Thursday, March 17, 2011

Disaster Tourists (and Linen Bleachers)



Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn,  View of Bloemendaal with the Saxenburg country estate, 1651, Etching and drypoint  (Reader note: Click on image to enlarge.)

        It’s purely a coincidence to be continuing last evening's Dutch escapist theme (the post describing  Hanny’s Voorwerp, the mysterious Green Blob in the Milky Way --  De Melkweg in Dutch -- that is giving birth to new stars), but I was very pleased and comforted yesterday to read the press release from the Rijksmuseum announcing their Dutch Wilderness landscape drawing and print show, which will be on view in Amsterdam from March 15th through June 20th.

        The exhibition showcases works by masters including Hendrick Goltzius, Rembrandt (whose 1651 etching and drypoint entitled View of Bloemendaal with the Saxenburg country estate is illustrated above), Esaias van de Velde, Pieter Molijn, Claes van Beresteyn and Aelbert Cuyp, and the press release notes that: 

        “The Dutch landscape was largely created by man, except for the sandy beaches and dunes along the coast, which were mostly created by nature. In the seventeenth century, when the Netherlands was the most urbanised region in Europe, the dunes offered a welcome refuge for the inhabitants of the overcrowded cities. Among those who sought refuge were 17th-century artists such as Goltzius and Rembrandt. Their works portray not only the entertaining qualities of the dunes, but also their grand, quiet and rugged nature.”

        Huigen Leeflang, Rijksmuseum Curator of Prints, goes on to observe: “The dunes were the birthplace of Dutch landscape art. It’s remarkable that the way we experience the dunes has changed little in all those centuries. We still enjoy retreating to the dunes and artists are still inspired by the same grandness and rugged beauty.” 

        To me, the most curious part of the Rijksmuseum’s description of the exhibition is its conclusion, which states that the artworks depict “situations ranging from disaster tourists fascinated by beached whales to city dwellers on trips to the linen bleacher’s.”
        Having no idea what either the terms “disaster tourists” or “linen bleacher’s” meant, I decided to do some research.

        I quickly discovered the meaning of the latter term. “Linen bleacher’s” was simply a typo – the writer or translator meant to say “linen bleachers”, i.e., a person bleaching linen, an occupation that would have been more relevant and loomed larger in the pre-Industrial Revolution Dutch mind and consciousness than it does in ours today.  Searching for images of the bleaching of linen, I discovered this charming 1878 stained glass rendering of linen bleachers included below, made by Stephen Adam (1848-1910), a well-known Scottish stained glass artist, and part of a series of twenty works Adam created for for Maryhill Burgh Halls in Glasgow. Each of the windows showed a trade or profession carried on in the burgh, which was established in 1856 and remained independent until it was annexed by Glasgow in 1891. Adam's twenty panels are now part of the People's Palace collections.  

Stephen Adam, The Linen Bleachers, 1878, stained glass (Reader note: Click on image to enlarge.)

        As noted on the very interesting and informative Maryhill Burgh Halls website:

        "A bleachworks was founded on Maryhill Road (the part then called New City Road) in 1855, but this was within the Glasgow City boundaries, and it engaged in chemical bleaching without bleachfields. There was a linen bleachfield at Dalsholm in the eighteenth century, but this was moved to the Vale of Leven in 1770.

        There was only one linen mill of any size in Glasgow by Adam’s time, at St Rollox and it didn’t use bleachfields either. It may have been a cotton bleachfield, for the Kelvindale Mills, but cotton was also bleached chemically by the 1870s. A possibility is that this is an historical image, relating to Maryhill’s pre-1870 past, a lapse from the pattern of the other panels, which show contemporary workplace situations. 

        These two women are spreading linen out to bleach in the sun. There were many bleachfields on open ground on the outskirts of Glasgow by the end of the 18th century. With the invention of bleaching powder in 1799 bleachfields began to disappear from the countryside around the city."

        As for "disaster tourists", that's entirely another, horrible kettle of fish.  As described by Wikipedia, "Disaster tourism is the act of traveling to a disaster area as a matter of curiosity.  The behavior can be a nuisance if it hinders rescue, relief and recovery operations."  Wikipedia adds, oddly but I suppose helpfully, "if not done because of pure curiosity, it can be catalogued as 'disaster learning'."

        I can easily see how in the past a person in Holland might venture to a beach to see the tragic, but highly unusual sight of a beached whale.  I recall one instance in my own childhood growing up near the seashore on Long Island in New York where I was taken to such a scene.  However, the photographs below of "disaster tourists" in Sleman, Yogyakarta in Java visiting the site of the 2010 Mount Merapi eruptions, which accompanied this Agence-France Presse article from February 7th, should give pause (at the very least) and provoke a strong reaction and rueful self-examination. (At least it does in me.)  That being said, and as the article observes, disaster tourism does support and possibly assist in reviving devastated local economies.  I suspect that "disaster tourism" (and perhaps the "disaster tourist gene") has always been around and that it's only recently that the media (and the tourism industry) has given it a name (which curiously makes its way into the press releases of august Dutch museums announcing important exhibitions of older national art by some of their greatest artists).  We ourselves visited the 9/11 World Trade Center site following the terrorist attack in 2001 (of course, we were New Yorkers; it was our city that was attacked), but thought of it more as an act of "bearing witness" to the tragedy that had occurred, rather than a frolic and detour to observe something that had no connection to us and would have no connection to us in the future. 

       As Alphonse Karr would say, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose".

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