The absolutely underestimated: Lili Boulanger

100 years ago a great artist died. By which I do not mean Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Klimt, Karl Marx or Ingmar Bergmann. Following the just passed world women´s day, I decided to write about a woman: the composer Lili Boulanger!

Just a couple of days ago, I was talking about Lili Boulanger and how she is rarely performed on stage. Then I happened to go to a concert at the Prinzregententheater in Munich. Romantic composers were on the programm: Janine Jansen played Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and César Franck. Jansen played great. She found the perfect tempi and gave the violin a very soft sound, combined with strong outbursts. The audience was absolutely quiet and applauded frenetically. So, she played an encore. And: surprise! It was the Nocturne by Lili Boulanger. As if I would have guessed.

The young composer Lili Boulanger wrote this piece in 1911, at an age of only 18. She wrote it just before she even begun her formal studies in composition and finished it in just two days. It still is one of her most famous works.

A young composer who died too early
Lili Boulanger

The composer was born in 1893. Her musical talent already showed at an early age. By the time she was six years old, she was sight-singing songs with the composer Gabriel Fauré at the piano. She also studied with her older sister, Nadia. Also, her parents brought musical education to the family. The young woman composed only a very few oeuvres and died far too early, in 1918, only aged 24.

Influences and role models

Lili Boulanger was widely influenced by the composers Claude Debussy and Richard Wagner. In the Nocturne, everything relates to both of them. She definitely took the first few notes from Debussy’s “Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune”, and inserted them into her own composition. Also, she used short phrases from Wagner’s Tristan. However, the Nocturne is a brilliant composition by the young composer.

The Nocturne was first written for flute or violin and piano but has been orchestrated in a following version. Unfortunately, the orchestral transcription was never published and has been lost.

What followed

In 1912, one year after the Nocturne, Boulanger won the Prix de Rome. Shortly after that, she became very ill. She suffered from chronic illnesses, beginning with a case of bronchial pneumonia at age two that weakened her immune system, leading to the “intestinal tuberculosis” that ended her life at the age of 24.

Prinzregententheater in Munich

What impact Lili Boulanger’s work really has, is hard to say. But when Janine Jansen played the last notes of the Nocturne, the whole audience was enchanted. And this is a good enough reason to look at this absolutely underestimated composer closer.

 

2+

Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie – When Music Is Not Enough

I happened to travel to Hamburg for a friend’s wedding and couldn’t resist taking a first glance at the city’s new landmark. The spectacular  Elbphilharmonie drew my attention from the moment I got out of my car at the St. Pauli landing bridges. I had heard so much about it, from its construction Odyssey to the memorable opening ceremony in January 2017. But I was not really informed as to what to expect exactly.  So, even if there were no concert or at least guided tour tickets available at such short notice, I was going to check it out and get a first impression of it.

View from St. Pauli’s piers towards the Elbphilharmonie

From A Distance: The First View

I found it very exciting to see a prestigious project that had been all over the media in the past few years in person. I felt my curiosity arising the more I approached it. The first sight was already very promising:  a monument of modern architecture, with a brick-covered base, typical for North German architecture, and a glass top in the shape of a ship sail, reflecting the sunrays of the luminous day.

I looked out for the viewing platform mentioned by a colleague as “a must-see” for visitors,  presuming it would be on the roof of the building. But seeing its totally uneven structure from afar, I couldn’t imagine any kind of observation deck on top of it. My colleague had also said that visitors needed to reserve tickets in advance to enter the so-called Plaza. I hadn’t done so, but I decided to try my luck after having taken a closer look from the outside.

Standing at the Sandtorhöft, a perfect “picture spot”

Finally Facing “Elphi”

And there I was, standing at the Sandtorhöft, a dock from where I had a wonderful view of the Elbphilharmonie’s peak.  I had discovered the perfect “picture spot”. The building seemed very narrow from this angle, and I found it hard to imagine that there is a concert hall fitting 2.100 people inside it. I finally spotted the observation platform that goes all around, offering breathtaking views on the city and its huge harbor.

The name, “Plaza”, had made me think of a square rather than a circuit. But, as it turned out, it was not on top, but a little less than at half height, between the edifice’s brick-covered foundation and underneath its upper, glass-structured part. Seeing many people enjoying the view from up there, I also wanted to make this experience and headed towards the actual entrance where I, fortunately, had no problem at all getting a free entrance ticket.

The Elbphilharmonie as seen from the Sandtorhöft

In The Heart Of The Building

I felt quite excited when I took the moving stairway towards the inside of the building I had so much admired from the outside. I didn’t yet know that this 82m long escalator called ” Tube” is the longest curved one in the world and that it leads to a large panoramic window. My journey into the Elbphilharmonie felt highly promising already.

On the Tube

A few more flat steps later I was standing in the middle of the light-flooded Plaza, the central platform of the building, a meeting point for concert visitors and general tourists alike. I could see a wooden staircase to each side, one leading to the big concert hall and one to a smaller venue, meant for chamber music concerts. A row of wave-shaped windows on both sides offered beautiful views, playful photo possibilities, and invited me to take one of the exits to the panoramic circuit.

View from the Plaza towards the harbor
View from the Plaza towards the city

Walking Around The Plaza

Stepping outside, I was at first amazed by the stunning views all around. But after taking a dozen pictures in all directions, I started realizing how packed the platform was. It felt as if I was taking part in a mass event.

Looking towards city and harbor

I began wondering how many of the Plaza’s visitors knew they were actually visiting a big venue of mostly classical concerts, which also houses the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra (the former Northwest German Broadcasting orchestra). I couldn’t help but think that the majority of visitors were unaware of these connections. They had probably just come to cross off one of the city’s top-ten sight-seeing spots from their bucket list. Next on the list, also in conviniently close proximity, right across the harbor, would most likely be a visit of one of the big-scale musical productions in specifically build auditoriums Hamburg is also famous for.

Only now did I notice the 5-star-hotel incorporated in the building and learned that the Elbphilharmonie also contains residential apartments. I found out that the included restaurant is a kind of beer pub, offering beer-tastings, and that the café adopts a very casual, take-away and coffee-to-go style.

I must admit, I asked myself if all this is necessary nowadays. Aren’t world-renowned orchestras and famous soloists alluring enough to sustain such a building and fill it with people? Is the brand-new, eye-catching concert hall with its sophisticated acoustics not sensational enough? And if not, why is the edifice called Elbphilharmonie and not something else? Or is the concert hall just part of an event location, and not even the most significant?

Sunset over Hamburg’s harbor from the Plaza
Post-sunset reddish skies over Hamburg’s harbor

The Elbphilharmonie – A Total Work Of Art?

Some research I did since my visit has taught me that the Elbphilharmonie is a “spectacular Gesamtkunstwerk” and “more than a concert house”. Its foundation, a former quayside warehouse, of which only the walls were kept during reconstruction, houses three music studios. They offer many educational and participatory programmes, as well as space for experimental music, seminars, workshops, and rehearsals.

The makers of the building call the Elbphilharmonie a total work of art, which combines innovative architecture with an exceptional location, outstanding acoustics, and a visionary concert programme. It is designed as a democratic edifice, with a public plaza as a space for everyone.

This might all be true. But the modern architectural and sociological approach leaves me with a lot of unanswered questions, especially when it comes to the unique feature of an extraordinary new concert hall.

I guess I will have to come back to see how I feel about it at a second glance. And maybe I’ll then get the chance to attend a concert or even actively participate in one as a singer, thus feeling the heart-beat of this remarkable building.

Good night Elbphilharmonie

 

2+

Is this a portrait?

Katz

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

a painting that looks simple

Paul Taylor, 1959, oil on canvas

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

No expression, no content, no form?

Private Domain, 1969, oil on canvas

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

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

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

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

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

Fashion is ephemeral

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

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

Serial models

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

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

The black dress, 1960, oil on canvas

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

Renaissance Technique

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

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

So, is this a portrait, Mr Katz?

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

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

 

3+

It needs to change !

It’s been several years that I am going to the opera and I am scandalized by the mediocrity and the absurdity of staging. The problem being that this phenomenon is not rare, on the contrary, it has settled during the last decades.

Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear people booing the staging and yet nothing changes. We continue to give all the power to these artists, these great thinkers. We remain in this incomprehensible model of incoherence and, when we are lucky, we are satisfied with the feeling of “it did not disturb”. Excuse me? What did you say? A lucky chance? My bad…

That amazes me!

It seems to me that staging should participate in the success of the Opera, respect it, at least. I have often been able to hear people trying to find explanations, analyze what the director would like us to understand, what he would like to pass as a message, often unrelated to the work. In my opinion, from the moment we have to explain art to understand it, especially in music, then we move away from what art is. As Debussy said, “Music must humbly seek pleasure” and so should art do too. If we are forced to intellectualize art, it loses all its meaning.

I have the impression that we use the opera scenes to convey ideas that do not serve the work, often outright provocations. Commited scenes do not revolt me, on the contrary. Indeed, if the commitment, or the provocation of some staging is related to the text, respects the interpreters and the score, I say: Bravo . But to use singers like puppets to make them do anything, to make them sing at the back of the stage (without any acoustic help) or sing upside down, doesn’t do their voices justice and is a lack of common sense. To remove elements from the score or not to respect the specific wishes of the composers just doesn’t make any sense. I’m thinking, for example,  of the Guillotine in the “Dialogues des Carmelites” of Poulenc. This is an entire part of the score and libretto (sound of the guillotine in action and choir  voices disapearing one by one…). In the Munich production it was replaced by gas chambers and people surviving when they should not, loosing all the links with the libretto and the score. It is just one example out of hundreds. This is disrespectful and it is not a different interpretation but a deliberately distorted narration: it is inadmissible and should not be allowed.

It would be as if the conductor decided that the solo of Thais’ meditation should be played by a Xylophone, or that the musicians decide to play an improvisation whenever it isn’t written .

And yes, I can already hear the reactions: “No, we will not do re-staging of dusty, classics. We need new, we need change, we need to shake things up!” But I must say that the clean style sets, suits and ties costumes, the naked men, the men in heels, the scenes of sex, the blood everywhere… there is nothing new here. It has been seen over and over again! 

So, yes, let’s use the modern means instead. The technology for the benefit of all as in the exhibition in Vienna “Insights into Bruegel” that one had the pleasure to discover through Culturmania’s eyes or as in the latest production at the Munich Opera of  Krenek’s “Karl V” created by the great and innovative Fura del Baus. It is brilliant, it is good, so : it is possible! But doing just anything to change or be provative is a bad excuse for the lack of inspiration and ignorance of some.

I had the experience, in Paris during a concert version of “die Wallküre” at the Champs Elysées Theater, to hear one in the public screaming: “Thanks! we can finally enjoy the music without being disturbed by an absurd staging!!” and everyone applauded… It’s sad to get to this point.

Staging is part of a show, a performance at the Opera. The Sight and Hearing should work together to give us a successful evening. It is also the responsibility of the Opera Houses worldwide to no longer accept that stage directors are allowed to be all-mighty, capricious, or not professional.  Because as we can see, concert version works just as well and may work better and better. Shouldn t the Opera Houses ask themselves : What does the public want?  

The public knows what they came to hear, in fact, they chose to come to hear it. Subtle respect for the interpreters, the text and the score is, in the end, all that is asked for. Staging should  serve the Opera first, like the singers, the conductors, the musicians. Add a touch of dream, humour, poetry, emotion and most of all to take us further, allow us to extricate ourselves from reality for a few hours… It is in fact simple. 

 

Erica Luisella

4+

Insights into Bruegel – An outstanding exhibition in Vienna

Bruegel versus Brueghel

I recently got the chance to attend two main monographic exhibitions in Vienna. Each one of them was vast and inspiring: no wonder with such big names as Bruegel and Monet, whose works are part of our collective consciousness. I initially wanted to write about both exhibitions and compare them to one another. But on second thought I voted against this judgemental “competition” and decided to let each artist and each curator “speak for themselves” instead. Here is my impression of one of Vienna’s most interesting exhibitions of the past years.

The Painter and the Connoisseur, 1565

A  surprisingly critical mind – Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Vienna‘s Kunsthistorisches Museum, which possesses the largest collection of Bruegel paintings worldwide due to the Habsburg’s collecting passion, hosted a once-in-a-lifetime monographic exhibition on the most prominent Netherlandish painter of the 16th century, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525? – 1569).

The Peasant Wedding, around 1567

Many of Bruegel‘s paintings are known to a wider public thanks to numerous reproductions. Most of us would probably recognize The Hunters in the Snow or The Peasant Wedding as one of his works (the latter was even included as a parody in the victory feast at the Belgian village at the end of Uderzo’s and Goscinny’s Asterix in Belgium).

But how many of us know of Bruegel‘s highly symbolic drawings, engravings, and paintings which bring to mind another prominent Dutch master, Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516)? I certainly didn’t. And when does one ever get a chance to experience such an amount of masterpieces, which museums rarely loan to other institutions, gathered together in one spot and thus get an insight into the artist’s complex pictorial world?

Children’s Games, 1560

The exhibition’s set-up

The Viennese anniversary exhibition commemorates 450 years since Bruegel‘s premature death in his early 40s. The curators chose a thematic organization of the approximately 90 exhibits, while still following the artist’s biography. Thus the created structure helped visitors discover and immerse into different aspects of the artist‘s diverse oeuvre. The detailed information provided by the museum through various media, consisting a.o. of descriptions aside from each work, as well as a free little booklet with more details, facilitated this journey into Bruegel’s unique artistic world. More so, the museum initiated a research project that prepared and accompanied this noteworthy exhibition, focusing on a comprehensive technological analysis of the twelve panel paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder in its possession. Even after the end of the exhibition, a free website under www.insidebruegel.net offers deep insights into Bruegel‘s paintings and working method, based on the recent technological analyses.

The Hunters in the Snow, 1565

Bruegel’s different subjects

The four large galleries and six smaller adjoining rooms presented and examined Bruegel’s remarkable artistry, focusing on the different subjects he chose, as well as on the analysis of his craftsmanship. They showed Bruegel‘s artistic beginnings as a draughtsman and graphic artist and revealed the fact that he also trained as a miniaturist.  A big collection of path-breaking masterpieces in landscape and genre painting, where series and groups like The Seasons were reunited, some of them for the first time in centuries, underlined the painter’s innovations and vital contributions to the evolution of landscape-painting and his phenomenal observation skills.

The Procession to Calvary, 1564

The exhibition set an additional focus on Bruegel‘s religious works, from the large oil-on-canvas panel The Procession to Calvary which was displayed without a picture frame and gave spectators the feeling of standing in the painter’s studio, to such enigmatic and apocalyptic paintings as The Triumph of Death and Dulle Griet which were exposed near each other and invited  visitors to draw their own comparisons and conclusions. The engraved allegoric cycles The Seven Deadly Sins and The Seven Virtues reinforced the impression of Bruegel as a sharp-eyed observer of the human race and appeared very modern in their witty, satirical and caustic approach to me.

Big Fish Eat Little Fish, 1557 (Printmaker: Pieter van der Heyden)

A scientific look at Bruegel’s work

The technological analyses that helped prepare this extraordinary exhibition focused on the materiality of Bruegel’s works, starting with his drawing- and painting materials and -technique and letting the hidden underdrawings come to light through infrared photography. Additionally, questions of the present state, as well as the restoration work on the paintings, were addressed.

The interesting findings of these analyses revealed and documented the painter‘s creative process and allowed visitors to look over the artist’s shoulder, and appreciate his artistry even more. A presentation of contemporary artifacts depicted in The Fight between Carnival and Lent proved how realistic and skillful Bruegel‘s painting of everyday objects of his time was, and let us immerse even more into the 16th century.

The rear side of the panel of The Procession to Calvary, 1564

Bruegel in Vienna: A most satisfying acquaintance with the master

The Viennese Bruegel retrospective’s thematical organization, accompanied by a large amount of information on the displayed oeuvres as well as on the working methods of the artist, plus a very modern, interactive website (still online – check it out under www.bruegel2018.at, it’s absolutely worth it!) had a highly educational and engaging character which I enjoyed very much, especially since I knew very little about Bruegel before.

Of course, Bruegel’s detail-oriented and often highly symbolic way of drawing and painting cry out for such an approach. There is so much to discover in each and every work, and it is quite impossible to notice everything at first sight without proper background- or historical knowledge. The provided information guided my eyes to many details I might not have noticed and encouraged me to start looking more attentively. I especially loved the juxtaposition of works which might not have been created as a group but have a lot in common, summiting in the two versions of The Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel, Vienna Version, 1563
The Tower of Babel, Rotterdam Version, after 1563?
An amateur copyist working on “The Tower of Babel”

Fancy a little more Bruegel?

This exciting exhibition awakened my interest for the unique Netherlandish artist and made me start reading about him, so as to be able to join the never-ending discussions about the possible meanings that are hidden in Bruegel’s distinctive oeuvre.

While doing so, I discovered the following websites and blogs I can highly recommend to those interested:

  • The Pursuit of Bruegel in the blog “That’s How The Light Gets In”: A fellow blogger’s pursuit of Bruegel around Europe with wonderful descriptions of Bruegel’s works, including background information.
  • The e-Art Magazine “Art in Words“: Current reports and previews of exhibitions around Europe, articles on art history and artists (unfortunately only in German).
  • The online-channel “Museumsfernsehen“, that bundles videos from German-speaking museums in one platform and contains two Bruegel-experts’ lectures in English.

And what about the name?

While the dedicatee of the exhibition started omitting the “h” from his surname from 1559 on, and went down in history as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, his two sons, who also became painters kept it, and are thus known as Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625).

 

 

1+

When worlds grow and explode

I’ve never come out of an exhibition before so full of feelings and thoughts that I had to write them down immediately just to get them out of the way so others could flood into my brain. My head was full of beauty, and of possibilities, and I needed to write things down before my mind just exploded.  (This was a great excuse to find a little Parisian corner bar and order a glass of red.  Just to get my thoughts in order, you understand.)   I shall present some of those immediate, overwhelming thoughts unedited, in italics, with explanations where necessary (they were not meant for publication).  I’ve cobbled together some of my photos into short videos just to show the visual flow of the thing, but without the music, they are but poor reflections of the original.  There’s a proper video at the end, though!

This was the immersive Klimt exhibition at the Atelier des Lumières in Paris.  It was produced by Culturespaces and created by Gianfranco Iannuzzi, Renato Gatto, and Massimiliano Siccardi, with the musical collaboration of Luca Longobardi, and was one of the most fabulous things I have ever experienced.

Entering to the last, plaintive notes of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”, stepping into Klimt’s birch forest as it breathed its last and disappeared.

I went in to the space consciously ignorant of what exactly was going to happen.  I’d read a few reviews which sparked my interest, and friends who’d been all told me I had to go, as it combined many interests of mine, but I wanted the full impact, and my goodness I got it.  The above was my impression of the first moments; it was halfway through the Klimt section of the exhibition, and it felt like I really was in one of his pictures, with leaves dropping gently through the air, falling onto the floor, ready to be crunched underfoot, with the plangent strains of Mahler the ideal emotional complement to the mood of the painting I had somehow actually entered.

Trees unfurling gradually until the last curl let the leaves drop and glitter.

I was hooked.  Klimt’s paintings moved and breathed, and I was not just standing and looking, but a part of the whole.  Utterly exhilarating.  WHAT a use of current digital technology!  Art is brought to life and set to music; aspects of paintings break away and move; images glow and then fade into nothingness; and the audience, by dint of being bathed in the light and colour, become part of the whole.  The possibilities in terms of theatre are obvious, and tremendously exciting (I want my voice to dictate when worlds grow and explode – I fear I may have let grandiosity get the better of me there!).

Gold on a neck close to a cheek, a hungry kiss, the subsequent sliding frozen in time but here?  Who knows.

The sheer sumptuousness of the Vienna Secession couldn’t have been better expressed, and the immersive nature of the experience really allowed one to smell and breathe Klimt’s abundant creativity.  Technically, what was happening was that they reproduced various of his paintings, projected them on to the walls and sometimes the floor, added a (very relevant) soundtrack, and through digital manipulation introduced movement.  I have no idea how they managed to project across such vast spaces without distortion, or how everything was covered in light and colour without (seemingly) any of the audience casting shadows, but the effect was breathtaking.

I don’t appear to have written about the jarring sensation when the exhibition finished each run, and the space was revealed in its original state; a massive concrete space, ugly, industrial (I believe it was previously an iron foundry), full of other people.  All that was utterly transformed once the show got going, and it felt as near to magic as I have ever got.  I spent over five hours in there, moving around the space to gain new perspectives as the exhibition repeated.  Time indubitably well spent.

These photos show the same space seconds apart:

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t just Klimt, though:

A swollen belly, a knowing look, and oh, OH!, Schiele’s dirty, shamed, defiant bodies cover the space, cover us . . .

  (do I have a penis reflected on my face?)

A logical correlation, a growth, but – like a cancer – maleficent, shocking; it grates.  

(I am not be the world’s biggest fan of Schiele.  I understand the flow of artistic energy between him and Klimt, but I cannot warm to his work.)

Hundertwasser (or, how to make the universe anew) is another matter entirely; I am well acquainted with his philosophy and with his life-affirming art, and was entranced by the short programme concentrating on his works:

A low, mechanical hum, and his golden ship breaks loose with a mournful bass trumpeting and circles the space, anticlockwise, unapologetic.  Birds fly, leaves explode.  Grass grows, and you know it’s the start of a perfect new world.

His gorgeous multicoloured cities grew in front of our eyes (In such fresh hope can a new architecture arise. Brick by fantastic brick, a curve here, a whimsical wall: look, no hands!).

I’d always loved his work, but what these artists had done, introducing an element of movement, adding just the right music, seemed like an enhancement, and it made me very happy.  I have been wondering whether one would obtain quite such enjoyment without any previous knowledge of these paintings.  It would still be a wonderful immersive experience, so maybe, but I do feel that my initial knowledge enriched my experience here.

The walls open up and reveal what’s behind, as that inner world revolves.  Organic openings; orgasmic.  Or maybe the wall’s moving?  Slowly, exploring?  I can’t remember how – if – this ends.

The immersive nature of this whole undertaking is truly new, thanks to the latest in digital technology, and truly mind-expanding.  It combines visual art with music which adds to it rather than clashing, and it uses imaginative techniques to focus on certain aspects and details, whilst providing a richly sensual overview of the oeuvre of these great artists.

I have to apologise, though.  This exhibition is now over.  However, this was only the first show by the Atelier des Lumières.  The next one is already in the pipeline – “Van Gogh, Starry Night” opens on 22 February, and I can’t imagine that will be less thrilling than this.  The side exhibitions (they are not content with blowing your mind just once) include Japanese art, and a contemporary creation.  (I could write pages about the stunning impact of “Colours X Colours”, the result of a two-year collaboration between the artists Thomas Blanchard and Oilhack, which was showing in the café.  Maybe I shall, another time.)  All I can say is that if you’re interested in the crossover of artistic disciplines, or want to believe in magic (or both), don’t miss any new output from this team!

Thank you for reading this far!  It’s actually impossible to fully express how innovative and exciting this exhibition was just using words, so here’s a video of the opening sequence of the Klimt programme, as filmed by a friend of mine (thanks, Sue!); this time, with the music that was so much a part of the experience.  My notes on the sequence were as follows:

Magnificent halls building out of nothing; pillars which grow and spread, a carpet rotating and setting into intaglio in a church.  Frescoes – what’s the antithesis of fading?  Creativity in visible motion.

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The perks of standing first row

This post is not about theatre, concerts or exhibitions. It more or less is a summary for all cultural events. In general one gets up, leaves the house and finds oneself sourrounded by other people, with similar thoughts and feelings about the event one goes to. The stage is the most important place in the location. Position counts! People seek for the best view or sound, or whatever. It´s all about standing in the first row! In events,  as well as in life!

But why is this so? Are we nor civilized beings, who should be able to talk to each other, instead of fighting for a superior stand?

This is why following you find my general thoughts concerning the perks of standing first row.

All the time we stand in between something. Our whole life tends to go between rows. When going out, it seems we have to compensate this fact: wherever we go, there always is the need of being first.

Not only in concerts or cultural events. It already starts with being on the subway. Once the doors open everyone seems to need to get in there as soon as possible. Our brain, under these circumstances, does not realize, that it even slows us down. Being inside first does not help the train go faster. It even slows down the process of people entering.

This same first row problem is valid for concerts

When I entered the concert hall Zenith in Munich the other day, to see Ben Howard, it already was quite crowded. People were jostling to see and hear best, not thinking about others. Everybody had payed the same fee and just happened to be there at different times.

This article title clearly contributes to the movie “The Perks of being a wallflower”. Though it deals with the exact opposite. People tend to become very pushy once it´s about their personal advantage.

Ben Howard in Munich

This obviously does not count for everybody, but for many many guests of events.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this, except for: Be kind! It´s not about being first in row, but first in YOUR life!

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On Poetry and Vulnerability

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

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

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

Vienna

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

First Stop, St Stephen’s Cathedral

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

The Viennese Coffee House

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

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

Spirits and personalities all around

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

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

Vienna, the Capital

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

The Albertina going through time

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

 

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

City of culture

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

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Anna Karenina – a night at the ballet

Ballet

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

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

Curtain up

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

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

A new scene is set

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

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

The music

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

The dancers

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

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

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