Legacy of the Loved Ones

The Ball 14 July by Theophile Alexandre Steinlen (Petit Palais de Geneve Museum collection), currently exhibited in Petit Palais — Musee des Beaux-Arts de la ville de Paris.

These past days I was doing research and writing an article about an enigmatic person, a real character and a passionate individual, Oscar Ghez di Castlenuovo (1905–1998). A successful industrialist, an advisor on Italian affairs to Pentagon and an avid art collector he left a substantial legacy in the form of an art collection of 5,000 pieces, housed in Petit Palais de Genève Museum, where he mounted more than 30 exhibitions in 30 years of its opening, attracting 600,000 visitors. The collection focuses on painters of Montmartre, Belle Époque, impressionists, post-impressionists and School of Paris artists whom Oscar believed were unjustly overlooked by the experts or neglected by art historians. These included up and coming artists of the times and female painters too.

As his life illustrates, Oscar was as a man of true passion. Enthused by it, he generously and willingly shared it with public at large every day until his death in 1998.

While writing the article, I had an array of mixed feelings. Mostly triggered by the situation I was describing and the appeal that I’m going to make using the article. The situation in question reminded me of my own family, in particular my late father.

My father was not as charismatic a collector as Oscar Ghez. Far from it, actually. But he was not without his own passions. Unlike Oscar’s my father’s passions were more of private nature. Being a collector, he enjoyed the objects of his interest in the privacy of his own company and his home. Nothing out of ordinary, as many collectors around the world do exactly the same. But yet…

One of my father’s passions was history. Both related to his own country, which at the time of his youth was the USSR, and the world history. He loved reading about historical events, comparing different points of views and presentations, memorising dates to be then later quoted in conversations with his intellectual friends over dinners and at party gatherings.

I believe it was his way of sharing the information he admired. However, personally, I think he could have done much more. He could have become a historian, taught at the State University of St Petersburg, shared his knowledge with wider younger audiences. For when one shares one’s passion with others, the others become enthused and fuelled by it too.

But my father was not a confident or charismatic enough man to pursue this path. He thought that he did not have the guts to be a historian publicly, so he resorted to being a private ‘party’ intellectual instead.

Books was another interest of his. In 20–30 years of consciously and systematically pursuing his passion, he had collected a home library of Russian and international literary works. Books were everywhere in our small flat. We were literally living and breathing them.

I’m not sure though how often he had a chance to read those books. It seemed that simply gazing at them being lined up on shelves in double or triple rows, gave him the pleasure he sought. The one of the owner, I guess. Again, in the privacy of his own company.

I’m not a book collector, I’ m more of a reader and writer. So, as a kid I used to read a lot. When I had read all the books in the school library I moved on to our home one. Though, this posed more challenges to me than pleasure. You see, my father did not like to lend books outside of his library, not to his friends nor to his relatives and family memebrs.

So, every time I wanted to read a specific book, I had to ask his permission. He often granted it, but on a condition that I would treat the chosen book well. This meant not making any notes on its pages or earmarking it. I always respected his wishes and the books I read were returned to their ‘home’ intact, as if they have never been read.

I thought my father’s approach to sharing was a selfish one, but it was his collection, not mine, and he had the right to do with it as he pleased.

His last, but not least, life-long passion was postage stamps. He started collecting them as a school boy and continued until his death. I believe he loved collecting stamps because, to him, they were short stories in pictures. A small square piece of paper can contain in itself a story of a whole country, a special event, a distinguished person, a historical figure, an adventure, or an insight into flora and fauna of a foreign land. Stamps are the stories in miniature. ‘Flashes’ of human life and history.

He used to buy stamps ordering them from various catalogues, and sell and exchange the acquired ones with his fellow members of the Philatelists Club. Yet again, his hobby was a private one, limited to the circle of the few ‘privileged’ ones.

After his death, the collections of books and stamps had become even more private, as neither my mother nor my brother was interested in them. At some point, my brother even wanted to throw all the books away as they took too much space in the flat and he liked it to be free of ‘clutter’ as he put it. My mother thought of cataloguing the books but never got around to do it. I myself wanted to take some books into my own library but living abroad, I could not take out of Russia any objects which are considered to be ‘antiques’, published before a certain time in the 20th century, which most of the books in my father’s collection are.

And so, the legacy of my father stays locked, benefiting no one in particular. When I think of it I cannot help but compare what Oscar Ghez did for public and how many people benefitted from his passion and efforts to my father’s ‘contribution’ to the world. A stark contrast that makes me sad.

I wish I had lived in 1990s in Geneva. I wish I had known Oscar Ghez. I wish I could have been enthused with his passion. I love people like him. They inspire, lead and ignite.

I also wish my own father had shared books with his friends and friends of his friends. I wish he had taught at the State University. I wish he had shared his stamp collection with me, my brother, and my mother. There is so much he could have done to make his loved ones and other people happier but he had chosen not to.