Monday, 4 July 2011

Romanians in the museum

Andrei Plesu writing in Dilema in 2006: 

Much less numerous and not at all willing to invest their money into a paid visit, they organise themselves by criteria that are other than the usual ones. One of their characteristics is their interest in the other visitors; in what those wear, or how they behave, or what their taste options are. “Let’s see what those ones are looking at!” is a current strategic principle as well as, paradoxically, its opposite: “Quick, let’s go to Mona Lisa while there’s no crowd!”. Individualists, Romanians prefer the solitary visit or the small group (family or work colleagues), a situation in which hierarchies of expertise are born spontaneously and are as firm as they are arbitrary: one of the persons becomes, by some mysterious decanting of authority, the other ones’ guide.
Before 1989, I saw such a commando of my compatriots, made up of three of them, piously walking through the halls of the “Van Gogh” Museum in Amsterdam. Pleasantly impressed by their cultural zeal (especially since at the time, I wasn’t in too much doubt about their professional background), I followed them, discreetly and sentimentally, to enjoy their enjoyment. One of them promptly took up the role of the guide: in front of each work of art, he would take an efficient fencing-like lunge towards the label, to then communicate to his comrades the essential piece of information. For some reason, the fellow had decided that in the case at hand, the essential piece of information was the date. He would therefore lean over to read the inscription next to the image, after which he would reveal to his fellows what they were to retain: 1884! The fellows would nod meditatively, with a well-sensed mixture of comprehension and perplexity. In the next moment, the triad would take a lateral step to the right, our man would lean forward again, he would read the label and would whisper, troubled: 1884! The same reaction, the same manoeuvre to the right, and again: 1884! The coincidence started to be revealing. One of the other two couldn’t hold it within himself any more and, stolen by sublime effusion, he moaned aporetically*: “Did that man paint a lot in 1884!” At which point it was the consecrated “guide”'s turn to re-enter his rights: “What do you expect; he wasn’t a colossus for nothing!” This episode, just as our country’s entire history, is untranslatable!

I think Romanians - both rich and middling class - do like to go on holiday in often very large groups. This may be a transitory phenomenon. Until twenty years ago one only saw Japanese tourists in large coach parties but now solitary Japanese travellers are rather common and coach parties rare. Maybe it is  legacy of communism. Certainly looking at museums is about intellectual, social and racial hierarchy and could furnish material for a book. Anglo-Saxons are looking, Latins were previously looked at. The Japanese tourist is sub-consciously resented by Europeans because he looks at Europeans rather than is looked at by them, an inversion of the colonial order of things. 

A friend of mine was in the Louvre standing behind a couple from Northern England looking at a painting by one of the Impressionists. The man turned to the woman and said in a Yorkshire accent,  'See that painting? That painting's over a hundred years old.'

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