Monday, May 6, 2013

The play of memory


When I was in the Pushkin gallery in Moscow recently, a gallery I know intimately, I was surprised to discover this fabulous painting of an old woman by Rembrandt was not there. If you had asked me at the time to swear on my mother's life (and she was with me) that this painting belonged in the Pushkin, I would have been tempted to such a wager!

But it is not! In fact, it is in Stockholm's National Gallery where I have seen it, not multiple times (as I might in the Pushkin) but, only once, on a brief visit between meetings a year or so ago!

This can be read as a testimony to the arresting nature of Rembrandt's art. The ability to create familiarity instantly. Love at first sight! It can be read as the fickleness of memory, that it plays tricks is a cliche, but cliches are only truths grown over familiar!

But interestingly I think there was another dimension at play. The major exhibition at the Stockholm gallery at the time was only too familiar namely nineteenth century Russian art. It remains a surprise to see it travelling (though it ought for being uniquely itself and of high quality and still unfamiliar).  So I was amongst friends, especially my beloved Nesterov: what could be more natural than to insert a newly loved painting (the Rembrandt) into this familiar matrix of memory and carry it over into its most likely contiguous space - the Pushkin in Moscow - down the road and over the river but close to the nineteenth century Russian arts most likely resting place at the Tretyakov!

This illustrates rather beautifully the creativity of memory: what we are beholding is not 'what happened' but a creative elaboration of our pasts, made to fit within spaces at once familiar, safe and conforming with prejudice (seen as a neutral term). The questioning of memory thus becomes not only 'what happened' but what do I need to have happened in order that it make sense and in that questioning I need a much deeper sense of my own assumptions than I would normally assume!

A painting to be loved must require familiarity (I assume) and that familiarity must come from repeated seeing (I assume) thus it must be in a place regularly visited (I assume).

All of which proved to be wholly questionable!


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