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Deaf, Dumb & Brilliant: Johannes Thopas: Master Draughtsman

Deaf, Dumb & Brilliant: Johannes Thopas: Master Draughtsman

Author: Rudolf Ekkart

Publisher: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2014


 Until recently, the Dutch draughtsman Johan Thopas, who was born in 1626 both deaf and dumb, was only known to a small group of connoisseurs, dealers and collectors. However, his remarkable, subtle and technically refined portrait drawings on parchment deserve a wider audience. This handsome publication, the first devoted to his work, will prove to be an eye opener for many art lovers.

Beginning with his earliest works (two beautiful miniatures of 1646 in the Fondation Custodia in Paris), Thopas produced incredibly refined drawings, usually with lead point on parchment. He had an almost magic control of the lead point, and his sense of texture and the way he was able to achieve this with minimal means is astounding, setting him apart from other draughtsmen in the Dutch Golden Age. Thopas was also able to capture brilliantly the characters of his sitters – such as the sulky husband and trouser-wearing wife in the 1684 companion pieces in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Apart from lead-point drawings, Thopas made several drawings in colour, on parchment and on Japanese paper. In most cases these drawings were done after life, although we do know that the large commission he received from the Bas-Kerckrinck family in Amsterdam included several drawings that were done after existing portraits. Furthermore, he produced at least one brilliant copy after a painting by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem, Venus, Mars and Cupid, and even a painting, portraying a dead child. He must have made more paintings and certainly more drawings than the seventy we know today (all of which are catalogued and illustrated here). In this exhibition his only known painting and the one mythological drawing are accompanied by thirty of his most beautiful portraits, from private collections in the US, Canada, United Kingdom and the Netherlands, as well as well-known museums and print rooms, such as the Albertina in Vienna, the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, the Städel in Frankfurt or the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

The author of the catalogue, Prof. Dr Rudolf E.O. Ekkart, is regarded as the most important connoisseur in the field of Dutch sixteenth- and seventeenth-century portraiture and the author of many important monographs and other publications in the field of Dutch portraiture. He was Director of the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague between 1990 and 2012 and gained momentum as Chairman of the Committee that carried his name and proved responsible for the return of many looted works of art that were returned to the heirs of many Jewish collectors in The Netherlands. Included in the book are Dutch and German translations of the essays."

Quotes:

  • "It was only during the past decade that recognition of the importance of preserving Deaf history has emerged. In the main, Deaf heritage, culture and folklore has been passed down from generation to generation via the medium of sign language and fingerspelling. (..) It is also vital that the history of Deaf people is made available to future generations, especially Deaf schoolchildren as part of their history lessons."
    A. Murray Holmes,  in: Cruel Legacy, an introduction of Deaf people in history, by A.F. Dimmock, 1993
  • "The Deaf community is international. What binds Deaf people, despite their different national sign languages, is their shared visual communication, history, cultural activities, and the need for a Deaf “space” where people come together."

    from: The Cultural Model of Deafness
  • "The UN Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community”. This is based on the principle that citizens are not just consumers of cultural capital created by others; we have agency and the right to contribute through culture to the wider good of society."
    Source: A manifesto for museum learning and engagement
  • “Stories of disability are largely absent from museum displays. Where they appear, they often reflect deeply entrenched, negative attitudes towards physical and mental difference. Research reveals that museums don’t simply reflect attitudes; they are active in shaping conversations about difference.
    Projects created with disabled people show that museums hold enormous potential to shape more progressive, accurate and respectful ways of understanding human diversity. Why wouldn’t we take up this opportunity? ”
    Richard Sandell, co-director, Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, University of Leicester
  • "An important matter for any minority group is that written documents in public archives are often drawn up by the majority group and do not always reflect a minority as it sees itself. Thus, preserving sign language narration is of the utmost importance and a challenge to those working in the field of Deaf history."
    In: TIINA NAUKKARINEN, Finnish Museum of the Deaf: Presenting the Life of Carl Oscar Malm (1826–1863)
  • "Museums can increase our sense of wellbeing, help us feel proud of where we have come from, and inspire, challenge and stimulate us."
    Source: Museums Change Lives
  • "Deaf mute, deaf and dumb, hearing impaired – the choices are many and not without consequences. Words have many meanings, they convey attitudes and prejudices and may hurt, even when used in a well-intended context."
    Hanna Mellemsether, in:  Re-presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum, 2013
  • "The Finnish Museum of the Deaf) was founded by deaf people, and, thus, its task has been to strengthen their identity and historical communality.

    Most of our materials have a connection to the key experiences that generations of deaf people have shared. These are important in understanding the past and keeping the collective memory alive."
    In: TIINA NAUKKARINEN, Finnish Museum of the Deaf: Presenting the Life of Carl Oscar Malm (1826–1863)
  • "Beyond works of art and objects, museums collect shared heritage, memories and living cultures as well as what we call intangible collectables."
    Source: We are Museums
  • "For many members of the Deaf community their shared history is both personal and social. Deaf people will have gone to the same school, in many cases boarding schools where most of their younger lives will have been spent together, and then met again at their Deaf clubs, Deaf social events, reunions and other more personal events.
    One of the first things a Deaf person will often ask on meeting, before asking your name, is what school or Deaf club you go to. Making this connection is an important part of any greeting, as it will then help an individual to understand what shared history or people in common you may have."
    from: The Cultural Model of Deafness
  • "After all, we are all of us explorers, and we all have much to bring to each other from our own
    journeyings."
    Ladd, P. (2003). Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood.
  • "This (Deaf) Museum is not intended as a casual show, to be seen once and forgotten. Its pretensions are nobler; it has a humanitarian aim. By its solid and tangible evidences, making history memorable and attractive by illustration, it serves a double purpose: to dispel ignorance and prejudice regarding the deaf, and to raise the victims of this prejudice and ignorance to their true level in society."
    The British Deaf Monthly, Vol. VI (p.265) 1897. In: Deaf Museums and Archival Centres, 2006
  • “If you do not know where you come from, then you don't know where you are, and if you don't know where you are, then you don't know where you're going. And if you don't know where you're going, you're probably going wrong.”
    Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
  • "Opening ourselves to the Deaf community, listening to and respecting them as co-creators and experts telling the stories they want told, makes our practice richer, and has ongoing positive effects for the community.
    These embryonic relationships hopefully encourage Deaf people to feel welcome in our space — it’s their space too.
    For both side, communities and museum professionals, while genuinely, openly and truly committing to working together can be time-consuming, it repays any investment many-fold."
    Corinne Ball: Expressing ourselves’: creating a Deaf exhibition", 2020
  • "What has become clear is that museums don’t just function as custodians of the past anymore; instead, they have embraced their responsibility towards the communities of the present: a responsibility to represent them, to speak to them, and to be open to dialogue with them."
    Tim Deakin, August 2021
  • the past can hurt

    From: Walt Disney, The Lion King

  • "Nina Simon has described true inclusion in a museum context as occurring when museums value the diversity in their audience, value those individuals’ potential and contributions, when they actively link those diverse people across differences, and when the organisation reaches out with generosity and curiosity at the core.
    On a practical level this sort of museum practice would see widespread inclusion of people with disabilities in the planning of museum exhibitions, on museum boards and steering committees, and working in curatorial roles."
    In: Corinne Ball: Expressing Ourselves, 2020
  • "As recently as the 1970s, deaf history did not exist. There were available sketches of various hearing men, primarily teachers, who were credited with bringing knowledge and enlightenment to generations of deaf children, but deaf adults were absent."

    In: Preface to: "Deaf History Unvailed, Interpretations from the New Scholarship". John Vickrey van Cleve, editor
    Publisher: Gallaudet University Press, 1993
  • "The most significant function of museums is as centres for cultural democracy, where children and adults learn through practical experience that we all have cultural rights. Having the opportunity to create, and to give to others, may be one of our greatest sources of fulfilment. Culture is everywhere and is created by everyone."
    Source: A manifesto for museum learning and engagement
  • "Museums can increase our sense of wellbeing, help us feel proud of where we have come from, and inspire, challenge and stimulate us."
    Source: https://www.museumsassociation.org/campaigns/museums-change-lives/
  • "Until the fall semester of 1986, the history department at Gallaudet University had never before offered a course in the history of deaf people.
    In the 122 years, to that point, since the founding of the university, which was specifically intended for the education of deaf peoples, no one had ever taught a course about this very group of people.
    In all of those years the history department had offered courses on a wide range of topics but never deaf history. "
    ENNIS, WILLIAM T., et al. “A Conversation: Looking Back on 25 Years of A Place of Their Own.” Sign Language Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 2016, pp. 26–41. 
  • "Histories have for too long emphasized the controversies over communication methods and the accomplishments of hearing people in the education of deaf students, with inadequate attention paid to those deaf individuals who created communication bridges and distinguished themselves as change agents in their respective field of endeavour."
    from: Harry G. Lang, Bonny Meath-Lang: Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences, 1995
  • “One story makes you weak. But as soon as we have one-hundred stories, you will be strong.”
    Chris Cleave in "Little Bee", 2008
  • "Access to and participation in culture is a basic human right. Everyone has a right to representation and agency in museums, and communities should have the power to decide how they engage."
    Source: A manifesto for museum learning and engagement
  • "And yet, even within a large and, in many ways, traditional organization such as this (Trøndelag Folk Museum, Norway), the museum's encounter with Deaf culture contributed to profound changes and a process, still underway, which challenges our own understanding of what a museum is today, our role in society and our obligations towards more diverse audiences than those we had previously engaged or even recognized."
    Hanna Mellemsether, in:  Re-presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum, 2013
  • "Deaf people have always had a sense of their history as it was being passed down in stories told by generations of students walking in the hallways of their residential schools and by others who congregated in their clubs, ran associations, attended religious services, and played in sporting events.
    With these activities, the deaf community exhibited hallmarks of agency — an effort to maintain their social, cultural, and political autonomy amid intense pressure to conform as hearing, speaking people."
    BRIAN H. GREENWALD AND JOSEPH J. MURRAY, in: Sign Language Studies, Volume 17, Number 1, Fall 2016
  • "Inclusion is moving from “we tolerate your presence” to “we WANT you here with us”.
    Jillian Enright in The Social Model of Disability, 2021