A travelling exhibition
Castrum Peregrini, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
9 May – 6 June 2019
Tuesdays to Fridays 14-18 h
and by appointment
Emrooz Gallery, Isfahan, Iran
No 324, Farshid Alley (No3), Second Abshar St.
14 June – 8 July 2019
Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays
Victoria Gallery, Samara, Russia
Nekrasovskaya St. 2
21 August – 22 September 2019
Tuesdays to Sundays 11-19 h
The Museum of Moscow, Moscow, Russia
Zubovskiy b-r, 2
14 November – 22 December 2019
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays to Sundays 10-20 h
Thursdays 11-21 h
With works by Sepideh Behrouzian (IR), Oleg Elagin (RU), Cecilia Hendrikx (NL), Zeinab Shahidi Marnani (IR), Paulien Oltheten (NL) and Oksana Stogova (RU), curated by Irina Leifer.
Impossible Journeys offers transcultural and transhistorical perspectives on art, travel and participation. The programme investigates the challenges and possibilities of changing historical and cultural perspectives. Inspired by the historical publication of Jan Struys’s “impossible journeys” through Russia and Persia in the 17th century, the participating artists scrutinise contemporary cultural fault lines.
The exhibition combines historical objects, contemporary art works and participatory activities to address the challenge of multiple perspectives on histories. These can divide people, but they can also bring them closer together in a dialogue that recognises difference as something inherently valuable and illuminates prejudices that have been perpetuated for centuries.
The opening week and the public program in the Netherlands, Iran and Russia will offer a broad range of activities, and participatory workshops during the exhibition will examine how conflicted heritage can be used as a “contact zone”.
Impossible Journeys is part of the EU-funded project Heritage Contact Zone and was made possible by Castrum Peregrini, Creative Industries Fund NL, Dutch Culture Shared Cultural Heritage Matching Fund, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Moscow, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Teheran, Emrooz Gallery in Isfahan, European Cultural Foundation and Compagnia di San Paolo, Gerbrandy Cultural Fund, Mondriaan Fund, Museum of Moscow, Prince Claus Fund’s Mobility Fund, Roberto Cimetta Fund, Va Independent Space for Contemporary Art in Isfahan, Victoria Gallery in Samara, Wilhelmina E. Jansen Fund.
In 1676, a book with the intriguing title Three exceptional and very catastrophic journeys was published in Amsterdam. The author of these travel stories, Jan Janszoon Struys, had travelled in the East for 25 years. He had been hired as a sailmaker by the Russian tsar in 1668 to contribute to the development of the Russian fleet. Instead, he found himself in the middle of a civil war and was forced to move in the direction of Persia to escape riots, local conflicts, battles, sieges, murders, tortures, shipwrecks and earthquakes. Struys was even enslaved and later ransomed. During this disastrous journey Jan made many notes, which are now considered an extremely rare first-hand account of daily life in Russia and Persia in the 17th century.
What happened to Struys in the 17th century is as meaningful for the society of his time as it is for today’s society, and so the book was republished in 2006 in Russia, in 2014 in the Netherlands and in 2017 in Iran. It triggers our thinking about the complex political, social and cultural perspectives on different cultural realms and the various conflicts that characterise the relationships between Russia, Iran, and the Netherlands.
For this project, visual artists from the Netherlands (Paulien Oltheten and Cecilia Hendrikx), Russia (Oleg Elagin and Oksana Stogova) and Iran (Sepideh Behrouzian and Zeinab Shahidi Marnani) have produced new works that challenge the limitations of our cross-cultural and transhistorical perspectives. In collaboration with all project partners the curator, Irina Leifer, has performed research in libraries, archives and museum collections on our shared heritage and on the historic objects that form the backbone of this exhibition.
Curator Impossible Journeys
The Museum of Moscow is the city’s top cultural institution. As any other city museum, it shares the knowledge of traditions and outstanding historical events, simultaneously playing an active role in the modern cultural agenda. The Museum of Moscow has witnessed history in the making: its collection exceeds one million artefacts, ranging from antiques to modern objects. Undoubtedly, Moscow is a multicultural city. It naturally blends in with the international community while retaining its unique identity.
This project balances between cultural heritage and contemporary art. This is essential to our museum as it incites a search for new ways of delivering historical content. We are proud that our museum collection has become the prime source of inspiration for modern artists, also bringing together cultures of the Netherlands, Russia, and Iran. Projects like Impossible Journeys help explore the unique profile of a foreign culture perceived through the lens of our own.
General Director of the Museum of Moscow
Heritage is a strange concept. We preserve objects and stories because they tell us where we came from, and therefore – or so we believe – who we are. But is our identity really built of old stuff, just because our ancestors produced and used it? Our default mode is indeed to identify with the stories we tell about the past and the context we construct with the objects that survive the decay that accompanies the passage of time. Impossible Journeys shows us the extent to which history is constructed, how a historic journey does not tell truth but serves the needs of those who tell it: the commercial needs, the political needs, the social and cultural needs. We therefore must deconstruct such stories and ask ourselves: what in this story, what in this object speaks to us today? And why? Impossible Journeys does exactly this: contemporary artists, through creative inquiry and artistic production, question not only history but the very present as well. The viewer is left with the question in which reality we choose to live.
Impossible Journeys is part of Heritage Contact Zone, a EU project initiated by Castrum Peregrini. It investigates the potential of heritage as a contact zone, a space in which artistic production and creative processes can involve citizens to think about the future we want to live in, across boundaries of time and culture.
Lars Ebert, Frans Damman and Michael Defuster
It was an immense pleasure and challenge to co-curate the exhibition Impossible Journeys in the Netherlands, Russia and Persia, Now and Then together with Irina Leifer. The exhibition uses historical objects from museum collections that serve as a basis for contemporary artistic works and participatory actions. All these concepts – museum, heritage, contemporary art, participation – mean different things in Russia than they do in the Netherlands or Iran. Roughly speaking, the role of contemporary art as a commentator of present-day society and its conceptual approach for reflecting on social justice, fair representation, identity politics, globalisation and climate change occupies a niche in Russian society. The media that influence public opinion are often disconnected from contemporary artistic research and expression. When it comes to the past. it is easier to compare the three countries: as elsewhere, the past is instrumentalised in order to do politics in the present. Therefore, the contemporary take on history as explored by Impossible Journeys was exciting for me from the beginning. It forms a connection while showing the differences. It allows for critical reflection on identity politics, not only in Russia, but across national and cultural boundaries. The bridge that this project builds between the Netherlands, Russia and Iran, but also between “the metropole” and “the periphery”, between the past and the present, poses an urgent question to Victoria Gallery and the audience of Samara: the art lovers, the proud citizens, and also those who feel they don’t belong.
Curator at Victoria Gallery in Samara, Russia
The exhibition project Impossible Journeys combines a historical perspective with contemporary artistic perspectives. The city of Isfahan represents the same principle: it is an almost mythical place with a rich cultural heritage, and at the same time a contemporary metropole located at the intersection of the two principal north–south and east–west routes that traverse Iran. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a period that contributed significantly to its glory today, it was the capital of Persia. The influences of trade – with Russia, but also historically with the Netherlands and even much further – have formed the city. The observations of Struys, as biased as they are, allow us to reflect on the position of Isfahan in the world, with the Netherlands and Russia as examples of how cultural differences can challenge our critical perspectives on social phenomena and our self-image as humans.
We are therefore extremely happy about the mutual learning that this co-operation has already brought about and look forward to seeing the exhibition travel across borders, just like Struys travelled across borders. Struys’s journey bears the title “impossible” because of its evident and numerous failures during the long years en route. We are tempted to refer to Samuel Beckett here and remind us that we have to keep trying, keep failing, and each time fail a little bit better.
Mona Aghababee and Samira Hashemi
Va Independent Space for Contemporary Art in Isfahan, Iran
On the Historical Objects
In 1668, the Dutch sailor Jan Struys arrives in Russia. At the time the country is ruled by tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Romanov, father of Peter the Great. The voyager becomes well acquainted with the everyday life of the Muscovians, which he later describes in much detail in his travel accounts. Impossible Journeys features several exhibits of the second half of the 17th century from the collection of the Museum of Moscow. These items have been discovered during archaeological excavations that continue to enhance the Museum’s collection every year. Similar object will have been seen and used by Struys during his travels.
All horsemen were familiar with iron stirrups. The crossguard of a sword was designed to protect the hands of the swordsman. Cross-shaped guards were very popular in Eastern Europe: these sabres were known as Polish or Hungarian. Cold weapons such as battle-axes with long shafts and wide semicircular blades were also widely used. Their Russian name, berdysz, comes from Poland. The streltsy, or infantry units, were armed with them. Jan Struys calls them Strelitzers. Battle axes were quite common in Western Europe, but the sheer size of the Russian ones amazed foreign travellers.
For common citizens, an iron axe would come in handy in both building and defence. Struys describes a quarrel where the adversaries of the Dutch company used axes against the sharp teeth of a dog. Soldiers and battle scenes appear frequently on Russian decorative tiles, sometimes featuring mythical warriors such as centaurs. The tiles were made of clay shaped by wooden moulds, whereas pottery wheels were used to produce jugs. The Dutch voyager describes the utensils of the Russians, “which are earthen or iron pots, wooden dishes, brandy- and metheglin-cups.” In a wealthy household, drinks were offered in silver tumblers, cups and goblets. The Museum of Moscow has a large collection of precious 17th-century vessels, discovered during excavations of the Gostiny Dvor, or merchant yard, next to the Kremlin.
Potters in Moscow favoured animal shapes. Ewers (vase-shaped pitchers) often had horse-head or ram-head spouts, normally either one or two. Four lips were extremely rare. Bird figurines were whistle toys for children, who also liked to play with toy bears made of clay. The triangular iron padlock used to lock jewellery boxes is so tiny it also seems toy-like.
Flat-soled porshen (piston-style) shoes were made out of single pieces of leather, tied around the feet with straps. Ordinary citizens wore porshen shoes instead of bast shoes. As for peasants, according to Struys “their boots and shoes are made of the barks of trees cunningly plated.” Bast was also used to make baskets and wicker boxes for storage, as well as floats for fishing nets, which were essentially frames of thin branches banded with peeled bark. “The rivers and standing lakes are stored with fish of all kinds, which are throughout the whole land incredibly cheap,” Struys remarks. Curious details in the writings of the untiring Dutchman seem to match the exhibits of the Museum of Moscow.
About the artists and their work
Sepideh Behrouzian (IR)
Sepideh investigates the complex relationship between nature and culture by asking questions about authenticity, history and visibility. Her practice often focuses on “place”, its cultural and natural character, her autobiographical connectedness with it, and the traversing landscapes and mindsets she is confronted with again and again. Sepideh is deeply interested in the perception of a landscape and in decay. The artist uses drawing, photographs, found objects and new media in parallel to represent a landscape as a whole, bestowing upon it an illusion of integrity. Perception through bodily experience can be more clearly linked to an understanding of a landscape as an area of activity, in contrast to an understanding of seeing it as a picture.
Behrouzian is inclined to create a place-based atmosphere in her works. Her drawings, paintings and installations function like passages, inviting the viewer to evaluate the place and feel the ability to question how value is implanted on it, depending on our presence or absence. Inharmonious and incoherent with our impressions of the natural world, the artist manipulates scale and proportion and disturbs the integrity of landscape as a whole by turning it into fragments. This enables us to look at the world around us in new ways, to open our eyes to things we might previously have missed, and to notice the intervals between objects, the banal forms we tend to overlook, and emptiness itself.
Oleg Elagin (RU)
Oleg is interested in the processes within virtual spaces and their influence on the physical world. He believes that digital technologies have formed a new environment for existence, with specific laws and rules. In order to understand this new reality Oleg is rethinking its boundaries by paying special attention to the aesthetics of the error, white noise and deep ecology. Working with software and various kinds of digital devices, Elagin finds potential in malfunctions, errors, interference, glitches – not only in the domain of art, but also for the critical evaluation of society with its constant striving for improvement. The artist assumes that through the aesthetic of the error machines are able to speak out and resist the rigid structures imposed on them, such as algorithms and programmes that seek to constantly keep them in order. He criticises closed systems, not only in technology but also in society, as such failures have become an indispensable part of reality. Using found footage as well as photo, video, sound and installations, the artist experiments with such concepts as digital freedom, free exchange of knowledge and new copyright. Combining everyday objects and mundane processes with digital technology, Oleg investigates the term “digital nature” and tries to figure out how new technologies affect our thinking and visual language. Elagin regularly collaborates with other creatives and is a member of several interdisciplinary art groups.
Cecilia Hendrikx (NL)
Cecilia Hendrikx graduated from the department of architectural design at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. In 2006 she founded SuopuLab, a laboratory that develops three dimensional concepts and installations in public space. Many of her projects are collaborations with others.
In 2009 she cofounded the Pink Pony Express, an artists’ collaborative dedicated to the investigation and visualisation of social networks. An important aspect of their method is to insert themselves into the context in which they are working for a long period of time. Following a period of long-term research that includes living and working on these locations, they make images that help redefine the situation, and create a shift in the current perspective.
Cecilia’s work is always realised at the same location where she conducts her research. The result is inspired by that landscape, by intuition, and by interaction with the findings along the way. Giving up a certain measure of control is essential to her artistic approach, as is the manipulation of natural phenomena – both in a metaphorical sense and as an instrument for commenting on the dynamic of a particular place.
Paulien Oltheten (NL)
Paulien Oltheten’s photos, performances, and videos explore human behaviour in public spaces. She goes to parks, plazas and streets of big cities for direct observation, finding unique activity, repetitive gestures, objects or design elements there. She then connects these events, creating a narrative formalised in words, photographs and moving images. Capturing such moments over many years has led to an expanding archive. In her studio she creates connections between old and new findings, which leads to universal connections and makes room for new ideas.
Oltheten’s prompt for taking a picture is typically a physical observation: walking, leaning, pressing, pushing, pulling, tumbling. Her view on such postures is strongly influenced by Etienne Decroux’s technique of Mime Corporel. He created a technical, almost mathematical, analysis of people’s movements, focused on how changes in gesture or posture can affect one’s spatial presence. Paulien shares this abstract-philosophical approach of the body: the notion that the body acts in the service of thoughts. Starting from this abstract viewpoint, she then adds other layers such as social, cultural, or political context. Observing in this manner enables her to forge commonalities between forms that you might normally view or assign as culturally specific and distinct.
At first glance the images may look like snapshots or “decisive” moments. But Oltheten is an active guide in the scenes. She confronts viewers with this ambiguity and plays with the expectations of photographic truth. She creates a world that diffuses borders. There is always a twist, a moment of confusion when people begin to question whether they are seeing “reality” and suddenly become aware of their own ways of seeing.
Oksana Stogova (RU)
Oksana works with various media such as video, photography, sound and installations. She explores the influence of text and image on each other and is interested in investigating personal as well as collectively developed views on local and global issues from the East European flatland.
Her 30-year journey as an artist has brought Oksana Stogova to use a spectrum that stretches from landscapes to conceptual work, with a wide range of techniques and materials. Viewers can follow how a picturesque skyline is replaced by a stitched cloth, a pencil line, a roll of fax paper or a strained rope.
From a formal point of view, Stogova eliminates the traditional landscape in her works, but in fact she aims to understand and depict landscape better than an eye’s retina is able to. Her landscapes of 1989-1991 were influenced by Russian avant-garde and French fauvism, but in the Landscape series (2013-2014), the artist set her sights on the phenomenon of a horizon that separates colour areas within the space of a canvas; splashes of colour turn into stripes of white snow and blue sky, dark dome and blue sea. A series of manually retouched postcards with reproductions, Reduction to zero (2015), is the result of reflections on a “zero” landscape, the world in the first days of its creation, and an ironic revision of Soviet painting. The theme of the horizon, which opens up a view while outlining the borders of the visible, finds its continuation in the series Landscape on second-hand (2016). A line of the horizon turns into a path, a route: no longer a border with a fixed position in a layout, it doesn’t divide the space but unrolls inside it, moving as any other object.
The Diary series (2007) holds a special place in Oksana Stogova’s work. Abstract “combines” (a term by Robert Rauschenberg) of wooden and metal furniture are the result of the artists’ personal and emotional reflections. The outer landscape here is changed to an inner one, and the aggressive, disorderly images give way to new experiments and moves.
Zeinab Shahidi Marnani
Zeinab’s work explores alternative methods in time-based media to establish a dialogue between the artist, the art work and the audience. Her work questions the structure of art as a transparent medium, its domination by and its function within the field of contemporary art. She does so by re-assembling constitutive parts of a chosen medium, applying them in different ways, and exploring alternative forms of presentation.
Through her projects she presents a hidden yet dynamic dialogue between artist and art work, always anchored in the process of changing and becoming: by showing different moments of the artist at the studio dealing with an unfinished work (the Soliloquy series), for example, or by repeatedly presenting a work that is still in progress, as a living entity in constant change (You Cannot Step in The Same River Twice). In the recent project histories she collected stories amongst her relatives about the origin of their family name, meaning “Martyr from Marnan”, and through a montage process, she embodied a puzzling dialogue of contradictory narratives about the same story.
Shahidi Marnani continues to investigate dialogue as a living component of artistic practice: her latest project, instead of presenting a dynamic dialogue to her audience, attempts to actually create a dialogue with the audience through her recent visual autobiographical project.
Soda Lime is based on a collaboration between Oleg Elagin (RU), Sepideh Behrouzian (IR) and Cecilia Hendrikx (NL). Following a period of research, they decided to bring together their personal perspectives to transcend the tangled issues of colonialism, eurocentrism, misogyny and make-believe political correctness that this story from the Golden Age confronts us with. Along the old route once travelled by Jan Struys, Soda Lime searches for the phenomenon of viewing. Their three-dimensional installation consists of multiple planes, each revealing yet simultaneously obscuring something. It functions as a looking glass that displays a multifaceted ambiguity, similar to central role of rivers in Struys’s book. Rivers connect the West to the East and are made of water and of sand. And so, Soda Lime revolves around sand and water in various appearances. Water is a transformative force that can turn glass into sand, but it is also a carrier and a connector. Glass is featured in a clear state – resembling water or a mirror – and a translucent or milky state that hazes the view. Clips of everyday life along the route are projected. The footage was placed online by dozens of people. The work reveals reality seen through their eyes. Impossible Journeys was written by a ghost-writer and is partly fiction. Soda Lime takes up some of the mystery surrounding what exactly it is that is represented in the book, as well as questions of authorship, and how perspectives can be transformed by the viewer. The type of sand exported from Iran and melted into glass for the installation is called Soda Lime. It has travelled in the opposite direction of Jan Struys, taking the storyline full circle, from the 17th century into ours. The artists want to thank Minoo Iranpour for her video A+B.
Paulien Oltheten, To those that will, ways are not wanting
Paulien Oltheten travelled to both Isfahan in Iran and Samara in Russia, two cities along the trade route that Jan Struys traversed in the 17th century. Samara was the last city in which Struys’s travels were still seemingly smooth and prosperous. Isfahan was his final destination and his safe zone. The city has Dutch heritage: a VOC (Dutch East India Company) traders’ office was located there. In between these two cities Struys’s journey was nothing but disaster and obstacles, a total mess.
Oltheten observed and collected still and moving images in these two cities. At first she focussed on the river in order to relate to Struys’s story, but soon she made other significant observations along the way. The result is a video with playful image combinations of seemingly simple observations that, once combined and rhythmically edited, become funny, poetic and telling.
A man walks thoughtfully across the dry bed of the dry Zayandeh Rood river, another man walks on ice on the Volga in the same rhythm. By just seeing them next to each other you suddenly notice how beautiful and personal their walk can be. The background seems too dry or too frozen: an extra layer seeps through that casually touches upon the urgency of climate change. An Iranian man in the same dry riverbank shows dried-up shells, destined for his aquarium, whilst a man ice-fishing in Samara shows how his freshly caught fish becomes instantly freezer-ready.
The painted metal of a pedestrian stopper in Iran results in all sorts of socially interesting manoeuvres. The material corresponds with the metal of an awkwardly bouncing step on a hovercraft in Samara (descending it requires special skills). Both situations initially appear Jacques Tati-esque, but if you read through the lines you could also see them more metaphorically, especially with regard to obstacles in Iran.
The parallel realities across borders, across times and across the line between the concrete and the ideal form a telling display of how histories and cultures can be read in parallel, against each other and with each other. Seeing them together reveals an added truth.
Oksana Stogova, 1:25
Oksana Stogova works with the principle of randomness and aleatory composition in visual art. But it’s documental images (geographic maps, graphics, reproductions) that form the core of her abstract works. She redraws, reduces, shuffles, overlays them to reveal their innate visual sensuality and even symbolism, their emotional codes. Stogova gives the spectator an opportunity to see more than the pure fact in the image. In her work 155 km (2015) she documented the pounding of a bus on its way from Samara to her countryside residence by trying to draw a straight line in her notebook. The journey was documented, but the document appears to be an abstract line on the paper. Stogova’s works combine impartial documentation with abstract imagery that is intuitively perceived in the same object. Thereby, she criticises the “informativity” of a document.
1:25 is a series of books and drawings, reflecting all three journeys by Jan Struys on a scale of 1:25 km. Thanks to his accurate descriptions of places and events, sometimes even with an exact indication of coordinates, she recreates the route of his movements on sheets of transparent paper and books glued together. The transparency of the material allows the lines – reflecting the segments of the path – to appear, overlap and create an abstract pattern. Books can be flipped in any order, and each new combination of transparent sheets creates a new abstract pattern.
A geographic map cannot reflect the “ornateness” of Struys’s journey: all the turns of the road and the plot. Freed from details the route, the earth’s flatness, becomes more “evident” and can be perceived with that intuitive and “spiritual” logic that Kandinsky wrote about in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”.
Oksana Stogova, St.Razina 16-69
Oksana Stogova regards coincidence as a specific, esoteric language of reality, one that is to be observed and deciphered. An artist is a kind of oracle who presents the viewer with coincidences, pointing out their meaning.
“After a careful reading of the book by Jan Struys, I found some interesting details directly related to the dates and coordinates on the map. On 08.08.1669, Jan Struys sailed past Samara on a ship. At the same time, a peasant revolt led by Stepan Razin was taking place. I live in Samara, on Stepan Razin Street, house number 69. After walking past the current starting point of this street, I found house number 16. There is an addendum on the plate of this house indicating that the quarter starts from house No. 8. Thus, two photographs presented here document the date of Struys’s stay near Samara (08.08.1669) and remind us of political events related to the name of Stepan Razin. I also checked the old city plans of Samara and found that house number 16 is located on the very spot of one of the 17th-century walls of the old Samara fortress. It was at that time that Jan Struys sailed past her.”
Zeinab Shahidi Marnani, A ring holds the hole
This “Visual Autobiographical Epic” is made of a round, wooden sculptural panel surrounded by four smaller ones, all covered by juxtaposed collage images, that seems to present a visual epic. The found images were collected from local and foreign contexts and vary from an art event postcard to an old science book for children, a knitting magazine, or a religious illustration. Despite the familiarity of the visual components and the rhythmic and semantic references among them, the fluid connection of the scenes and their abstract dialogue makes it difficult to unfold a verbal narrative.
Whereas in the medium of film, frames appear one after the other over time to unfold the narrative, in this piece all the detailed frames are present at the same time but placed on different locations on the wide round panel. Looking at them one after the other creates a link between the corresponding scenes and a sequential order among them. In fact, the strong yet abstract references suggest a specific narrative mode, which makes viewers depict their own, fluid stream of consciousness within a circling wheel with no beginning or end.
Zeinab found inspiration in Suzani, works of ornamental embroidery that are one of the compulsory rituals for a wedding. Suzani was produced within a family, with the direct participation of a bride and the help of close relatives and neighbours. The ritual dates back to a time when women held power as magicians through their art practice. Suzanis were manufactured mostly for the beds of newlyweds: they were believed to bring happiness and luck to the life of the married couple and to provide fertility for the family. The terminology of the motifs varies from natural elements such as abri bahor (spring cloud), kamoni Rustam (a Rustam’s bow or rainbow), or oftab (the sun) to functional tools in the life of women such as osh-pichok (a kitchen knife), and many other motifs like panja (all five fingers).
To draw the patterns of Suzanis, a woman had to inherit her profession: she was to be fully instructed by an old seamstress in the technique and the methods of drawing, as well as in how to receive the permit prayer – a type of initiation rite. Drawing was typically passed on along the female family line, primarily along the straight line from mother to daughter, but sometimes from grandmother to granddaughter. It was believed this work could not be done without help from the sprits of artists of past generations, primarily the spirit of the deceased mother or grandmother.
Jan Struys (c.1628-c.1694): Fake or Fact?
An essay by Kees Boterbloem
A decade after the Fiction and Reality of Jan Struys had been published, I met Jan Struys in Haarlem. Or rather, I met his likely descendant Jan Struys, who is a well-known Dutch police official. Jan told me that, when reading my recent Dutch retranslation into modern Dutch of the 1676 bestseller Rampspoedige Reysen, he heard echoes of the stories about Struys’s tales of Russia, the Caucasus and Iran that have been passed on for generations in his family. I was baffled, for even though historians try to conjure up the past of those who are long gone, they always feel that their truth, or depiction, is partial, only one of many possible worlds. Here in Haarlem I found some sort of confirmation of the historical Struys that I had imagined. Meeting modern-day Jan Struys, then, for me appeared to vindicate Giambattista Vico’s suggestion, to which I have always been partial: we are equipped with a historical intuition, which allows us to recreate the past “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist,” without having access to all the evidence, the capacity to read it all, or, indeed, a time machine.
Nonetheless, when thinking about the sailor Jan Struys’s life (and about those who helped him put his stories into print), one is forced to admit that much of what one thinks of him is pure speculation. The evidence about his existence is slim, and often puzzling or ambiguous (a blatant example of one such mystery is the fate of his children, or even their number). No birth or baptism record survives in the archives of his purported birthplace Wormer, and to this date no researcher has found anything at all about Jan Struys’s existence that precedes the document that announced his first marriage in 1650s Amsterdam, when he was identified as a varensgezel (sailor) by a clerk. He signed the record with an artful capital J, perhaps a sign of whim, but more likely of a rather poor command of writing.
Illiteracy, or half-literacy, was not unusual in the Amsterdam of his age, in which only half of all grooms could sign their own names. For sailors the ability to write was not that crucial. While he may have been able to read only a little, Struys must have had a sense of numeracy: at least he had a fairly good memory for the wages he and his comrades received when they enlisted with the tsar in 1668 to sail the Russian monarch’s ship on the Caspian Sea. Indeed, in the burgeoning capitalist environment of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, where goods and labour were paid for in money, numeracy trumped literacy. Without an understanding of some basic arithmetic, it would have been hard to survive in this world.
Then, suddenly, we encounter a rather well-documented period of Struys’s life, from 1668 to 1676 (after which his traces begin to fade again). A widower at 35 or so, he remarried in 1668, when he was near 40. His second spouse was the proprietor of the house in Amsterdam in which he had already lived for some years. Oddly, he immediately left for Russia upon the conclusion of this wedding, joining a crew led by David Butler that the tsar’s factor Jan van Sweeden had recruited in Amsterdam. The sailors were to navigate the Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich’s first elaborately sail-rigged vessel that was to launch on the Caspian Sea. Russian records survive that see Struys and Butler and their companions cross the Russian-Swedish border in the Baltic area, and many parts of the third section of Struys’s Rampspoedige Reysen, first published in 1676, align with these and other sources.
But due to the heavy involvement of an editor, or even a ghost-writer as I have argued, we still only catch glimpses of Struys’s mindset, even if we have an almost 400-page illustrated book recounting his adventures. The editor of his tales shaped Struys’s stories into something which was palatable to the Dutch readers of the 1670s, undoubtedly bowdlerizing or expurgating all sorts of parts which might have offended the sensibilities of the well-to-do Dutch bourgeois. This editing added lengthy parts to the text that described the culture or nature (of Russia, Iran, etc.) that was deemed of interest to the readers (and which were usually lifted from other geographic, or chorographic, works). Dutch readers (and readers who read the book’s translated pages in neighbouring countries) were highly keen on exotic ethnographical or geographical exposés about foreign places. Possibly, they pondered new business opportunities in regions not yet penetrated by the European merchants and colonists.
Rampspoedige Reysen’s affluent readers were rather different from Jan Struys himself, who, even if his reading skills were better than I suspect, certainly would not have spent his money on such expensive printed matter. It should be remembered that, as far as we know, if the Dutch owned any printed matter in the seventeenth century, it was the Bible or Bible-related reading material. Readers of books such as Rampspoedige Reysen belonged to the upper middle class. As Bert van Selm has suggested, the print-run of books such as Struys’s ranged from 500 to 1,000 per edition. Therefore, even if Rampspoedige Reysen was a genuine bestseller given its reprints and translations in German, French and English soon after its first Dutch issue, this needs to be understood in context. Indeed, both of the book’s patrons, the Amsterdam regents Nicolaas Witsen and Koenraad van Klenk, may have been asked for a subsidy to help produce the book, since profits from sales alone would hardly cover the costs incurred in the book’s production.
Some of that cost involved a slew of engravings made by the talented young artists Coenraet Decker and Johannes Kip, who were selected by publisher Jacob van Meurs, a skilled engraver himself. It remains unclear who was responsible for the sketch on which the book’s map of the Caspian Sea was based, which is intriguing, as its northern and western shores are depicted far more accurately than any Western map had done before (its caption falsely states that Jan Struys drew the map in 1668, when Struys had in fact been nowhere near this sea yet). Clearly, someone in Butler’s crew had charted the shores, but how did this sketch reach Amsterdam in 1675? If we trust his account, Struys himself was robbed of any valuables he had at St. Helena in 1673 and only allowed to keep a few souvenirs and his notes (or diary). This statement, found at the end of his book, suggests that he could write reasonably well, which is dubious (he signed his second wedding license, too, with just the single letter J); that he knew how to draw maps is even less probable.
Only a few of the illustrations stand out otherwise (in the sense that they don’t copy a familiar sort of template). Foremost are those of Astrakhan around 1670. Given their amount of detail, the sketches for these illustrations may have been made by the same man who drew the Caspian Sea map. It is fitting to note here that Western-European iconography before 1700 lacks life-like or accurate images of the Volga cities (some poor ones can be found in the travel account of the Holsteiner Adam Olearius, while Engelbert Kaempfer, secretary to the Swedish envoy Lodewijk Fabricius, an acquaintance of Struys, rendered some of the towns in his diary in the 1680s). It was to be the Dutch artist Cornelis de Bruin who in the 1700s became the first European to supply a detailed pictorial record of the Volga towns’s skyline and of northern and western Iran. Some of De Bruin’s rendition is marvelous in its accuracy.
So, in the end, we only occasionally catch glimpses of a Hollander who does not belong to his country’s elite in Rampspoedige Reysen (or in some of the other sources on this period of Struys’s life). We witness him skating, to the astonishment of the Russians (and at some peril, as his protégé Els Pietersz. almost drowns after falling through the ice). This jibes with Avercamp’s or Brueghel’s paintings, in which skating is shown as a favorite pastime of the Netherlanders in this age (sometimes called the Mini Ice-Age, when the Dutch waterways were far more often frozen than they are today). We read how he fights off Russian and Iranian highwaymen, and escapes the Cossacks at Astrakhan only to be captured by Dagestani who enslave him.
It stands without a doubt that during his sojourn in eastern Europe and Asia from 1668 to 1673 Struys was frequently exposed to violence, although the book suggests he himself was just as likely to turn to violence. He was constantly confronted with the precarity of human existence, undergoing torture, contracting illness, engaging in fights, being ambushed, and so on. The violence to which he was exposed (or to which he resorted) seems excessive to us, and its scale may have been unusual even to his affluent seventeenth-century readers, but it may have been no more than normal for someone of Struys’s humble background. I left out the first two parts of the 1676 original in my 2014 retranslation (although I do say something about them in Fiction and Reality), but if there is any truth in them regarding Struys’s adventures in the 1640s and 1650s, the violence Struys saw and underwent is as jarring as what he encounters in the third part. The statement by his contemporary Thomas Hobbes that life was “nasty, brutish and short” loudly rings true.
It is difficult to imagine how exactly this repeated exposure to brutality affected the mind of someone like Jan Struys. No one today could survive such violence without acquiring Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (and Struys may have very well suffered from this condition). Reflecting on his life as a whole, one surmises that he became a hard-nosed survivor. In addition, he was a skillful schemer, as is particularly evident in the final third of his life (1668-1694). The odd conditions of his second wedding (which partially entitled him to his wife’s house); his delight at the generous wages offered by the tsar; his dogged attempt to recover the wages owed to him in 1675 and 1676, when he seems to have joined the Van Klenk Embassy mainly to get his money; the book project of the same years; his curious endeavor to sell the Danish king a design for an unsinkable ship; and his ultimate retirement at Friedrichstadt in apparent comfort all hint at his survival skills and his keen eye for opportunity. Some of his mates who went to Russia were equally intrepid, such as Karsten Brandt, who built (or restored) Tsar Peter the Great’s first ships near Moscow around 1690.
And he embellished things. In our conversation in Haarlem, Jan Struys affirmed that telling tall tales was a common trait in his family: in Rampspoedige Reysen, his ancestor certainly displays a knack for adding some tall tales to his life (the climbing of Mount Ararat was at least in part made up, as was his witness account of the skinning of an Iranian woman, for instance).
Perhaps the historical Jan Struys’s perseverance in not resigning himself to his fate can be linked to his Christian beliefs. But it is hard to determine whether the determination of the book’s protagonist to reject Muslim attempts to convert him to Islam might have been played up by its editor(s) in order to contrast idealised Christian religious purity with the perfidy of Christianity’s greatest rivals. In stark contrast with Struys’s behavior as a paragon of marital fidelity, Muslims are portrayed as sexually depraved in Rampspoedige Reysen. In reality, conversion to Islam was all too common among Dutch sailors in the seventeenth century, and few seamen were steadfastly monogamous. Struys may have stood out for his stubborn refusal to become a Muslim (indeed, according to his tales, apart from the women and riches he was offered, conversion to Islam would have gained him his freedom from slavery), but he rarely invokes God, Christianity, or indeed his wife, in the text. This may hint at the nature of popular religion in the Republic, quite different from the dour piety advocated by Protestant ministers.
I have argued in the past (and I still believe this today) that Jan Struys in many ways can very much be seen as a modern person. In at least one aspect he seems a typical representative of the capitalism that had become the leitmotiv for many of the Republic’s inhabitants’ economic behavior. We know a fair bit about the mindset and world of the Dutch elite in this regard, but, as Rudolf Dekker has pointed out, precious little about those below it, as we have so few seventeenth-century ego-documents available that were written by those on society’s lower rungs, while other sources such as court documents, drawings, paintings and architectural artifacts only hint at their world. In Struys’s actions, however, we see someone from humble abode affected by the capitalist mindset. This is evidence that the capitalist view on things was beginning to spread among broader layers of Dutch society in his time.
Of course, one could counter that throughout recorded history one meets adventurous types who through luck and pluck make it, so perhaps Struys is more of an eternal human (arche-)type, the self-made man or homo faber. But the idea that one had agency and could control one’s destiny to some degree was unusually widespread in the Republic. One telling illustration of this are the wives and widows of Struys’s comrades, who went to an Amsterdam notary in 1676 to ensure that Jan Struys would bring back any of their spouses’s wages from the tsar, as he had promised the previous summer when he had left Amsterdam as “constable and palfryman” of Extraordinary Ambassador Koenraad van Klen(c)k. The women’s démarche also shows that they believed Struys’s word to be quite untrustworthy, which fits the idea of his somewhat shifty or duplicitous character.
In sum, most of what we can find out about Struys through his words and actions (and through what he leaves unsaid!) bespeaks a person who is not unlike us, although we may be coated by a veneer of civilisation somewhat thicker than Struys’s (few of us, I suspect, have indulgently witnessed—or possibly participated in—a posthumous castration, for example). Doubtless, more can be said about Struys’s world and cosmos, even if using the meager evidence that I consider unambiguous, and I have done so in two books and several articles. But the Jan Struys in those pages, as well as the Jan Struys that I try to sketch above, remain my Jan Struyses; we can only wish for someone to find a true treasure trove of additional evidence about his life, so that my ideas can be tested on the basis of a fuller record. Still, I remain partial to Vico’s insights, and have the hope that my recreation of Struys echoes in some meaningful way the Jan Struys of history.
Project Partners and Funders (with logo)
Castrum Peregrini in Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Dutch Culture Shared Cultural Heritage Matching Fund
Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Moscow, Russia
Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Teheran, Iran
Emrooz Gallery in Isfahan, Iran
European Cultural Foundation and Compagnia di San Paolo
Gerbrandy Cultural Fund
Heritage Contact Zone
Museum of Moscow in Moscow, Russia
Prince Claus Fund’s Mobility Fund
Roberto Cimetta Fund
Va Independent Space for Contemporary Art in Isfahan, Iran
Victoria Gallery in Samara, Russia
Wilhelmina E. Jansen Fund
Divorcement of the Russes. Their superstitious cleanliness. Baths and the use of sage. Their withstanding of heat and cold. Beautiful baths of the Germans. Some remarkable customs of the Russes. Burial customs, and odd questions to the deceased. Order of the funeral parade. Passport for the soul of the deceased.
They are stranded on a dry area. Great usefulness of the linden tree. Several people drown. Fertility on the banks of the Volga river. Arrival at Kazan and description of this city. Location of the Kazan kingdom. Kazan taken by the Russes. Kazan Tartars conquer the Russes. The army of the Tsar flees. Moscow is taken. The Tsar becomes tributary under the Tartars’ power. Braveness of the Governor of Ryazan, who liberates the Tsar and the Empire.
Departure from Kazan. Remarkable manner of fishing. Cities destroyed by the Tamerlan. The ship is dangerously stranded. Salt-kettles and pans. Difficulty in sailing the Volga river. New city built against bandits. A large city destroyed by the Tamerlan. Abundance of liquorice roots around Astrakhan. The beginning of the Kalmuk Tartars.
Disagreement and uproar in Astrakhan. Staritsa taken by the Cossacks. A fleet is sent out against them. Tzornoyar obtained by the Cossacks. The Russian fleet surrenders to them. Braveness of the Astrakhan people. Courage of the city Governor. Advised to flee, which is put in practice.
They lose their course. They touch at Oetszjoege. Strange fishing habits of the Bieloege. Abundance of caviar. Great difficulty in reaching the Caspian Sea. They reach the sea. Description of the island Satyry Boggere. Tall reeds growing along the coast. Terrible storm. The Golden Bay. Meeting with a Tartar Bark. Description of Terki. The beginning of the Circas Tartars. Appearance and face of their people. Their clothing and ways of living. Goodness of the women. Their charming clothing. Kindness and cheerfulness. Their remarkable worship of idols.
They get lost in their course. Meet a Cossack Bark. Great storm. The beginning of the Dagestan Tartars. Their appearance, clothing and trade. They are great thieves of people. The barrenness of the Dagestan mountains. Another storm. They are stranded and pursued by the Tartars. Cunningness is used. They reach utter despair. Were raided and plundered by the Tartars. Remarkable ordinance of the Dagestan Kings. Assailed by a second group, who violate women and make them slaves. Torture imposed on J.J. Struys in order to discover his fellows, which he bravely endures. They are brought before the Osman and locked in chains.
J.J. Struys is locked in chains. Required to become a Muhammadan. Several means were used for this purpose. The great gain of warm baths. J.J. Struys is taken out of chains and sold to a Persian. Description of the Caspian Sea. Large whirlpools in the Bay of Gilan. Conversation on the silk trade. Further descriptions of the Caspian Sea and its richness in fish.
Description of Darband. Its walls. The Sultan’s Court. Very old ruins. Several watchtowers. Abundance of graves outside Darband. Slave-market at Darband. J.J. Struys is sold for the second time. His patron married a Polish woman and his life is in danger. Was saved by him. Gratitude of the Persian. Proposal of the patroness to flee with J.J. Struys. Two men of the company come to Darband. How these became free from the Tartars’ hands. The Sultan of Darband very sympathetic to the Dutch. A ruse to free Els Pieterszoon. Endured slavery in the Boynak. The Prince takes the wife of Brak as his own wife, Brak flees.
News from Astrakhan. A Persian woman found to commit adultery. A father has his son beaten to death in public. Another man put to death in this manner. Joan of Termunde leaves for Isfahan. Hailstones as large as chicken’s eggs. Encounters at an Armenian Christian monastery. Anglers harshly murdered. Gruesome punishment by a man of his wife, whom he skins alive by his own hand, then leaves the body to the birds, and nails the skin to the wall. The Persians’ great jealousy. Emasculation of the court-boys. Large slave-market at Scamachy. Georgians sell even their own children. The Ambassador is ordered to depart.
Arrival at Isfahan. Reception by Mister Bent. Good reception at the Dutch Lodge. Story of Anthony Munster, his persistence, and his death. Location of the Dutch Lodge. Location of Isfahan. Its size. Rivers and creeks that run through it. A mighty work initiated by Shah Abbas. Streets of Isfahan. The Maidan and Bazar. Elegant arches and galleries. Royal shooting game. Beautiful Mosque of Shah Abbas. Dowletchane, the Emperor’s Court. The Divanchane, the Court of Justice. The Women’s Chamber. The God’s Gate. Carawanseras taverns. Persian saints and philosophers. Fortune tellers. Their remarkable and ridiculous predictions. The Kayserie or shops-gallery.
The great politeness and good deeds of Hadsie Biram. Departure from Isfahan. Uncomfortable travels through snow. The caravan is attacked by bandits. J.J. Struys is robbed. Water-holes with abundant fish. Very uncomfortable travels. The caravan assailed by bandits. Their superstitious aversion to pork. Grave of Shah Suleyman’s mother. Grave of Noah, his wife, children and grand-children. Beautiful remains of Persepolis and its noble castle. Statue of Rustan.
Continuation of the journey. Arrival at Shiraz. Meeting with several Carmelites. Rowdiness of the guests of the caravan. Rough encounter with a thief. Good reception of J.J. Struys by a French surgeon. Description of Shiraz. Various mosques. Palace of the Khan. Excellent wine in and around Shiraz. Lustrous orchards. Departure from Shiraz. Remarkable kindness of the Carmelites and the French surgeon. Abundant and very cheap date fruit. Particulars on the keeping of date trees. Arrival at Scarim. Meeting of a caravan. A nightly attack by 30 bandits who took down 5 men, and were finally forced to yield. Great defence by the caravan. The robbers apply for lodging, which was refused to them. They are tied up, severely punished and put to death. Abundance of partridges.
1 Стакан серебряный из клада с Гостиного двора. XVII в.
Silver tumblers discovered in the Gostiny Dvor (Merchant Yard), 17th century.
2 Крестовина (гарда) сабли железная. XVII в.
Iron crossguard (sword bar), 17th century.
3 Рукомой латунный из вещевого клада из Ипатьевского переулка. Голландия. XVII в.
Brass ewer from the Netherlands, 17th century, discovered in a hoard on Ipatyevsky lane in Moscow
4 Поршень кожаный. XVII в.
Wholecut leather shoe, 17th century.
5 Короб берестяной. XVII в.
Birchbark basket, 17th century.
6 Лапоть лыковый. XVII в.
Bast shoe, 17th century.
7 Кувшин глиняный. XVII в.
Clay pitcher, 17th century.
8 Замок навесной железный. XVII в.
Iron padlock, 17th century.
9 Рукомой глиняный с четырьмя зооморфными носиками. XVII в.
Clay ewer with four zoomorphic spouts, 17th century.
10 Стремя железное из вещевого клада из Ипатьевского переулка. XVII в.
Iron stirrups, 17th century, discovered in a hoard on Ipatyevsky lane in Moscow.
11 Топор железный. XVII в.
Iron axe, 17th century.
12 Поплавок берестяной. XVII в.
Birchbark float, 17th century.
13 Игрушка глиняная медведь. XVII в.
Clay toy bear, 17th century.
14 Игрушка глиняная свистулька-птичка. XVII в.
Clay bird whistle, 17th century.
15 Изразец глиняный с изображением кентавра. XVII в.
Clay tile with centaur, 17th century.
Изразец – «городок» глиняный с изображением стрельца с пищалью. XVII в.
Ornamental stove tile featuring an arquebusier (infantryman), 17th century.
16 Фигурка шахматная костяная. XVII в.
Bone chess piece, 17th century.
17 Миска для молока с носиком глиняная. XVII в.
Clay milk bowl, 17th century.
18 Бердыш (топор боевой) железный. XVII в.
Iron battle-axe, 17th century.