Friday, 27 March 2015

Streamer

In my former post I showed you some pictures of a work of art, ‘Open Ended’, by Richard Serra, a steel colossus, once dominating the garden of the old Amsterdam Municipal Museum, now diminished to mere ornamental status in the shadows of a towering, vinyl monstrosity.

Though, in a way, I still like it, the most appealing trait of the rigid, slightly-tilted uprights being their warm, reddish-brown surfaces, especially in bright sunlight. On overcast or rainy days, the structure casts a drab, almost menacing impression by the sheer monumentality of its naked steel parts. Under those conditions, it seems as if the artist’s main intent was to overawe the beholders, to make them feel insignificant beside the glory of his creation, a trait not uncommon in monumental artists and architects of any epoch past and present.

Which reminded me of a different sculpture of oxidized steel, also in Amsterdam, that seems to mock the inherent rigidity of everything ferrous,

here observed from an opposite, less enticing angle, but the lightness of it still exposed by its shadow.

In passing one’s at once surprised by the frivolity of a ribbon of steel bent in such a way as to provoke a feeling of joy and liberation elicited by the paradox of movement expressed in matter. No attempt at grandiosity here, only an artist’s genuine endeavor at catching the meaning of freedom regained by stubborn resistance. The first time I saw it I had to smile.

Freedom regained is exactly what it stands for. From May 1940 till May 1945 Holland was occupied by German Nazi forces, ‘de Moffen’, as we called them. While they were still around, on May 8th, 1945, a vanguard of a thousand Canadian cavalry entered the city of Amsterdam from the south, and liberated its citizens from the Nazi terror. From many a window flew the national colors, red-white-blue, and the orange streamer of the Royal House.

In commemoration, the Canadian invasion was repeated in 1980, and at this occasion the sculpture, named ‘Amsterdam thanks her liberators’, was ceremoniously unveiled by the Mayor and lieutenant colonel Bell Irving of the Canadian Army.

The artist was Jan de Baat, an autodidact, Dutch sculptor who is characterized by his own words in this web page about the monument, where you’ll find several pictures of this joyful, debonair sculpture from different angles. The page is in Dutch, so I’ll translate the salient parts for you.

Wak van licht en lucht / A blowhole of light and sky
“In the indicated place I settled myself on the turf, looked up and saw this enormous blowhole of light and sky. Almost nowhere in Amsterdam an equal place is to be found. ‘I need to reach out into that space,’ was the first thought that came up. And then followed the idea: I wanted a streamer in that blowhole.”

Werkwijze / Course of action
“I wanted to know how a streamer waves. I rented a big blower and connected it to pipes by hoses. I suspended strips of paper, rubber, sailcloth, etc. I made them wave and flutter from different angles and filmed them. So doing I obtained hundreds of black-and-white slides, which I projected upon the wall. The sequel was almost dramatic. I sat down at the table with my wife and said: ‘Make me a mug of coffee, dear, for I seem stuck.’ I took pencil and paper to sketch the cause of the obstruction, put down some lines and… suddenly, I had drawn it! I had become such kind of streamer myself that, at once, I could put it on paper freehand.”

Jan de Baat (1921 - 2010)
“I’m a monumentalist. This means I don’t incorporate personal issues into my sculptures, but I aim at touching the beholder with a thing of beauty. Like, when walking in a wood, you may think: ‘What a lovely tree,’ as such I hope people will experience my sculptures. However, I’m an abstract artist, so my sculptures are abstract.”

In my case, it definitely worked that way.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Walking home

When I was in my early twenties I worked at a private bank on one of Amsterdam’s famous ‘grachten’ (17th century canals). In the morning I took a streetcar to go to work, but in the afternoon or early evening I used to walk back home, which took the better part of an hour.
That time was well spent, on which I'll dwell shortly.

Passing by the Spiegelgracht (Mirror Canal) I headed for the Rijksmuseum (National Museum),

went through the underpass,

which opens unto Museum Square

that stretches to the southwest as far as the Concertgebouw (Concert Hall).

There I took the street beside it - on the left in the photo -

to continue to where I then lived. Often enough, though, I went by different routes, through the Vondelpark, e.g.,

but those were detours that took slightly longer.

Of course, many sights then were different. The underpass of the Rijksmuseum sported no inside glass panes, but solid brick walls; Museum Square was a broad thoroughfare called, mockingly, ‘the shortest motorway in the Netherlands’ (photo 1992).

No fountain on the grounds, no extension of the Van Gogh Museum in its center,

and no ridiculous ‘bathtub’ eyesore to hide the historic 'Stedelijk' (Municipal Museum) from view.
Read 'The New York Times' art critic, Michael Kimmelman's Dec. 2012 article, Why is this Museum shaped like a tub? Priceless.

Instead, the Stedelijk had a secluded garden, through which I liked to stroll in passing,

with a public sandbox,

a fountain where some mad contraption of Jean Tinguely spurted jets of water into the pool in front of the restaurant terrace and there was this sculpture, 'Open Ended', by Richard Serra

standing in the center of the garden - as you can spot in the aerial photo. When you step inside the structure and look upward, you’ll see a perfect triangle of sky. It really is huge, but now, in its new location - scroll back up to the picture of the Van Gogh Museum - optically dwarfed by the monstrous ‘bathtub’.
On a side note, make a mental effort to flip the triangle to the front of the picture. The graphic impression is even more astounding.

Walking home from the office I took advantage of this spare hour to rehearse the conjugations of classical Greek verbs. Not exactly for fun, though under conditions as splendid any mental activity would have passed for a pastime, but in the course of my taking evening classes to finish grammar school.
Being familiar with Latin and Greek, plain English, to me, was still a very foreign language. It’s hard to imagine, these days, but in my youth French was the language of preference. It was taught on a voluntary basis from the fourth grade of elementary school, but English? Never.

When I was in evening class I read ‘In de Ban van de Ring’ (Lord of the Rings) in Dutch and was enchanted by it. Later, when I stumbled upon a copy of ‘The Hobbit’ in an international bookshop, I decided to take the plunge and read it in English. That must have been my first dip into English literature in the original. Soon I found a copy of Tennyson’s collected poems in a secondhand bookstall in the ‘Oudemanhuispoort’ on the University’s premises.

From it I retained a lifelong dedication to ‘The Voyage of Maeldune’ - which I translated into Dutch in lyrical prose, published as a free iBook, recently - and to ‘The Lady of Shalott’, which I learned by heart, all one hundred and seventy one lines of it. Need I tell you I rehearsed its nineteen stanzas many times while walking home from the office?

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the fields the road runs by
      To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
      The island of Shalott.

The full poem can be read here.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Elysium

Nigh unto disproving my own thesis in the former post on the impossibility of truly translating a lyrical poem I did just that.
Having chosen a Dutch poem of my own, in accord with the season, I translated it into English and, to myself, I must admit it’s hardly different, same imagery, same rhyme scheme, power of expression hardly less, if at all, though words seem dancing to the quirks of a new puppetmaster.

Elysium

Easter has come and Spring is roaring
Offices empty into sidewalk cafes
Still in wintry wraps absorbing

Sunlight broke through glasses raised
When White beer chinks with ruby port
A toast to new life highly praised

Dying to thrive it yet withholds...
Skies blue, bare trees, soil still black
Until Love’s warmth again be back

The original, written in April, 2001, I present here for comparison.

Weer werd het Pasen en de lente brult
Kantoren stromen leeg in een terras
En absorberen nog in winterjas gehuld

Zonlicht brak door glas geheven
Als Wiekse Witte klinkt met rode port
Op het nieuwe leven.

Het wil eruit, maar houdt nog even in
Strakke lucht, kale takken, zwarte grond
Tot de warme liefde komt

Monday, 9 March 2015

Vera Janacopoulos, a cantilena

Presenting to you, my dear, English-reading ‘audience’, an intriguing poem I learned by heart in my teens. It’s a specimen of po├ęsie pure and titled ‘Vera Janacopoulos’ (a Brazilian singer of Greek descent), subtitled ‘cantilene’, which in Italian means ‘a song’. The poet was Jan Engelman (1900-1972), a rather controversial Dutch poet, as he wrote erotic poetry in puritanical times - the Thirties and Fourties - and didn’t seem to fit into any contemporary literary movement.

Not every poem invites to be sung, but this one, being ‘pure poetry’, sounds like a song by sheer merit of its words even in our harsh, Dutch tongue.

At first, the poem itself.
Ambrosia, wat vloeit mij aan?
Uw schedelveld is koeler maan
En alle appels blozen.

De klankgazelle die ik vond,
Hoe zoete, zoele kindermond
Van zeeschuim en van rozen.

O Muze in het morgenlicht,
O minnares en slank gedicht,
Er is een god verscholen.

Violen vlagen op het mos,
Elysium, de vlinders los
En duizendjarig dolen.
Now, that doesn’t make much sense, does it? Even if you skip the meaning of words and try to play it by ear you’re put on the wrong leg, as our vowels and diphthongs make a mockery of English spelling rules, or vice versa. Our vowels sound like they do in Italian, be it shorter and less melodious. Our language isn’t called ‘Low German’ for nothing, after all.
But I’ll help you on. One of our singers, Lenny Kuhr, of Eurovision Song Contest fame, be it from 1969, set this poem to music and I found a YouTube clip of her performing.



Did you like it? At least, you’ve got an impression of how the words should be properly pronounced. Personally, though, I feel at odds with the melody, her musical interpretation of the poem, but let’s be generous.

But what does it all mean? Is meaning of importance, if the true test of the poem lies in its ability to please the ear, to be a concatenation of sounds, like music, that agrees with our sensual predilections?
In that case, you who don’t know Dutch be the true arbiter.
No meanings to distract you from an experience of pure sound.

According to literary critics, though, the meaning of its words does add to the experience of the poem as a whole, as words generate associations, vistas, ideas, feelings that can’t be evoked by sounds alone. The sounds and their meaning are the two different sides of the same coin.
So, I seem to owe you a translation, or let’s call it a transcription, because any poem not epic is impossible to truly translate.

Here goes...
Ambrosia, what’s flowing onto me?
Your cranial field is cooler moon
And all apples are blushing.

The tone gazelle that I found
How sweet the balmy child’s mouth
Of sea foam and of roses.

O Muse in the morning light,
O beloved mistress and svelte poem,
There is a god in hiding.

Violets flaring upon the moss
Elysium, release the butterflies
And a thousand years of roaming.
I tried to warn you in advance: in translation, without the magic of alliteration, rhyme and melody, it’s gibberish. It’s pure impressionist, allegedly jotted down by Jan Engelman in five minutes at a bar table after he'd heard Vera Janacopoulos sing at the Opera House. He must have been rather smitten by her voice or, apart from poetic license, he wouldn’t have imagined her as the slender nymph Ambrosia who rose up from the sea at full moon to meet him and send him forth on an ecstatic, millennial quest in a cloud of butterflies.
In Dutch, however, it makes perfect sense, if mainly by the mystery of its music.