Blogging Jesenská: Merlijn Schoonenboom, Berlin

Merlijn Schoonenboom

From Nymph to Playboy Bunny

How is European ancient culture being brought into the 21st century? This was the question Merlijn Schoonenboom attempted to answer during his stay in Vienna. The answer, however, was not to be found in the museums of the city but in a cheap art store around the corner.

Maybe it was the seriousness of our topics, maybe it was the silence in the institute, or maybe it was only because of Vienna’s nostalgic beauty; fact is that, during our research at the IWM, we were often to be found in the “Billig & Gut” shop down the street – the Italian philosopher and myself, the Dutch cultural journalist.

Billig & Gut – cheap and good: it was the collective name of a two-store shop for various products, whose sickly sweet colors and uselessness appeared to be the only thing they had in common. There couldn’t be a bigger difference to the severity of the Viennese science world than this shop, or so it seemed.

Giggling with pleasure, the philosopher bought herself plenty of this undefinable “Made in China” kitsch. After a while, even the Arabic shopkeeper had to smile about it. I must admit, in the beginning, i was only a spectator on these expeditions. I worked in Vienna on a series of articles on “European identity and museums of ancient art”. “How is European ancient culture being brought into the 21st century?” Was the question I had asked myself.

To answer that question, I travelled to the Acropolis in Athens, the Museum Island in Berlin and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, palaces full of Rembrandts and archaeological antiquities. For a couple of years, these museums have been renovated for hundreds of millions of euros. Where could I find a better answer to my research question than there?

After two months of this research, something unexpected happened: I too bought myself a product in the Billig & Gut shop. It was a big picture of half-naked women in the woods, nymphs apparently. It hung in the shop-window, next to the candlestick made of fake marble. The picture, almost five feet tall, was a print on canvas, nailed to a plywood panel. It costs 29 euros.

We carried it to the institute. Why? Its gaiety was a little provocative of course, a welcome counterbalance to the serious scientists at the institute. But it was not only that. Also, i had seen the picture before. Quick googling confirmed my assumption: although a bit stiff and cheaply done (“Made in China”, was signed on the back), it was unmistakably a copy of a painting by the French Academy painter William Bouguereau (1825-1905).

In modern times, his style looks kitschy and plain, but at around 1870, Bouguereau was a hero in the Parisian art world. His style was considered a pinnacle of beauty and skill. After his death, Bouguereau was completely forgotten. The impressionists, his biggest opponents, became the new ‘winners of art history’, and, after 1900, his conservative, academic style of painting was seen as a mistake made by past generations.

It is therefore all the more remarkable that over the past ten or twenty years the nude fantasies of Bouguereau have found new appeal. His modern fans are mostly to be found under the “nouveau riche” from the USA. For example, Sylvester Stallone has collected paintings of this French academician.

The nymph picture in the Viennese shop, which now hung in my office, was definitely a result of this renewed interest. The imitator had added large silicone breasts and other Billig & Gut features, but that made it only the more significant. In the 21st century, Bouguereau’s conservative ideas of “ideal beauty” suddenly fit in with post-modern American popular culture and commercial soft-eroticism.

I realised that my research question could only be partially answered in the museums. The picture made me again aware of the fact that, it is not in the expensive art institutes, but just in the most trivial examples, where one can see best how historical European art finds its way into contemporary culture.

This shift has taken place in less than 140 years. In late 19th-century Paris, this nymph was considered the epitome of beauty, but now she was nailed to plywood, as a playboy bunny; fabricated in China, sold by a retailer in Vienna, the capital of European nostalgia. Not in Athens or St. Petersburg, but in the Billig & Gut shop on the corner of my own street, I had found the best example of sunken European cultural heritage.


Merlijn Schoonenboom is the Berlin correspondent of the Dutch daily newspaper De Volkskrant and was a Milena Jesenská Fellow at the IWM in 2008.

  The Milena Jesenská Blog with all posts can be found here.

IWM, 2011. Copyright © 2011 by the author & the IWM. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from the IWM.