Random Reflections from Cologne

A short addendum to the thoughts about energy in performance which intrigued me so much last time I wrote for Culturescope; whatever it was about the indefinable something which infected not just the players but the entire theatre with sheer joy made its way out into the auditorium, and we ended our run of My Fair Lady with FIVE standing ovations in a row! (This can NOT be taken for granted, ever, and every single one gave us all such an exhilarating high.)

The nature of the Staatenhaus in Cologne means that the performers get to walk back to their dressing rooms in company with the audience as they leave, and a quite extraordinary number of people came up to us, faces alight, to say that they’d only planned to come once, but simply loved it and had to come again (meaning sold-out performances, which of course are never a bad thing!).

I shall treasure the memory of these performances for the rest of my life; they were sparked and eventually set on fire by something intangible and virtually impossible to describe.

In the midst of such fiery excitement, therefore, it was necessary for me to spend time in nature and to seek out other artforms, to refill the well of creativity (that’s how it feels to me, to really take the time to appreciate and take in works of art).

The nature bit is pretty easy in Cologne. I spent happy hours wandering around the Grüngürtel (literally the green belt), which stretches in a semicircle around the city centre, bounded on the east by the beautiful Rhine.

I have to admit, though, that my favourite bit of nature during this visit was my encounter with a pond full of very shouty frogs in the Botanical Garden. I’d never actually heard frogs making more than the occasional surprised croak; it had somehow escaped my notice that they can make one heck of a noise during the breeding season!

Here’s a short video I took when I first stumbled across them. It doesn’t capture the sheer volume of the cacophony, but gives an idea of the variety and weirdness of the calls:

Amidst the greenery, I stumbled one beautifully sunny day upon the Skulpturenpark Köln, an open-air sculpture park free to the public, in which I found a glorious refuge from the rest of the world in the form of this beautiful building:

This is the 2011 “Garden Gallery” by Sou Fujimoto (b. Hokkaido 1971). Visually, it is a very restful place; clean, straight lines, unadorned white walls, a clear Japanese ethic allowing the beauties of nature to be framed against its simplicity, the large windows meaning that the picture you see changes from moment to moment as you look through them.

There is no roof, so the sky is an integral part of the experience, and I spent an utterly peaceful couple of hours lying on the grass in here, breathing in the delicious scent of acacia flowers, released by the warm spring sunshine, and enjoying the soothing visual feast of green against white, with the blue of the sky just pointing up the contrast. This was so refreshing for body and soul, and I defy anyone not to emerge from such an artwork recharged and full of energy!

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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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Musings on Energy in Musical Performance

I’m currently in the final throes of rehearsals for a revival of “My Fair Lady” for Oper Köln, and it’s got me thinking a lot about energy.  Since it’s impossible to measure, there are a lot of people out there who don’t believe it’s a real thing; anyone who has ever been on stage and experienced what a huge difference it makes when an audience is really engaged, or who’s been to one of those performances where you end up with goosebumps, feeling that you’re wholly connected to every single person there, on stage and off, will know that it really does exist.

Even if we can’t name it properly or put our fingers on it, it’s hugely important, and influenced by many aspects; the relationship between the performers, the bond between the orchestra and the conductor, the weather, to name but a few.  Some you can influence, others not.

Rehearsals are a great chance to work on the bits you can actually do something about.  We start from an interesting place in this production, as many of us have taken part in it in previous incarnations.  It started as a production sung and spoken in German, and our Mrs. Pearce was in that production, along with many members of the chorus and orchestra, as well as a lot of the backstage staff.  The production was then taken over to Muscat, but the Omanis weren’t keen on it being in German, so most of the soloists were replaced with native English speakers.  That’s where I came in, as Mrs. Higgins, along with our Eliza and Professor Higgins.  It was then revived here in Cologne a couple of years ago, and now here we are again, this time with a new Colonel Pickering and Alfred P. Doolittle.

 

Here’s me outside the Royal Opera House Muscat

Feeling the energy between the performers change with the cast changes has been fascinating. You instinctively react differently to a new cast member, who is giving their own interpretation of the role, even when you’re constrained by it being a revival, and therefore they have to stick to the “way it was done before”.  Speaking of which, the original German version was full of details which our Muscat cast rebelled at as being unspeakable for English high society at the time.  I thought I was going to be sacked fifteen minutes into my first rehearsal, as they said that Mrs. Higgins came out of her house and fell into the gutter, drunk.  I flat-out refused, saying no lady in that era would ever do such a thing; luckily, I was joined in my strike by the fabulous Colonel Pickering, and then by other soloists.  We fought like tigers to get rid of such vulgarities and reintroduce a bit of charm, and I have to say that (mostly), we won.  We’d all liked each other from the start, and that shared experience forged us into a very close-knit group, which I think is something which boosts the energy overall.  Everyone I have interacted with since getting here has said how delighted they are that “My Fair Lady” is back, from the costume department to prompter to the extras.  We have even been able to relax and hone our respective roles (within limits) during rehearsals; it’s been great fun and very instructive.

We have a new conductor for this revival, too, which is engendering yet another layer of changed energy.  Both the energy between the conductor and the singers, and the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra, make a huge difference to a piece.  Put it this way; the members of the orchestra are apparently competing between themselves for the fun of playing in it!

En route to rehearsal in Cologne this morning

Those are the bits you can play around with in the rehearsal period, to a point.  A couple of other aspects can play with the energy balance fundamentally, though, and those are the environment, and the audience.

Out in Muscat, we were in their state-of-the-art (and utterly gorgeous) opera house; back in Cologne, we’re in the Staatenhaus.  This is an extremely odd space in which to perform, being pretty much totally unsuited to performances on stage and with an orchestra (let’s just gloss over the problems the city is having renovating its opera house).  They were learning how to minimise technical challenges last time, and this time is better, but it’s interesting to note the difference a venue can make (we flew out to Oman with *everything* – set, costumes and technicians, so can assess on that individual variable).

And the audience?  Well, that’s something that can never be predicted!  It varies, of course, from one performance to another, so even if all else is equal, some nights will dance and some drag.  We live for the nights where they take wing and sail off into greatness, but can never predict when that will happen.  All we can do is allow them to be possible; the rest is up to fate.  We’ve done our best in rehearsals; if you are able to get to Cologne and would like to be part of the audience, adding your particular energy to the mix, please do come along and see this production (details of dates and tickets here).  I could be biased here, but I think it’s going to be FABULOUS!

Mrs Higgins disapproves of your moral stance…
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Eccentricity is a scent of art.

 Eccentricity is a scent of art

To be unique is to be authentic. To be unique is to try in vain with goodwill to be like everyone else without ever achieving it. It is trying to conform to the norms accepted by society without ever feeling at home. All true talent, all profound intuition are unique and authentic in their content and also in their form. It is not likely the same in the way they appear, thinking of  Diogenes of Sinop who walked the streets in the middle of the day with a lamp illuminating the faces of his fellow citizens because he was looking for man, like Bob Marley who had let this hair grow into dreadlocks, stating that his hair was his identity or like Keith Moss, the champion of both behavioural and behavioural quirks or even more like Nicolas Tesla who would not enter a building unless he had turned three time around it… Art is the domain where the unique authenticity of the artists expresses itself with even more colours and flavours to the point that artists are seen as eccentric beings. Eccentricity is the other side of talent. It is its other face always half-discovered. There is no talent without a means of expression.

Every talent wants and seeks to express itself, in the same way that the nature of all light is to enlighten. Art unlike a lot of disciplines is the one that feeds on its subject while letting the subject flourishes. The subject-object relationship is very different than the one that is maintained in other disciplines. As artists, we are both subject and object of the art that we express. If the talent can be expressed in terms of light, or moreover like a candle, the artists burn their wax by letting the art express itself through them. The light that passes through the artists by the means of the talent that they express, consumes them at the same time.  We are not poets because we are writing poetry. We are poets because poetry expresses itself through us. We are not musicians because we can write music or sing. We are musicians because everything in us has a rhythm and musical note. We are musical beings. The music we produce is the music that surrounds us and makes us. We are not painters because we paint, but because the whole universe is for us a source of inspirations and infinite productions.

To say it with Heidegger terms; “we become what we are” To be and to become fully the artist who sleeps within us, is to be ourselves in an authentic way. It is to be unique.  It is precisely this mode of existence that often stands in opposition with the social norms, conventions, half-measures, which at first glance allows artists to appear as marginal beings, as eccentric beings. The aim of all artistic life is not to reach the summits of eccentricity, but the true communication of inspiration that is seen under canvas, under  music, under sculptures under poems. If it is true that we are not equal in front of talent, it is also true that we do not react the same way when it comes to its expression. The heart of every artist is a vulnerable heart. The life of an artist is vulnerable to life, vulnerable to the light, to the beauty, to the time and especially to all that manifests itself through him. Yet  the artist is trying to express what comes through him with his strength of character, with the means of the art that he  endowed. There is only one certainty that the expression of talent does not leave an artist unchanged.  In the light of poetry, the exercise of talent is tantamount to whispering between words; to write is to listen.

There is meaning in words.  But words expressed are no more innocent, because they always come through a medium. They are never alone, never without intentions. They are ways and paths to someone, to something.  Like water they need a container. Like a guest they need to be hosted. It is the vase which contaminates the words. It is the host who makes the stay a desirable one. But writing while listening to words only, to what wants  to be expressed only, it is to put ourselves, as the medium, in the background without ever disappearing. It is to forget our egos within the way of words. Writing poetry then is tearing the blissful tranquility of appearances. It is to find the heart and intimacy of things, of life, in a moment that I call eternity. Eternity is not a time without end, but is with what we fill  our moments in the horizon of time. We can never fully hear the voices that call for eternity within us. it is only whispered, only folded into life, into daily worries, into daily deeds.

Awaiting us to unfold the meaning. Meanings waiting to be said, to be revealed, to be drawn. Art is a profound transformation of oneself, a profound work of deepening the meaning of life that is not always very obvious for everyone and even often for the artist themselves, as if we were undergoing our art rather than living it fully and assuming it.  We do not always write, always carve everything we want, but something in us forces our gaze to see, our hand to write, our brush to draw.  That thing is not just the work we do, but the person we become. We do not need to understand in advance our art to execute it, but to adequately prepare ourselves for its accomplishment.

Unlike many other professions, being an artist is a permanent and irreversible state. The inspiration does not know of holidays, nor of retreats…We must live with this state of things and all that we cannot express through art comes to be imposed permanently in our daily life as a reminder of the work that continues without our knowledge. Nature is incredibly effective and therefore under the eccentric auspices of artists, it is always the art that continues to express itself.  Art is the dimension of the universe that science cannot contain in theorems and axioms that gives itself to us as a sensibility of infinite complexity and intelligence. The artists who express it are profoundly altered and changed by the energy that emerges from it. The overflow that they cannot express through their art is expressed through their person because people do not understand the stakes and struggles that they endure and interpret wrongly this expression rich in colour and flavour of their person as being of the eccentricity. If they knew how much art was there, they would look at the artists differently.  Eccentricity is an expression of all artistic beauty. It does not mean that in order to be an artist, one must become eccentric, but only that eccentricity is part of the beautiful expression of art. Because we are not equal regarding talent, so we do not all react in the same way. Some eccentricities are for all to see and very loud, others are just subtle in the refined way of being oneself.

 

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Lehmbruck And Rodin In Duisburg – Sculpturing A New Idea(l) Of Beauty

On the occasion of artists’ round birthdays and anniversaries of deaths, museums put on commemorating exhibitions. Since I started writing for this blog, I was lucky enough to happen upon three of this kind (see my posts Death in Trieste and Insights into Bruegel).  Every one of these shows helped me widen my horizons a little bit more and sharpened my observational skills.

An Easter Surprise: Lehmbruck And Rodin In Duisburg

This was especially the case with the exhibition I visited during the Easter holidays, not far from home. Not only did I get the chance to meet again with the work of a favorite artist of mine, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), but at the same time I discovered a prominent sculptor I wasn’t at all familiar with, Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919). Happy to have come across this important German artist nearby, I went back another time a few days later.

On my first visit, I joined an exclusive guided tour offered by the TV-cultural magazine Westart. Their small, informative TV-report on the exhibition had made me curious. Besides, it is always exciting to win something. The art historian, author, and filmmaker Jörg Jung showed us around. By raising questions, he drew our attention to the similarities and, above all, the differences between the two outstanding artists. He invited us, again and again, to take a closer look and make our own discoveries and conclusions.

Taking a closer look at Wilhelm Lehmbrucks Pensive Woman, Bronze, 1913

Learning To Look Closer

Thus encouraged, I noticed, for example, what difference the choice of material makes and how a sculpture’s more or less smooth surface makes it more or less classical in an academic sense. Auguste Rodin, in particular, loved to work very physically with his coarse hands, giving many of his works sensual movement and an unfinished impression. Wilhelm Lehmbruck, on the other hand, experimented a lot with different materials and worked towards carving out more introspection and spirituality in his objects. Both artists played with sculpture excerpts and torsos, always in search of “the essence”.

Sculpture is the essence of things, the essence of nature,

that which is eternally human.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck

 

Beauty is not a starting point, but a result;

beauty exists only where there is truth.

Auguste Rodin

Studying The Past Before Creating A Personal Style

Our guide also drew our attention to the little innovations by which one can identify a young artist aiming to break with traditions, such as the undisguised body curves and folds in Lehmbruck’s first success, Bathing Woman (1902/05). The Academy of Fine Arts in Dusseldorf bought this work from its young master student and thus enabled him to go on a study trip to Italy. There he studied, among others, the works of Michelangelo, one of the greatest sculptors of all times. Michelangelo had also been a great inspirational figure for Rodin.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Bathing Woman, Bronze, 1902/05

In general, art lives from the fact that artists study the past, learn to analyze it and develop their own style over time, depending on their talent and nature, as well as their environment and the time they happen to live in. All artists get to chose their subjects from the great basin of art iconography. We thus can admire how differently a story can be interpreted and cast or shaped into form.

But Who Was Wilhelm Lehmbruck? And What About Auguste Rodin?

Wilhelm Lehmbruck was born in 1881 to a coal miner’s family in a suburb of Duisburg. Not only was his talent discovered early, but he soon became a master student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Dusseldorf. He celebrated early successes that allowed him to live from his art, as well as to travel. One of his first travels led him to Paris, the capital of art at the beginning of the 20th century, where he couldn’t but visit the atelier of his idol, Auguste Rodin. But he immediately realized that he was looking for something else in art. Maybe Rodin and he were too different as human beings?

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Self-portrait, 1902

Auguste Rodin, born in Paris in 1840, obtained his craftsmanship by working as a stucco plasterer and decorator after having being refused admission to the sculpture class of the Paris Academy of Fine Arts three times. His approach to art seems to have been very intuitive and sensual, probably very much like his personality. Fascinated by the new medium of photography, the French artist, who wasn’t much of a reader, tried to capture movement, casting it in marble or bronze. He was a workaholic, who liked recombining parts of already existing works, thus revealing new contexts.

Auguste Rodin, I am Beautiful, Bronze, 1885, an example of Rodin’s Assemblage technique

More On Lehmbruck

Lehmbruck had a much more academic upraising despite his family’s working-class background. As if he knew, that his life wouldn’t last long and more of a rationalist as a person, he quickly detached himself from every young artist’s role model of that time, Rodin. The German artist, inspired by Plato’s ideology of soul over body, worked on finding sculptural solutions for the world of ideas, leaving the depiction of naturalistic bodies behind. He stretched the body parts of his figures, thus making them thin and somehow disproportional, but strong in their contemplativeness and resignation.

All art is measurement.

 

Wilhelm Lehmbruck

 

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Rising Youth, Bronze, 1913/14

Of course, knowing that the artist put an end to his life at the early age of 38 one tends to see melancholy and sadness in his so introspective works. But shortly before and during World War I. the world seemed to be coming to an end and one can understand that a sensitive artist might not see any future. Lehmbruck expressed his feelings of despair in the poem Is There Anybody Left?, written in 1918, one year before his suicide. He had anticipated the content of this poem in his equally expressive sculpture Fallen Man in 1915 as a reaction to the city of Duisburg’s invitation to join the competition for a war memorial.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Fallen Man, 1915

Two Very Different Thinkers

The differences between the two artists couldn’t be more obvious than in Rodin’s The Thinker and Lehmbruck’s Seated Youth, also named The Friend or The Bowed One by himself. Whereas Rodin’s famous incarnation of Dante Alighieri shows a pensive, but virile man who looks like a boxer (in fact the actual model for this sculpture was Jean Baud, a price boxer, and wrestler), Lehmbruck’s sculpture displays a young naked man, sitting with his head down in grief and despair. Once again, the anatomy is reduced, elongated and abstracted.

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, Medium Model, Original Size, Bronze, 1881/82

 

You see, this is my conception of a thinker. Rodin’s “penseur” is as muscular as a boxer… what we Expressionists are looking for is to precisely extract the spiritual content from our material.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck to Fritz von Unruh

 

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Seated Youth, Bronze, 1916/17

 

The Second Impression

Just a few days after my first attendance at the Lehmbruck Museum, I visited it again. I wanted to read the explanations (which also talked about the Paris Salon and the Armory Show, the first great exhibition of modern art in the United States of America in 1913) and look at the exhibits calmly, taking time to take them in and reflect on them. Going through an exhibition on your own a second time after having taken a guided tour, rounds up the experience.

Auguste Rodin, The Age Of Bronze, Bronze, 1877 staged in the context of the Paris Salon
Wilhelm Lehmbrucks Kneeling Woman (Bronze, 1911) staged in the context of the Armory Show

I also needed to experience this museum once again, as a whole and in each of its three wings separately. It was built in 1964 mostly as a home to the oeuvre of Wilhelm Lehmbruck by his son, Manfred Lehmbruck (1913-1991), an expert in the field of museum architecture. The part consecrated only to the works of Wilhelm Lehmbruck has a sculptural aspect itself. Build around an atrium as a central source of light, it gives the exhibited sculptures a “feeling of security”. The architect made miniature copies of his father’s works so as to be able to position them in a targeted manner in the space he created especially to showcase them. What a wonderful tribute from a son to his father.

Manfred Lehmbruck, Lehmbruck Wing Model with 38 models of Wilhelm Lehmbrucks sculptures

Is this beautiful?

The Lehmbruck Museum’s exhibition entitled “Beauty. Lehmbruck & Rodin. Masters of Modernism.” opens up a dialogue between the two masters of modern sculpture. It shows how they both had a big impact on their contemporaries as well as their successors. By displaying the history-making works of Rodin and Lehmbruck in the midst of the works of their expressionism colleagues one realizes that both masters of early modernism found ways of bringing out the soul and emotion of their figures without, in most cases, completely leaving the forms of classicism. But their sculptures subtly break with the conventions and visual expectations of the late 19th century and thus point the way to modernism. The question “Is this beautiful?” goes hand in hand with subjective perception on one side, and the beauty ideal of each time period on the other, and thus remains unanswered.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Kneeling Woman, 1911

My two meetings with Rodin and Lehmbruck gave me moments of beauty and contemplation. But I’d like to end this article with a personal highlight of this exhibition, Camille Claudel’s The Waltz. Like Maurice Ravel’s also La Valse entitled choreographed poem (1906-1920), it captures for me in a fascinating way the tormented spirit of the Fin de Siècle which ended in the world and art transforming Great War.

Camille Claudel, The Waltz, Bronze, 1889-1905

 

 

Camille Claudel, The Waltz, Bronze, 1889-1905

 

 

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El Anatsui: Triomphant scales

An exhibition off the beaten path at Haus der Kunst in Munich.

I recently discovered this artist and his incredible work. A discovery that does not leave indifferent, quite on the contrary.
First of all, the facade of the museum is completely covered and transformed by the hand of the artist. This already triggers my curiosity.

Once in the Haus der Kunst, we enter the first room and immediately we have the impression that a huge majestic drapery fell on the wall.

We turn our heads to the left, and we have the impression that a huge net and its shells are hanging.

Illusion

Two absolutely unexpected impressions for me. We approach, curious, and we realize that the sections of fabric, like tapestries, are nothing other than bottle caps, cans and aluminium pieces, collected, cut, hammered, folded, twisted and assembled with great care. The same on the other side with shells, plugs folded in another way, is just as beautiful. The illusion is perfect.

Arriving in the central hall, a labyrinth faces us, the artist invites us to walk inside, be close to his work and by making so, we change perspective.
In the different rooms, we discover other facets of the artist, other materials with which he experimented. His use of wood, but also ceramics.
Indeed, he begins in 1976 by modelling the ground, breaking pots, then glueing them together, a metaphor of the African society.

What particularly caught my attention was his work on wood, recovered in the street, pieces of furniture, thrown away drawers, broken, dislocated… He cuts, polishes, burns, paints these pieces of wood. By unifies them, he is forming an artwork.

Look at this magnificent blue behind the wood, in the wood…and this feeling for detail

What is most remarkable is that all his works of art, are transported and made up of several pieces, then reconstituted always in a different way so that no exhibition is identical to another. This gives a certain movement, a freedom to the artist. The work is not static, it lives.

El Anatsui learned through the last five decades to master sculpture, painting and assembling.

All his work is very committed. For me, it carries a message that goes beyond African society. Using all these objects or pieces of torn things that no one wants, gathering this rubbish to finally unite it and make something beautiful with it. Creating a work of art with shimmering colours,  sublimating these little bits of nothing and letting them exist, it is simply magnificent and inspiring. I see our history in it, I see hope and more.

I hope you will have the urge and the chance to discover this artist if you haven’t done so already.

 

Erika Luisella

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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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Hockney’s Thin Legs

Hockney Yorkshire

Well yes, it wasn’t really about his thin legs, but the fact that he mentioned them in the introductory blurb made me warm to him even more.  He wanted to complete an artwork every day, in the early spring of 2011, to document nature’s inevitable forward movement, and the sheer beauty of the spring in one particular lane in East Yorkshire,.  Spring temperatures being what they are in that part of the world, whilst he would have liked to face his subject directly, he had to take refuge in his car (due to the aforementioned thin legs).

The idea was to document every day in that spring, and that he did.  The exhibition collates those pictures with the most impact, and it has to be said that they are stunning.  Ridiculous that it costs nothing to see these fabulous artworks!

These images were created (I am wondering whether one can still say “painted”) using Hockney’s iPad and a bog-standard app;  the limitations of the medium are very obvious as soon as you get anywhere near the prints.  It doesn’t matter, though!  Move back a bit; unfocus the eyes if necessary; this is mastery.  Hockney knows how to block colour, how to pull the gaze; it’s a masterclass in composition.

From the unfrosting ice of the first pictures to the lacy froth of the greenness in the last, this is an artist documenting his environment, his times, his intimate world, as they change infinitesimally around him.  The pictures are arranged chronologically, so you can actually feel winter turning into spring.  (I managed to do this the wrong way round the first time I visited, though, and it didn’t spoil my enjoyment!)

Characteristic purple of the lane, with spring in full flush

This particular picture is so light and hopeful, the blossom on the bush appearing like lace in the gentle spring sunshine.   Like all of these compositions, it’s best viewed at a  certain distance; I include a detail here as support!

Close-up of the hawthorn blossom

 

 

 

 

 

It really was quite astonishing to see what he had managed to achieve with his iPad; I entered as a cynic, and came out a convert.  So much so that I persuaded my mother, who had come to see me in performance, that we should both stay over near the venue so that she could visit the exhibition the next day – so I saw it twice, once in louring rain, the next day in bright sunshine.  Fabulous!

A multicoloured fairytale of a day, evidently!

The site of the exhibition was also fascinating in itself; Salts Mill, in Saltaire, near Bradford, West Yorkshire.  A massive building with a fascinating history (in short, the mill and the surrounding town of Saltaire was planned and built in the mid-nineteenth century by a textiles magnate by the (utterly magnificent) name of Sit Titus Salt.  It was all designed as an antidote to the “dark, satanic mills” that constituted Bradford at the time.  Saltaire is an immensely pleasant place even now; well worth a wander round if you happen to be nearby (it’s has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

 

One last look around.

The massive spaces and iron pillars of the mill made it a very good fit for these particular paintings; Hockney is definitely not what you might call an effete aesthete.  In fact, there is also a corner of this exhibition where you can sit and watch the drawings he made on his iPad as little messages to friends, pop up on three digital screens, and I had to laugh out loud a couple of times, not least at his stubborn pro-smoking missives.

After we’d left the exhibition, she for the first time and I for the second, equally entranced, my mother and I headed to one of the cafés in Salts Mill for refreshment.  I ordered a dandelion and burdock (for those unfamiliar with the drink, explanation here) and proceeded to stare, fascinated, at the beautiful patterns the light made travelling through it, making the liquid glow deep red, with complex patterns caused by refraction in the glass patterning the table, and changing with every sip.  I believe that one of the things that makes good art so worth chasing after and drinking in is the degree to which it sensitises you to the beauty all around you.

Well, that’s my excuse – pretty certain the bloke at the next table thought I was a thoroughgoing weirdo, photographing my drink more than actually sipping it . . .

Oh, and did I mention that it’s free to visit this exhibition?  Free parking at the Mill, and Saltaire train station right across the road.  Do make time to go if you happen to be nearby.

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Seed of light

There is at the foundation of any artistic life the need to express something regardless the form of art that  this “something” is expressed through.
In ancient times, art was dedicated to the gods; painting, carving, music and poetry had that task deep within their function. 
So there is in art a magic and divine power.
It is indeed these attribute that helped Orpheus with only his musical instrument and his voice to put asleep the cerebra.
Modernity does not take out the magic sense and enchanting power of art.
If we listen to Mozart’s requiem, we can feel deep within us that power.
Even if we do not paint for the same reasons, even though the gods of today have surpassed those of the past,
somethings in art are still unchanged. It is not defined by success, but by talent.
Bob Marley used to say that “I did not wait for success to know that my music was right”
Talent is the measure at the heart and the spirit of the artist. 
The artist is a powerful catalyst of an energy that has to be given a form that our mind and our heart can digest. 
Talent is made out of generosity. 
Talent is the deep fertility of time in an artist’s life. 
The depth of talent does not always comes from the tranquility of existence. 
To those who the universe has given a lot, it asks a lot in return from them.
This is particularly the case with Beethoven, despite his growing deafness with the years, he had to find his way to continue composing to overcome the barrier that his disability was posing. 
So there is something in every human being that is bigger than their life, that is more important than all the worries linked to the modern life. 
The artists are certainly the most sensitive to it because they devote their whole lives to it. 
That thing, I call it the seed of the universe. We are the dust of the stars, as such, each one of us carries within themselves a glimpse of the universe. 
As the universe is always looking to manifest and to reveal itself, it gives to each one of us the ability to seize it. 
It inspires us and impregnates us by the visit of the nine muses, Apsaras and infinite sources and circumstances of life to give us the means to express it. 
 It inspires us. 
The inspiration and the artist are like a bedside lamp. 
The electricity and the bulb of light represent the inspiration and the shade is the artist. 
In order to let the light manifest itself in the world, the artist has to lower his ego and let the light passing through him. 
We are just the messengers, never the message itself. We have to carry it with love.
Poetry in this matter had played a pivotal role in the ancient mythologies, past theogonies and so on.
 Poetry was the transmission belt between immortals and mortals; it carried knowledge, wisdom and the will of the gods. 
It is only with the ancient Greeks after the vehement criticism of Plato against Homer that poetry began to give way to philosophy.
But the need for poetry is much deeper in us than Plato wanted to afford it. 
Poetry is an emotional understanding of the reality. 
If Oedipus had been a poet, he would have maybe felt in a better way the inconvenience of his life… 
Poetry is a gift. It is a gift of words.
It is not a clever play with words, but a deep and intimate discovery of the hidden meaning of life in words.
Whatever the gift! Whatever the talent!
There is nothing more illusory than a talent or a gift which is not shared. 
Poetry itself does not walk away easily from that.
What is whispered through poetry, what is drawn with words as poem were meant to be shared. 
Poetry that stays on the shelves of one’s heart is like a sun that will never rise, that will never bring the light, that will never know the day. 
There is no sun in such poetry. 
Poems that can not cross the dam of one’s lips are just like a dried out waterfall,
with no foam, no water crashing from the height, with no rainbow to display.
These poems are without colours. They are therefore not a rainbow.
Through poetry, through poems, we share life. We are not afraid of dreaming.
Dreaming about men, about tomorrow, about our children, about our friends, about diversity, about being a human.
As human beings, we are all like lands which give to others what time 
has blessed it with. In doing so, we are receiving from the other too. 
What time will provide them with to fertilize our arid lands; lands not yet arable somewhere within us, but yet lands full of promise.
In that respect, to have a gift is  being seeded by the universe itself, it is to carry it within ourselves, to find a beautiful way to let it shine in the world and reveal itself. It is being a seed of light.
Moreover, we were not seeded with the same seed, so that we still need other seeds to complete the work of the universe within us and within others. 
We can write. We can paint. We can sing. We can dance. 
But we can not all perform,  all the gifts that the universe possess. 
Poetry will always live side by side with music. Even though poetry is music within music.
Paul Malimba. 
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