Random Reflections from Cologne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpected exhibition

Refuel Meal, 1996, Tetsuya Ishida, acryl on board

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

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

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

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

Zarzuela magic

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

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

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

Personal experience

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

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

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

Afterthought

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

Lost, 2001, Tetsuya Ishida, oil on canvas

 

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Eccentricity is a scent of art.

 Eccentricity is a scent of art

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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El Anatsui: Triomphant scales

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

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

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

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

Illusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Erika Luisella

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Highlight in Brussels – Bernard van Orley

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

Who is Bernard van Orley?

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

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

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

Influences

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

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

Tapestries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Famous in his days

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mantegna – Bellini, learning from each other

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

Presenting Mantegna and Bellini

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

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

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

Using the other’s drawing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning from the other

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

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

Finishing a commission

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

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

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

What differs and makes them individual

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

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

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

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

Knowing one’s strength

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

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

How to end?

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

 

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Hockney’s Thin Legs

Hockney Yorkshire

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

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

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

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

Characteristic purple of the lane, with spring in full flush

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

Close-up of the hawthorn blossom

 

 

 

 

 

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

A multicoloured fairytale of a day, evidently!

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

 

One last look around.

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

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

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

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

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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

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