pierre Mauclerc, comte de Bretagne, of intrigue against the regent, Blanche de Castille. (I see a bull trotting briskly to the right, à la Balla’s “Dynamism of a dog on a leash.” Perhaps the barons trampling the count?)
>> Parchment document from Simon de Montfort, dated 1216, paying homage to king Philippe Auguste on receipt of confiscated lands of Raymond VI, comte de Toulouse, who fought valiantly to protect the rights and lives of Cathars living in his domain, but could not hold out against Simon and his mercenaries, who had been promised the spoils of war in exchange for wiping out the heretics.
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>> Some methods of preserving archival materials, primarily text, from sealed linen bags to computer chips: The English translation reads, “Prior to their ultimate storage in the National Archives premises, documents were kept in various conditionings. Until the 19th century, boxes, registers, bundles and rough linen sacks were the main means of archives preservation. The major change of our times undoubtedly came with the adoption card indexes that shows the transition from lists to cards for many processes of people identification and registering. More recently, another major change consists of digital archives management and storage.”[sic] But even with digital management, the original items still must be properly stored if they are to be preserved.

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