This month I was awarded a Start-up Grant from the Creative Industry Funds (Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie). It is for The Warp and Weft of Memory, a project with Castrum Peregrini and writer Kate Pullinger. While currently in the research phase, eventually the project will result in an online narrative exploring the wardrobe of Gisèle d’Ailly van Waterschoot van der Gracht, and the ways in which it reflects her life, work, and various histories through textiles and clothing.
Gisèle at Herengracht 401, exact year unknown, courtesy of
the Castrum Peregrini Foundation
Gisèle d’Ailly van Waterschoot van der Gracht was born to a mother of Austrian nobility and a Dutch father who was a geologist for Royal Dutch Shell. As a child, her father’s work brought the family to the States and various other places until they returned to the Netherlands to live in Bergen. At that time, Bergen was a centre for poetry, literature and the arts; Gisèle took up drawing and painting and befriended eminent literary figures such as E. du Perron and Adriaan Roland Holst.
Moving to Amsterdam to develop her work, it was there that her life took a pivotal turn. As the War encroached, she was asked by the German poet Wolfgang Frommel to hide a group of young Jewish men. Housing them in the upper floors of her Herengracht apartment, she not only took care of their daily needs, but also along with Frommel, tutored them in literature, poetry, and fine art. Castrum Peregrini, Latin for ‘castle of the pilgrims’, became the name of their tiny secret refuge, and after liberation, it became the namesake of the foundation, which at that time focussed on publishing.
Gisèle remained close to Frommel and the men they hid and, continuing her practice as an artist, eventually acquired all of the Herengracht 401 building. Part home and part public space, the Castrum Peregrini Foundation expanded its activities to include exhibitions, symposia and other public events, while still adhering to its core values of friendship, freedom and culture.
In 2013, Gisèle passed away at the age of 100, and since then her apartment, studio, and possessions remain much the same as she left them. Having lost its founder, Castrum Peregrini is now in a state of transition as it reimagines the space of Herengracht 401 without her physical presence.
To look at her legacy and more broadly its relation to cultural heritage, the foundation has initiated a series of projects to be realized between 2017-2018. Different artists and scholars will be reflecting upon Gisèle’s archive, work, and rich collection of possessions, before they are dispersed across a variety of museums, individuals, or resituated within the foundation itself.
“Every poet of furniture — even if he be a poet in a garret, and therefore has no furniture — knows that the inner space of an old wardrobe is deep.”
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1958
Last spring, I had the opportunity to see Gisèle’s closet, which is filled with clothing spanning decades of her life. The traces of her body can still be sensed through the shape of the clothes; she was a relatively small woman with a slight figure. Even as she grew older, her shoulders curved but her stature remained the same.
Her wardrobe illustrates her fascination with travel, textiles, and design. For example, there is a woollen handmade vest with bright trim from Greece, a vibrantly coloured silk jacket from China, several items that were fashioned specifically for her by the renowned Dutch designer Dick Holthaus, and also there are practical clothes, such as her modest trousers and matching cardigan, which was the daily uniform she wore to her studio. These items not only reflect chapters in Gisèle’s remarkable life, but also the history of the Netherlands before, during, and after the War, women’s roles as they evolved in society, the privileges of class, and the persona of the artist.
Understanding that this collection would also inevitably be dispersed, I spoke to Castrum Peregrini about how her wardrobe could be catalogued in a meaningful way and made available to a broader audience. While Gisèle’s story is more known within a Dutch and German context, little is available English.
Wanting to experiment with combining fact, fiction, and documentary, I will be collaborating with UK based novelist and author of digital fiction Kate Pullinger to create an online narrative. Pullinger’s stories often have strong and at times idiosyncratic female protagonists, and her historical novel, The Mistress of Nothing, and her novelisation with Jane Campion of The Piano, have an acute sense of historical setting. She is also no stranger to working on multi-nodal online stories, with such projects as Inanimate Alice and Landing Gear as well as her digital war memorial, Letter to an Unknown Soldier.
Pullinger and I have discussed how we could mix genres by bringing together digitized photographs, illustrations, archival footage, interviews, images made by Gisèle herself, alongside companion texts which we will write. Tentatively titled The Warp and Weft of Memory, the aim is to create a multi-nodal web-based narrative that can be synthesized through a variety of entry points, such as place, theme, person, event, or a chain of other related objects. While each garment will have its own story, it can be woven into a fabric of other narratives.
Self-portrait in her favourite North American Hudson
Bay Coat, Oil on canvas 1948
As a collection, Gisèle wardrobe poses numerous challenges both narratively and visually. It is tactile and intimate, and despite being a screen based project, that kind of materiality and subtleness is important to convey. The garments encompass the biographical, but also reference larger Dutch and European histories. To return to Bachelard’s sentiments, “the inner space of an old wardrobe is deep”, especially in relation to memory.
A very big thanks to: