How necessary is Art? My thoughts after a week in Madrid

Having just come back from a successful and inspiring week in Madrid I can’t help thinking about what I experienced there. And by doing so, I am faced with a wonderful maybe unanswerable question: why is art so powerful? And furthermore: is it, that by touching an inner nerve art reminds us of what really matters? It isn’t that I don’t know how strong an artist can be, but perhaps amidst all the activities and impulses one is confronted with daily, one tends to forget just how important art’s impulses on us are…

Unexpected exhibition

Refuel Meal, 1996, Tetsuya Ishida, acryl on board

On my first day in Madrid, I experienced such a moment. Purely coincidently, I happened to walk through the Retiro Park and discovered the Reina Sofia‘s external exhibition space, the Palacio de Velázquez. After admiring the building and taking a few photos, I walked in, not knowing what to expect. A most fascinating exhibition of, an unknown to me, Japanese artist was being shown: “Tetsuya Ishida, Self-Portrait of Other“.

Not expecting anything, I observed the inside of the building first.  It is a beautiful, very bright and open space… perfect for exhibitions. Then, I started looking at the paintings. Very quickly, I felt disturbed by them. Who is this artist? Why do I get the feeling that the men being portrayed are machine-like human beings? Always the same person, sometimes alone sometimes as a series… More and more I started to reflect and understand that this is what our society is becoming. Men turning into producing machines, men being lost, men in search of their identity… Where has life gone? Questions upon questions springing to my mind…

Hothouse, 2003, Tetsuya Ishida, acryl and oil on canvas

Some paintings were so disturbing I first had to walk away to come back to them later. This artist touched a chord in me, moved something in me so that when walking out in the bright sunshine I was a little dazzled and first had to sit on a bench in the shade before moving on.

Zarzuela magic

A few days later during the dress rehearsal of Doña Francisquita at the Zarzuela Theater in Madrid, I experienced a different powerful moment. A dear friend of mine had managed to get us tickets, knowing that I very much wanted to see a Zarzuela. I had never seen one before and was very curious and excited to discover this typical Spanish Artform. What a wonderful evening it turned out to be. The theatre itself is a jewel, and the music by Amadeo Vives is lively and fun, the piece was premiered in 1923, using a big orchestra with a large guitar section added to it.

The highlight came when the Fandango, probably the most famous dance in this Zarzuela, was about to happen. We had already sat through most of the piece having enjoyed some beautiful singing, some laughter, and some flamenco dancing.  Now, in the 3rd Act, one of the protagonists suddenly came up front and spoke to the public directly explaining that the “Maestra” was here and that, totally unexpectedly, she had agreed to play for us the Fandango. My Spanish friend knew straight away who was meant, and was totally in shock and excited as Lucero Tena walked in and stood at the front of the stage waiting for the orchestra to start playing.

Lucero Tena is a legend, and I, although not knowing her until then, quickly found out why. She is now over 90 years old, and even if she doesn’t dance anymore, she most certainly plays the castanets like nobody else. The music she produces, the colours, the dynamics, the expression, the presence is absolutely breathtaking. As I sat there, I just could not believe what I was hearing. The whole audience just went crazy, and the 6 dancers who straight after danced, with their own castanets, the same Fandango, were so energized you couldn’t help but be fully taken in. Incredible!

Personal experience

The last experience I had which reminded me of the power art has, is probably the most personal. Of course, I wasn’t in Madrid just to visit, although that would be a good enough reason to go there. I was also there to perform. It turned out to be a very special performance, as this was also a present for a dear friend of mine’s birthday.

As a musician, one is very much busy thinking about this note or that rhythm, about this sound or that expression, this being together and that tempo… When the performance comes, it is necessary to let it all go, so that the performing can take place. Being an opera singer, I possess a certain amount of stage presence and acting ability. However when singing Lied, such as the Wesendonck Lieder (Richard Wagner) here, the acting becomes unnecessary, the music and especially the text are the most important.

On this evening, when singing “Träume” (the last of the cycle) I became aware of the power of my instrument and of my artistry… It is as if one touches the listener’s inner self through something unexplainable, one moves something inside… One feels the concentration, the silence, the strong emotions coming back from the audience, and really one can’t say how it happened… Quite magical really. And then, when public and performer join in a time of mutual silenced thanks after the last sound has rung, you know that you, as an artist, are important just for that.

Afterthought

Maybe I had, with all my little worries or stresses forgotten how vital and necessary my job and artform is. Not just as a performer, but also as a person. Today’s hectic competitive life often doesn’t allow us to remember this enough. But really without art, we become machines… just as in Tetsuya Ishida’s paintings. Maybe that is why these paintings were so disturbing and moving for me. It is vital to have such artists, reminding us of what is important: being a human being who feels and not a machine which produces.

Lost, 2001, Tetsuya Ishida, oil on canvas

 

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Highlight in Brussels – Bernard van Orley

There are moments when time stands still. When discovering and being mesmerized become one, when an artist whose name you don’t really know, suddenly becomes a revelation to you. I experienced such a moment when visiting the monographic exhibition dedicated to Bernard van Orley in the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Bozar) in Brussels. How is it that Bernard van Orley has been unknown to me so far? When I last sang in the Cathedral Saints Michael and Gudula, I couldn’t stop looking at the absolutely incredible stained windows and still have them very clearly in my mind. Yet, it never occurred to me to check who the artist was.  Until now.

Who is Bernard van Orley?

Bernard van Orley is a Renaissance painter from Brussels. Born in 1488, he is thought to have been trained by his father Valentin. He was the court painter to Marguerite of Austria from 1518 and then to Mary from Hungary from 1532, receiving also commissions from Charles V. He was a very popular painter in his day, owning his studio and can be seen as the missing link between Rogier van der Weyden and  Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Seeing that this year celebrates the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death, numerous exhibitions such as the one in Vienna which you can read about in the previous blog (Insights into Bruegel) are being shown all over. Here, in Brussels, Bruegel is being celebrated too. However, the Bozar has decided to take an indirect approach by celebrating his predecessor Bernard van Orley in a major exhibition and holding another show presenting “Prints in the Age of Bruegel“. What an excellent idea this is!

Van Orley was a very complete artist. He painted portraits, devotional paintings, produced tapestries and stained glass windows. In his beginnings, he did it all alone, but quite early on, he started his studio and left more and more the painting to his assistants, allowing him to concentrate on the tapestries and the stained glass windows.

Holy Family, 1521 (?), Bernard van Orley, Oil on Panel

Influences

In 1520, van Orley gave a feast in his house in honour of Albrecht Dürer. Dürer was at the time visiting the Low Countries and presented van Orley with several engravings and also painted his portrait. Van Orley was influenced in his work not only by Dürer but also by Italian painters such as Mantegna ( whose work you can see in Berlin in another wonderful exhibition ( Mantegna-Bellini ) or Da Vinci.

Segment from Tryptic Haneton, 1520, Bernard van Orley, Oil on Panel

Tapestries

Van Orley not only made tapestries for the Emperor Charles V: he excelled in this art already early on in his career. In the first room we find a gorgeous example from his early days: “Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon”, made for the imperial postmaster Frans van Taxis.

Legend of Our Lady of the Sablon: The Statue of the Virgin Welcomed with Grand Pomp in Brussels, 1526-28, Bernard van Orley – Unknown Brussels Workshop, Wool and silk

Margaret of Austria (Aunt to Charles V) took him into her service in 1518. She already then possessed an important collection of tapestries, extending it further with the orders to her court artist.  In the exhibition the “Square Passion” is being shown fully. It is a set of four devotional tapestries, which were produced between 1518-1522 and regarded as one of the most refined creations of this period.

The Crucifixion, 1518-1520 – Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, 1520-1522 (Square Passion), Bernard van Orley – Pannemaker workshop, Wool – silk – gold and silver thread

Around 1530, van Orley made two large tapestries series for the Emperor Charles V. These are among the most prestigious ever realized by the Brussels workshops. The Emperor Charles V was then at the height of his powers, and Brussels was the city he lived in most, making it the center of the western world. In this exhibition we see “The Battle of Pavia. Attack on the French Camp and Flight of the Besieged” from a series of 7 Tapestries depicting the military victory in Nothern Italy in 1525 by the new imperial armies. On the other side of the room a set of 3 tapestries from a series of twelve, depicting The Hunts of Charles V are shown. Here we find a beautiful representation of the Brussels landscape.

The Hunt of Charles V. The Month of September (Sign of Libra), About 1531-33, Bernard van Orley – Dermoyen workshop Brussels, Wool – silk – gold and silver thread

Famous in his days

When van Orley entered the services of Margaret of Austria he was a known painter, having already produced the prototypes for traditional portraits of the regent and young Charles  which were copied and distributed numerous times. This was reason enough for important public figures such as the doctor Georges de Zelle to get their portrait made by him too.

Portrait of Georges de Zelle, 1519, Bernard van Orley, Oil on Panel

What a feast this exhibition is. My afternoon there was reason enough for me to get the catalogue, which I can highly recommend even if it is a little pricy. I also want to point out that in the last room, at the end of the exhibition you will find a small flyer with an invitation to walk to different places in Brussels where you can discover more about this great artist. It is a little darkly lit there, so you may not see the flyer at first glance. Of course, the stained glass windows can’t be in the exhibition, although some wonderful drawings and sketches are shown. I have, however, found a photo from a segment of those at the Saints Michael and Gudula Cathedral from my last time there, which I want to share with you. It is a fine thing when one can finally recognize an artist whose work one has admired before.

Segment of stained glass Windows at Saints Michael and Gudula Cathedral in Brussels, Bernard van Orley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mantegna – Bellini, learning from each other

It was quite a coincidence that after publishing my last post about Katz’s portraits ( Is this a portrait ), I should have the opportunity to see the gorgeous Mantegna – Bellini exhibition at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. What better way is there than to go back to the Renaissance world and to what portraits were then. I will not try to compare both exhibitions here, although it could be an interesting post. I will instead speak of this recently opened beautiful show with the following questions in mind: how is it that such masters can learn from each other, respect each other and stand equally strong next to each other? And how by doing so can they gain a level of excellence not achievable without the other?

Presenting Mantegna and Bellini

Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Giovanni Bellini (around 1435-1516) were two major painters of the Renaissance period. They became in-laws in 1453 when Mantegna married Bellini’s sister Nicolosia. Andrea Mantegna came from nearby Padua. The son of a carpenter, he became an orphan at the age of ten. He was accepted in the painting school of Francesco Scquarcione, his talent having been discovered early. Giovanni Bellini, on the other hand, came from Venice. He was the son of the famous painter Jacopo Bellini. In those days the Bellini family had a very high rank in the Venetian society, and so he grew up with little worries, following his father’s path.

Saint Jerome Penitent in the Desert, 1448-51, egg tempera on panel, A. Mantegna
Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, about 1453-55, egg tempera on panel, G. Bellini

The earliest paintings these painters left us have coincidently the same subject, Saint Jerome. In actual fact, this exhibition is beautifully segmented in subject categories, most of which were very popular in the Renaissance Period: the Virgin with child, the portraits, the Agony in the Garden, the landscapes, the dead Christ, ancient civilisation, and so on. This makes it even more obvious to see in which manner they approached the same subject and how they influenced each other too. In Saint Jerome, one already notices two different approaches. The detailed composition is more prominent in the first, and in the other the landscape strikes the onlooker most. Mantegna’s portrayal was a few years earlier than Bellini’s, yet already in both, we see their own personality coming through.

Using the other’s drawing

The Descent of Christ into Limbo, about 1480-85, engraving, A. Mantegna

Just on the opposite side from Saint Jerome, we find a section with drawings, prints and paintings dealing with the subject of the “descent into Limbo”. This deals with the moment when Christ descends into the realm of death between his burial and his Resurrection. It is not mentioned in the Gospel but was a well-known subject in the 15th century which fascinated Mantegna.

The Descent of Christ into Limbo, about 1490, drawing, A. Mantegna

He made numerous drawings of this theme, resulting in an engraving and in paintings. Over one of these drawings, Bellini painted his own version. Yet even though he does so, he uses the drawing with the utmost respect and, by use of his own light and painting skills, makes it into his own. Both painters were in close contact and exchange, Bellini looking up to Mantegna as his “older” brother, even after Mantegna’s move to Mantua in 1460.

The Descent of Christ into Limbo, 1475-80, oil on parchment on panel, G. Bellini

Mantegna was known to be careful with his copyright. He nevertheless allowed Bellini to use his drawing, seeing this as a sign of honour and of admiration for his work. It is, in any case, a wonderful show of trust and a subtle dialogue between both painters.

Another example of this is seen in “The presentation of Christ in the Temple”.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, about 1454, egg tempera on canvas, A. Mantegna

Mantegna painted his painting around 1454, probably to celebrate the birth of his first child. In this painting, the Virgin Mary together with Joseph present the baby Jesus to the wise Simeon who, upon taking the child in his hands, recognises the Messiah. Here, we also see two other figures. On the far right is a self-portrait and on the far left a portrait of his wife Nicolosia.

In 1470/75 Bellini used this painting for his rendition by tracing the figures’ outlines in exactly the same manner. The painting differs in several ways though: in its colours, in the painted frame now being a parapet, and in the addition of two extra figures… possibly family members. It is thought that Bellini painted this upon the death of his father Jacopo Bellini. What a show of utter admiration this is!

The Presentation of Christ in the Tempel, about 1470-75, egg tempera on panel, G. Bellini

Learning from the other

This dialogue also went the other way around. Mantegna admired Bellini’s use of light and landscape greatly. Bellini, being a master at this, could achieve a calm realism supporting the scenes he painted. A wonderful example of this is Mantegna’s rendition of the “Death of the Virgin Mary”. In this painting, he has set special attention to the view out of the window. His landscape is very much in Bellini’s style. We see what probably was the view from the castle chapel of the Gonzaga family in Mantua, where Mantegna moved in 1460 to become the court painter.

The Death of the Virgin, about 1460-64, egg tempera on panel, A. Mantegna

Finishing a commission

The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome, 1505-06, glue size on canvas, A. Mantegna

In 1505, the Venetian nobleman Francesco Cornaro commissioned Mantegna a cycle depicting episodes from the second Punic War, described among others by the ancient Roman historian Livius. Mantegna was only able to finish the first painting of the cycle before his death in 1506: “ The introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome”. Mantegna was fascinated by ancient culture and studied it throughout his life. Bellini less so. Yet, he agreed to complete his brother-in-law’s unfinished work. Showing his respect, he remained faithful to Mantegna’s wonderful sculptural relief painting (grisaille) and coloured marble background in his own paintings.

The Continence of Scipio, about 1506-08, oil on canvas, G. Bellini

What differs and makes them individual

What about the “Virgin with Child” renditions? This was an extremely popular subject in the Renaissance, each household having at least one portrayal of this subject, either painted, sculptured or printed in their home. Both Mantegna and Bellini painted this theme therefore numerous times.

The Virgin Mary and Child, about 1460, egg tempera on panel, G. Bellini
The Virgin and Child (Simon Madonna), about 1455-60, glue on canvas, A. Mantegna

Here one can see the individuality but also the genius of both artists. Mantegna with his incredible search for different compositions, always trying something new and Bellini sticking to classical composition, yet always vibrant and innovative through his use of light and colour.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine and Mary Magdalene, about 1490, oil on panel, G. Bellini
The Virgin and Child with Mary Magdalene and Saint John the Baptist, about 1490-1505, egg tempera on canvas, A. Mantegna

Knowing one’s strength

It can be said that Mantegna was more the historical and antique subject painter, whereas Bellini enjoyed staying mainly with religious themes. In 1460 Mantegna moved to Mantua becoming the court painter for the Gonzaga court. Isabella d’Este, who married Gianfrancesco II Gonzaga in 1490, commissioned both artists with a historical or ancient subject. Mantegna obliged gladly, offering her “Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue”. Bellini, however, refused to accept this commission, explaining that his painting couldn’t stand strong next to his brother-in-law’s masterpiece. In the end, Isabella d’Este gave in to Bellini who offered her a “Birth of Christ” instead, which she kept in her bedroom.

Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, about 1500-02, egg tempera on canvas, A. Mantegna

How to end?

What a wonderful exhibition this is. Not only does it remind me of humanity, of the beauty of culture, of the constant non-ending search for an ideal, but also of a never-ending wish to learn and learn and learn. It doesn’t always have to be about competition. Here are two artists, each standing with their own strengths: one incredibly detailed and a master in composition, the other gifted with his use of light and colour. Of course, their relationship can’t have just been a bed of roses, but I do feel that there must have been a huge amount of respect between them. I believe both knew that there is no “me being better than you”. It can only be about trying to grow further… and what better way is there to do that, than to give space for the other, thus allowing oneself to learn from him or her.

 

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Is this a portrait?

Katz

One sunny afternoon I decided to go to the Alex Katz exhibition in Munich. I expected to see many beautiful portraits, maybe a few landscapes. It turns out the exhibition at the Brandhorst Museum offers both. Without being a huge retrospective it does give a proper impression of what his work and artistry are about from his early days to today. What really made this show interesting to me though, was that it confronted me with one question: what makes a portrait? I couldn’t help feeling while walking through the exhibition that Katz’s approach to portraiture whether in the traditional painting on canvas or the cutouts oil on aluminium figures doesn’t quite comply with my idea of what a portrait is. Why is it so? Are these portraits?

a painting that looks simple

Paul Taylor, 1959, oil on canvas

At the start of this exhibition, we see a full body painting of Paul Taylor, dating of 1959. Katz started working with Paul Taylor in 1960, producing numerous costumes and sets for the Taylor dance company. This is still the early years for Katz, but already we see his clear trademark style: a monochrome background and a figure on it. It’s a rather simple idea, but actually quite refreshing and peaceful.  The background is clean and neat, no brushstrokes obvious or appearing to break the surface. The result is that there is a minimum of depth of field. The vision is reduced to one canvas and a figure on it. Actually it is quite a wonderful idea, seeing how our world has become so obsessed with multi-dimensional vision. Here we get back down to just what matters, and it is refreshing. “I try to make painting that looks simple.” (A.Katz)

No expression, no content, no form?

Private Domain, 1969, oil on canvas

“Private Domain” (1969) is, however, the first painting one sees when walking in the entrance room. This big painting and “Paul Taylor Dance Company” (1963-1964)  next to it really explains a lot to me about Katz’s artistic style. It seems to me, that Paul Katz is studying the physicality and aesthetics of the body here. His work with dancers as a set and costume designer seems logical when looking at these paintings.  Here are 2 paintings where the body is put in the forefront. Not the soul, but the physical aesthetics of the body. This is of course just my impression but it explains my starting to wonder whether it matters who stands in front of him, or whether the actual beauty and presence of the physique in space matters more. To confirm my thoughts this is what I found on his website about his impressions on Paul Taylor:

“I had seen Paul dance for the first time shortly before we met with Edwin [Denby] and thought his choreography was one of the most surprising things I had seen as an artist. Paul’s dancing seemed to be a real break with that of the previous generation: no expression, no content, no form, as he said, and with great technique and intelligence.” (A. Katz)

No expression, no content, no form? Could that apply for his paintings? The word Robot comes to mind when I read these words, but that is really not what Katz’s painting is about. These are no machines on the canvas. There is an aesthetic, a beauty which shines first and foremost. And yes, this beauty does have to do with the people in the paintings. It is a physical beauty, a superficial pleasing to the eye with perfect clean faces, no wrinkles to be found.

Paul Taylor Dance Company, 1964-64, oil on canvas

“I’m not telling you about the person’s inner feelings, I’m not interested in that stuff. Most realistic painting has to do with the plight of man, which  I find horribly sentimental. I’d rather deal with the energy of life than the sadness of it.” (A. Katz)

Fashion is ephemeral

Red hat, (Alba), 2013, oil on canvas

Katz is a very elegant and self-conscious man. Here is someone who at the age of 91 still does 4 hours of physical training a day! No wonder Katz is also said to be close to fashion. “I’ve always been interested in fashion because it’s ephemeral.” he says. In his later work “Red Hat” (Alba) of 2013, the hat takes almost half the canvas. This is a gorgeous painting in my eyes, yet not because of Alba, but because of the composition. Alba’s face is present but without emotion, such as a model on the catwalk.  She serves her purpose. Is a beautiful woman, but this isn’t about her, it’s about the hat she is wearing. Or in “Grey Coat” (1997), where the coat covers most of the figure, Alba’s face turning around to look at us in a direct yet distant manner being secondary to the actual full painting. Here I feel again Katz’s fascinating use of the composition. Just like in photography. The figure is set in a diagonal on the left side of the canvas which in turn means most of the canvas is occupied by the monochrome background. Just beautiful.

Serial models

Eyes closed, eyes open 1 (double Vivien), 2004, oil on canvas

His work has also been said to be close to the cinema. In “eyes closed, eyes open” (2004), one sees this clearly. The same person side by side has once her eyes open and once the eyes shut. Like an attempt to create movement through stills. Again a very beautiful painting, but a portrait? Even though the painting is about a figure, a face, in this case that of Vivien, it seems to me to be just too perfect. She is almost like a fashion doll. Saying that it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the work.  And that is quite incredible, to see that a painter can achieve that.

The black dress, 1960, oil on canvas

In “The Black Dress” (1960) Katz uses the image of Alba 6 times standing in various ways and also sitting, always dressed in the same black dress, yet all 6 figures are interwoven in a scene. In this painting, we do have a floor, some wall panels, and a section of a portrait by Katz. But the depth of field is still reduced to its minimum. And the person? Alba? Well, we see her 6 times in different poses, her facial expression though is secondary to the actual physical connections created by the composition. The painting stands strong with a story but not a personal story.

Renaissance Technique

Maybe this feeling is created by the technique Katz uses for his big paintings. In the early 1960s, as he was beginning to paint bigger, he started using the cartoon drawing technique from the Renaissance. For this, he makes a large line drawing with holes pinched along the lines. A small amount of charcoal or graphite go through the holes on the canvas and create thus a faint outline for his composition. This allows him then to repeat a figure or to repeat a whole painting just like in “Laure and Alain” (1964/1991). The same painting twice, put together side by side as one. The original was done in 1964 and then repeated again in 1991. The only difference is that in the later version his craftsmanship has been mastered expertly meaning that for instance the light in the hair of Laure is more subtly painted. Both figures seem in their own world, Alain is in profile, Laure frontal.

Laure and Alain, 1964/1991, oil on canvas, two panels

So, is this a portrait, Mr Katz?

To go back to my original question: are these portraits? Well, my first reaction says they are not. I feel a portrait is something personal. It is first and foremost a vision of a person, of the whole being with wrinkles or tired eyes. We all have different visions, of course, we all see things with our own eyes, and in my opinion, a portrait is the vision by a painter of a person’s soul. In Katz’ paintings, I feel it is about the painting, the aesthetics of the painting, the colours on it, the composition of it, the beauty of it… so really the people on the canvases are “just” models for the work of art Katz produces. Saying that, when I think of today’s obsession with looking young and being self-obsessed: the selfies, the likes and the Influencers’ “look at me” pose, well maybe Katz is just reflecting that and is after all making the portraits of today!

“The pictures are supposed to be lyric, they’re supposed to give you an up, I want to make something that’s sort of like your happier condition. Impressionist pictures are basically that—Impressionist painting is a happy lie.” (A. Katz)

 

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On Poetry and Vulnerability

Writing poetry, it is drawing with words. Words woven, moreover words interwoven in our feelings, within our beings, on our close intimacy and far relations to self, others and the universe. All drafts, all sketches, all attempts are worth the try. Because they testify the ferment of our inner life. 
It comes down not only to draw a mountain as an object but also what it arouses deep in us. Similarly to draw with words a river, or a lake. It is not only drawing but also diving into its waters with our beings and feelings. It is also inviting others to swim with us, to dive within us, to discover what we meant to share, what we felt when we drew.
Sharing the way of words, being intimate with words in the way words touch us, in the way words turn us upside down
by little sketches, by little drafts, by little attempts.
This is poetry.
But Poetry has an even closer relationship to the beauty and all its expressions. However not all the expressions of  beauty are written and therefore not all the poems in the universe are contained in written poems but in many other shapes, many other clothing which are waiting to be said, to be expressed etc.  John Fowles, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, stated “We all write poems; it is simply that poets are the ones who write in words”
Poetry thus becomes a profound exposure of self to truths, feelings, life, values, time and love… This openness through self exposure is possible by touching and becoming familiar with our own vulnerability.
We are living in a technical era, very fond of efficiency. The jargon of scientific views from which we are building our world is a language of the mind that is at work into things and strengthened in the aridity of scientific concepts. In a world that is always productive and effective, vulnerability seems to become and pass as a weakness.
Nonetheless, there is such beauty into vulnerability that only love can embrace. We build upon our vulnerability. It does not make us lesser in merit than any other virtues. To say it with Kant “Beauty is what pleases without concept”. It is the same beauty that is the primary object of poetry itself and all its expressions written or not and also of love. Poetry, love and beauty are thus looking at vulnerability to start to open up.
 
Love within itself is not rigour in principle, nor lack of compassion. It is infinitely an opening, a movement. Its opening shows it vulnerable. Its movement  makes it understandable, mostly human. But the infinite plasticity of love is in its vulnerable face. Love is built on a ground of vulnerability. It is the vulnerability within love that allows us, to bud, to grow, even to love.
 
Only powerful people by decree are haunted by the idea that one day they are discovered vulnerable. So vulnerability is not a weakness within love. But just what Consolidates it. It is the other way around of love, the look-alike of strength and  power. Strength or love that will not consolidate themselves in acts virtues, as well as power which drifts from that kind of love are without vision. That strength based on that love, that power founded on that strength are unfounded. They may be necessary . . . But they are a love without intrinsic opening, without movement. They both succumb victims of themselves.
To be aware of our own vulnerability, may help us to turn it  into an asset. It is to allow an opening within us, a movement that carry us. Because love which opens itself, always opens itself in the world, where it exposed itself. Therefore  it cannot remain unchanged. It now knows that beyond it the world exists.
It is just a consciousness in the world among many others at work. To know our own vulnerability,  it is to strengthen ourselves in the events of life. It is also to be combative in the face of adversity.
Because hardship, adversity are part of life. It is also an act of deep compassion to the suffering of others. It’s coming to understand that the truth is in time. Being a human being, it is to be, a fragile being. Fragile as a truth, vulnerable as a thought, as  a vision, Which have to deepen in life.  Being just a thought, an idea, a vision, of  a vulnerable love, which are strengthened, which are empowered in time.
Poetry in its effort to seek to look at the expression of the beauty is not fully the expression of the mind but mostly of the heart to put into words the vulnerable heart of the poet. The soul of the poet is similar to the surface of a lake, its quietness reflects the life in the depth. If anything is changed, it is the whole calm that is altered. The colours of the lakes are due to the sky, to the presence of the algae or to the reflection of the sunlight.
It is in all these meanings in relation to the beauty, within the articulation of its expression which feeds upon the vulnerability of the poet that poetry comes to existence. All good poetry is a plural poetry in its composition as in its reading. We all have an acquaintance of this beauty without concept. It would be a mistake to try to make it equal to all, especially that its appreciation and evaluation are given  to us by our time and our culture.

Poetry and the vulnerability of the poet work together to allow us to have an emotional understanding of what is going on. It is touching from inside.

Thus Orpheus had been able to sedate the Cerberus by the power of its musical instrument. But before touching others, the poet is touched first by the muses. To say it with Bob Marley in his song,TrenchTown Rock, “ One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain”
Written by Paul Ma
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Vienna city of culture

Vienna

A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of being in Vienna for a few days. It had been ages since my last visit there, and I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed by the choices of what to see. Where should I start? Should I just stick with one topic? Or district? The amount of art, architecture, music, literature, culture is just so overwhelming.  My expectations and hopes were understandably high.

First Stop, St Stephen’s Cathedral

Straight upon stepping out from the metro at St Stephen’s Cathedral, I felt so many different periods around me. The Cathedral, of Romanesque and gothic structure, is topped by a fabulous colourful roof. Its images with a mosaic of the Habsburgs’ double-headed eagle and the city’s coat of arms on the Northern side is a motive for any tourist to see. Even though St Stephen’s Cathedral has been rebuilt or extended, it feels like a perfect unity. The square surrounding it, with the lovely small huts forming a Christmas Market and the buildings leading to the Graben or the Opera make it very much part of a whole too. Fin de Siecle, Renaissance, Baroque and modern all being one. The Haas house, for instance, just opposite, was the first shopping mall in Vienna. Built in 1866 / 1867, it was destroyed at the end of the second world war and was later replaced by a new building by Hans Hollein which opened in 1990. The building was initially very controversially accepted by the Viennese. Now, of course, with time it has become just as much part of the attractions on this square as the rest.

The Viennese Coffee House

The Viennese are proud citizens of their city. This is the city where one sits in coffee houses and reads the newspaper for hours. The Viennese “Kaffeehaus” is actually a fabulous cultural institution. Having a melange (a Viennese cappuccino) with a Maronitorte or a Sachertorte and philosophising with a friend, gossiping, reading a book, writing a novel or having a business meeting, that all is happening in Vienna’s coffee houses. The “Kaffeehaus” is probably where most of life happens in Vienna. It has nothing to do with the coffee to go, throw away modern life which wishes to be so green but doesn’t really have time for it, and thus fails to see that actually sitting down and just allowing time to go by whilst discussing, reading, or just taking a moment for oneself is probably the healthiest meditation in today’s hectic city life.

The history of the “Kaffeehaus” is closely connected to the end of the Viennese Siege in 1683. Legends have it that Georg Franz Kolschitzky (1640 – 1694)  got then the first licence to serve coffee using beans left by the Turks. Some say that coffee was also called Turkish soup. The first coffee house though was opened by an Armenian Spy called Diodato. This reminds me of the later huge impact of the Austro-Hungarian empire and of its creative influences and exchanges with the East. These are still very much present in the Vienna of today.

Spirits and personalities all around

Walking down to the Hofburg, the Opera, the Burgtheater, the Albertina, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, up the Bastei, the Jewish Square, the Musikverein, the Museumsquartier, the Belvedere, the Naschmarkt, the Theater an der Wien, the Secession or Spittelberg, one experiences history all around. The Renaissance, the enlightenment years, the Habsburgs, the fin de siècle and it’s Jugendstil and the modern times too, all these can be seen and felt in Vienna. I can almost sense the spirits of Beethoven, Schubert, or Schiele, Klimt, Freud and many others walking around me.

Being a musician, I am very much aware of the number of composers who lived here throughout the centuries. Mozart of course, but also Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven are the big classics. I just love that walking through the city one can read on plates who lived in that or this house. Walking to Theater an der Wien, I not only read that Beethoven‘s Fidelio was first performed there but that he also lived in the building for a while. I had never realized that one could live there too. Beethoven’s name is in all kinds of places actually, as he moved quite a lot. Other composers lived and created here too: Bruckner, Mahler, Korngold, Schönberg and the second Viennese school, the Strauss family,… The list could go on and on. It is quite incredible actually how many musicians lived here.

Vienna, the Capital

Of course, I could compare parts of the old city, the first district, with for instance Salzburg. One also feels the presence of Mozart there. The major difference, however, is that Vienna is a city, a capital with a much wider scope of periods being felt. All different stages of growth are very clearly present in the various buildings and their architecture.  At one point this capital ruled over a major world empire, the Austro Hungarian Empire. It stretched way east to Bulgaria and Rumania and south all the way down to Syria. The influences and reactions to this huge empire on art and architecture are present all over the inner ring.

The Albertina going through time

A highlight representing the moving with the times was my visit to the Albertina. The Albertina used to be one of the biggest Palais of the Habsburgs in Vienna. Built on the remains of the city wall, it was used as a residence by Maria-Theresia’s favourite daughter, the Duchess Marie-Christine and her husband, the Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen. The Duke founded his collection in 1776, leaving upon his death in 1822 more than 14.000 drawings and 200.000 masterpieces including works by Dürer, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rubens, and Rembrandt. This is the central piece of the collection of the Albertina to this day and is the main attraction of the Museum. His nephew, Archduke Carl, administered and continued this collection, passing it on to his own son Albrecht upon his death. In turn, Archduke Frederick received the collection before having to let go of most of it in 1918, as Austria became a Republic.

 

In 1945, the museum was bombed. It was then partly rebuilt and partly newly built. The main attraction of the Albertina is, as mentioned earlier, the graphic Collection. The museum however also has big temporary exhibitions. My own visit was aimed to see the major Monet retrospective, which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, I won’t go into detail of it here, as that really deserves a post of its own. The big discovery for me though was when walking up to the Monet rooms, suddenly being in the living rooms of the Duke and Duchess. The wall tapestry, the carpets, the furniture, the paintings and lithographs of some of the artwork collected all make you understand that this was a residence lived in by great art lovers in the enlightenment period. It is a totally different world from the entrance and other section of the museum which are modern.

City of culture

I really could go on and on singing my praises to this city, but I really think each one should make their own impressions. What stroke me most is that culture is present all over here. For me, culture is identity, language, history, tradition, a way of thinking and of being, art in all its forms and education. I could experience all of this in Vienna. Is this unique to this city? This is an extremely hard question to answer, other cities have some of these attributes too. However, the amount of culture makes Vienna certainly a very strong contender for that first place. It makes me eager to discover more on my next visit.

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Anna Karenina – a night at the ballet

Ballet

I am not a regular Ballet go-er, but since becoming close friends with a Ballerina I have had the opportunity to get to know this world more and more. It is true that sometimes this art form can seem a little mannered.  All the tutus, the men in tights, the pantomimic gestures, the point shoes… But on an evening such as this one at the Bayerische Staatsballet, I am reminded that thinking in this way is being totally unfair to this art form. A story such as Anna Karenina‘s can be very movingly and clearly told in a non-kitsch way, with pointed shoes and wonderful dancing.

I had read the Tolstoi novel years ago and only recalled vaguely bits of it. So I did not really know what to expect. I found myself going down memory lane: the train, the balls, the winter, the summer heat in the fields and of course the love affair and its consequences leading to Anna Karenina’s delirious state. They all came back to me! That Russian fin de siècle atmosphere in all its opulence, how wonderful!

Curtain up

No big red curtain when coming in. It starts with a steam engine soundtrack, the train is rolling on, the dancers set in a freeze with a black and white video of a close up of the train. The atmosphere is set! We are at the train station. The place where Anna Karenina and the Count Alexej Wronski first meet. The choreography, by Christian Spuck, allows all scenes to be so clearly recognisable with the only help of a curtain in the back and the dancers’ costumes and props ( set by Jörg Zielinski and Christian Spuck).

For me, there are two major aspects which make this evening magical: the scenic and atmospheric changes, with just a few movements and the music!

A new scene is set

Just a few moves and we are at the horse’s races. This staging reminded me of a very similar scene in the film “My Fair Lady”. The whole atmosphere and stage changed in a couple of seconds, suddenly the public is on the tribunes. It is watching the races through binoculars. i.e. hands. I just love this kind of magic! One knows what is happening and yet one doesn’t have everything so obviously pointed out. The men working on the rail tracks is just another such scene. One can feel the heat, the sweat.

The imagination is allowed to take over and to make its own associations just through movement. It’s an open stage, nothing more. The love scene between Karenina and Wronski is two dancers… Just dance, with an incredibly intense and passionate, but also destructive and violent love act. The desperation of Karenina to see her son, her undecisive husband who then gives in to the overhand of the Countess Lidija Iwanowna is beautifully told without any unnecessary prop or set. Wonderful!

The music

The second factor making this evening magical is the music. A fabulous sound landscape, a mixture between tracks of steam engines and hammering, orchestral sections with or without piano, solo piano pieces or even piano and voice songs. A mixture of romantic Russian music at its best, modern music and soundtracks. Sergej Rachmaninov, Witold Lutislawski, Sulkhan Tsintzadze and Josef Bardanashvili are the composers. The piano has a leading role with Adrian Oetiker giving strong renditions of Rachmaninov’s third concerto among others. Such a wonderful choice and use of music. It is an incredible wide scope of sound images all enhancing the atmosphere and the story. I am thrilled!

The dancers

Of course, all this would be of no use without the dancers, and they are superb! Ksenia Rhyzhkova just is Anna Karenina, Matthew Golding the Count Wronski, Jonah Cook, and Lauretta Summerscales are the so charming and sweet couple Kitty and Kostya, and the couple Dolly and Stiwa are danced by Javier Amo -whose presence I truly enjoy- and Elvina Ibraimova. Making the evening complete and perfect are the costumes by Emma Ryott.

I have to say, this was a truly fabulous evening! It reminds me of what theatre, is about: getting the public’s imagination going, never getting boring, keeping one involved with what is happening on stage and bringing up emotions! Bravo!

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String quartets in the Allerheiligen Hofkirche

Allerheiligen Hofkirche

On a grey November Sunday morning I followed an invitation to hear a chamber music matinee in the Allerheiligen Hofkirche in Munich. It has been absolute ages since I have been to a string quartet concert. Coming from a musical family, with a cellist as a sister I enjoy chamber music, especially having played the violin as a teenager. So my knowledge of the repertoire is pretty good, even though I am no expert. The program, however, offered a new hearing for me: Béla Bartók‘s String quartet Nr.5, Sz 102. That got my interest going.

The venue: Allerheiligen Hofkirche

This is such a wonderful venue, that I must write a bit about it. The Allerheiligen Hofkirche was a Catholic church and it was built between 1826 and 1837. Following a visit to Palermo and the admiration of inner frescoes there, the then crown prince Ludwig decided to have a church built in a similar style as part of his Residenz. Leo von Klenze, the architect followed the crown prince’s wishes, extending his inspiration to the Marcus Dome in Venice. The interior with its vaults covered coloured frescoes was built in a Romanesque style while the facade was more gothic. This was the first church built in Bavaria after the secularization in 1803, hence its name “All Saints”.

During the Second World War, the church, the Residenz and the National Theater were very heavily damaged. Unlike the Residenz, it was left to deteriorate for years before a decision was taken. First wanting to tear it down, the city then decided to renovate it following a huge uproar by the citizens of Munich. The renovations started in 1972 under the leadership of Hans Döllgast. After his death in the 1980s, restorations continued with new cupolas and work on the facade. Then from 2000 to 2003 work on the interior was taken over by the Architects Buro Guggenbichler und Netzer before it was finally opened to the public.

The damages made to the church are visible as a testimony. The frescoes are left in their spare segments, the pillars have lines where they were put back together. All this was done very respectfully and beautifully. This gives the hall a wonderful atmosphere, which is enhanced through the warm and indirect lighting and through the red bricks. And so it is that the Allerheilgen Hofkirche became a Hall. It is no longer used as a church but as a concert venue, it’s acoustic being excellent, and as a venue for special events.

The performance

Beginning this program is Dvorák’s string quartet Nr. 14 in A flat Major op.105. The cello starts with a slow introduction. It is leading the others before moving on to an allegro appassionato movement. Dvoràk started writing this quartet when leaving the United States after 3 years there to move back to his beloved Prag. This is his last string quartet. Wonderful piani, colours, interaction, all played sensitively and beautifully by the musicians. The quartet players are members of the Bayerische Staatsorchester: Johanna Beisinghoff, Julia Pfister, Monika Hettinger and Anja Fabricius. It is a pleasure to watch them play.

The second half is Bartók’s string quartet Nr. 5 Sz 102, and this for me is a discovery. I never really thought of Bartók’s music as being full of humour. This piece changed my mind fully. I just love the pastiche classical section in the last movement, the playing with “out” of tune effects, the glissandi and jazzy rhythm in the cello pizzicati. Bartók only needed a month to compose this piece in the summer of 1934. The first performance was then on 8th April 1935 in the Coolidge Auditorium in Washington. This work has all that is so typical of Bartók, the accented rhythms, the complex harmonies. It is also so playfully modern experimenting with sound effects, sound landscapes. A wonderful work.

Postlude

Walking out in the grey November mist with the afternoon ahead of me, I couldn’t help but smile. The impressions of the morning were going through my mind… the discovery of Bartók’s quartet, the excellent playing of the musicians, the so wonderful atmosphere of the Allerheiligen Hofkirche… All this made it a wonderful start to that Sunday.

 

 

 

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King Ludwig II ‘s summer hut : Königshaus am Schachen

Königshaus am Schachen

When my friend Anna suggested going to the Königshaus am Schachen, I first had to research what she was talking about. The Königshaus am Schachen is a hut, a chalet built for King Ludwig II around 1870, up at 1866m South of Garmisch Partenkirchen in the Wetterstein mountains. It is a small but well worth seeing hut, where King Ludwig celebrated his birthday and name day on several occasions.

The Hike

The route we took started in the Elmau Wanderparkplatz, at about 1000m. It costs a few euros to park there, but it is a great starting point. The path goes steadily up, is well indicated and is known as the Königsweg. King Ludwig II didn’t walk up to his summer hut, he was taken up there on his horse carriage. The path is wide enough, first going along the small river and then leaving it below while going up. Quite quickly one gets to see the mountains above. About halfway up one gets to the Wettersteinalm, a shielding looking on to a wonderful mountain wall.

From there the path is a little narrower and very windy, still, it remains surrounded by gorgeous trees., and if you look there are some beautiful mushrooms too.

Ludwig II’s Schachen-house

Then suddenly comes our first view on the Schachen hut, accompanied by the gorgeous mountainside on our left. The trees become a little more sparse from here. The view over to the hut in this most incredible surrounding is well worth it. Getting to the hut from there is easy even if it is still a bit of a walk.

One can stay over in the nearby hut, which used to be the kitchen and the servants quarters for the king. We, however, didn’t as we had to get back that same day.

The visit to the Schachen is truly worth it. A guided tour is planned every hour and lasts about half an hour. The ground floor is rather simple, with 4 small rooms, living- dining- bed- and guest-room. The highlight, however, is above: a true Jem! One is totally amazed and surprised after walking up a tiny windy staircase to discover it: the Turkish Room! All is original here, the fountain in the middle of the room, the chandelier, the decor, the cushions, and so on. It is breathtaking!!! King Ludwig II was very precise in what he wanted. The first version of the room didn’t please him and so had to be fully redone. What we see here is what he longed for… a 1001 night dream of a room!

Some more tips

When coming out of the hut, do go and see King Ludwig’s favourite viewpoint. Also worth it, although we didn’t see it because it was shut, is the alpine botanical garden.

Going back down is following the same route as coming up. The walk up is rather long, so for inexperienced hikers do take that point under consideration. We took about 3 1/2 hours going up, and only 2 hours going down because of having to run due to a storm and heavy rains. I do not recommend running down as we did, so remember to check the weather forecast before you go on the hike and to start it early enough to fully enjoy the gorgeous views.

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Back to the future and Nicholas Nixon

Back to the future C|O Berlin

On a grey afternoon whilst in Berlin, I decided spontaneously to walk in the Amerika House, now an exhibition space for the C|O Berlin foundation near the Zoologischer Garten station. It is my first visit here, but surely not my last.

„Back to the Future.“

I started with the ground floor, „Back to the Future. The 19th Century in the 21st Century.“: an exhibition about the beginnings of photography and its experiments with exposure, chemical reactions in connection with nature, natural elements and its continued fascination on actual artists. Whether it is Anna Atkins‘ influence or Warren de la Rue’s, it is quite extraordinary how nature, flora, light, earth, moon keeps on fascinating. I enjoyed taking the time to read the information panels. The contents are most interesting and the texts are set discretely, with a nice sized print.

“A retrospective of Nicholas Nixon.”

The second show was totally different: a retrospective show of Nicholas Nixon’s work. Nicholas Nixon is an American photographer known in parts for his series of the Brown sisters. A series of portraits of the 4 sisters, one of which is his wife. They are always posing in the same order, but not in the same way. Nixon photographed them once a year for 42 years.

The retrospective, however, starts with his beginnings, the „New Topographics“ series, the „City Views“ series and later goes on to other most moving portraits series. I have to say this show left me very moved. His constant search for closeness in his portraits whether in his series „couples“, „aids“ or „elderly“ was almost too much for me. By saying this, I mean it touched a nerve in me, which I don’t always have the strength to have opened. The distance I needed was not there, but that confrontation is what Richard Nixon wanted. In a short video at the end of the show, he explains this clearly.

I can strongly recommend theses exhibitions, they are moving and strong. Congratulations to the C|O Berlin foundation and the curators. I came out feeling inspired and emotionally taken in, and that is not always the case.

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