What do You Want to See?

Art is about to compete with marketing, or indeed take centre stage in our streets, as many commercial posters will be replaced by prints of artworks all around the UK for two refreshing weeks.

From the 21st June (tomorrow), the Art Everywhere project will open its virtual polling station to the broad public. By voting for your favourite 50 British artworks, this is your chance to influence what we see around the country between 10th and 25th August, making a visual difference to our urban landscape. As there will be tens of thousands of such posters, this will turn the UK into “the world’s largest art gallery”.

This is free, so get involved and get voting!

The Beguiling of Merlin, by Edward Burne-Jones

The Beguiling of Merlin, by Edward Burne-Jones

Photo: wikipaintings.org

Void Fuller than Matter

The ethereal character of Oriental art is not simply an aesthetic taste: it has a spiritual dimension. In Buddhism, every object or being is part of the cosmic whole, connected by an omnipresent energy that resides as much in physical things as in the empty space around them (Ma in Japanese) and in the silence. The invisible and the secrets space and silence contain hold more truth than the limited reality we can see, touch or hear.

Hence, Oriental landscape paintings are far from empty to the Buddhist viewer. The mountains and trees are not the focus of the picture; the apparent void between them is. The lightly silhouetted elements are only meant to outline the infinite surrounding space, this universal energy that wraps all things – the Ma – as the focus of meditation towards Enlightenment.

The still and vaporous landscapes of the East evoke the contemplation of Truth and Reality beyond the material, unlike the comparatively heavy, cluttered paintings of the West, which, by contrast, seem so devoid of spiritual meaning.

Landscape by Watanabe Shiko, 1683-1755

Photo: brooklynmuseum.org

The Answer to “Who Am I?”

Up to the late 19th century, a person’s identity was defined by external factors such as their family background, gender and job. Then psychoanalysis turned the “who am I?” question inwards, changing our self-perception from a mere piece that must fit in the social jigsaw to a unique being with buried secrets. The new search for the subconscious inspired artists of the early 20th century to explore spontaneity as a new technique, leading to the wildest forms of abstraction that the world had seen to date and which cannot be surpassed in their radical break from the past.

Gone were the days of objective representation. The Surrealists embraced Freud’s theory, experimenting with automatic writing, painting and drawing (Masson, Miró), then in turn inspired the Action Painters (Pollock, Kline and de Kooning) and Tachists (Soulages, Mathieu). Creating was now all about the direct manifestation of the subconscious pouring out on to the canvas – to the amazement or contempt of viewers to this day.

Although the lack of structure and coherence of such works may not appeal to all, early 20th-century abstraction has undeniably and irreversibly broken the restrictive barriers of the conventional and predictable while celebrating freedom and individuality wholeheartedly.

Photos: musee-lam.fr, atlantidezine.itsurrealismfall2012

Mediaeval Peace and Love

Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Delights (1480-90) is a visionary dance of true harmony and love.

Humans, as naked as the animals they share the garden with, are free – free from their egos and fears; they are open to the Universe and to Absolute Love; enamoured couples are everywhere, including – the modern viewer may be surprised to notice in a mediaeval painting – a few black individuals. Through this parity of skin colours, which echoes the male-female duality, we understand that differences are finally accepted as complementary, that variety means joy, and that from union comes universal happiness.

The pairs are literally and metaphorically enjoying the fruit of their love: some are cocooned in gigantic fruit, others eat or share large berries, while others wear fruit on their bodies, some more explicitly on their private parts.

By including other ethnicities as well as creatures from outside the Old Continent (camels, leopards…), Bosch’s interpretation of the Garden of Delights shows that the concept of love for and harmony and happiness with everyone on Earth is not a new, modern aspiration.

Photos: en.wikipedia.org, ibiblio.org, mikyag.blogspot.co.uk

Reading Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal art is often referred to by their authors as “stories”. The focus of a composition is not on realistic visuals but on the relationship between the various elements of the story. As the pictures are traditionally drawn in the sand, the scene is seen from above and can be viewed from any angle. Consequently a painting does not equate to a snapshot, i.e. a frozen specific moment perceived from a single human viewpoint, but rather it relays movement and activities unfolding over a period of time and within a space, presented from an external viewpoint.

Elements are arranged according to a sequence of events and may appear several times, or there may be footprints or lines representing a person’s or an animal’s track. As the viewpoint is from above, clouds may be found everywhere in a picture and rain may run horizontally amongst them as it floods the land to eventually form rivers. A black strip on the edge of the picture, a semi-circle on the opposite edge, and elements of life (people, animals, trees, etc.) may simply represent a scene at dawn as the night on one side is being pushed away by the sun on the other, revealing a special place in the middle. Thus paintings may also be maps rather than stories as they contain items from a particular location that Aborigines of the same community will recognise instantly.

It is important to appreciate that Australian Aborigines are very tactile and their paintings are therefore meant to be touched as much as looked at. When an artist explains his work or  tells his story using his picture by way of illustration, he will touch the painting but not necessarily look at it as he speaks. This may explain why aboriginal cave art and painting on shields do not result so much from the application of pigments but from chipping into the support, thus creating a 3D effect.

Because this art tradition has been passed on over 30,000 years, it can sometimes include elements of the last Ice Age in Australia such as prehistoric animals and humans that preceded Aboriginal occupation. Hence Aboriginal art tells stories as much as Aboriginal history and legends.

Photos: artsearch.nga.gov.au, ngv.vic.gov.au, freemanproject

Classical Photography

Reading an article on the landscape genre in Britain in the mid to late 18th century recently, this description of a traditional classical landscape struck me: “a foreground tree framing some human figures and a middle distance with, say, a river or a castle for interest, and a distant blue horizon”.

What struck me was that nothing has changed in two and a half century and that this over-seen-and-displayed rule is still applied today in photography, especially the type that you see spinning round on carousels in holiday resorts. However valid this theory, it is also dreadfully cliché*, and if painting and photography are to be open to creativity, then one of the rules has to be to break established rules through experimentation.

This definition of a good landscape and the parallel between classical painting and postcard photography also reminded me of a photo from a German calendar a former colleague of mine once had on her desk. The calendar was of photos of German landscapes, or seascapes as in that particular case. The spot where the photographer stood, on the Baltic island of Rügen, must have been only inches away from where Caspar David Friedrich stood when he drafted his painting Chalk Cliffs of Rügen: the cliffs-and-trees frame, the perspective and the blue of the sea fading in the distance are strikingly similar; in the middle distance, a bulky 2007 ferryboat floats like a heavy slug where the pretty sailboats of 1818 glided along like feathers; and the foreground characters have vanished.

Whatever the rules behind flattening a landscape down to two dimensions while keeping an illusion of three, landscape painting or photography still has the power to impress us more than two hundred years on. As a regular reader of the National Geographic, I am in awe every month at the quality of the photos and the beauty of the sceneries, and  can only admire the talent (and envy the luck of being in such places and the budget for the equipment) of the authors of those photographs.

*In this context, it is interesting to note that, originally, ‘ cliché’ is another word for ‘photo’ in French. Hence the notion of something static, set in stone, etc.

Photo: paintingdb, Kirchner/Iaif (scanned calendar page)

The Subjectivity of Colours

In Zur Farbenlehre (On the Doctrine of Colours), published in 1810, Goethe advances that warm colours are produced by the weakening of light towards darkness and that cold colours come from darkness brightening up into light, as exemplified by dusk and dawn respectively. Goethe also stated that warm colours evoke “gaiety and happiness”, whereas cold ones made “restless, susceptible and anxious impressions”.

Following the translation of Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre into English in 1843, J. M. W. Turner, disagreeing with Goethe’s theory on what emotions warm and cold colours convey, was inspired to paint two scenes of the biblical Flood: Shade and Darkness – The Evening before the Deluge, an evening of warm colours announcing a gloomy event, and Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge, Moses writing the Book of Genesis, an alleged morning of hope and promises  “alleged”, because Turner did not think that God had held his promise of never taking life again.

Photos: www.tate.org.uk

Textural Exhibition in Bristol

Once again, Arnolfini in Bristol is host to a truly amazing exhibition. Cologne-based artist Matti Braun has taken over the three-floor art centre with his stunning texture works.

Galleries 1 and 2 present a series of paintings in which Braun experiments with a variety of media (UV paint, ink, lacquer, etc.), dark colours and textures on raw silk canvases. Parts of the works are matt, others glossy, with some fusion and interaction between colours and media, or with the support itself, thus creating a range of intriguing effects and textures. The fluid grace of the random, yet somehow balanced, compositions is simply beautiful. Floored with rough concrete slabs that make the ground slightly uneven, thus adding texture to a three-dimensional experience, and dimly lit with a few pairs of neon lights (one UV, one normal), Gallery 1 immerses the visitor in an atmosphere that makes Braun’s art all the more captivating.

In Gallery 3, the floor has been covered with a pond liner, then flooded into a dark mirror-like lake and dotted with wood slices as stepping stones. (The wood was sourced locally: a Douglas fir in Westonbirt Arboretum suffering from an invasive fungus had to be felled). The installation is inviting and fun as well as beautiful.

Three patolas hang in Gallery 4. They blend Indian traditional patterns with the modern, flat technique of print on fabric. Where one expects texture, there is none. In Gallery 5, the soft light plays on the rich glaze of the large bowls that appear to be made of fused glass. On getting closer, the expected transparency of the material evaporates like an illusion and we realise they are ceramic bowls.

A must-see before the 6th January.

How much for this Renoir?

At a flea market in Virginia, a lady bought a bundle of random objects that included a few toys she was interested in for $7 (£4.30). Amongst those random objects was a painting with an imposing Baroque-style frame. As she was about to remove the painting from the frame and throw the canvas away, her mother thought it might be worth having the painting checked first. This proved to be a good idea as the painting is suspected to be Paysage Bords de Seine by Renoir, the last purchase of which was recorded in 1926. The piece remains to be authenticated but, if genuine, the $7 investment could turn into a $75,000-100,000 (£46,170-51,570) sale. (Read more in English or in French.)

Such an anecdote reminds us of the subjective value of art works. Like designer clothes, the price depends on the creator’s name. The price also reduces the work of art down to a mere commodity, albeit a luxury one. Much as I have always loved art for the experience it triggers, I have always failed to understand how a price can be attributed to an art piece. For me, art is beyond what money can buy; art relates to life. Can you put a price on a life experience? Luckily, not all art works are bought and kept privately as personal investments and money-making schemes and we should be grateful to – and indeed support – public galleries such as Tate or the V&A for investing much for the (often free) enjoyment of all.

Paysage Bords de Seine, by Renoir?Photo: Potomack Company

Added 21/09/12 – An oil painting believed to be by Turner has resurfaced. Bought for £3,700 eight years ago, Fishing Boats in a Stiff Breeze would be estimated at £20m. A larger investment for a much larger return than the above-mentioned Renoir. Having studied Turner’s work for my MA dissertation, I must admit that this case stirs something in me. So, however much the present owner may sell it for, I hope we can see it at the Clore or some other respectable and accessible gallery some day.

Fishing Boats in a Stiff Breeze by TurnerPhoto: Private Collection

The Sea, an Endless Source of Inspiration

The sea defines our continents but knows no frontiers. With all its wonderful creatures, this powerful, ever-moving mass has always brought breathless beauty, fascination and awe to our shores and beyond.

Regardless of geography or time, many artists have felt the urge to paint the sea and its moods in the most diverse forms, colours, textures and styles.

The 8th June is World Oceans’ Day. I’m fund-raising for the Marine Conservation Society – all donations welcome!

Australia: From the Desert to the Sea (2010), Emu Apple Gallery.
UK: J. M. W. Turner – Snow Storm (1842), Tate, London.
Japan: Tabaimo – Midnight Sea (video still, 2012), Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.
Canada: Mirana ZugerSea (2009), Patrick Gordon Gallery, Ottawa.
Germany:
Caspar David Friedrich – Monk by the Sea (Der Mönch am Meer) (1808-1810), Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
Tanzania:
Lubaina Himid – Between the two my heart is in balance (1991), Tate, London.