Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Nostalgia & Central Europe

Iasi, Romania
Photo by Valyt

A little while ago, a Lithuanian reader of this blog commented on a post I’d written about Vilnius. He suggested that historians (including, I think, me) should be wary of nostalgia for the Central European past. That comment came back to me this spring in Poznań, when I was eating dinner in a ‘Jewish’ restaurant (Jewish recipes, non-kosher, apparently cooked by non-Jewish Poles), which advertised itself as offering fine food and ‘nostalgia’. This week, I finished reading Georgina Harding’s Orange Prize short-listed novel The Painter of Silence, set in Romania in the 1930s to 1950s. It is about an aristocratic girl and her deaf childhood companion, as they make the transition from rural pre-war idyll, to a country devastated by war and totalitarianism. The most memorable sections of this deeply humane novel describe the estate at Poiana. I was struck by how well this British writer has captured the way in which Central Europeans from privileged pre-war backgrounds talk about their family homes – the modest but perfectly formed manor house, orchards with an impossible abundance of fruit, enchanted lakes, the warm and devoted servants. Painter of Silence deals very much in the currency of nostalgia, that of the protagonist Safta and her class, and our own romanticised image of a timeless, Chekovian Central European countryside.

Nostalgia, for individuals and societies, is surely a (superficial?) way of processing profound loss; loss of family pasts and houses, of entire peoples and cultures. Nonetheless, I can see my Lithuanian reader’s point, that some of its manifestations are intellectually problematic and morally uncomfortable. It can lead to a saccharine reading of Central Europe’s extraordinarily violent 20C past, casting it (especially pre 1939) as a innocent land of fairy tale. The Poznań restaurant’s whistful recreation of spiced Jewish pancakes, the idealisation of pre-war Romanian aristocratic life, and perhaps even my grandmother’s magical realist stories about 1920s Vilnius are a way of keeping real history at bay – perhaps to make it easier to cope with, but also perhaps to avoid engaging with the dark reality of what lies beneath. So nostalgia is probably a gremlin that historians – not least historians of Central Europe - should keep a keen eye on.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Chimeras and Cats

Etruscan Chimera of Arezzo, in the Archaeological Museum of Florence.
Photo by Eric Parker

One of my favourite history-book opening lines is found in Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Millenium, where he imagines a future inter-galactic museum, in which the display case labelled ‘Earth’ contains only a piece of medieval chain mail and a Coca Cola can.

I felt a similar, but less nihilistic, frisson at the Royal Academy’s current Bronze exhibition. I was expecting not to like it, because some reviews (in common with reviews for the National Gallery’s blockbuster Leonardo last year) had remarked on the ahistorical style of the curating. Rather than arranging objects by time and place, we were warned, the Royal Academy has anarchically mixed then up by theme, placing works by Anish Kapoor alongside ancient Greek statues dredged up off Sicily.

In the event, I found the exhibition, with its disregard for time and space, to have  a huge dose of historical sensibility, in a mind-broadening, paradoxical and strangely moving way. A life-size Renaissance bronze boar on a bed of flowers did indeed share a room with a Picasso monkey, made from toy cars, and a fine cat from 7th century BC Spain. There were bronzes from societies which I admit to never having heard of, such as the Hallstadt and Nuragic cultures. This radical juxtaposition of objects forces the viewer to read the apparently familiar in new contexts – a 17C Christ statue, for example, looking identical to its neighbour, a bronze Bacchus. By putting medieval Sri Lankan, Renaissance Italian, ancient Greek and 20C American sculpture alongside one another in this egalitarian way, Bronze shows up how Eurocentric and West-focused our history syllabi still are – the exhibition is a very good prospectus for the ever-more trendy discipline of global history. In particular, however, it was humbling to be reminded of the vastness, depth and heterogeneity of the human past. Bronze was like stepping into a glittering, celebratory version of Fernandez-Armesto’s display case at the end of the universe, and a painful reminder of how very little of that past any one individual, or even any given History Faculty, can really hope to master.