Anthony van Dyck in Munich

Anthony van Dyck

Last weekend I spent a couple of hours in the newly renovated Alte Pinakothek in Munich. This time not to see their permanent rooms but a special exhibition of Anthony Van Dyck’s work. As I sat in the cafeteria afterward, I pondered over the fact that although this was not the big retrospective show with highlights from London or elsewhere, it was an excellent exhibition. And it seems fitting that after seeing and writing on this blog about the big Bernard van Orley and the Mantegna-Bellini retrospectives I should now write about an exhibition of a great portrait artist (see my Alex Katz write up for more portraits discussion) which is not a retrospective.

Who is Anthony van Dyck?

Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) was a Flemish painter from Antwerp renowned for the painting of portraits. The seventh child to a wealthy silk merchant, his painting abilities were obvious at an early age. One of his first important influences was gained by working in Peter Paul Rubens’s workshop, close to the master so to speak. His trips to Italy in the 1620s were, however, the turning point in finding his style following his study of Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) and Tintoretto. After becoming a court painter in Flanders to the archduchess Isabella, Habsburg Governor of Flanders he returned to England in 1632 following a request from Charles I to be the main court painter there. Most paintings from this extremely rich period are still part of the huge Royal Family Collection in London.

Van Dyck at the Bavarian State Painting Collection

The paintings we see here belong mainly to the Bavarian State Painting Collection. The collection was built by two Wittelsbach family members in the 17th century and has been in Bavaria ever since. In 1628 Wolfgang Wilhelm, Count Palatine of Neuburg (1578-1653) commissioned Anthony van Dyck a portrait of himself, thus starting the first connection with the artist. His Grandson, Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine of Neuburg (1658-1716) later began a collection of 30 works by the painter. His cousin Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria (1662-1726), in many ways his rival, collected 51 works by the artist. Twenty-three of these originally acquired works by the Wittelsbach dynasty, are considered full original autographs by Anthony van Dyck.

The use of the workshop

It has been discovered over time, and especially with new scientific studies on the paintings, that what is assumed to be by Anthony van Dyck is not always fully by him. In those days, a workshop was absolutely vital for any serious artist. After all, van Dyck had also started out as one of Rubens’ workshop artists, before gaining his own reputation. So, how did it work? Well, those willing to give the highest sum got the whole van Dyck package, those paying less got the hands or more features painted by one or more of the artists from his studio. The basis for pose, heads, horses, hands were all catalogued on study sheets and paintings done by the master.

This is wonderfully displayed in this exhibition. Study heads paintings, for instance, occupy a whole wall. Most of these have been separated to create 2 or more paintings, making it more profitable to sell, some are still whole. How these study heads have been painted is being explained and shown here not only with informative texts on the wall but also very excellently with the help of an electronic info-table.

Subtle, yet very informative boards

 

What I particularly liked is that there are only a few such tables in the exhibition. They bring a wonderful insight by showing details of the paintings and accompanying them with explanations about the making of the works in the rooms. Yet, they do not overtake the exhibition. They are subtly set, are not interactive, so as not to disturb the more important viewing of the actual paintings. They remain just factual help. This information is in part the result of recent scientific work on the paintings from the house collection, triggering the impetus for presenting this exhibition.

Rubens versus van Dyck

Drunken Silenus, c. 1617/18 additions c. 1625, Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens was in many ways the artistic “father” of Anthonis van Dyck. Yet, his psychological approach to portraiture sets him apart from Rubens. It is obvious here that Rubens is all about big monumental figures, about representative paintings, whereas Van Dyck is about the emotions, the human being, the psychology of the person painted. In “Drunken Silenus” which both artists painted in 1617/18, in Rubens’ case with an additional bottom section in 1625 to make full figures, we can see this very clearly. Van Dyck paints an old man, not able to walk alone anymore because of his drunken state, Rubens, on the other hand, paints a strong Silenus, more of an allegorical painting.

Drunken Silenus, c. 1617/18, Anthony van Dyck

Titian

Nicely shown here is also the connection with Titian. During his trips to Italy, van Dyck studied Titian amongst other Italian artists closely. Titian, for instance, portrayed cherubs and his baby Jesus larger than life, very big in shape. Van Dyck decided to experiment with that too in his Madonna and Child paintings.

The full-length portrait format used by Titian is another factor influencing both Rubens and van Dyck. An example of the 3 artists side by side shows this very clearly.

Emperor Charles V, 1548, Titian

Titian’s portrait of Charles V from 1548 sets the standard, with its full format and its background, for the next generations to come. Next to it, following Titian’s example, is the huge representative painting of Rubens dating of 1620 of Aletheia Talbot, Countess of Arundel.

Aletheia Talbot, Countess of Arundel, 1620, Peter Paul Rubens

 

And completing this series is the more personal full portrait by van Dyck of Sebilla Vanden Berghe from 1630. Here he shows his greatness in capturing the aura and personality of his sitter.

Susanna Fourment and her daughter Clara del Monte, 1621, Anthony van Dyck

These 3 paintings belong to the Bavarian State Painting Collection, as are most paintings presented in the exhibition.

So, is this just as good as a retrospective?

What makes this exhibition so special for me, is the fact that it gives us a wonderful insight into how van Dyck worked. It presents how important the workshop was to the artists of this period, how van Dyck produced such gorgeous masterworks, how artists connected and influenced each other and how van Dyck’s portraiture sets him apart from other artists. One doesn’t always need the highlights from other collections to make an exhibition special. I didn’t miss the paintings from London or from Vienna here. Fittingly the exhibition ends by talking about the start of van Dyck’s London paintings, not by showing a portrait from that collection but with a house painting by a later English great portraitist to represent this: Thomas Gainsborough.

This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity for the Bavarian State Gallery to show off its great collection of van Dyck paintings. It allows works to be placed side by side, some not always on view showing very clear parallels between the artists.  Together with the few “guest” works, it gives a wonderful insight into van Dyck’s work and legacy. In my eyes, a wonderful show, well worth the visit!

 

1+

thoughts on classical open-air performances

As the wet fall takes over and the warmth and sunny summer leave us, I ponder this day on the many open-air festivals now over and on the theater season ahead. I decide to take the pen again, or should I say the computer keyboard, to write my thoughts in this post and to discuss a question which has followed me for a while: How important is the quality of an artist and of the music in big open-air classical events?

The 3 Tenors

I remember watching, as a child, the 3 tenors concert with big open eyes. The three tenors: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras, made history that evening. They sang opera arias, some of these becoming big popular hits among non opera-goers after this event. The setting was very much that of big pop shows. We, my siblings and parents, sat in front of our little TV and watched this novelty with big expectations.

Coming from a very musical family, the music wasn’t new, but the event was. Classical music as a “pop” concert? This was a first for me. Yet, what made it so unique was not only that this was a totally new way of presenting classical music but also that these tenors kept their professional standards high, keeping true to themselves and their quality. These were 3 different voices singing opera, in the same register, at the highest possible level for a wide audience. And it worked! I can’t help thinking now, how fortunate it was that they were already well known, top of their league, serious opera singers having made their reputation before this event.

Opera in the big open

A little while back, I was at a big open-air opera event. This time visiting a colleague involved in a massive opera production. I couldn’t help thinking, whilst there, how small and secondary the performers became. The level of singing was good, the orchestra too, yet the actual magic of a voice connecting to one was virtually impossible. The music just became a backdrop to the lights, effects, show.

When on stage at such events, we singers become very reliable on the sound engineer. It is a weird situation, as the acoustic becomes a “machine-made” thing.  A smaller voice will be easier to play with, a bigger will become more challenging for the engineer. Yet, the magic of opera is when a voice, a sound, a timbre,  just 2 small vocal cords, sail without any extra help over an orchestra, however big it may be, in a seemingly effortless way, expressing emotions through the music and text with the help of dynamics, technique and years of non stop working on one’s sound. That magic didn’t come through here, and this wasn’t for a lack of good musicians.

John Williams and Anne-Sophie Mutter

Recently, I watched another open-air concert on television. This time with a world-renowned classical violinist: Anne-Sophie Mutter. It was a cross-over concert, her first open-air concert, playing film music written and adapted for her by John Williams. Big lights, different outfits, themed backdrop, full moon, a few special effects here and there, all this was part of the show.

What stroke me most, though, was the music John Williams had written for her based on his film music. These are challenging compositions, in places quite modern too. I was surprised to see and hear how seriously John Williams took Anne-Sophie Mutter as an artist. This wasn’t about making an event with light easy music for a huge audience with a famous violinist. Nor was it about not over challenging an open-air public who might not be thought to be up to it. This was about Anne-Sophie Mutter presenting a great composer and playing his music to the best possible level, and about John Williams having the liberty and taking the opportunity to write a score technically and musically challenging for a top artist. That really got me thinking…

Conclusion

One could discuss further whether open-air classical performances are good for this industry or not, at least on an artistic level. For me, I sometimes feel that open-air performances become a superficial act and less about the direct connection of an artist through his/her interpretation with the audience. It should be about a sound not being just a note, a rhythm not just a time span, and virtuoso playing not just quick-playing… Maybe the many other factors involved: sound engineers, big screens, effects, weather, lights, and so on, make it difficult for classical music to just be the deep, challenging and intimate art form and experience I feel it really is. What do you think?

 

0

Silent Dialogue On Time And On Space In Art

* * * Silent Dialogue On Time And On Space In Art * * *

Eternity is not a time without an end, but, what we fill our moments with. 

The artistic expression that finds its way through us, has the power to fill not only our moments, but also our whole being. 

Art is one of the most efficient way in which we are in contact with the aspirations of our being without mediation. 

This is true for music, for painting, for film, for poetry, for any art form. 

Something in the various forms and expressions of art does not age. 

Homer’s verses are just as young today as they were more than 2,000 years ago.  

Art therefore transcends all barriers and boundaries, whether natural or artificial. 

If, and only if, it manages to find fertile soil without prejudice in the depth of our hearts. 

For those who loves divas, who does not remember Maria Callas. 

No knowledge is required for her repertoire to feel the full emotion within her voice.  

There was and there still is something in her voice. 

This thing that comforts and soothes by giving us a place to stay in her voice by marrying our various emotions with those that her voice and her interpretation wrap us.

This is also true, in a different order of things when Whitney Houston’s name comes to mind. When she starts singing.  

The small silhouette disappears to give way only to her powerful and phenomenal voice.  

It invades time and space, nothing exists, but the purity of her voice.  

There is only her and the  listener tied in the same moment, same intimacy. 

We can say here that there is a double intimacy that we share with art; 

The first one is with the artist and the second is with their art form, but both allow us to feel at home in their words, in their verses, in their paintings, in their sculptures, in their voice, in their work, etc. 

Moreover, there is a sense of remaining in the meaning that it offers us. 

From the Greek cannon to Leonardo da Vinci, from the Cantilena of St. Eulalia to Soyinka …

All these works, all these authors, all these concepts have in filigree this very notion or this feeling of allowing something better in us to come out and also they give us an horizon, they ennoble us, they inspire us…

There is a sense of being a home and at home  with what we share with the artists through their works. 

This home is a moment, an intimacy that exists between us, the artist and his art, much more, it has been the case through all human history. 

It is this thing that still makes relevant to us the discobolus of Myron, the Nordic epics and legends, the texts of Edfu, Fela Kuti, etc. 

These works speak to us because we share with them this moment of eternity. 

The philosopher Emmanuel Kant, in his Transcendental Aesthetics, trying to set the conditions that make possible experience, which will ultimately help him to ask the question of the possibility of  knowledge namely “What can I know?” “What can I do?” “What can I hope for?” 

He had made a major distinction between the notions of space and that of time, which are the foundations of almost all experiences and therefore of almost all knowledge. 

Kant had established that space is the dimension outside us and that time is the dimension within us. 

Let us just stop there with Kant for fear of making idle our present discussion. 

However, the two Kantian distinctions are not foreign to any art form since art expresses or materializes time in space. Or reshapes space in the artist’s temporal dimension. 

Art thus crystallizes a personal and subjective dimension into a reality that is often collective and objective. 

Unless the artworks come to the artist from an external commission, exterior to the artist themselves like the painting of Leonardo Da Vinci’s, the Annunciation. 

This does not completely erase in this case, this mirror game between interiority and externality. 

Although we  do not often have a consensus on the criterion of beauty, since all beauty is perceived by the culture that gives it and the artist who portrays it. 

To quote lightly Kant again, only lightly because of all the implications that follow his statement; “Beauty is what pleases without concept” 

We agree, however, with Kant that beauty is for all in law, but against Kant, we also believe that beauty is also in fact for everyone. What can be perceived as a contradiction for the reason may represent many possibilities in art and its form of expression.

We should not define absolutely  beauty for all of us as a general rule. 

Beauty is not a unique property of the reason, it belongs also to those who can perceive it in an intuitionally seized, an emotional understanding of what comes to them.

Away from those dry considerations, there still is a kind of intimacy that has to exist between the artist and their work. 

It is their ability to marry space and time in art that we call the intimacy of time, as we mentioned with Homer’s verses, that thing in Maria Callas’ voice or the power in Whitney Houston’s work.

To be able to appreciate a work of art, is to be able to enter into the intimacy of the artist which also becomes ipso facto our own intimacy. 

Their work marks us. It stays with us. We share it with others. We pass them on from one generation to the next. We create communities around our favourite artists, as is the case of communities created around the works of Tolkien, George Lucas, etc. 

They give us a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. 

The art is the home of our most human expressions; from the sordid to the sublime. 

The need to remain in life is antagonistic to the imperative of time to consume everything. 

We must remain because time leaves us no other alternative but to leave. 

To remain, we must build what can defy time like the pyramids, which can testify to our passage in life, which will remain as a moment of eternity. 

What remains is who we are, what we are is our home. 

What remains will fill time in this moment of eternity and plenitude. 

Where else in fact will we be at home? 

Art by its ability to render our exteriority as interiority or time and to convert our externality or space into interiority thus it is finishing in us our highest capacities; those that allow us to turn the unknown into familiar, the shapeless into form, to convert the house into a home, to fill our personal universes with a multitude of connections and worlds that make us able to call this world around us, home, while transforming our personal views, into something common. By sharing and communicating, we establish all around us bridges of meaning in what we have in common according to the fields concerned whether it is in music, painting, sculpture, slams, poetry, etc. 

When we acquire, for example, a copy of the Mona Lisa, when we place it carefully into our home. Or that we visit the original at the Louvre Museum.

We are not only showing our artistic sensibility, we are building a bridge between us, all the people that like the same artwork, the artist and their time. 

It is an intimate dialogue between two subjectivities that marry one (the artist) leading outwards and the others (the fans) bringing back inwards. 

This is equally valid for other art forms in their unceasing effort to reveal the often hidden meaning of people and the world. 

Art reveals us in our various relationships to it, whether by imitating it, revealing it or contemplating it…

We always find a source of new  ideas, of various directions, but also and above all, a home that is our intimacy to time. 

It is this intimacy that makes who we are, in the world around us, and even in the universe itself, familiar to us. 

Without time, space would lack objective reality, but without space we could not intuitively feel the time. 

Art combines them in all its forms to express and highlight its own diversity, which is also our own.

0

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!

2+

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

 

2+

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…
3+

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.

 

2+

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

 

 

6+

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

2+

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2+