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The last station

February 1st, 2014 by Willem Jan Renders

“Mind your step!” Like a computerized mantra this warning sounds louder and quieter all through the departure hall of Schiphol Airport. Sometimes it is more distant and other times it is so near that you really have to mind your step on the treadmill. After a while it becomes abstract and mingles with the other sounds: snatches of conversations, intercom announcements and the continuous murmur of the airconditioning.

While I doze off these sounds become a ‘zaum’ poem by Chlebnikov:

 

-  -  -  -  -  -

schschschschsch

-       .        .

pom pom pom

-      -  .    .   .   -   -    .   .

wiw ta pa zj zj ov flt tu tu

 

These three sound sentences are to be performed simultaneously and ‘ad infinitum’: airport poetry.

 

“Mind your step” is also the motto while installing the Lissitzky – Kabakov exhibition in the Kunsthaus in Graz. It is the final venue of the tour, after the Van Abbemuseum, the Hermitage and the Multimedia Art Museum. We have little time to install but everything is well prepared. Now the transports have just arrived and crates are everywhere. You have to look carefully where to walk and there is no computer voice to warn you. Art works are being unpacked and the empty crates are labelled ‘empty’ and removed. This is the peeling of the potatoes and the slicing of the onions. After this comes the washing of the vegetables. The kitchen works at full speed to get the meal ready in time…

My colleague Diederik Koppelmans is working on the installation of the ‘Pressa Star’, a model after the huge star that Lissitzky made for the ‘International Press Exhibition’ that was held in Cologne in 1928. Diederik has two technicians to help him. The first thing is to hang the black circle with the words “Proletarians Of The World Unite” in German. They are almost finished. How is that for a motto?

the upper part of the Pressa Start is being installed

A Wedge To Open The New Year

January 1st, 2014 by Willem Jan Renders

A few weeks ago I promised not to write about the nice trips I make and the interesting people I meet, at least not for the time being. Many people fill their Facebook pages with that kind of information and pictures, assuring us that their life is one marvellous success story. I thought I would be able to keep myself away from that, but reading back I suddenly noticed that all sorts of glamor aspects of my work had entered unwittingly in this kitchen blog: a visit to a big city, an interesting international conference, a meeting with this or that person, huge receptions, copious dinners, delicious champagne and ice cold vodka richly flowing. I was caught in the blogger’s trap of keeping up Facebook appearances you could say. And that is the last thing I want.

Moreover I would like to ban this kind of ‘personal promotion’ from this kitchen blog because my working life is not at all only success and people around me fortunately are not always smiling into the camera. A lot of work is just work that needs to be done; planning, budgeting, letters, e-mails, meetings, contracts, payments and invoices. The cooking starts with the peeling and cutting of onions. My work for the Van Abbemuseum surely has its glamorous aspects, but all in all the glitter is only 5 percent I guess. So let’s talk about everyday down to earth work, about the 95 percent of sweat and about things that provide new ideas. Inspitranspiration.

The red wedge in our garden

 

While chopping wood for the stove during the holidays (real work just for pleasure) I remembered Lissitzky’s Red Wedge and suddenly realized why this is such a strong image. It is an abstract form, a triangle with two equal corners and one sharper one, let’s say two of 80 and one of 20 degrees. It remains just a triangle until you call it a wedge. You need a wedge to break strong solids that you cannot break with your bare hands. I needed it to split thick trunks that were too big for the stove. The wedge is the tool that enables you to do this; it is an extension of your hands for this purpose. It splits the solid into pieces that can be handled, dealt with.

 

 

El Lissitzky, Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge, 1920

 

You need a kind of wedge too if you want to split the opposing political party, or deal with a massive block of problems. So you draw the triangle, call it a wedge and show how it breaks what needs to be broken. The image shows that the problem can be solved and that the block can indeed be split. It encourages you to do so. Your work will not be in vain. Do not lean back in apathy thinking there is no solution. No, jump up, take a wedge and beat it into the opposing block! Slash and split it!

 

 

 

Nikolai Kolli, Red Wedge, Decoration on the occasion of the first anniversary of the October Revolution, 1918

 

Of course this metaphorical use of the wedge is propaganda. There is nothing wrong with that. You could also call it useful art. The image of the wedge can be used to activate people and to show that their purposeful action can indeed have results. Thus it was used by Lissitzky during the Civil War in 1920, but also by Nikolai Kolli before him in a design for a decoration on the occasion of the first anniversary of the Revolution.

 

 

 

Poster in Hamburg, 2013. Photo: Albert Lemmens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the image of the red wedge is still useful today as I saw on a political poster a few weeks ago in Hamburg. I also found a pink version of the wedge on a shirt recently designed by students of ArtEZ in support of the suppressed Russian LGBT community.

Shirt by ArtEZ students, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There will be more of these visual wedges to break heavy blocks because the wedge works both literally and as an image. It is truly a tool for conviviality. Only once in a while it needs sharpening.

Why Unovis today?

November 27th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

(Late again with this post!)

So why would it be a good idea to bring the Unovis movement to life again? First of all I think because there is a lot of inspiration and fresh ideas to be found in Unovis. We are talking about a crisis now, but we can hardly imagine the social situation in which the members of Unovis were working in Vitebsk at the time: post revolutionary civil war, lack of food and other basic materials, hardly any paper etc. Considering these circumstances it is the more remarkable to see what artistic ideas and plans were developed by Unovis. To put art in service of the development of a new society for instance, is an idea that is still very inspiring, at least to me. (Fortunately to some other people too!)

And then we must also take into account that Unovis was never fully developed. The movement ended much too soon because the contemporary authorities considered it too radical and more important: they thought that the art of Unovis would never be understood by the masses. The movement has never fully been able to prove its use. This was more or less the message of my short lecture.

Can you hear me stumbling in Russian?

 

(You can find the Dutch and Russian text of my lecture here. Unovis NOW lecture Dutch and Russian Sorry, no English this time!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I announced that together with a few other museums we are working out the concept of an exhibition on Unovis (still very preliminary, but a serious and very big project). And I suggested that it would be a good idea on the other hand to bring Unovis as a movement back to life again in Vitebsk and see if its ideas could be applied to the present situation. There were some interesting questions after my lecture, but so far no one has come to me or mailed me to say that he or she wants to participate. So let’s wait and see what comes out of it. If no one in Vitebsk is really interested in our proposal, we will not go on with it of course.

just soap

 

and just shampoo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On my first visit to Vitebsk I saw a lorry – one of these heavy stinking machines with a simple big box built on the back – and on it only one word was written: ХЛЕБ (BREAD). I had never before seen such a functional indication of the content of a lorry. And I saw one of these lorries again on my last day in Vitebsk, walking over Victory Square to my hotel after many toasts on the future of the arts in Vitebsk, on future collaborations and on the Unovis revival. This time the word was painted in a different Cyrillic font, but still it simply stated: ХЛЕБ. When I came back in my hotel room, I noticed that the soap and shampoo wrappers were stating their content in the same functional way and I realised that I like this kind of direct no nonsense very much. The container just states what’s in it.

The other side of Victory Square in Vitebsk

The alarm clock woke me at 3 a.m. and half an hour later Alexander was there to pick me up with a car and chauffeur. He had arranged this for me because of my long trip from Minsk to Vitebsk that I described earlier. There would be no receipt of course, but for a relatively small amount I would go directly from my hotel to the airport 500 kilometres away. I had told Alexander there was no need to come along, but he insisted. So together we started our ‘Voyage au bout de la nuit’ over endlessly straight and dark Belarussian highways. The good Alexander had brought some sandwiches that tasted deliciously and most of the journey we did not speak. After a very pleasant silence of about four hours on the road I said goodbye to Alexander on the airport in Minsk and tried to sleep a bit in an uncomfortable chair, waiting for the check-in to open. At least I was in time for my plane…

From Unovis to uNOWis

November 14th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

Left group of the Victory Square in Vitebsk (4 ha.)

Right group of the Victory Square in Vitebsk (4 ha.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I did it! I really did it! My first lecture in Russian! Only one year ago I would never have thought myself capable of doing this. Yesterday evening Alexander sent me some final improvements of the Russian text and after my lecture this morning he was full of compliments. Yes, they understood what I said! All the way from the conference to my hotel, all the way over Victory Square, along the long Lenin Boulevard and crossing Freedom Square I was singing ‘I did it my way’. Not too loud of course. You never know if there’s a law against singing in the streets here. Frank Sinatra might still be the enemy…

Alexander Lisov

 

So what was my lecture about? (As if that is of any importance in my euphoric mood!) It was about Unovis (Утвердитили нового искусства, the protagonists of new art). Malevich and Lissitzky founded the Unovis movement in Vitebsk in 1919 when they were teaching at the People’s Art School. But it was not so much on the history of this movement that I talked; it was a proposal to start Unovis again, here, in the city where it was founded some hundred years ago. Unovis today. Уновис сегодня. I cannot stop anymore.

 

The Unovis logo

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next question is of course why I would travel all the way here to propose this. But in order to post this text on time, we will save that for the next.

How on earth do you get to Vitebsk?

November 12th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

Let’s try to be in time again with this blog and give you some real news. After all a blog tries to be as near to the actual events as you can get. Il faut-être de son temps.

Sitting and waiting near the gate for my flight to Minsk at Schiphol airport and starting this new edition of the kitchen blog I ask myself why I’m always writing when travelling and never when working in the museum or at home. Sure, a lot of the preparations for our projects are negotiations, lectures and discussions that need travelling, but far more of the ‘cooking’ is done by means of a computer and a telephone behind a desk and in meetings in our offices. Maybe I write while travelling because of the idea that a lot more happens when you are on the road and maybe too on the other hand because what happens behind the museum desk seems not worth mentioning. But if you as a reader of this kitchen blog want to sneak into our kitchen and see, smell and taste some of the cooking being done this restriction would mean that you would miss the peeling of the potatoes, the cleaning of the vegetables and the slicing of the onions. And similar work is the major part of what needs to be done in order to get the museum meal ready. So I promise you now that I will write on some of that more mechanical and less ‘heroic’ preparatory work when I’m back.

Already in the air I decide to first write about the purpose of this trip. Tonight, somewhere between ten and eleven local time, I hope to arrive in Vitebsk, in the north of Belarus. So maybe I can publish this first part then.

 

El Lissitzky, Design for a city decoration in Vitebsk, 1921

 

Vitebsk started to interest me some six or seven years ago when we in the Van Abbemuseum bought a work by Lissitzky – or at least we think it is – and I started wondering where it had been made and for what purpose. Supposedly it was a design for the decoration of a building in Vitebsk, made by Lissitzky during the time when he was teaching there or just after that.

 

 

 

 

 

Detail: the building near the theatre

 

Through e-mail I got into contact with Professor Alexander Lisov, an expert on Lissitzky and teaching at the university of Vitebsk. He was able to ascertain the place on the photograph, a building near the central square where the main theatre is located. The building on the photo does not exist anymore. The Germans have destroyed this building during the Second World War and many other parts of the city.

 

 

Detail from the backside: label of the Museum of Artistic Culture in St. Petersburg

 

As happens often, with these first answers more questions arose around this work, especially about what was written on the back of it. Because my interest grew in what Lissitzky was doing in Vitebsk at the time I managed to get a small research budget and some time to go to there and look for further information. During this first visit in 2008 Alexander Lisov showed me around and took me to the places related to Lissitzky that are still there. Amongst them was the building where Marc Chagall founded the People’s Art School in 1918. Lissitzky was a teacher there and led the graphic department. I still vividly remember the first time I set foot on these historic grounds. After that I have been to Vitebsk one more time to do further research. And now I am going to give a lecture on the artistic movement that was founded in this very building of the People’s Art School!

 

If you want to go to Vitebsk in four hours, don’t take this train!

 

But to get to Vitebsk was by no means easy this time. I sat in a cab far too long because of the traffic jam in Minsk, I missed two trains searching for a cash machine in the main station, had to wait four hours for the next train and then tried to sleep in a coupé during an eight hour journey that normally takes four hours. So this blog is posted way too late. Anyway, I’m there. Tomorrow morning is my lecture. It’s the first one I do in Russian…

 

More old news: the Moscow morning after and later in London

November 9th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

(Still in Moscow in September 2013) The morning after the opening Charles and I decide to take a look in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, now called the Pussy Riot Church by many. This Cathedral was demolished by the Soviets in the early thirties. They made a large swimming pool on the spot. But religion – opium for the people – was as inextinguishable as real opium. The story goes that in the fifties you could secretly get baptised here while swimming around with a priest in swimming trunks, you could say undercover. Now the cathedral has been re-built and the well-polished golden cupolas can be seen from quite a distance in Moscow. You can already hear the low singing voices of the not so undercover priests when you are near this huge building because they put up large television screens outside were you can see and hear recordings of heyday masses. Tourists are warned outside by several pictograms not to use their mobile telephone and not to take pictures. But Charles is not a tourist of course, so in the church he takes his telephone to make a picture of the main altar where the riot girls were ‘praying’ to get rid of Putin. Two offences in one act: using you phone and taking a picture. Immediately we are led out of the church in a rather brusque manner. “Out, out!”

After this short visit to the cathedral we go to the Big Manege to see a bit of the Moscow Biennial that will open tomorrow. The show is not ready yet – in fact there is still a lot to be done – but we can go in already and have a chat with Joseph Backstein, the founder of this Biennial. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the omnipresent curator, you could say the most international of us all, is also there, helping to finish the installation. But however much I would like to go on to see the Biennial, I leave Charles after this visit because I still have to work on a lecture that I will give in London in two days. Duty calls. I already have prepared a bit of text and some images, but there’s no structure yet. It must be good. So I eat a sandwich and go back to the hotel to work.

Kate Fowl, Ilya Kabakov, John Baldessari, Hans Ulrich Obrist

I skip the public conversation between Ilya Kabakov and John Baldessari, a polite clash between two cultures. John talks about I and Ilya about we. John talks about what he does, Ilya about what should be done. But I said I would skip it, so I will not talk about Dasha Zukhova and her bodyguards, about the old man in the room that was not allowed to speak and about the enormous amounts of food afterwards in the Strelka Bar.

 

In stead I will take you to London where I went the next day.

“Good evening! How are you today, sir?” Coming from Moscow to London you immediately notice the English politeness, especially when arriving late at night in The Bloomsbury. What a splendid hotel they put me in! GRAD, where I will give my lecture tomorrow, said they would book a room for me. But this is really something! A pity my wife could not join me.

I wake up early, finish my lecture and check if it is less than the twenty minutes allowed to speak. It’s so clumsy to exceed the permitted time in a conference. Moreover, it often takes away time from other speakers. I decide to walk to GRAD and see a little of central London. On Oxford Street I pass at least 4 couples speaking Russian and still a bit sleepy I have to convince myself that I am really in London.

Klucis’s Bookstand by Henry Milner in GRAD

 

Everything is ready for my lecture and I go and get a bagel around the corner with one of the people from GRAD. When I come back John Milner is there. He’s the professor from the Courtauld Institute with whom we made the Lissitzky+ exhibition in 2009 so we know each other for some years already. John has the nice habit of introducing me to a lot of people that can help me with my Russian Avant-garde exhibitions. He seems to know everyone in this field. I will ask him to help me find a researcher who is fluent in Russian and English because there’s a lot of archival research needed for our next big project on UNOVIS.

 

 

 

 

Tatlin’s Tower and Letatlin by Henry Milner in GRAD

 

My lecture went OK and I notice there is a lot of interest here in what we are doing with the work of Lissitzky. The models Henry Milner made after sketches and lithographs in our collection are on display here and I wrote an essay on them in the catalogue. You could say I am here on a big promotion tour for our museum. The only difference is that we do not have to pay for this propaganda, on the contrary: we get paid for it! John introduces me to even more people that can be helpful with my new project. One of his bright and pretty female students whom I met in Moscow earlier this year now works for the Russian art department of Sotheby’s. She promises to look out for more UNOVIS works on the market. I shake hands with many more interesting people. How good that I took extra business cards! I have only a few left now.

The snacks and drinks are delicious but I am very tired and decide to go to my hotel for a long night of sleep. The pubs are piling out and half of London seems to be drunk or on its way to get there. After two beers from the minibar and some boring television a deep sleep takes me far away into unconsciousness.

In the morning I find the invoice for the beers passed under the door and The Times before it. Before breakfast I read the fresh comment of Giles Coren on the London Fashion Week: “Ye Gods, what a procession of vain lunacy and simpering dimness. What a mockery of all that is modest and decent. What a hideous picture of female priorities and preoccupations. What a nuclear explosion of vomitous superficiality, custom-made and hand finished to blast the public perception of women back to the Stone Age.”

(www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/gilescoren/article3875228.ece)

Oh, could I only write like that in English! We don’t have this kind of eloquent critique in Dutch newspapers. Quite refreshing!

Yesterday they put a booklet on the history of The Bloomsbury on the table in my room because I asked a few questions about the building at the reception. I ask if I can keep it and I can. “Good morning sir. How are you today?” I treat myself to a delicious omelette for breakfast; have a coffee and go and pack. Before leaving I go and see the library of Seamus Heany. He donated it to The Bloomsbury. What a place to read! In the lobby they serve you ice tea while waiting for the taxi and give you a little bottle of mineral water on the go. I have to be careful not to become used to this kind of service.

The taxi driver is a nice elderly man. I tell him I want to go to Victoria Station and he asks if I am going to Gatwick. I answer him that I am going to Stansted and he politely says: “I didn’t know you could go to Stansted from Victoria. I immediately realize that I have made a mistake: I came from Gatwick to Victoria, but now I should go to Liverpool Station to go to Stansted. I tell the driver so and thank him for his remark.

Luckily my suitcase turns out to be less than 20 kilogram at the airport. But my backpack is heavily loaded with books and it is not weighed. It’s been a long journey and I feel the weight, not only of my luggage. I look forward to see my wife again and spend the weekend together. Next week I will be in London again with our Promotors…

 

Old news: James was here!

October 12th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

Some of my readers (yes, they exist!) mistook the date of publishing the episodes in this blog for the date of the events described. Others took my long silence for a sign of absence. So please make no mistake: I am still alive and kicking, but this is old news, or maybe just a description of old events and no news at all. In this story we have now arrived at 16 September 2013 and we are still in Moscow.

press conference

The opening starts with a crowded press conference. Everybody has to say something and I am glad Charles is here to take the stage. Not that I do not know what to say, but Charles is a far better speaker. Before he can start, the director of MAMM, Olga Sviblova, has a long introduction. Then Ilya says a few words and among the people he thanks he mentions James. I know Ilya always calls Charles James and I have never been able to correct him. But Olga Sviblova thinks that Ilya is thanking me and after Ilya has finished she starts saying thank you to all contributors. So she thanks Charles and she also thanks James while pointing to me in the front row.

Who the hell is James?

To make it even more confusing after this Charles thanks Willem Jan Renders! I think no one noticed…

The opening has even more speeches and now I am even gladder that Charles is here to play his role. Nobody listens to opening speeches in Russia. The opening crowd here is only interested in the buffet and in each other. So I can quietly drink champagne and talk to some people from Moscow that I invited for the opening while Charles is standing on the podium for half an hour waiting for his turn to speak.

Charles speaking and nobody listening

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile James seems to have disappeared. I meet some colleagues from the Netherlands that congratulate me with the exhibition and some Russian acquaintances that came especially to see me, but I do not have much time to talk to them because someone from the museum comes to take me to the cars that are waiting outside in the rain to take us to the restaurant for dinner. I must say I could use some food. But first there is more champagne and some snacks there. Let’s call it ‘building up an appetite’…

Where’s the real food?

 

 
The horn of plenty

Thymen Kouwenaar of the Dutch Embassy is so kind to drive Charles and me to our hotel in his beautiful Wolga dating from the sixties. Which reminds me to mention the financial support from the Embassy in the preparatory stage of this exhibition, three years ago.

This was also possible thanks to the Dutch Embassy in Moscow

 

 

Thank you once again!

 

 

 

 

There are no thoughts left and no dreams possible, only a comatose sleep and a feeling of deep satisfaction in the morning.

(And thanks to Albert Lemmens for the photographs)

Hanging, hanging over again and a hangover

September 19th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

Academic hanging in one of the Lissitzky rooms in MAMM

“A bit to the right, a bit down. That’s ok. Next one.” The walls have to be filled. These are the ‘dog days’. I don’t know if it is an expression in English – there is a movie called ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ – but in Dutch it means that you have to work real hard in the bloody heat to get the harvest in. Now if you leave the heat out and position me in a fully air-conditioned museum in rainy Moscow you have my current dog days. I start at 8 in the morning and work until 10, 11 in the evening. As breaks I have just a little coffee or a sandwich in between the scenes. But I am not complaining. On the contrary. There is a good technical team here, sometimes a bit rough with the artworks, but they work very fast and precise. And their days are also very long, so I am not the only one. My Russian is getting better and better because I have to explain everything I want them to do in Russian. “That can be hung.” “это можно повесить.” A bit up, the right a bit down. There is too much light on this drawing. Can you dim it?

Acadynamic hanging in the same room

Back from Mondrian in the New Tretyakov I go directly to the museum to select the Lissitzky photographs and to put them in place before the walls on the balcony. It’s Friday and we have two more days. I keep telling myself not to get nervous but it does not help. We all work very hard but I doubt if we can open on Monday. There is so much to do! The texts also need to be in the right place…

Meanwhile some of the rooms begin to look like an exhibition

In the evening I have a quick bite to eat and I am off to the concert of the Kyteman Orchestra in Gorki Park. They have a very good rapper who sings in French, but I am not sure if he really is French. But the French rap gives me goose pickles. The other singers are also very good. But the Don Kosack choir stood on the stage too long without doing anything, just as a living background. Some of the compositions are a bit too lengthy but all in all it’s a good concert. Luckily I brought my umbrella because it is starting to rain again. I cannot support it with facts, but I get the impression that it’s not because of the bad weather that there are not so many people here. Such a big and costly free concert should attract at least four times as many people. I doubt if many music lovers in Moscow knew that this orchestra was coming. Or maybe they knew it but they did not know that they make such good music.

Nearby in a restaurant in Gorki Park is a reception of the Dutch Embassy. I did not print my invitation but luckily they have someone with a list of names, so I can get in. Here they have good, fresh, sparkling champagne and the tables are filled with food. Crisis? What crisis? Thymen Kouwenaar from the Embassy introduces me to our minister Bussemaker as “an expert on Russian art from the Van Abbemuseum” and I have to explain to her what I am doing here and where our exhibition will travel. I tell her that the show will go to Graz after Moscow. She asks if our Lissitzky works will be coming back to the Netherlands (!) and I assure her that we will take care of that. Then there is another person waiting to be introduced to the minister. He’s a director of Shell and I doubt if we have much to talk on, so I politely say goodbye. That will be all of my diplomacy for today and I sprinkle a few more conversations with a few more glasses of champagne and taste some of the food. Before leaving early I beg someone for a cigarette. It tasted delicious but it I had a sour throat the next morning. And the hanging started early.

Lissitzky poster heavily damaged

September 15th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

El Lissitzky, Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge, 1920, poster heavily damaged

The famous Lissitzky poster Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge (1920) has been heavily damaged in the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow. In the middle there’s a big hole and pieces of paper are hanging down.

What the hell has happened?

Lissitzky poster in the central hall of the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow

Yesterday evening, Friday 13 September 2013, an Angel has miraculously fallen down through the roof of the museum, through the center of the poster.

Fallen Angel

The technical staff from the museum is assisting in putting together the Angel again.

Ilya Kabakov installing the Fallen Angel

The Angel will probably never be able to fly again. She will stay in intensive care here until the end of the exhibition.

Fallen Angel lying on the ground

And the Lissitzky poster will never be the same again.

Hello goodbye!

September 15th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

 

Checking the condition of the paintings.

After what feels like a long day already I leave the museum in the afternoon to go to the opening of the Mondrian exhibition and it’s raining. It’s not a long walk across the bridge to the New Tretyakov Museum, but I feel my legs getting heavier and heavier each day because of the miles (or kilometres) I walk from one room to the other in the seven-story museum building. And now, outside in the Moscow autumn rain without an umbrella, I suddenly feel very tired. Luckily my hotel is on the way and they have an umbrella with their name in big letters on it in each room, so I only have to pick it up and go across the street to a coffee house (Кофе Хауз, the Russian Starbucks) where you can quickly get a double espresso. Once I called it ‘twin espresso’ in Russian and the waitress could not stop laughing. So now I know how to order a ‘double espresso’ in Russian. I follow an intensive course in the school of life…

What a marvellous drug coffee is! I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain. What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again! The umbrella does not fit in the song.

The second floor of the New Tretyakov (we would call it the first floor) is crowded with cultural people, politicians and diplomats gathered here because the Dutch minister Jet Bussemaker will open the exhibition. There is also the Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven who has just given a press conference on his oeuvre. A lot of Dutch people secretly glance at him, but the Russians have no idea who he is. Large tables filled with glasses of champagne form the golden frame of this cheerfully chatting company. The wine is getting hot and it’s loosing its bubbles because everyone has to refrain from drinking until the speeches are over. I see some people I know, but they are busy talking and I don’t want to talk. There is still some time to go upstairs and see the works in the collection on display on the fourth floor (yes: our third). It’s a large and beautiful collection of Russian and Soviet paintings and some sculptures from the end of the 19th century until the fifties / sixties of the last century. Each time I am in Moscow I go here to rehearse. Who has ever heard of Konchalovsky or Klutsis? There are so many surprising artworks here that we do not know in the West.

In the exhibition rooms upstairs I hear the start of the speeches under me and I quietly go on with my rehearsing walk. All speeches have to be translated, either from English to Russian or the other way round, so that may take some time. It means each speech will at least be twice as long. I think of the champagne that must be tepid and flat by then and I decide to skip it. It’s better for me not to drink now anyway because I still have to work and drinking will only make me tired again. I will just go and see the Mondrian exhibition, shake some hands and leave again.

Almost at the end of the speeches I go down to the second floor and on the stairs I am just in time to hear our minister state that she’s had constructive talks with her Russian colleague about gay rights, apparently forgetting for a moment that since a few weeks there is a law here that de facto bans public affection by LGBT people. As she has been able to establish there is a growing fear here that the situation will deteriorate. After this pearl of Dutch diplomacy I see the happy crowd rushing to the drinks and snacks. Instead of joining them I follow the Russian and Dutch ministers into the freshly opened exhibition that turns out to be surprisingly small, academic, but well done. Hello and goodbye to this and that person. We will see each other tonight (and say hello again…).


Van Abbemuseum