Dundee, 21 March 2014

Dear Reader,

I am Erasmus, born in Rotterdam, son of the Scottish artist Tracy Mackenna and the Dutch artist Edwin Janssen.

In this letter I’m going to tell you about ‘Erasmus the Clown’, the work I perform in here, and the painting that inspired my parents to make it. They asked me to play the role of the clown because of my love for theatre and acting. In this letter, just as in the video, I am the medium: the subject of the work is talking directly to you my friends, the audience.

My parents thought it was important that I should tell you about the work, as museum and gallery information is often very brief, and written by the curator. This letter is directed at you, with the intention of revealing some of the ideas and associations behind the making of this work. 


The painting I mentioned above is called ‘Clown’, painted with oil onto canvas by the Dutch artist Charley Toorop. It now hangs in the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in the Netherlands. The image of a pensive clown fills almost the whole canvas, painted in red and yellow and white. The background shows Rotterdam in ruins, in sombre grey tones. The clown’s name was Bumbo. Charley painted him between 1940 and 1941, during the second-world war that began in 1939 with Hitler's attack on Poland and ended in May 1945 with the surrender of Germany in Europe and North Africa.

Charley was born in 1891 and died in 1955. Like me, she was the child of an artist. Jean Theodoor Toorop was a Dutch-Indonesian painter, born on December 20, 1858 in Purworejo Regency, Indonesia. He died in The Hague in the Netherlands, on March 3, 1928. Best known as Jan Toorop, he worked in various styles including Symbolism, Pointilism and Art Nouveau, and his early work was influenced by the Amsterdam Impressionism movement.

Some curators and museum directors, like those in Museum Bojimans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, say that Charley is the most prominent female Dutch artist of the 20th century. Anyway, she created a body of work that to me looks strong-willed, self-aware and socially committed.

You are probably wondering how Charley met the Clown. It was caused by the war, and in particular, one terrible event that happened in May 1940 when Rotterdam city was ravaged by an aerial bombardment. Because of this, two months later in July, a man sought refuge in the town of Bergen, where Charley Toorop lived with her sons and painted: this man was the clown. He had worked for the circus in Rotterdam until he lost everything to the bombardment. By fleeing to Bergen he met Charley who immediately started to paint him, a man who for her, held the tragedy and absurdity of war in his eyes.

The clown posed for Charley 3 days every second week and when she talked about the experience of making his portrait she said, “I‘m working hard every day on the old clown Bumbo, who is a very special character.” For the background of the painting she looked at photos of the destroyed city of Rotterdam. Charley considered the painting to be one of her strongest and urged her dealer to exhibit it. Preferring instead to keep it in a safe place, at the end of 1942 he eventually sold it to a private buyer.

The background scene in the painting is taken from a particular photograph by Eva Besnyö, shot after the bombardment of Rotterdam. Charley’s version is a mirror image of the original. It shows the aftermath of the Rotterdam Blitz by the Luftwaffe (the German air force) on 14 May 1940, during the German invasion of the Netherlands in World War II. The aim was to support the German troops fighting in the city, to break Dutch resistance and force the Dutch to surrender. Even though earlier negotiations resulted in a ceasefire, the bombardment still went ahead, in conditions that are still controversial, and destroyed almost the entire historic city centre, killing nearly nine hundred civilians and leaving 30,000 people homeless. The following day, the Netherlands capitulated to the Nazi regime. In July 1940, Eva Besnyö photographed the old town of Rotterdam, documenting the destruction of the city by the German airforce bombing and the post-war reconstruction. The photographic style she was developing was far from classic photo-journalism, with the result that her images of ruins and the aftermath of devastation are to those of us who look at them today silent, resounding statements of the wounds and scars of history.

Eva Besnyö herself suffered because of the war. She was born in Budapest in 1910, and chose to leave Hungary’s repressive, antiprogressive environment forever in 1930, for Germany. She died in Laren, in North Holland in 2002. In Berlin, she joined other creative Hungarians like painter and photographer and professor in the Bauhaus school, László Moholy-Nagy; photographer Martin Munkácsi and the painter, designer, educator and art theorist György Kepes. As soon as she arrived, she became part of a dynamic experimental photographic scene that included groups like New Vision and New Objectivity, whose modern language gave her the freedom to develop her personal style. In 1931 her childhood friend Andre Friedmann, who changed his name to Robert Capa, joined her in Berlin having fled Miklós Horthy’s regime that had taken Hungary into an alliance with Nazi Germany.

In 1932 Eva met John Fernhout who was the second son of Charley Toorop and the philosopher Hendrik Fernhout. Of Jewish origin, and sensing the danger of National Socialism, the rise of naziism and anti-Semitism, with John she decided to leave Germany. Choosing to settle in the Netherlands she was welcomed into the circle of international artists around Charley Toorop, and also quickly became known in Amsterdam where she set up her own photographic studio. A solo exhibition at the Kunstzaal van Lier in 1933 attracted the attention of the Dutch followers of the ‘Neues Bauen / New Building’, whose architecture she recorded in a highly personal manner, over a long period.

The invasion of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany in 1940 marked a dramatic turning point in Eva Besnyö’s life. Afterwards, she survived four long years in hiding; obtaining false papers in 1944 allowed her to emerge into the open. From 1942 she was active in the Resistance, and lived clandestinely.

In Rotterdam’s city centre, in Square 1940, stands a colossal bronze sculpture, officially called ‘The Destroyed City / De Verwoeste Stad’, that was sited on 15 May 1953. The artist, Ossip Zadkine, was from Vitebsk in Belarus and was born on July 14, 1890. In 1905 his parents sent him to his mother's northern English Sunderland. She was Sophie Lester, descended from Scots who emigrated at the time of Peter the Great. He called himself Joe Zadkine until 1914. After attending the polytechnic and the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, the young artist went to Paris in 1909. He died there on November 25, 1967. He is primarily known as a sculptor, but also produced paintings and lithographs.

Zadkine arrived in Paris directly from Belarus, the site of today’s tense standoffs between Russian and Ukrainian military forces. In the first-world war between 1916 and 1917, he worked as a stretcher-bearer on the front and made drawings and watercolours dealing with war. He was discharged in 1917 and has said that the war left him “bodily and spiritually ruined”.  Between 1948 and 1950 he had an exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and in Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam where he presented for the first time a draft of ‘The Destroyed City / De Verwoeste Stad’.

I have seen Robert Capa’s photographs of the area that Zadkine was from, in books in my mum and dad’s studio. Much of the borders of Belarus took their modern shape in 1939 when some lands of the Second Polish Republic were incorporated into it after the Soviet invasion of Poland. The nation and its territory were devastated in World War II, during which Belarus lost about a third of its population and more than half of its economic resources.

Listening to the radio in the kitchen at home, the news is about Ukranian athletes boycotting the Sochi games because of the threat of Ukraine being subsumed for the second time into the Russian regime and the potential of a new crisis between Russia and the West. They’re talking about Tartars, persecuted by Stalin, who were sent to camps for alleged Nazi collaboration. "Crimea became part of Ukraine only in 1954," the journalist said, " … Crimea was historically part of Russia, and Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in a gesture that mystified people." There’s a stink going on about how the UK won’t support sanctions against Russia for its 2014 actions against Ukraine. The Russian President, Putin, is scary in the way that he dismisses Western leaders' efforts as he moves to annexe Crimea to Russia, saying, "They sit there across the pond as if they're in a lab running all kinds of experiments on rats, without understanding consequences of what they're doing".

While Zadkine was busy presenting the first stage of ‘The Destroyed City / De Verwoeste Stad’ in Rotterdam, Robert Capa travelled to Russia with the writer John Steinbeck. ‘A Russian Journal’ was published in 1948, with the text written by Steinbeck and the images by Capa. This in turn was the same moment in history that George Orwell was revising the manuscript of 1984, on the island of Jura off the West Coast of Scotland. Orwell must have been a bit upset that Steinbeck and Capa chose to focus on personal portraiture rather than group context in a Russian snapshot where politics are mainly kept out of the frame and individuals dominate the picture. Like the Joads, the Ukrainian farmers who were hospitable to Steinbeck and Capa are fully realised fellow beings, not proletarian symbols displayed against the kind of landscape Orwell might have described. State-planned famine, Soviet show trials, and Stalinist treachery in Spain made Orwell bitter towards the Soviet experiment earlier than other English socialists. Steinbeck’s American failure to denounce Stalin’s wrongs while praising Russian virtue must have seemed unforgivable, given what Orwell knew and the timing of when he knew it.

Going back to Zadkine’s giant bronze sculpture, it is supposed to represent a distressed figure with its head and arms lifted skywards. Zadkine has positioned the arms, legs and hands in opposing directions, giving the sculpture a great dynamic energy. The figure leans against a tree trunk that stabilises the six-metre high colossus. The hole in the figure’s torso symbolises the destroyed heart of the city during the bombings of May 1940. The sculpture has been nicknamed ‘Jan Gat/ (a hole, or gap), or ‘City without a Heart’.

A man called M.G. Schenk wrote in 1967 that according to Zadkine the idea for ‘The Destroyed City’ was born when he arrived by train in the devastated city of Rotterdam in 1946. Zadkine apparently said that his own work was “A cry of horror against the inhuman brutality of this act of tyranny”. My mum wrote about it too in her blog when she was out and about in the city performing the role of The Print Pedlar, in 2012. "Seeking respite from the continuous trail of walking and talking, I headed for Zadkine’s colossal bronze, ‘The Destroyed City / De Verwoeste Stad’, knowing it as a place where few stop, yet many use as a crossing from one point to the next. For weeks I have passed the lonely figure, staged and raised up on its own plane at the head of the Leuvehaven, the blank site stripped and wiped of its history, now ringed by museum, offices, college through a continuous process of regeneration. This is art as monument, even though it is doubtful whether Zadkine’s motivation was the particular circumstance of Rotterdam’s city centre aerial bombardment. This material marker, the figure whose heart has been wrenched from it, stands in rain, cloud, sun, snow as the memory of a specific event, binding it to the global history of violence … this representation of the past defines the city’s present and future. The work’s ‘publicness’ was rehearsed through an exhibition–driven public consultation process designed to ignite the imaginations of the broadest publics. Zadkine’s figure had all the ingredients of the spectacular and engaged citizens in the spectacle, in the same way as the statue of Robert Burns did when unveiled in Dundee to a crowd of 25,000 in 1880."

Rotterdam is also the place where my namesake was born. Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus lived between 27 October 1466 and 12 July 1536, and was known as Erasmus of Rotterdam, or simply Erasmus. He was a Dutch Renaissance humanist, a Catholic priest, a social critic, a teacher, and a theologian. Erasmus was his baptismal name, given after St. Erasmus who is also known as Saint Elmo of Formia, Italy (which is on the coast near Filignano where my mum’s family is from) who is venerated as the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain (!). Desiderius was a self-adopted additional name, which he used from 1496. The Roterodamus in his scholarly name is Latin for the city of Rotterdam.

Erasmus was a classical scholar who supported religious tolerance, and was nicknamed ‘Prince of the Humanists’. Using humanist techniques for working on texts, he prepared important new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament. These raised questions that would be influential in the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. He also wrote ‘On Free Will’, ‘Praise of Folly’, ‘On Civility in Children’, ‘Antipolemus: or, the plea of reason, religion, and humanity, against war’, and many other works. My dad, Edwin, has made an artwork about how the human process of ‘civilizing’ has caused us to become alienated from our relationships with nature. In this work two monitors are placed opposite each other at either end of a long table. The videos show a dressed chimpanzee and a boy, wearing the same clothes, each eating a bowl of porridge. The tablecloth is printed with excerpts from etiquette books such as Erasmus’ ‘De civilitate morum puerilium’, that was addressed to the eleven-year-old Henry of Burgundy, son of Adolph, Prince of Veere, and gives instructions in simple Latin on how a boy should conduct himself in the company of adults. The book was a smash hit and was translated into many languages. The first English version, by Robert Whittin[g]ton was published in 1532, under the title ‘A Little Book of Good Manners for Children’.

In his most successful book ‘Praise of Folly’, published in 1511, Erasmus uses the character of a female jester to speak directly to his audience. The first version of the book is supposed to have been written in the space of a week while he was staying with Sir Thomas More in England. ‘Praise of Folly’ starts off with a satirical and learned declamation, during which Folly praises herself, in the manner of the Greek satirist Lucian, whose work Erasmus and Sir Thomas More had recently translated into Latin; a piece of virtuoso foolery. It then takes a darker tone in a series of orations as Folly praises self-deception and madness and makes an ironic examination of pious but superstitious abuses of Catholic doctrine and corrupt practices in parts of the Roman Catholic Church—to which Erasmus was ever faithful—and the folly of pedants (“a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules or with displaying academic learning.”).

Folly praises herself endlessly, arguing that life would be dull and distasteful without her. Of existence on earth, Folly states, "you'll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me."

My parents, living hundreds of years after Erasmus, share many similar concerns, such as conflict, war, education and national identity. With Scotland’s Referendum only 6 months away, this last issue is a real hot potato. Folly speaks about it when she says, “Now, just as Nature has implanted his personal self-love in each individual person, I can see she has put a sort of communal variety in every nation and city … The Scots pride themselves on their nobility and the distinction of their royal connexions as much as on their subtlety in dialect … The Italians usurp culture and eloquence, and hence they’re all happy congratulating themselves on being the only civilized race of men.”

Perhaps you have noticed that in the video I am wearing a lapel badge. This was produced by my parents for their 2012 exhibition project called ‘WAR AS EVER!’. It focussed on conflict, looking and art by making a new relationship between the historical ‘Van Kittensteyn Album’ of 1613 that documents the Dutch struggle for independence, and the role of the media in representing war and violence.

Another project that they are working on now also started with a historical work, Voltaire’s tiny little story of 1752 that is also a praise of folly, called ‘Micromegas’. Mum and dad were attracted to the idea that the humans (us) are portrayed as fools by two peaceful giants who come to earth on a voyage of discovery.  The first artwork they made about it was the ‘WAR as EVER!’ wall drawing for their exhibition ‘Normality is Obscene Nowadays’ in 2003, when war with Iraq looked imminent, and just days before my sister was born. They made the wall drawing for a second time here in the RSA in 2005, as part of a group of wall drawings in ‘Festival Connections’, 179th RSA Annual Exhibition. The quote from ‘Micromegas’ that triggered these works reads, “For instance do you realize that as I speak a hundred thousand lunatics of our species, wearing helmets, are busy killing or being killed by a hundred thousand other animals in turbans, and that everywhere on Earth this is how we have carried on since time immemorial?”.

Voltaire’s story is a really great example of stage setting. The giants are actors, observers and correspondents, who in a way that is not confrontational reveal to us humans our foolishness and vanity, as outsiders commenting on aspects of western culture and society. My own passion for acting, text and performance means that I have taken on different roles in a range of situations. My first professional stage appearance was last Autumn with Dundee Rep Ensemble in ‘Hecuba; Euripides’ Hecuba – A new version by Frank McGuiness’. My silent role meant that I was on stage during the tragedy, set after the Trojan War, but before the Greeks have left Troy. The central figure is Hecuba, wife of King Priam, formerly Queen of the now-fallen city. I played the part of The Prince of Thrace, who is unfortunately murdered. While I was on stage and in the wings, I was able to think about how the audience would react to this, because even in today’s theatre, audiences are unused to, and often squeamish about scenes of child murder. As this tragedy unfolded and the young Prince of Thrace became a bloodied victim of Hecuba’s retribution actors and audience were reminded of recent images from Syria, making this Greek tragedy, originally written in 424 BC, uncomfortably relevant.

The role I am playing for mum and dad now is not that of a war victim, but rather a fool, a clown. This has been a recurrent character in paintings, plays and literature across time. Albrecht Dürer’s or Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings are examples of how the ship of fools allegory depicts a vessel populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction. This concept makes up the framework of the book ‘Ship of Fools’ from 1494 by Sebastian Brant, that served as the inspiration for Bosch's famous painting ‘Ship of Fools’: a ship—an entire fleet at first—sets off from Basel to the paradise of fools. In literary and artistic compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries, the cultural motif of the ship of fools was also a mechanism for poking fun at the 'ark of salvation' as the Catholic Church portrayed itself.

The idea of observers from far away showing us how we behave comes up again and again in paintings, like the one Ruben’s made in 1603 that shows the two philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus. With their particular lines of thought and ways of life, each had opposing human temperaments: Democritus, bon viveur and optimist and Heraclitus, dark in his writings, melancholic and intolerant. Rubens portrayed them looking at us, the spectator, leaning over a globe that lets us see northern Europe and the oceans around it. Democritus, with his cheerful face and symbolic red cloak points at Heraclitus, sombrely clasping his hands, and draped in black robes. The theatrical composition is typical of baroque painting.

The RSA Sculpture Court where you are now, reminds me of the idea of the Theatrum Mundi, literally the world stage. I know it best through the line in Shakespeare's 'As You Like It', "All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players ...". The world seems like that to me, with millions of different characters that are shunted about a stage, often by external forces, who make it difficult for them to control their own lives. Like in Shakespeare’s plays, lots of the events in the world today appear to share common patterns that sometimes makes it hard for us to understand the differences between one situation and another. People say that Shakespeare was very aware of the contemporary weltanschauung (“a particular philosophy or view of life; the world view of an individual or group”), and that maybe he was using his vast knowledge of the theatrical standards of the time to explore his view of human existence.

And so, my friends, I'm going to finish with a few words that link me to some of the things that are stirring in this work - loss and love and staging. The tenor Mario Lanza, whose father was from my great-grandmother's tiny village, sang these lines in the aria ‘Vesti la Giubba’ or ‘Put on the Costume’ while dressed as a clown in the opera ‘Pagliacci’ from 1892 by Ruggero Leoncavallo …

Put on your costume and powder your face

The people pay to be here, and they want to laugh

And if Harlequin shall steal your Columbina

Laugh, clown, so the crowd will cheer!

Turn your distress and tears into jest

Your pain and sobbing into a funny face – Ah!

With my best wishes,