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Concept and storyboard film artist Kurt van der Basch is surely a name that many in the Prague art and film scene would recognize. Originally from Canada, he moved to Prague to pursue a career in art which inevitably led him to film.
Like many of us expats, he began teaching English. Kurt’s journey and career has been incredibly diverse and I’ve personally been looking forward to this interview for some time.
On top of that, I’m also a major movie nerd so editing and listening back to this interview took a while – there were moments that I had to say to myself “Ryan, just shut up …” From working on recent Prague-based films like Child 44 to sketching 100s of storyboard frames for the new Netflix series Sense8, there are some interesting insights into the film industry in Prague and Central Europe… Not to mention some of Kurt’s early obsessions that got him into drawing in the first place. Enjoy!
Where are you from originally?
The east coast of Canada, Nova Scotia … Halifax. Well, not really from Halifax, but from a suburban little town near there. …But we moved around a lot.
And what are your greatest memories of growing up in that part of Canada?
The landscape and the weather. The long winters, meter-high snow.
Do you miss the snow?
Sure, because I’m not into driving so it’s never really affected my day. I just love it. And there’s something cozy about the snow reflecting off the ceiling too — it kind of lights up a whole room.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I really wanted to be an Egyptologist. I had that worked out for years. I took it so seriously. I even had a newspaper cut-out of me somewhere saying “I want to be an Egyptologist” when I was about 12. 1986 I think it was. There are actually a lot of Czech Egyptologists. It’s a specialty here, it’s always been a dream to go there but it would be really hard now.
When did you get into drawing?
I was always into it, as far as I can remember. I was always into drawing black and white, in pencil. My Mum would just sit me down and I would draw.
And what would you draw?
Well, I would obsess and draw one thing over and over again. I had a mermaid obsession, and the Egyptology was a part of a lot of the stuff that I would draw too – I think that had a big impact on my drawing because it was so graphic and standardized. You know, a hand always looks exactly the same, so does a foot. So I’d really try and nail it. But then I got into music, which became a huge diversion in my life. So then I would draw pictures of Beethoven over and over and over.
That’s really nice. To be so young and drawing Beethoven? That’s quite unheard of.
When I was 12 I broke my arm doing gymnastics in rubber boots on the grass… the wet grass (laughs). And it hurt so badly – it was coming out at a 90 degree angle.
Yes. Anyhow, I was in the cast for about a year and when I got it off I met a girl who played the piano and she was really good and she taught me some Beethoven, so then I became obsessed. So my parents got me a used piano and a teacher. And as an obsessive gay boy with no friends, I would go home and practice and practice and all of a sudden I went from a total beginner to quite advanced in just a few years.
Then I went to university and studied music. Everything was music. But the whole time I was drawing and drawing and drawing. You know, we have sort of a romantic idea of artists – that they should suffer and it should be really hard, and practice 7 hours a day. A lot of people, including me, find that very attractive.
So I was a good artist, but because it came easily to me and there was no romantic suffering involved, I didn’t feel like it was a very special skill. The whole time my Mum was saying, “Why don’t you go to art school?” and I thought, “Please, I’m a pianist” (laughs). So then in my third year of studies I realized that I wasn’t mean to be a pianist, but an artist.
J. E. Curtis, Keeper of the British Museum’s Middle East collections, was on grim business in Iraq. Armed occupiers held an ancient city there—“tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain,” he wrote. The site was “irrevocably contaminated,” he added, suffering “permanent damage that will last forever.”
Curtis was describing Babylon in 2004, under U.S. occupation. But commentary on ISIS ignores Washington’s legacy of cultural ruin, assuming the Islamic State has some unique capacity for wrecking artifacts. The group’s “obliterators,” as historian Simon Schama termed them, “all act from the same instinct of cultural panic that the supreme works of the past will lead people astray from blind, absolute obedience.” Toppling Palmyra would reveal “Isis’s littleness,” architecture critic Rowan Moore asserted, asking “how could anyone be so threatened by ancient ruins, unless they lacked belief in their ability to create something themselves?”
“Palmyra,” Moore emphasized, “is an ancient Roman site whose significance and value is exceeded by very few others: those in Rome itself, Pompeii, possibly Petra in Jordan.” So in his view, a “littleness” rivaling Islamic State’s would motivate, say, bombing raids on Pompeii—which the U.S. and British Air Forces carried out in 1943. The first strike happened August 24, “ironically the anniversary of the eruption of Vesuvius,” according to the Getty Museum’s Kenneth Lapatin. “Damage was incurred at various points throughout the archaeological site (over 160 hits were recorded), and some of its most famous monuments were struck,” with dozens “totally destroyed,” he explains.
The Allies bombed the Cathedral of Benevento that same month. “For 1,100 years this medieval church stood as a small but precious religious monument,” LIFE reported, though after the attack only “the bell tower, parts of the façade and one side wall” remained. “Fire that swept the cathedral burned rare Sixth Century Langobardic manuscripts,” though perhaps “the loss of the cathedral’s famous 12th Century bronze doors” was worse.
Six months later, in February 1944, Allied bombers demolished the Abbey of Monte Cassino, where “the only people killed,” David Hapgood and David Richardson clarify, “were among the civilians.” Dating from the 6th century, the Abbey was “the site where St. Benedict himself had founded the world-famed Benedictine Order,” John S. D. Eisenhower noted. He pointed out that Nazi officials ordered Monte Cassino’s Abbot, Gregorio Diamare—who “could not bring himself to believe that the Allies would destroy such a venerated edifice as the Abbey”—to send its art and archives to a safe location.
Allied bombers brutalized German historic sites for the rest of the war. “The center of Trier, for instance, was subjected to twenty raids between 14 August and 24 December 1944, causing severe damage to the fourth-century AD basilica and the Liebfrauenkirche, one of the oldest Gothic churches in Germany,” Nicola Lambourne writes. After the January 1945 raid on Nuremberg, much “of the historic center was destroyed, including the Albrecht Dürer house and the nineteenth-century building housing the German National Museum.” Sönke Neitzel explains that the February 1945 attack on Dresden badly damaged nineteen of the city’s thirty most significant cultural structures, leveling the other eleven.
And the U.S. Army Air Forces, while firebombing Japan, leveled Kobe’s 700-year-old Yakusenji Temple, Nagoya’s 17th-century Castle, and Tokyo’s Taitokuin mausoleum—“a spectacular complex,” historian William H. Coaldrake affirms—built in 1632. Mark Michael Rowe writesthat “Isshinji, an extremely popular Jōdo temple in Osaka, began collecting anonymous remains in 1887. The ashes were ground up, combined with concrete and molded into life-sized, seated Bone Buddha statues.” When U.S. incendiaries razed it, “the remains of nearly one million people, abandoned and otherwise, had been entrusted to the temple.” Washington’s campaign to ignite these cities also “accounted either directly or indirectly for the destruction of 50 percent of the total book resources in Japanese libraries,” Rebecca Knuth writes.
The destruction was equally broad in North Korea, years later. “Pyongyang is usually presented as an ancient city,” Andrei Lankov observes. “The area has been the site of a major settlement for nearly two millennia,” he acknowledges, but adds that “the present Pyongyang was built almost from scratch in the mid-1950s”—mainly because “a major US bombing campaign that reached its height in 1952” wiped out “some 90 percent of the city,” erasing much of its history. Justin Corfield, in his Historical Dictionary of Pyongyang, lists what was lost. The Kwangbop Buddhist Temple dated to 392; Potong Gate “was one of the ancient city gates of the walled city of Pyongyang, built in the mid-sixth century;” Sungryong Hall, a temple, “was built in 1429,” and like the other structures “destroyed during the Korean War,” Corfield concludes.
Or consider Mỹ Sơn Sanctuary. The Global Heritage Fund explains it “is one of Vietnam’s only archaeological sites to be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and was inhabited from the 4th- through the 15thcenturies AD,” when the Champa Kingdom blossomed. But “a large majority of Mỹ Sơn’s exquisite architecture was destroyed by aerial bombing during a single week of the Vietnam War.” A team of scholars, involved in the “ongoing conservation effort” there, admit their work “cannot change one sad truth: one of the towers that the [B-52] bombing crew saw that day [in August 1969], the temple once described as the ‘most perfect expression of Cham architecture,’ is gone forever.’”
Anthropologist Christina Schwenkel uncovered “another buried history of US aerial bombing in Vietnam: that of the demolished city of Vinh, provincial capital of Nghệ An.” From 1964-1973, “the city was subjected to more than 4,700 air strikes,” during which its “historical and cultural patrimony”—including the 18th-century Diệc Pagoda and 19th-century imperial citadel—was finished off. Mervyn Brown, in his memoir recounting years spent in Laos, describes a similar U.S. bombing. “The destruction of Xieng Khouang, a former royal capital with many beautiful temples and other buildings of historical and artistic interest, was a particular act of cultural vandalism.” The ruin was so complete “that it was not feasible to rebuild the town,” he laments.
There were, in other words, precedents for what the British Museum’s Curtis saw in U.S.-occupied Babylon. And that city’s damage stemmed from Washington’s antiquities policy. “During preparations for the 2003 war on Iraq,” writes journalist Robert Bevan, “US military planners identified 150 important archaeological sites to be avoided. US archaeologists responded with a list of 4,000 vital locations—a degree of ‘duty of protection’ that the Pentagon rejected despite international law demanding it.” Familiar results followed. Vandals torched the National Library and Archives and the Ministry of Religious Endowment’s Koranic Library. Looters hit the Museum of Archaeology. “The US forces did not seek to prevent the destruction here and elsewhere,” Bevan argues, “despite being implored to do so.”
“Why does the nihilistic effort to wipe out an ancient civilization echo so strongly?” Thanassis Cambanis asked in the Boston Globe. He was writing about ISIS, with justifiable outrage. But we should ask another question: Why doesn’t Washington’s global bombing of cultural sites—accompanying mass slaughter—echo at all?
Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC. He can be reached at: email@example.com
With more than 4.9 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you're throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or researching minor Batman villains. We explore some of Wikipedia's oddities in our 4,901,943-week series, Wiki Wormhole.
This week's entry: Tutankhamun
What it's about: While he wasn't born in Arizona, nor did he move to Babylon'a, Tutankhamun (known to the public as King Tut) created a worldwide sensation when the tomb of the late Egyptian pharaoh was discovered in 1922, some 32 centuries after the boy king was laid to rest. Because the tomb was remarkably intact, it was a bonanza for archaeologists, and led to a flurry of interest in Egyptian history for years afterwards.
Strangest fact: Tut was a minor pharaoh in life, but a major one in death. While he reigned at the peak of Egypt's power and influence, Tut took the throne at age 9, and reigned for less than 10 years, with Ay, his great-uncle, chief advisor and eventual successor, probably making the big decisions. His tomb is small for a pharoah's, possibly because he died suddenly and there wasn't time to prepare a kingly burial. But because it was easily overlooked, it survived intact through the millennia. Within a few years after Tut was laid to rest, the entrance to his tomb was covered with construction debris from other tombs, and eventually housing for construction workers was built over the entrance, so Tut was forgotten, even by later pharaohs who systematically robbed their predecessors' tombs. As a result, the tomb was almost completely intact when Howard Carter and George Herbert discovered it in 1922, making it one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of all time.
Biggest controversy: We know Tut died young (around age 19), but no one can agree on how. In 2005, a CT scan on his mummy showed a broken leg, which had become infected, possibly fatally. One doctor believes Tut had epilepsy, which caused him to fall and break his leg. DNA analysis in 2010 showed a severe strain of malaria, which may have killed him. Other theories on afflictions Tut may have had and/or died from include androgen insensitivity syndrome, Antley-Bixler, aromatase excess syndrome, a fatal chariot accident, club foot, cranoisynostosis, flat feet, Frölich syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, kyphoscoliosis, Marfan syndrome, post-mummification spontaneous combustion, sickle cell disease, X-linked intellectual disability, pediatric restless leg syndrome, and lupus. (It's never lupus.) So either he died of a combination of several dozen diseases, injuries, and genetic defects, or we have no idea what killed him.
Thing we were happiest to learn: The relics preserved in Tut's tomb are among the most viewed archaeological treasures in the world. There have been four major traveling exhibits—in the 1960s, the '70s, and two separate exhibits in the '00s with different sets of artifacts. The 1970s Treasures Of Tutankhamun tour alone ran for seven years, stopping in the U.K. (where people lined up for as long as eight hours), the U.S.S.R., Canada, and West Germany. Six U.S. museums were added only after President Nixon personally appealed to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and a seventh was added after a widespread public outcry in San Francisco that the city was being left off the tour.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Incest among royals isn't limited to Game Of Thrones. While Akhenaten was known to have several wives, DNA samples establish Tut's mother was one of Akhenaten's sisters (which one is probably impossible to tell). Tut himself carried on the family tradition, marrying his half-sister, Ankhesenamun, who was believed to be Akhenaten's child by his wife Nefertiti. All of this inbreeding had consequences, as Tut had numerous health problems (see above), and two mummified fetuses found in the tomb are assumed to be his stillborn children. Tut produced no living heirs, which is why he was succeeded by his great-uncle.
Also noteworthy: Tut's impact on pop culture was nearly as big as his impact on archaeology. Seventeen years after the tomb's discovery, The Three Stooges would explore the tomb of King Rutentuten and Queen Hotsy Totsy in We Want Our Mummy, and then visit ancient Egypt itself as used chariot salesmen in Mummy's Dummies. King Tut was also a recurring villain on the 1960s Batman TV series, although in this case he was an Egyptologist suffering delusions that he was the pharaoh reincarnated. The immense popularity of the 1970s Treasures exhibit prompted Steve Martin to write "King Tut," a song that cemented his popularity at the peak of his stand-up career. And in general, our popular conception of ancient Egypt and its kings is viewed through the prism of what we know of Tutankhamun.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Martin wasn't the only one to commemorate Tutankhamun in song. Numerous Tut-themed ditties came out of Tin Pan Alley, New York's legendary songwriting and sheet music-publishing district that thrived a century ago in the days before the phonograph and radio defined popular music. The Alley produced some of the most prolific and talented songwriters of the era, including Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, George M. Cohan, George and Ira Gershwin, Scott Joplin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and Fats Waller.
Further down the wormhole: The discovery of Tut's tomb gave us tremendous insight into Egypt's history. Besides Tutankhamun, the figure that dominates our view of ancient Egypt is Cleopatra, who ruled the same kingdom more than 1,300 years after Tut's death. While Cleopatra is envisioned as a powerful ruler, she in fact presided over Egypt's decline. She was the second-to-last pharaoh, whose romantic and political alliances with first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony solidified her hold on power, but also ushered in Egypt's absorption into the Roman Empire. When Antony was defeated by Caesar's heir, Octavian, he committed suicide, and Cleopatra followed suit. Her son by Caesar, Caesarion, succeeded her as pharaoh, but was quickly killed by Octavian. Cleopatra also had three children by Antony, including a set of twins. To help The A.V. Club observe Siblings Week next week, we'll look at twins and their secret methods of telepathic communication.
How can western ‘universal’ museums acquire and display artefacts without stoking the illegal arts trade and reproducing colonialist narratives?
Every month produces new cases of the “repatriation” of antiquities from American museums to their countries of origin.
In late May, Italian authorities displayed 25 looted artefacts retrieved from the United States. They included some objects smuggled by the infamous dealer Giacomo Medici, convicted in 2004 for selling thousands of stolen pieces of Greco-Roman art from Italy and the Mediterranean. A few weeks earlier, the Cleveland Museum of Art returned a 10th-century statue of the Hindu god Hanuman to Cambodia. The idol had been hacked from the Prasat Chen temple in Siem Reap in the 1960s before journeying via a litany of dealers into the holds of the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1982.
In April, homeland security agents relieved the Honolulu Museum of Art of seven ancient Indian artefacts believed to have been acquired through Subhash Kapoor, a New York-based art dealer.
Kapoor, who currently languishes in police custody in India, presided over a vast criminal operation whose full scope authorities are still trying to understand. An ongoing investigation dubbed Operation Hidden Idol spans four continents in trying to untangle Kapoor’s network. For decades, he funnelled stolen antiquities from India and south-east Asia to private collectors and major museums in the west to the tune of over $100m (and perhaps even more than that).
Some of the big American institutions connected to Kapoor include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute in Chicago and the Asian Museum of Art in San Francisco.
Operation Hidden Idol has piled further pressure on American museums to ensure that their collections are not home to illegally acquired artefacts. In the last 10 years, public collections including the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Met have given up hundreds of tarnished objects. In acquiring these illicit antiquities, museums failed to do due diligence in determining the authenticity and provenance of objects. They have since lost millions of dollars.But it’s not just the financial pain that worries curators and museum chiefs. The headlines generated by such scandals threaten the very acquisitive enterprise of western museums; mounting demands for repatriation make more difficult the project of building “universal” institutions presenting the art and history of the world.
Sometimes, these claims have little to do with the illicit trade. Writing in the New York Times, Hugh Eakin decried the strong-arming tactics of “art-rich” countries like Turkey, Greece and Italy. “Museums’ relationships with foreign governments have become increasingly contingent upon giving in to unreasonable, and sometimes blatantly extortionary, demands,” he wrote. As China and India grow on the geopolitical stage, so too have Chinese and Indian demands (often by private groups and individuals rather than governments) for the restitution of artefacts from the west.
As a result, defenders of museums believe that their diverse and cosmopolitan collections are under attack from governments and groups with narrow, nationalist agendas. Critics of western museums accuse them of complicity in the illicit trade, and at a more general level, of perpetuating the gross inequalities between the west and the rest of the world.
According to Jason Felch, author of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, “museum culture in the US has been slow to sensitize to the realities of the illicit trade”. He sees a parallel between the trade in antiquities and the drug trade: demand in western countries makes both possible. “As long as there’s a lucrative market for looted goods, for objects with uncertain provenance, there will be an illicit antiquities trade,” he said.
Tess Davis, a lawyer with the Antiquities Coalition, praised the Cleveland Museum of Art for voluntarily returning the Hanuman statue, but argued that it should never have been allowed to enter the collection in the first place. “The Hanuman first surfaced on the market while Cambodia was in the midst of a war and facing genocide,” she said. “How could anyone not know this was stolen property? The only answer is that no one wanted to know.”
American museums are largely self-regulated, though many subscribe to the stricter guidelines adopted in 2008 by the American Association of Museum Directors governing the acquisition of archaeological material. Museums have rarely been forced by legal rulings to give up artefacts; instead, they have voluntarily – sometimes pre-emptively – handed over the dodgy objects in their collections.
“No one wants to be promoting the illegal trade,” said James Cuno, CEO of the Getty Trust and a major proponent of universal museums. “Collectors have to be very careful about both the authenticity of the object and the legality of a transaction.”
But Cuno fears that universal museums in the west face a deeper challenge from nationalists around the world. Governments and their deputised national museums often couch their demands for repatriation in terms of “repairing the integrity of the nation”. Cuno argues that these claims are more theatrical than moral, making cultural property “about politics and the political agenda of ruling elites”.
In his view, the universal museum remains the best context in which to engage with art. “Works of art have not adhered to modern political borders,” he said. “They have always sought connection elsewhere to strange and wonderful things.”
The ongoing destruction of ancient sites in the Middle East by the Islamic State has galvanised the case for the universal museum, with advocates like Gary Vikan, the former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, arguing that only institutions in the west can preserve the world’s cultural heritage. Isis’s cultural atrocities “will put an end to the excess piety in favour of the repatriation model”, he told the New York Times.
From another perspective, that defence smacks of western privilege. “Colonialism is alive and well in the art world,” Davis said. “So-called leaders in the field still justify retaining plunder in order to fill their ‘universal museums’ where patrons can view encyclopaedic collections from all over the world. A noble idea, in theory, but in practice, a western luxury. The citizens of New York, London, and Paris may benefit, but those of Phnom Penh? Never.”
Felch, who has spent years investigating the practices and acquisitions of institutions like the Getty Museum, understands the problematic history of universal museums in the west, but still sees great value in their encyclopaedic character. “Many collections were built during colonial times, but I’m not tilting at windmills, trying to undo history,” he said. “I wish there were encyclopaedic museums elsewhere in the world.” He suggests that the many large, well-resourced museums in the west must help facilitate loans and exchanges with museums in other parts of the world.
While at odds with Felch on other counts, Cuno agrees that institutions like his have a global mission. “Any museum that argues for cosmopolitanism and cultural diversity has the obligation to encourage that access everywhere,” he said. “There is no reason to believe that people elsewhere are not curious about the world.”