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The Truth is in the Eye of the Beholder

The Truth is in the Eye of the Beholder

Words: Suzanne Okkes

Photos: Milan Hofmans

Picture yourself in a large, brightly lit industrial hall, its concrete walls covered in huge, illuminated photographs. Alongside several portraits and nudes, you see paintings, mug shots and magazine spreads that look like something out of the 1960s. And what is that charred steering wheel doing here? You have entered the world of Tabsch: an art exhibition focused on the life and times of the founder of Tabsch magazine, Barnaby Tilt. Your host: photographer, visual artist, curator and storyteller Milan Hofmans. “This obsession we have with fame and celebrities is fascinating to me.”

A group of visitors gathers around the first photograph in the exhibition: a large portrait of a man seated behind a desk, smoking a cigarette. Milan Hofmans starts the tour by introducing the man in the photograph as Barnaby Tilt, founder and editor-in-chief of the illustrious tabloid Tabsch. Tilt, who was of British-Chinese descent, was born in England in 1921. He moved to the Netherlands in 1955, when he married Dutch exotic dancer Ina Vogel. He then went on to start the first Dutch tabloid in 1958: Tabsch. He is described as an ‘enfant terrible’, a fearless “Tilt changed the landscape of Dutch journalism forever when he launched Tabsch,” says Hofmans. In the catalogue, the exhibition is presented as the definitive, authorised history of Tabsch: all the scandals, all the rumours – “stylish and tasteless, the full, uncensored story.”

Header photo:

Zita Caruso wanders naked through our capital IV, Marten Böckling, Amsterdam, Saturday, May 19, 1962.

A taxi driver tipped off snapper Mar ten Böckling about Zita Caruso’s visit to Amsterdam. The driver took Caruso from Schiphol Airport to the home of Anton Vijver on Amsterdam’s Valeriusstraat; the Italian actress was in tears throughout the journey.

Böckling spent over three hours waiting outside the house on Valeriusstraat and was about to give up when the front door flew open and Caruso spilled onto the street, wailing and naked, gifting Böckling his infamous series of photographs.

Tabsch! covers 1964, 1979, 1983 and 1996.

Is this for real?

Hofmans leads the visitors on a tour of the photographs, objects and paintings, pausing at each item to explain the story behind it. Hofmans: “When I came up with the concept of Tabsch, I knew it would be an opportunity to explore different visual disciplines. Genres of photography – nude, action, documentary, portrait, street – collecting and crafting objects referring to details and subplots of my story, painting, drawing, graphic and fashion design, all executed in the various visual styles of different decades of the twentieth century. Gossip, the kind you find in tabloids, is such a rich and rewarding subject, covering all kinds of human emotions. And whether they admit it or not, almost everyone is fascinated by gossip and celebrity culture.”

“Gossip, the kind you find in tabloids, is such a rich and rewarding subject, covering all kinds of human emotions. And whether they admit it or not, almost everyone is fascinated by gossip and celebrity culture.”

Milan Hofmans

And so Hofmans assembled an exhibition revolving around the story of illustrious gossip magazine Tabsch. What sets Hofmans’ work apart is not only his attention to detail, but above all the lengths he goes to to make his work appear real. Because, truth be told: Barnaby Tilt, Ina Vogel, and Tabsch magazine never existed – they are all elements in the elaborate, deceptive play (some would say lie) that is Hofmans’ work.

Mug shot I-IV

Kindly made available by New York City Police Department
New York, Tuesday, 24 December 1963.

Police photographs of Barnaby Tilt, his wife Ina Vogel, Coca-Cola director John Paul Austin and waiter Rob Jaffee following their arrest for affray.

Zita Caruso: distraught and naked

One of the most striking series in the exhibition is the one featuring Zita Caruso: five black and white pictures of a distraught woman roaming the streets of Amsterdam naked, seemingly shot on the move, as part of a news story. The backstory tells us that the series was shot by press photographer Marten Böckling exclusively for Tabsch. The series naturally caused a huge stir upon publication in 1962. Italian actress Zita Caruso was rumoured to have connections to the Cosa Nostra and sure enough, editor Tilt received a threatening telegram intending to stop him from publishing the photos. Undaunted, Tilt tore up the telegram in front of his entire staff. Three days later a car bomb destroyed his Austin Healey. The charred steering wheel was salvaged from the debris and is featured in the exhibition in a glass display case.

The photos are both compelling and repulsive in their depiction of a woman at her lowest ebb; viewers feel like they should look away. Which is exactly what Hofmans intends. Because even though the entire story of Zita is, once again, a figment of Hofmans’ imagination, there are many similarities to real stories and actual publications. This particular scene is reminiscent of the 2008 tabloid pictures of singer Amy Winehouse wandering the streets of London in her underwear at night. “It’s a story that seems to be made for the tabloids,” says Hofmans. “And if people regard my work as an indictment of the mentality of tabloids, of paparazzi, so much the better. Of course I am critical of the relentless hounding of celebrities and the invasion of people’s privacy that come with tabloid culture. At the same time, the story of Zita was an amazing opportunity to experiment with nudes and with pictures that look like action photography. In reality, these shots were very carefully orchestrated.” Photography is an excellent medium for the construction of pseudo-reality, as many people still feel that seeing is believing.

The charred steering wheel of Barnaby Tilt’s Austin Healey 300 Mk. III.
Amsterdam, Thursday 31 May 1962.

Willing suspension of disbelief

When Hofmans started giving tours, he soon discovered that visitors believed everything he told them, even in the face of improbability. “They had their doubts, of course, but they went along with my story. Although certain details did seem very unlikely, over the course of the tour they suspended their disbelief and even felt as though they recognised elements, names, faces and events. Sometimes people became quite emotional, clapping their hands over their mouths in sympathy. One visitor told me: “I simply wanted it all to be true, like any good story.” This was more than I could have hoped for; it’s amazing to see that my work can have such an effect.”

Hofmans did not set out to fool his audience when he first came up with the concept of Tabsch. “My initial thought was that it would be interesting to separate myself from the actual works by implying that I was just the exhibition’s curator. That these photos were found artefacts, and that my only job was to turn them into a coherent collection. As I worked on the project, the tale of Tabsch and Barnaby began to lead a life of its own and it grew into an intricate story with several characters and subplots.”

Hofmans has always been interested in the distinction between real and fake, between fact and fantasy. “As a child, I would always write stories to accompany my drawings. Or I would make drawings that went with my stories, I can’t say. And these stories always had to seem real, no matter how fantastical they were.” The Tabsch project can be seen as a social commentary, a satire of tabloid culture, but according to Hofmans, he didn’t even have to exaggerate that much, given the subject matter of real tabloids.

Is this how Jeanne mourns?

Egbert ‘Spycam’ Abels for Tabsch Maastricht,
Friday 11 November 1983.

With a hidden camera made by Francisco Rocha-Schmidt (29) and the Amsterdam theatre director Jeanne Kemmedaal (55), together in the house of Francisco Rocha-Schmidt. This photo confirms at a precarious moment – namely six days after the funeral of Kemmedaal’s husband – the rumours that Kemmedaal has a love affair with the 26 years younger Rocha- Schmidt. Less than three weeks after the publication of this photo in Tabsch, Kemmedaal was dismissed as a lecturer at the Theatre School and let music theatre company Krach know that she was no longer a regular maker.
Justice for dessert.

Sam Snyder for (New York) Daily News,
New York, Tuesday 24 December 1963.

Tabsch founder Barnaby Tilt knocks John Paul Austin, CEO of Coca-Cola at the time, out cold at a Christmas dinner in Hotel The Pierre, Manhattan, New York. The reason for this famous knock-out punch was the name Tab, given by Austin to a diet version of the popular drink earlier that year. Tilt knew that his childhood friend John Paul Austin had copied the name Tab from his magazine Tabsch, launched five years previously. Austin later admitted as much during an interview, explaining his act of plagiarism as “a homage to a fantastic publication by an inspirational, albeit hot-headed, man of business.”

The revelation: through the looking glass

While some visitors immediately immerse themselves in the Tabsch saga, simply enjoying the fantasy, at the other end of the spectrum are the sceptics. Some have been known to take out their phones during the tour and start searching the internet for clues. Hofmans would often hear them mutter: “So how come I’ve never heard of this magazine?” He makes a point of always revealing the ruse at the end of each tour. Reactions vary from “I knew it!” to: “No way!”, as spectators are confronted with the twist.

“I’ve often asked myself: does it really matter what the truth is”

Milan Hofmans

“The most spectacular reveal occurred when the so-called real Barnaby was in the audience,” says Hofmans. “He’s, so very masterly, played by my brother-in-law Leong Chang. When I introduced him and he stepped forward, people felt as though they’d stepped through Alice’s looking glass. It turned out that no one had recognised him – nobody had even noticed the resemblance between the Barnaby in the pictures and the quiet, bearded man at the back of the group. It was a terrific moment.” In fact, almost all the characters in the Tabsch project are portrayed by friends and relatives of the artist, and all the portraits, stories and artefacts were carefully styled and engineered. “You might think that people felt tricked, but almost all the reactions have been exclusively positive. People enjoy this kind of shenanigans immensely, and why not?” says Hofmans. “I’ve often asked myself: does it really matter what the truth is? Writers and filmmakers go to great lengths to make their stories look and feel realistic. Why should it be any different when you’re in an art gallery or a museum?”

The first article on paper, Hermina Vogel, Amsterdam, Saturday, October 4, 1958.
Pleased with himself Barnaby Tilt lights his beloved Dunhill cigarette after he has finished the last sentence of a Tabsch article. The first edition of Tabsch will be published on Monday December 1, 1958.

Many viewers have linked Tabsch to the growing phenomenon of fake news and misinformation; and while Hofmans never intended the project as a commentary on current events, he is certainly critical of certain aspects of contemporary society. “It is great if my work makes people reflect on today’s media environment, on our celebrity culture, on the emphasis on speed rather than accuracy. But I leave the interpretation of my work to others. If people just want to enjoy my pictures and take a mental trip through the exhibition, that’s perfectly fine with me.”

The exhibition Tabsch! 1958-1996, shameless revelations of a popular magazine by Milan Hofmans (Amsterdam, 1971) closed on May 1st, after a prolonged run at the Atrium (Zuidas, Amsterdam). Hofmans is looking for a suitable exhibition space in Europe from summer 2020.