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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A Viennese Double – Dürer versus Caravaggio and Bernini

Almost every year I happen to be in Vienna around the Christmas holidays. This gives me the privilege to be able to view two big fall/winter exhibitions usually presented by two of Vienna’s most important museums, shortly before they close in mid-January.  Last year I experienced a wonderful Monet show in the Albertina, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition on Bruegel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. This year it was the turn of a huge Dürer retrospective in the Albertina, and an exhibition called Caravaggio & Bernini – The Discovery Of Emotions in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

A Matter Of Choices

The amount of cultural input for the eyes, the mind, and the soul is almost too much “to digest” at once. Especially when one has in mind to contribute to this blog by writing an article, and needs to choose a topic. Seeing two big exhibitions one after the other makes one unintentionally draw comparisons, at least concerning the way the shows are being curated and presented. Not having studied art history I don’t know what concepts of art-presentation exist. But seeing two big shows in a row, in two consecutive years gave me the impression that the museum’s director sets the agenda on the way a prestigious exhibition is being approached and showcased, of course in a constant interchange with the exhibition’s curator.  In the end, it is a matter of taste and choices.

Different Approaches

The Albertina follows a mostly chronological narrative in opposition to the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s rather thematical approach. Both methods have their merits, but I prefer the room-wise concentration on certain aspects of artistic creation which points out correlations, parallels as well as differences. Thus, it is easier to follow the exhibition and make own observations and discoveries, even without being a connoisseur.

A Dialog Between Painting And Sculpture

In the case of the Caravaggio – Bernini exhibition, this way of show-casing proves to be essential, as the number of exhibits by the two masters is not as numerous as the title might suggest. The subtitle – The Discovery Of Emotions – is more accurate in describing the show’s content and layout. By building eight units of emotions or “affects”, as I would rather name them following the doctrine of affects in baroque music, the museum introduces its visitors to the baroque way of thinking, looking and feeling. It points out both Caravaggio’s and Bernini’s interest and artistry in depicting as well as evoking strong feelings and passions in the spectator. To do so, it opens up a dialog between painting and sculpture.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, St John The Baptist, ca. 1602, Canvas
Gian Lorenzo Bernini A Putto Bitten by a Dolphin, ca. 1618, Marble

 

Quality And Quantity

On the other hand, the Dürer retrospective scores already by the number of valuable originals, many of which are in the museum’s permanent collection but cannot be shown regularly. As the exhibition’s introductory notice points out, “Dürer’s drawn oeuvre offers a complete picture of both his genesis as an artist and his reflections on art. This fact is due to the remarkable care with which the artist saw to the stock of his own drawings.” The Nürnberg born artist seems to have systematically consolidated and organized the collection stored in his workshop, which makes him an exception among artists of his time also in this matter.

Albrecht Dürer, Wing of a Blue Roller, ca. 1500, Watercolor and body color, on parchment

A Mind-Blowing Experience

The quantity and quality of the Northern master’s works presented in this once-in-a-century exhibition just blew my mind. Most of us know “the Dürer Hare” but probably aren’t aware of the novelties he introduced to his contemporaries, and know little of his universality as an artist.

His artistic qualities struck me already when I viewed his Self-Portrait at the Age of Thirteen in 1484, which by the way is the earliest preserved children’s drawing. But when I saw his Nude Self-Portrait, painted around 1499 and unique for its time, for a moment I thought I was standing in front of a drawing made by Egon Schiele.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at the Age of Thirteen, 1484, Silverpoint
Albrecht Dürer, Nude Self-Portrait, ca. 1499, Pen and brush, heightened with white, on green prepared paper

Self-Confidence And Early Branding

What is also striking is Dürer’s self-confident appearance in and through his works. He often drew an image of himself in his pictures and didn’t hesitate to depict himself as Hercules or even in a Jesus-like pose. Albrecht Dürer was the first artist of his time to use a signet on all of his works. It soon became a quality mark. He established a workshop at the young age of 25, which specialized in high-quality prints. Thus he was able to reach a wider public. Reading about the way he built up connections throughout Europe and branded his name, I started thinking, that networking was as important as it is nowadays back then.

Dürer had made a journey to Italy in 1495, aiming to make contacts and start building up a network south of the Alps. Venice, the center of early book printing was of particular interest to him, and Andrea Mantegna, who marketed his works throughout Europe via a well-organized distribution network, his role model.

Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the Sea Gods, ca. 1470 – 1475, Engraving
Albrecht Dürer, Battle of the Sea Gods, Copy of Mantegna’s Engraving, 1494, Pen

Love Of Detail And Chiaroscuro

One could follow Dürer’s love of detail, as well as his artistry in depicting it throughout the exhibition. Using his extraordinary observation skills and making numerous studies, which could stand for themselves as outstanding works of arts, the German artist created world-famous masterpieces like The Hare and The Great Piece of Turf (both displayed in the exhibition). For Dürer the study of nature represented the foundation of art and included a meticulous observation of his own body, as seen in Three Studies of Dürer’s Left Hand.

Albrecht Dürer, Three Studies of Dürer’s Left Hand, 1493/94, Pen

Dürer was a master of the depiction of such diverse materials as skin and hair, stones and plants, and also showed a great interest in a naturalistic depiction of garments and draperies. His costume studies include a four-part series showing women from Nuremberg dressed in different public and domestic costumes. Coming from a family of goldsmiths and having been a goldsmith’s apprentice for a while, he continued throughout his life designing pieces of jewelry and splendorous vessels.

Albrecht Dürer, Nuremberg Women, 1500, Pen, watercolor
Albrecht Dürer, Vestment of God the Father, 1508, Brush, heightened with white, on green prepared paper

The German artist masterfully played with “chiaroscuro“, the effects of light and dark, making his drawings and engravings profoundly three-dimensional, and thus very exciting and theatrical. By the way, in the person of Caravaggio, he found a major successor to his chiaroscuro-artistry.

Albrecht Dürer, The Praying Hands, 1508, Brush, heightened with white, on blue prepared paper
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, St Francis in Ecstasy, ca. 1595/96, Canvas

 

The Artist’s Lesser-Known Side

The exhibition didn’t forget to mention the fact that Dürer, who experienced early recognition or even stardom as a printmaker, was eager to be recognized also as a painter. After all, painting is the most prestigious discipline in the fine arts. It was very interesting to follow the big amount of detailed studies to the few displayed paintings, mainly consisting of altarpieces. But the paintings themselves did not arouse the same fascination in me as the master’s drawings and printmaking work. To me, they didn’t appear to be as equally “modern” and innovative.

Albrecht Dürer, The Adoration of the Magi, 1504, Oil on wood

What I found more interesting because it brought me nearer to the artist as a “normal” human being, was a small curiosity on display:  a letter to Dürer’s Nuremberg friend Willibald Pirckheimer, in which the artist, after discussing different maters, inquires about the well-being of the addressee’s divers love-affairs, using encoded pictograms to characterize them.

Albrecht Dürer, Letter to Willibald Pirckheimer, 07.02.1506

Theoretical Work

Finally, the show also pointed out Dürer’s dedication to his theoretical work in the last years of his life. The German artist was convinced that the knowledge of perspective was fundamental when training to be an artist and indispensable to an artist’s work. He tried to discover and establish the ideal human measurements following the ideals of Ancient Greece. And probably he even gave us an insight into his working methods with his illustrations of A Man Drawing a Seated Man and A Man Drawing a Lute.

Albrecht Dürer, Study in Human Proportions: Male Body, Side and Front View, ca. 1513, Pen, black chalk
Albrecht Dürer, A Man Drawing A Seated Man and A Man Drawing A Lute, Illustrations in The Instruction In Measurement, 1525, Woodcut and type printing

 

 

 

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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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El Anatsui: Triomphant scales

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

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

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

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

Illusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Erika Luisella

2+

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.

4+

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+

When worlds grow and explode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These photos show the same space seconds apart:

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t just Klimt, though:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3+

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.

2+

Back to the future and Nicholas Nixon

Back to the future C|O Berlin

On a grey afternoon whilst in Berlin, I decided spontaneously to walk in the Amerika House, now an exhibition space for the C|O Berlin foundation near the Zoologischer Garten station. It is my first visit here, but surely not my last.

„Back to the Future.“

I started with the ground floor, „Back to the Future. The 19th Century in the 21st Century.“: an exhibition about the beginnings of photography and its experiments with exposure, chemical reactions in connection with nature, natural elements and its continued fascination on actual artists. Whether it is Anna Atkins‘ influence or Warren de la Rue’s, it is quite extraordinary how nature, flora, light, earth, moon keeps on fascinating. I enjoyed taking the time to read the information panels. The contents are most interesting and the texts are set discretely, with a nice sized print.

“A retrospective of Nicholas Nixon.”

The second show was totally different: a retrospective show of Nicholas Nixon’s work. Nicholas Nixon is an American photographer known in parts for his series of the Brown sisters. A series of portraits of the 4 sisters, one of which is his wife. They are always posing in the same order, but not in the same way. Nixon photographed them once a year for 42 years.

The retrospective, however, starts with his beginnings, the „New Topographics“ series, the „City Views“ series and later goes on to other most moving portraits series. I have to say this show left me very moved. His constant search for closeness in his portraits whether in his series „couples“, „aids“ or „elderly“ was almost too much for me. By saying this, I mean it touched a nerve in me, which I don’t always have the strength to have opened. The distance I needed was not there, but that confrontation is what Richard Nixon wanted. In a short video at the end of the show, he explains this clearly.

I can strongly recommend theses exhibitions, they are moving and strong. Congratulations to the C|O Berlin foundation and the curators. I came out feeling inspired and emotionally taken in, and that is not always the case.

3+