Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis stopped by a Baltimore museum for cocktails. He came home with a multitude of artwork.
American Visionary Art Museum director Rebecca Hoffberger recently finished installing 28 works by self-taught and outsider artists in the grand dining room in the Washington, D.C. home where Lambrinidis, the Ambassador of the European Union to the United States, hosts official events.
“Usually ambassadors use their homes to try to portray the country from which they came,” Lambrinidis said.
“But in my case I don’t have one country. I have 27. I thought, ‘Why don’t I flip the script? Instead of telling people why they should love the EU, why not tell people in this country the reasons Europeans love America.”
Visionary artists frequently work with discarded materials and often exist on the fringes of society. Some are mentally ill. Lambrinidis said this toughness and elasticity in the face of hardship spoke to him during a year when the world was ravaged by a pandemic, so he asked Hoffberger to design an exhibit based around the theme of resilience.
“The resilience expressed in these artworks creates in Europeans,” he said, “a great admiration for this country.”
The inspiration for the exhibit came during a visit to AVAM by the European delegation in December 2019. The 27 diplomats plus Lambrinidis had just completed a grueling, daylong tour of Maryland. They met Gov. Larry Hogan and visited such significant institutions as the U.S. Naval Academy, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Fort McHenry.
The day ended with a cocktail party at AVAM.
“It was freezing cold,” Hoffberger recalled. “Everyone was exhausted. No one wanted to look at art. They just wanted their cocktails and to go home. But Stavros insisted that they take a tour.”
Within minutes of encountering the first works of art, Lambrinidis said, the diplomats’ fatigue had disappeared. No one wanted to leave the galleries. Some had tears in their eyes.
Among the artworks on view are the artist Eddy Mumma’s colorful children, painted in emerald and iris and blood orange. They stare in delighted astonishment at their six-fingered tomato-colored hands.
From the ceiling dangles a wooden sculpture by the artist Julian Harr that traces the evolution of manned flight. Beneath the prototype of an early airplane a man is suspended, his arms outspread like the mythic Icarus. From the man’s feet sprout the winged maple seeds commonly known as “whirligigs.”
Lambrinidis’ favorite piece is a painting by the artist Yanni Posnakoff. A man and woman hold hands while floating in a blue sky next to a being with a beak and angels’ wings. Below the couple is a field of flowers containing the words, “everything is possible.”
“As a small boy during World War II, Yanni watched as his parents’ throats were slit in front of him,” Hoffberger said. “After Yanni grew up, he moved to Baltimore. He felt that if he could only paint 10 thousand angels, he could prevent another world war from happening.”
Once the pandemic abates, Lambrinidis hopes to open his dining room occasionally for public exhibitions. Barack and Michelle Obama live two doors down the block; perhaps, the ambassador thinks, they will drop by.
In the meantime, he often finds himself looking for excuses to work in the dining room instead of in his upstairs office.
“It has become my favorite room in the house,” he said.
“I have a very nice ergonomic chair in my office but it doesn’t have the spirit that this room does. The dining room has become an explosion of color and hope. The amount of energy from the collection is palpable.”