Echoes and Reflections on Saint John the Baptist and Leonardo Da Vinci.

This is no ordinary painting. This is the will of an old man, the last work of great artist. His will to expose a glimpse of himself without ever revealing himself fully. This is the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. If it is easier to understand Da Vinci‘s work in science through his Codex. It is more difficult to read into his painting. He warns us in one of his notebooks by borrowing these verses to the Metamorphosis of Ovid: “ I doubt o Greek that you can do the account of my exploits even if you already know them. Because I made them without witnesses with only the forces of the darkness  as accomplice” .

The law of causality says that there is always something in the effect of a cause that belongs to the cause itself. Despite his will to conceal himself in his work, we are convinced that the Master left occasionally here and there a print of his true self through his brushes. Nevertheless, it is not so much what we understand about Da Vinci that helps us to understand him, but to understand ourselves. The entire work of Leonardo invites us to a great exercise of humility. How much of himself and ourselves can still be found in his last work? The radiant character and aura of the master, just like the sun which glows without discrimination, made of him a universal figure. He belongs to everybody because his works benefit the whole of humanity. What then can the Saint John The Baptist still give to us?

Saint John the Baptist is the last work of the master.

He gave to it his full care, even though, during that same time, he kept retouching and figuring out the portrait of Mona Lisa. Everything is present in the Saint John the Baptist and much more; the years of discoveries and sorrows of the past, the accumulated experiences in the moments of plenitude and scarceness, of wondering and wandering, the mastery of the theme of the light that illuminates Saint John the Baptist in contrast to the dark background, and finally the spiritual presence that springs from the holy man himself, whose index finger points upwards suggesting an otherworldly realm. What about his eyes and his smile that we see coming back on so many art work of Da Vinci, likewise in the Mona Lisa. Everything is there and much more in this remarkable beauty of the work, in the finesse and refinement of the features of Saint John the Baptist, the face, the arms, the posture, the shoulders, the chest and that sublime index finger pointing to the firmament.  All these details have been thought out, painted with extreme meticulousness and perfection to the point that Saint John the Baptist is confusing us. Is it really the man who baptized Christ that Leonardo painted? Or is it the master’s vision of what a beautiful human being should be in its most vivid expression?

It is worth noting that Da Vinci had an interest in the human anatomy and he devoted not only a great amount of time studying the body but also in doing so risking his own life by practicing autopsy because it was forbidden by the authorities, the Vatican. The Saint John The Baptist is a vision of beauty, in all its shapes and forms, all together in one body, all at the same time not only virile and masculine, but also brought to its ultimate perfection by all the femininity that emerges from it. A face of an elegant beauty with features that marries all forms of the masculine and also those of the feminine: whether it is the eyebrows, the cheekbones, the cheeks, the perfect curls of the hair that are an unequivocal feature, not only of the masculine, but also of the feminine.

Indeed it is not only physically that the Saint John the Baptist is an expression of such a  beauty, but also in his aura.

Features that only the mind can communicate like this flame in his eyes which connect to ours when we linger staring at them. Not the least is his smile, this pout, that says a lot about Leonardo. As a great master and as, at his usual, Da Vinci returns us to ourselves when we are facing him through his painting. The most disturbing thing about the Saint John the Baptist is that despite the fact that the Saint is announcing the spirit and the light, he has this look full of carnal vitality, very much in contrast to what he represents. His body, although masculine, is however suggesting something very feminine.

Some people see in it the expression of the master’s unproven homosexuality. In fact, on April 9, 1476, an anonymous indictment against Leonardo and three other men, accusing them of sexual practices against the young Goldsmith, Jacobo D’Andrea Salterelli, was filed in the infamous box of Florence, Tamburo, at the Palazzo della Signoria to the authorities. Due to the lack of evidence, the charge was dismissed. However, it must be said that although homosexuality in the fifteenth century was prohibited by the church, it was widespread in high society and among artists.

However, the interest and importance of Saint John the Baptist is not to inform us about the sexual orientations of the master, but rather about the ultimate expression of the beauty as he saw it later in his life. He pushed that understanding to its climax beyond the limits of the body and mocking not only the social conventions, but also the clear boundaries between the masculine and the feminine by merging them in one body. The art is a tension within the interiority of the artist and how he expresses it in the real world, how he transfers that tension into an idea and after into a matter. This precise degree of tension is very visible in Leonardo when we remember the extrovert that he was before that infamous indictment of April 1476 and the introvert he had become immediately after and for the rest of his life. 

The quote of Ovid that Da Vinci is using for himself is ever-present in the painting of the Saint John the Baptist, as if everything rested on this tension between the shadow and the light, the masculine and the feminine, the good and the evil, the reason and the passions. This in-between moment helps us to understand that the day adds nothing to the light itself, just as the dark mantle of the night does not subtract anything from the same light. Moreover, it makes us understand that it is an unfair exercise to pose the masculine as what is opposed to the feminine. It is important in what it means to be a human being: that our joys and sorrows, that our hopes and dreams show always the humanity in us and not the incarnate individual to whom Da Vinci opposes the Saint John the Baptist, who has both the beauty and the grace of the masculine and the feminine.

This half-man and this half-woman or better yet, this man and this woman at the same time is the Saint John the Baptist as painted by Leonardo. He is undoubtedly an androgyne being. Everything is there and much more, we know from his biographers that Leonardo, because of his situation as a child born outside of wedlock, was in his early childhood separated from his mother and was lonely. As a result, he could not receive a solid education. He spent a lot of time in the wild, marveling at plants, insects, birds, animals, etc. There he developed a great sense of intimacy with nature and also an out-of-the-ordinary visual acuity that will have decisive implications in his life, not only in science, but also in arts and as a person. As a living being, he was completely vegetarian urging his entourage in his words “Don’t make of your belly a grave”. It is certainly in his moments of solitude and observation that he understood that nature does not oppose the terms of the relation that it unites, but it completes them to perfection. 

It was nature itself, before his years of apprenticeship, in Verrochio‘s workshop, that was the only great master of the young Leonardo, introducing him to its subtle secrets of forms and light.

It is still that same nature that holds as homogeneous the whole structure of reality which the terms of our mind consider to be opposite. Hence the bold idea of a work of a perfect human body or an androgyne being may have certainly been tacitly and silently part of the interests of the young Leonardo, but without ever having been able to take the precedent on the existential necessities of the artist’s life up to the Saint John the Baptist very late in his life.

It should be said here that it is the ultimate effort to achieve a work that unifies all the aspects of the human beauty on the same medium that was certainly the first concern of Leonardo and not the androgyne being itself as the result. Otherwise, we would not only make a false trial to the master, but we would make him guilty of our intents to understand him through our lenses and not his perspective. Leonardo was not only a brilliant genius inventor, he also had the talent and ability to carry to perfection what some before him had already invented. The shortcomings of the inventions, which Da Vinci improved, were partly due to the lack of a keen sense of observation and also to the poor schematics of the sketches. It is no exaggeration to say that Leonardo is the pioneer of industrial design. He could visualize in his mind the parts and the whole. He could then develop perfect models that allowed a more efficient construction of the machines and tools that he already had in his mind. Leonardo‘s artistic universe followed that path using the same rule. He used science to paint the human body perfectly in its motion, as well as to expose its mind and the passions of its soul.

 The androgyne being is not a concept that Da Vinci created.

It is an old Greek myth. But the Saint John the Baptist’s painting, which rests on it and brings together both the beauty of the body, the light, the spirit and the passions of the soul is unique to Leonardo. Saint John the Baptist is therefore unique in this sense. We have to return to Greek antiquity, to understand, with the philosopher Plato, the myth of the androgyne beings. In the Symposium, 189d.193d, he gives the floor to the comic poet Aristophanes to explain the existence of the eros. The latter tells the story of three races; men, women and androgyne.

The last race was extraordinary in strength and in vigor, which led them to challenge the gods. Zeus decided that in order to weaken them and to take advantage of them, they had to be separated. The consequence of this separation was that each half was missing the other and went to search for it by embracing and kissing another half that they could find hoping to stumble on the right one. Zeus, helped by Apollo, had also taken care to fix the sexual organs in order to allow reproduction. This had two majors consequences; primo if two opposites mates; “they would give birth for the perpetuation of the species” and secundo if it is between the same sex, between a male and a male, it would “bring Satiety would separate them for a while” . For Plato, therefore, speaking through Aristophanes, “This is the moment when the innate love of men for one another comes”, in other words “the true love and pure friendship”.

The consequences and implications of these words for the Renaissance and Da Vinci’s society were capital punishment or exile. So why would Leonardo have painted an androgyne Saint John the Baptist to represent the person who baptized Christ?  When we have in mind the accusation against him about his alleged innate love of man for each other, this innate love was not a forbidden act in ancient Greek society, but centuries of Christianity up to the Renaissance had relegated it to the status of an abomination in the eyes of God. The plea in favor of Leonardo rests more on the side of the art, regarding The Saint John the Baptist, than the religion and the society. By the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the androgyne myth will be revisited by psychoanalysis trying to understand in depth our sexualities and genders. 

There is no need to recall the scandal that Sigmund Freud’s newly elaborated theories had generated in the world at the end of the nineteenth century. The Pansexualism with its breakthrough, but also its limits, had been so decried and certainly misunderstood. Grotesquely understood, pansexualism wants that everything is sexual in our life, from the baby who experiences an erotic pleasure in sucking the breast milk, to the psychotic or neurotic adult. We will have to wait for Carl Gustave Jung, with the introduction of the collective unconscious and the concepts of the archetypes, to redraw our unconscious path and functions, and also to explain the key role of sexuality while relativizing the pansexualism.

Pierre Daco, much later in his book, The Triumphs Of Psychoanalysis, revisited Freud and Jung under new light going back to the meaning of the Greek myths, including the famous Oedipus complex, and also the myth of the androgyne being. Moreover, the results of the psycho-analysis sessions showed that the other sex is not only the one who faces us, but that we have in ourselves the other of ourselves. So we would be at some level of our personalities both male and female. So that gender is hard to determine. The way we understand our sex is not only a social construct, but also cultural and religious. Nowadays the findings in genetics also show that in the XY chromosome pair, it is only a molecule or a brick that determines whether an individual is male or female. Some individuals are XY, phenotype, but are actually lacking that brick on their Y. They may appear as male, but they have a XX genotype and vice versa. All these considerations, both in science and art, psychoanalysis and genetics, not only bring us back to the myth of the androgynous being, but also place us again in front of the Saint John the Baptist, which is stating the same thing.

Art transforms knowledge into understanding.

Art does not obey to the notion of causality according to the criteria of the mind. It acts on us beyond the sphere of the knowing, while supporting the knowledge. Art transforms knowledge into understanding. We call it an emotional understanding. It makes us feel the abstract through a concrete medium. It is not the music itself that is the cause of our joys and sorrows, but the layers and dimensions that it opens and touches within our souls. There is not only an endogenous or inner aspect to art but also another exogenous or external to any form of art invariably of its medium. So art talks to us, not only on an empirical level, but also on a metaphysical one. The “I love Mozart more than Beethoven” or “U2″ more than “The Police” is not always focused on the artist itself or the band. But on how their art finds us inside. Mozart, in the movie Amadeus, had this sentence for his defense;  “I am a vulgar man, but my music is not”.  As if art channels something higher than our mortal conditions, social ranks, nations, and belief system. Even the gods are not indifferent regarding to art.

Orpheus with his golden lyre had so deeply touched Hades to push the God to free Eurydice, Orpheus’ wife, from Hades kingdom. It is in these endogenous substrates that art has the infinite power to touch us in a silent dialogue. There is an entire network of connection and meaning between an artist, his work and his audience. These links are entangled in close and complex relations; all of them personal, historical, subjective and objective. The Saint John the Baptist offers us precisely this intimate and introspective look not only on Leonardo, but also on ourselves questioning our ideas of beauty, sex, gender, religion, society, freedom, etc.

The Saint John the Baptist ultimately stands before us, not only as a painting, but also as a mirror.

What we see through it, is more a reflection through the pareidolia effect than a painting. He is a man. He is a man with very feminine traits. He is maybe both a man and a woman. Just like the three races in the Symposium myth. There is much more to the Saint John the Baptist than what we see on the canvas. The art is an attempt to capture a moment of tension between the interiority and the exteriority. There is in each one of us a personality or some traits of our personality which are male and also female. They often ignore each other elegantly. It is our daily actions, our ways of moving and our gestures that highlight for each one of us these aspects of our inner personalities. The artists and their works are no strangers to that. It is even often an asset in art where creation is not only a conception but also a birth, a movement of life from the inside out.

In our previous article on Mona Lisa, we noted that she “will continue to evoke in us these various feelings and voices that refer us to our own internal dialogue with art and beauty through these multiple expressions“. The Saint John the Baptist does the same, and it goes even further because it touches the very notion of the beauty, which is not outside, but within. It is like touching some aspects that our culture and education are shutting down all the time, because of our rigid conception of the social function of our gender. But Leonardo, through the Saint Jean Baptist places the beauty in a movement of profound reconciliation between the masculine and the feminine. The Saint John the Baptist offers us, not only the painting of a Saint, but the psychological portrait of Leonardo himself as an artist. But much more as this man; fond of secrets, intrigues and mysteries that gives himself to us for the last time, but in a completely hidden way for us to discover. Finally, and above all, this is himself as the last vision of what is the absolute beauty of the human body and also pointing to the mind.

One of the most eloquent features of Da Vinci‘s personality is his free spirit. Some of his biographers reported that he would buy birds in a cage with the sole aim of freeing them in the wild. It is only natural that his last painting was in some ways a will to put together what centuries of traditions, religions, and cultural influences had always considered distinct: the body and the mind, the male and the female, in order to paint the most beautiful being which unites all those attributes. Those considerations help us even more to understand what truly an artist is. Artists are male and female from within who allow the transition of an idea into a shape, of the light into a matter. This latter painting is not only the last will of a painter to his profession, but also an open letter to the artists and all forms of arts. No form of art comes with a gender tag, but it is the artists, the patrons, the society, the religion (the market nowadays) that frame it that way.

Art is light.

All form of matter is born from the light, but the art exists first and independently of the artists who crystallize it accordingly to the medium offered to them by life. It is the nature of light to light up the world without discrimination. It is up to the artists to do the work of light within themselves, to let it pass without the filters of their culture, their religion and their prejudices. No matter how gifted an artist can be, he will always be a human being with all the perfections and the flaws that come with the gift. Just like the Saint John the Baptist is strongly suggesting a great testimony of the light, but still so human…

Everything is there in the Saint John the Baptist and even much more because he is not only the portrait of this holy man, but of Leonardo himself, and of us, as we evolve in our own understanding of the true nature of things, reality and life. Da Vinci through his painting has raised more questions than answering them. He gives us the right to ask those same questions, but shows us that we can only answer our own, if there is an answer, and not his. He gives us clues to find him and to know a bit about himself, but gives us the license to agree or disagree. There’s a spark in the Saint John the Baptist eyes and that spark is ours. It is our humanity, naked without title, gender, religion and social classes. That is why the Saint John the Baptist says so much about Leonardo and about ourselves.

 

 

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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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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.

 

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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

 

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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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A Weekend with Mattiel

Going to concerts normally does not take that much of an effort for me. But seeing that my beloved singer Mattiel, aka. Mattiel Brown does not play in Germany, I needed to think of an alternative. Then I found out she was playing in Dublin on a Saturday – and so I went!

 

A weekend off, Dublin and a concert ahead. Could it get any better? After arriving Friday night, Saturday started with excitement: the
first stop was Trinity College. And what luck, it was open-door day! I ended up spending lots of time there, seeing all the halls and libraries and the colleges´ yard. The highlight, above all else, was the Old Library. I had the chance to get online tickets in advance and so didn´t have to line up.

Seeing Trinity Colleges´ old library with all its history has been a dream of mine for a long time. I had been to Dublin before, but never had had the chance to go there.

Entering the sacred halls felt like entering history

The only sad thing are all the tourists who don´t seem to have an understanding of what they are dealing with. I have noticed before,  that many people who travel just want to go to places to check them off their lists. At that moment walking in the library that  feeling became very obvious to me again. And that is a shame. Still – after I managed to get over that fact, a new world opened to me.

The Old Library, Trinity College

All those books, framed by statues of their authors, the wide setting of shelves and the high ceiling – they all made me forget the people around me. Old books have a specific smell. This smell suddenly surrounded me and I felt like dipping into another world, in which cellphones and flash photography doesn’t exist.

Finally, venue business

After a stroll trough the city it finally was time to go to the venue of the concert. ‘The Grand Social’ at first seemed to be just a bar. Soon I realized however that this is far from the truth. ‘The Grand Social’ is a maze! Once in, you start wandering around corridor after corridor. Then finally, you get to the venue itself, which is far smaller then I expected. This turns out to be an advantage: it´s much cosier and during the opening act, Mattiel is standing in the crowd – right next to me- and cheering Roe up.

Roe actually is doing a great job! She stands on the stage all alone, is very shy and still has lots of power! Everyone listens to her music very concentrated and applauds ecstatically after her energetic songs, which are a mixture of great songwriting and electronic music:

One hour later Mattiel comes on. And what shall I say? It was horrible!
The mixing of the sound didn´t work, Mattiel herself did not interact with the audience at all. Her band had to do all that for her. She only concentrates on hersef and never even smiles. Does she even want to be here?

The concert itself: Mattiel in action

Mattiels artistic story is not the  familiar one:  Atlanta’s rising star, Mattiel Brown, is a rare exception to the time-honoured tradition. She is a fulfilled creative artist working day and night, albeit in different contexts. Working as set designer, designer and painter, she found her path to music late. It was when she started having heavy problems with her skin, that she began writing songs. She has just released her very first album.

Maybe that is the reason why she doesn´t really know what to do on stage? I mean: she dances and even seems to be in trance. But she´s just not reaching me.

Still, the evening was well spend. I absolutely recommend Roe to everyone! This Irish jewel is waiting to be discovered!

More Irish Jewels 😉
 What´s left to say?

Sunday I went to the beach, hiked the cliffs of Howth and enjoyed the surprisingly good weather. And what shall I say? I did not want to leave, still did, but I definitely will go back – Ireland, you are beautiful.

The Cliffs of Howth

 

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