Russian Piranesianism

On 4 oktober 2016, in stedenbouw, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Moscow Times of 29 September 2016:


The many works of Piranesi can be admired now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The exhibition will last till 13 November 2016. I read a review in The Moscow Times this week. More than 1.000 square meters of the exhibition space of this great museum opposite the Christ the Saviour church, are dedicated to the etchings of Rome of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the Italian artist who was born in 1720 en lived in Rome from 1740 till his death in 1778. They called him ‘the Rembrandt of the ruins’. More than 400 artworks are on display, amongst them some 100 etching, both from the Pushkin Museum, the Venetian Cini Foundation and the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. Each work is accompanied by a photograph of the same site taken some three centuries later in time. Why this exhibition? And how is it being received in the capital of Russia? In The Moscow Times it was stressed that Piranesi had a huge influence on Russian culture. “The entire idea of the exhibition is to show the predecessors and the teachers of Piranesi as well as his followers, with a focus on Russia.” His influence started with the architects who built the empire of Catherine the Great and who were very much inspired by Piranesi’s drawings of Rome. But also think of the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein. And then, later in the twentieth century, the design of the triumphal columns, obelisks, arches and mausoleums during the Soviet Union, they all were inspired by his genius, so much so that it was called Russian Piranesianism.

Rome always was an example to great emperors. Napoleon, Napoleon III, Stalin, they all wanted to build like their Roman predecessors. Does the exhibition fit in a recent political longing for building a new, greater Moscow agglomeration? Who knows. The Russian metropolitan region is growing fast, bold plans are being made. “Piranesi is not just a style or a genre, he is also the expression of an aspiration always present in the human being, the yearning of a constant creation and demolition,” says Valery Koshlyakov, a Russian contemporary artist. Near the end of the exhibition, Koshlyakov painted  a striking ceiling-high work that demands the attention of the visitors. They will get overwhelmed, for sure. And some lessons will be learned. Dmitry Khanin, for instance, who owns Moscow’s Triumph Gallery, told the Washington Post: “We can see that play of ideas here. One empire trying to build on the ruins of another empire, which has already drowned. It drowns too. You can’t bring back a dead empire, that’s what we learn.” You might say Piranesi fits in the Russian soul.

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15 Years of Amsterdam School

On 25 april 2016, in kunst, by Zef Hemel

Seen on 24 April 2016 in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam:


Great exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam on interior design of the Amsterdam School artists De Klerk, Kramer, Krop and Van der Mey. On the top floor of the museum, over 500 objects are on show in some fifteen rooms, each one with its own theme and atmosphere, all chronologically organized. Each room captures the visitors, together they let people experience a unique history of Amsterdam urban art. Indeed, it’s an explosion of exuberant works of very talented sculptors, designers, and architects. Why Amsterdam? How come? The movement of the Amsterdam School, now hundred years old, emerged after the New Art and Art Nouveau schools, it began in 1916, when the phantasmagoric Scheepvaarthuis at the Prins Hendrikkade opened its doors,and ended in 1928 with the celebration of the Olympic Games in Berlage’s Amsterdam South extension. Then Wall Street crashed, which ended all building not only in Amsterdam, but in all cities of the world. A depression followed, nation-states took over, a war seemed inevitable. Cities burned.

Pity that the organizers didn’t tell the whole story of Amsterdam’s Second Golden Age. All these great works of art were only made possible thanks to the fast economic growth of Amsterdam, which began after 1864, symbolized by the opening of the Amsterdam version of Crystal Palace – het Paleis voor Volksvlijt. True, there are historic films to be seen at the entrance. These fragments show a vibrant city life at the beginning of the twentieth century, the new port and the tramways, new buildings, still slums and poverty, but mostly optimistic people walking, driving, going to the movies, recreating in their new neighborhoods. Clocks are symbols of the new times. They seem  to emphasize a bright future, no looking back as if people forgot that all this great art was built on the Dutch colonies, the Great War, Sarphati, human thrift. So only after fifty years of hard work and city expansion the citizens could harvest. Amsterdam doubled in size. Amsterdam South is the fruit of this grand era. In 1929, when it ended, Berlage was halfway implementing his plan. It ended when the Dutch government intervened and started cutting the municipal budgets because of the crisis. Do visit the South expansion and experience a true urban renaissance! It lasted only fifteen years. Afterwards it never happened again, at least not in this city. Amsterdam became a sleepy, provincial town.

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