mercredi 11 novembre 2015

Divine Beauty: From Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana 2015

What might the effect of seeing modern interpretations of New Testament material be firstly, to a 21st century audience and secondly, to an audience visiting Florence, the great centre of Renaissance religious art? Surprise? Disapproval? Bemusement? One might rightfully ask, do serious artists still paint or sculpt works based on Christian themes or biblical events? If so, can they ever be anything but ironic?

An intelligent and serious exhibition of late 19th century to mid 20th century Christian art is on display at the Strozzi Palace in Florence. It is brilliant. The curators, working with a half dozen themes, choose works that interrogate the theology, competing ideologies and aesthetic questions that captured the imaginations of a century of European artists. Paintings, sculptures, models of church decorations and a video displaying modern church architecture are assembled in dedicated rooms, each of which treats a separate theme or New Testament event. Artistic styles and interpretations of a single event vary, sometimes significantly, but all the juxtapositions produce largely positive responses.

Take Adolfo De Carolis’s Madonna, Praise be to You for the Light You Shed on Earth (1900) and Edvard Munch’s Madonna II (1895-1902). They couldn’t be more different: Carolis’s blond Madonna, angels and baby are decorated in gold leaf, draped in rose and beige tunics, and a gold brocaded blanket is suspended behind the holy couple. Ethereal, serene, saccharine sweet. Munch’s work comes from a completely different psychic place: his Christ child, foetus-like and unsettling, appears at the corner of the canvas looking at his mother, her eyes closed, nude, in a dream-state while all around her at the edge of the painting swim a dozen sperm. Who, then, is the Madonna? Is she a sexless embodiment of beauty and purity or a Freudian neurotic?

In the Crucifixion paintings, opposing styles and meaning are displayed, also to great effect.
Emilio Vedova’s Contemporary Crucifixion: Cycle of Protest no.4 (1953), while completely abstract, performs a kind of magic by transforming a beige canvas painted over with black vertical and diagonal strokes which occasionally intersect and smudge, particularly at the centre, where rough white lines also intersect, into a kind of crucifixion scene. The small smear of red paint at the foot of the “cross” is not accidental. In its way, this painting may suggest the “death to life” gift that Christians believe resulted from Christ’s Passion. It may also radicalize the meaning of the Passion, exhorting the viewer to “shout to action in this world” — Vedova did not dissociate art from politics. Perhaps Jesus was a revolutionary.
In the same room hangs White Crucifixion (1938) by Marc Chagall, a painting that art historians describe as a Jewish work of art despite the fact that the central figure is Jesus Christ. Jesus the Jew, depicted in prayer shawl and head cloth (note, not a loincloth and crown of thorns) is a martyr, a holy man but not the Christian redeemer. His hanging body is surrounded by scenes representing the persecution and flight of Jews from Eastern Europe between the two world wars. Is this the other side of the story, the original Abrahamic faith dialoguing with its two successors and world history?

Divine Beauty represents a positive trend in cultural studies, art history circles and curatorial practices: their new and bold efforts are helping us reinterpret form, function and meaning in art in the 21st century.

dimanche 13 septembre 2015

Due Considerations, John Updike, 2007

John Updike’s “Due Considerations” is a hefty book of essays and criticism written between 1999 and 2007 and compiled by the author himself. Like his previous compendiums, the articles give due consideration to subjects of a cultural nature, “à la Updike”. As always, the language is elegant, the learning is evident, the humour is original, and Updike is open, stating his opinions and prejudices directly while also inviting us to join the conversation.
All of these markers of a good essayist are evident in his article, “Invisible Cathedral: A Preview of the New Museum of Modern Art” (2004) where he poses a series of questions and asks us to respond to them. He sets the stage for the discussion by telling us that he is at the site of the as yet uncompleted new MoMA where all evidence points to a museum that will be “immaculate, rectilinear, capacious and chaste” and then wonders if perhaps more can be asked of a modern museum. Updike tells us that this museum is designed by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, a man who brings his eastern sensibilities to the project and lets slip that Taniguchi told the museum trustees, “Raise a lot of money for me, I’ll give you good architecture. Raise even more money, I’ll make the architecture disappear.” Updike describes the effect that the building has on him during his tour of the site and confirms that “everything subtly floats”, the walls “dematerialize”. But is this “nothingness” ideal, he asks. After all, this museum does not present an “arresting silhouette like Frank Lloyd Wright’s top-shaped Guggenheim or Frank Gehry’s titanium extravaganza in Bilbao”, rather, it forms “an invisible cathedral”. Next Updike shifts focus, adding another element to the question “what more can be asked of a museum?” by suggesting that the original cathedral (the Christian cathedral) now shares its cultural capital with the art cathedral (the museum). He maintains that the new cathedral is invisible and highly self-conscious because art, “by its glow (allows us to) bask in the promise of a brighter, more lasting realm reached by a favored few - Saint Vermeer, Saint Pollock, Saint Leonardo.”
What are we to make of Updike’s conflation of the sacred and the secular, the ancient and the modern? Updike doesn’t tell us what to think, but in the end, he does suggest that an earlier MoMA, which housed a “relatively intimate collection of human-scale works in non-palatial rooms” was one of the museum’s charms and maybe this cathedral “may have sprouted too many chapels...We shall see.”

mercredi 19 août 2015

Perception in Our Town by Thornton Wilder (1938)

Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is a deceptively simple play, using the ordinariness of small-town American life, configured in the classic (conservative) “birth, marriage and death” narrative to examine subjects ranging from Puritan ethics to existential questions to ideas about the nature of perception. The play proposes that perception is always partial, subject to change and limited by the one-directionality of time. Memory, however, provides for perception to expand our understanding of life. Memory helps us travel back and forth through lived experience thereby helping us make sense of our existence. The play suggests to us that while the meaning of what we perceive the moment we live an experience is partial, revisiting that moment can grant us better understanding, even wisdom. Emily Webb begins her journey to enlightenment when she dies and revisits a particular already-lived day in her youth. Here she is simultaneously experiencing past and present: she talks to other wise (albeit dead) fellow townsfolk at the cemetery and as she relives part of a day in her past she talks to the seemingly omniscient Stage Manager. When she tells him, “I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed.” she is reiterating something that we all suspect: nothing is ever fully known. When Emily asks the all-important question, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? - every, every minute?” a short time before the play ends, the Stage Manager replies:”No...The saints and poets, maybe - they do some.” This must be Thornton Wilder’s philosophical guiding principle in abbreviated form: let us frequent the sage and the artist amongst us!

jeudi 23 avril 2015

Celine: A Biography by Patrick McCarthy (1975)

The quality of a literary biography depends in part on the amount of material available on the author's life and any writings the author has left to us on his craft and influences. In the case of Patrick McCarthy's biography of Celine — the literary name of Louis Ferdinand Destouches —  McCarthy does the near impossible: he manages to find enough material to satisfy the public’s curiosity about the life and art of Celine.
Little is known of Celine's childhood and early life and what is known comes second hand from stories (sometimes contradictory, sometimes false) that Celine told friends as a man. Celine was a famously bristly character, avoiding interviewers and admirers alike until late in his life. When finally agreeing to speak to the public he was his own most ardent apologist, claiming he was a victim, misunderstood, never an anti-semite (even while standing by his contention that Jewish-led conspiracies exist in the financial and literary worlds!).
McCarthy admits that the task he sets out for himself is made difficult because so little verifiable material is available but he reminds us that Celine’s core material - the characters, plots and ideas that inspire his stories - is largely autobiographical. McCarthy suggests that Celine, an almost pathological pessimist, wrote about what he knew but exaggerated the nastiness he found in himself and the world. War in “Voyage au bout de la nuit” is more horrible and dehumanizing than what he really experienced working as an army doctor in the first world war. Childhood in “Mort a credit” is more precarious and stultifying than Celine’s early years ever were.
Celine enjoyed tangling fact and fiction but McCarthy spends three hundred pages separating the two while building a case for his assertion that Celine the man was a complex, troubled figure but that he was also a revolutionary writer who introduced the vernacular and stream-of-consciousness to French literature.

mercredi 18 mars 2015

Klimt Beethoven Frieze

In the didactic poem The Theogony written in about 700 BC, Hesiod recounts the origins of the cosmos and lays out the genealogies of the ancient Greek gods. He describes Typhoeus as a grotesque, deadly man-god who can reach the stars, flames flashing from his eyes, arms extending east and west across the skies, fingers bearing dragon heads, his lower body composed of gigantic hissing viper coils and his whole body supported by huge wings.
One hundred and fifty years later an artisan decorates a Greek pitcher with a painting of Zeus hurling lightning rods at Typhoeus, this time depicted as a winged creature with a human torso, an animal head, pointy ears, supported by coiled serpent legs.
Nine hundred years later, in 1652,  the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kirchner describes Typhoeus as a human-like figure who shoots flames from his mouth, blows wind and clouds from his ears, grows snakes for fingers and feet and is covered in little, slithery snakes.
Another two hundred and fifty years pass and in 1902 Vienna, Gustav Klimt finally breaks the mold: on a wall in the Secession Building, instead of painting a human-like god-monster, he paints a giant, brown, winged ape, two meters tall and four or more meters wide and calls him Typhoeus. Somewhere below the extended blue, grey and beige wings is an intricately patterned (Persian carpet-like) body that ends with snakes uncoiling, their ends reaching upwards.

I have looked far and wide for an explanation for the substitution of an ape for the more conventional depiction of the god but have found nothing convincing. Klimt himself was famously tight-lipped about his inspiration, liking the public to delve into their own unconscious minds to find links to his work. Did he choose an ape because in early Christian art the devil is sometimes depicted as an ape? In Romanesque art the ape represents lust and the pleasures of the flesh. The ape sometimes stands for syphilis, a condition that plagued Klimt himself. Perhaps Klimt saw the vices that threatened his time and chose images, sometimes conventional, sometimes not, that best represented his vision.

The Beethoven Frieze is in the permanent collection in the basement of the Seccession Building in Vienna and the travelling copy is presently on display at the Pinacotheque in Paris.

mercredi 28 janvier 2015

Evguenie Sokolov, 1998, Serge Gainsbourg

“On this hospital bed, over which dung flies are hovering, images of my life come back to me...and if they were placed end to end they would make up a film at once grotesque and horrific, since it would have the peculiarity that the soundtrack, parallel to the longitudinal perforations along its edge, would emit nothing but explosions of intestinal gas.”

This is the opening paragraph of Serge Gainsbourg’s first and only novel, called Evguenie Sokolov. It is a surrealist-inspired tale, semi-autobiographical in content, mock-confesional in tone, and employs both low-brow and learned language to poke fun at the modern art world which is depicted as pretentious, unsophisticated and deserving of our scorn.

It is, of course, all tongue-in-cheek, tasteless and funny but the underlying message is clear.

The conceit is utterly original: Evguenie Sokolov is the protagonist and narrator whose life is complicated by a condition of extreme flatulence which, while at first socially and artistically debilitating, soon enables him to penetrate the art world.
Initially, he wins over the commercial art world by inventing a  successful comic strip character (under his most aptly conceived pseudonym “Crepitus Ventris”) called the Jet-Man, ”a new Batman propelled by his own wind”. Later, Sokolov introduces his main contribution to the serious art world: “hyperabstractionism which resembled the electro-encephalographs of epileptics”, more crudely known as “gasograms”. These gasograms are the result of a happy accident of timing (the simultaneous firing of fart and brushstroke) facilitated by the rigging of a chair-like device consisting of a tripod and a metal bicycle seat with coil springs “which gave my perch a variable power of amplification and the sensitivity of a finely tuned seismograph.”
And then, when he loses the ability to synchronize brushstroke with passing wind, he learns to make “shit stars” which he is paid to paste on to the  embassy ceiling in Moscow. But of course, like so many geniuses before him, Sokolov dies an early death. His, appropriately enough, is brought on by “peritonitis resulting from an especially powerful explosion of intestinal gases”.

The novella ends thus,
“Just as one of the gravediggers was about to throw down the first shovelful of earth, and Gerhaart Stolfzer, complying with the wishes expressed in the artist’s note, put a light to a cigar, there was a muffled report which lifted the lid of the coffin. Evguenie Sokolov had just breathed his final anal sigh, and rendered a last, gaseous, posthumous, poisonous salute to the memory of mankind.”

The final paragraph, like the first, maintains the irreverent tone of the work while simultaneously signalling its intentions: Gainsbourg is writing about himself and his reputation as an outsider, a bad-boy, one who breaks all the taboos and invites us to look truthfully at our culture.

jeudi 11 décembre 2014

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll (1974)

Heinrich Boll's 1974 novella "The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum" can be read as an easy indictment of the press's propensity to choose sides, sway public opinion and even ruin lives. The book recounts how a young woman and those near to her lose control of their lives when she confesses to the shooting of a journalist whose aggressive investigation destabilizes her.

Other less obvious readings are also possible. In fact the first chapter, which is only one page long (in a short book made up of 58 chapters) sets the stage for multiple conversations, one of which takes the novel out of its manifestly political and sociological context to explore questions of form and narration. These investigations ultimately lead to epistemological considerations: what can we as readers actually know? what is the truth? how do we get at it?

The novel begins with the narrator (journalist? friend? neighbour? concerned citizen? novelist? — we never find out) naming his sources, which include the transcripts of the police investigation and the names of the defense attorney and the public prosecutor. Then, before the third sentence ends, the conceit of impartiality breaks down because he reveals that his “account” is “supplemented” with unofficial and ultimately subjective material acquired from the public prosecutor who is a childhood friend of the defense attorney, a man who is, bizarrely enough, implicated in the life of his client, the accused. The narrator himself admits that “the case of Katharina Blum will...remain more or less fictitious”.

In this novella, police station truth will vie with courtroom truth which will vie with opinion coloured by loyalty, mixed with the claim that truth is not transparent and if it is at all available, it is available through the creative act. Truth is not singular or self evident and Boll tells us elsewhere that it “must be assembled” through language which is “inexact”. He writes,“The fact that a word has a multiplicity of meaning, not only within a language but also outside of it, makes it important to try to get to the root of words and language. That is the constant striving of literature. The absolute meaning exists somewhere; we just haven't found it yet.”

The telling of Katharina Blum’s story is a successful experiment in modern, committed, philosophically driven literature.