Made in Europe, the English appetizer

For every foreign reader who wants to know what Made in Europe is about, Stacey Knecht has translated the introduction to the book version by Pieter Steinz. Made in Europe – The Cultural Icons that Unite Us is a bestseller in the Netherlands, but could happily travel around the world. In this piece you can read why.

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Noordrozet van de kathedraal (foto Eusebius / WC)

Chartres  (foto Eusebius / WC)

When I think of Europe, I think of Chartres Cathedral and the Sistine Chapel. I think of Shakespeare’s plays and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I hear the final chorus from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ by the Beatles. I see Fellini’s Satyricon and the Tintin album King Ottokar’s Scepter. I think of French cuisine, Greek tragedy, German Romanticism, the Dutch Masters, Scandinavian design, the Russian novel.

When I think of Europe, I think of shared culture, from Dublin to Lesbos and St. Petersburg to Lisbon: literature and art that transcends borders. Call me a romantic. Because although I’m not the only one, most people, when they think of Europe, think of other things. Problems with the euro, for example. Bureaucracy in Brussels and needless trips to Strasbourg. Overregulation and political impotence. Open borders and “non-integrable” immigrants. Ideological differences between East and West, economic differences between North and South. In short: seemingly unbridgeable contradictions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe disunity of Europe cannot be denied. Yet the same holds true for the cultural icons that unite her. In the art museums of St. Petersburg and Bucharest are paintings by artists whose works can also be found in the museums of London and Madrid. Beethoven and Wagner are as popular in the Baltics as they are in the Mediterranean. Dance parties in every European city unite young people of every nationality. IKEA furniture stands solidly and stolidly in the homes of Poles and Italians, Portuguese and Irish. Baroque architecture graces the cities of Slovenia and Luxemburg, Netherlands and Finland; and although it may have been called something different in every language, Art Nouveau took all of Europe by storm.

If we are to believe the Eurosceptics, nothing good ever comes from Europe; we must draw faith, hope, and shining examples from our national culture and tradition. But there is enough Pan-European cultural heritage for all Europeans to be proud of. That is what this book is about. In 104 chapters, I give an overview of the cultural icons that all Europeans share — a lively alternative to the political and economical institutions that put most people to sleep. What typically European achievements form the cultural fabric, or better yet, the cultural DNA of our continent?

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Dutch edition of Larger than Life

Dutch edition of Larger than Life

Made in Europe is the inevitable successorto my previous book, Larger than Life (2011), in which I made sixteen trips through Europe in the footsteps of archetypical (anti)heroes like Roland and Robin Hood. The working title for this collection of sixteen travel stories/mini-biographies was The Literary Foundations of Europe, because I was convinced that Europe’s origins lay, first and foremost, in poetry and prose. ‘The 16th-century Faust and Eulenspiegel chapbooks,’ I wrote in the introduction, ‘are more unifying and, especially, more inspiring than a common coin or shared political institutions. Not only do they know Baron von Münchhausen in Germany and England, but also in the Baltic States. Don Juan is more famous in Milan and Prague than in his native city of Seville. King Arthur’s sword, William Tell’s crossbow, Dracula’s cape, Cyrano de Bergerac’s nose — they’re familiar all throughout the European Union… and beyond.

Of course, as a reader and literary critic, I was slightly biased. Europe’s shared culture is far broader, her origins more varied, than poetry and prose. There’s painting, sculpture, film, music, dance, fashion, design. Not only that: there’sdemocracy, Christianity, etiquette, the philosophy of Spinoza and Kant, the division of church and state, the separation of powers, Newton’s laws, quantum mechanics, the Feminist Movement, human rights, the European Championship, terrace cultivation. To say nothing of the political-historical phenomena that are nowadays — following the French historian Pierre Nora — referred to as lieux de mémoire: the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the coronation of Charlemagne, the Crusades, Luther’s theses, the Thirty Years’ War, the French Revolution, Napoleon, imperialism, World War I, communism, Auschwitz, the Berlin Wall, migrant workers, the Treaty of Maastricht, and so on, and so forth.

Plato (left) and Aristotle on the School of Athens fresco by Raphael

Plato (left) and Aristotle on the School of Athens fresco by Raphael

But this book isn’t about politics, or religion, or science, or sports, or philosophy. There are already enough books on those topics, and what’s more, a project like that would’ve been endless. The only sportsman with his own chapter is the leading exponent of total football, Johan Cruyff, but then again, Cruyff was always more of a ballet dancer. The ‘token philosophers’ are Plato, Cicero, and Montaigne, thinkers who were equally influential in the field of literature. Religion does make a brief appearance,in the chapters on cathedrals, Gregorian chant, and all other art that arose from religious devotion. And the sciences will have to make do with a chapter on the periodic table, a source of inspiration for various authors and designers.

Made in Europe confines itself to the arts: classic, modern, and applied, and takes into account eight genres: architecture; visual arts (painting and sculpture); film, comic strips and photography; literature; music; theater and dance; design and fashion; miscellaneous. Each of these genres deals with both high and low culture; that is to say, Beethoven and The Beatles, Shakespeare and the Scandi thriller, Swan Lake and ‘The Smurf Song’. Ideally, each item had to be…
…unequivocally made in Europe — ‘Europe,’ in the broadest sense of the word (including Switzerland, the Turkish east coast, and Russia west of the Urals);
…influential — or, better still, the most notable representative — of its kind;
…preferably known in all four corners of Europe.

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Sapfo door Charles-Auguste Mengin (1877)

Sappho by Charles-Auguste Mengin (1877)

In the past three years the search for people, works of art, movements and trends for this list of European cultural achievements has resulted in some hundred ‘icons’ — arranged rather arbitrarily, in this book, from Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ to the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. In compiling the list, I had a great deal of help: from professor of European Studies Joep Leerssen (whose assistance at the early stages of the project was invaluable), art-loving friends, readers of NRC-Handelsblad, in which a third of my Made in Europe pieces appeared, and from the visitors to my Made in Europe blog (www.pietersteinz.com), where I had been posting relevant articles for the past eighteen months. Without their enthusiastic reactions, Sappho, Wedgwood and Meissen, the coffeehouse, orientalism and Bulgarian polyphony, to name a few, would’ve gone unmentioned.

While writing Made in Europe, it soon became clear that a selection of 104 cultural icons might raise questions. Jane Austen, but not Dickens? A whole chapter on Caravaggio and Rembrandt (see under ‘chiaroscuro’), but nothing about Velázquez? A close look at Picasso’s Guernica, but hardly a word about Cubism, the movement he helped make great? Leni Riefenstahl as a leading exponent of propaganda film, but only a mention of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin? That would be a shame. And so I decided that in addition to each chapter I’d write a relevant entry, to fill the most important gaps (and in that way — with the help of an extensive index — turn Made in Europe into a reference work). These ‘sub-icons’ are usually directly related to the main subject (the femme fatale/James Bond, Casanova/Don Giovanni, pop-art/dada and punk), but sometimes form a contrast to it (Amsterdam’s 17th-century Canal Ring vs. Le Corbusier, Pasolini’s Salò vs. Fellini’s Satyricon, the Orient Express vs. the Citroën DS). All in all, Made in Europe contains 208 cultural icons — and there are still writers, artists, and movements that have been left out of the book. My mailbox (pietersteinz@gmail.com) is always open for suggestions, as well as for comments on the selection or factual inaccuracies in the text.

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The Beatles in LEGO - two cultural icons in one image

The Beatles in LEGO – two cultural icons in one image – via Digger Digger Dogstar

Halfway through the movie Manhattan, Woody Allen’s cinematic ode to New York, the lead character Ike Davis sums up the things that make life worth living. His list includes the second movement of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter Symphony’, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Swedish films, ‘those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne’, as well as a number of typically American references: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Louie Armstrong’s recording of ‘Potato Head Blues’, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. Allen’s alter ego ends with the crab at Sam Wo’s, a restaurant in Manhattan that no longer exists, and the face of the girl he’s in love with.

I’m certainly not the only person who at one time or another, like Ike Davis, has made such a list. Various lists, in fact, and a few things — apart from the faces of my loved ones — reappear time and again: Monty Python, Cruyff’s orange clockwork, the third movement of Beethoven’s ‘Frühlingssonate’, The Beatles’ White Album, Woody Allen’s movies, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Marcello Mastroianni, Randy Newman, René Goscinny, the incredible brushstrokes of Van Gogh, Italian cuisine. Nearly all of them a vital part of European cultural heritage, and reason enough for me to write this book.

This essay is the translation (by Stacey Knecht) of the introduction to Made in Europe – De kunst die ons continent bindt, the bestseller (40.000 copies in print) by Pieter Steinz on the cultural heritage of Europe. Foreign publishers please contact publishing house Nieuw Amsterdam, Hterborg@nieuwamsterdam.nl

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  1. Pingback: Turkish Writer Orhan Pamuk Wins Helena Vaz Da Silva European Award 2014 - Europa Nostra

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