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Anselm Kiefer at the Pompidou

17 Mar

Kiefer Margarethe 2

A couple of weekends ago we had the opportunity to visit the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Quite apart from its power, scope and integrity – and in spite of its overwhelmingly dark subject matter – the exhibition filled me a similarly paradoxical and devastating faith in humanity that can be glimpsed in the work of Kiefer’s compatriot, W.G. Sebald. Kiefer, incidentally, was born one year after Sebald, on 8 March 1945, at the time of the massive allied air raids on his native Germany documented by Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and elsewhere. Much of Kiefer’s work reflects openly on the legacy of Nazism, a tendency that brought him intense criticism from German critics at the start of his career. As he himself has written:

‘After the ‘misfortune’, as we all name it so euphemistically now, people thought that in 1945 we were starting all over again . . . it’s nonsense. The past was put under taboo, and to dig it up again generates resistance and disgust.’

His undaunted gaze on the past of Germany – and Europe at large – struck me as overwhelmingly pertinent now, as Europe faces a humanitarian crisis in the shape of millions of refugees, and the German and European Right flexes in indignation, while in the United States Donald Trump begins to stir up the same kind of populist xenophobia that made the whole experiment of the Third Reich possible. However, Kiefer does considerably more than reflect on historical contingencies, and his oeuvre, massive in range as well as intellectual breadth, explores the idea of a collective mythology – not only the specifically Germanic, Romantic imagination with which much of his work is imbued – but the entire project of the human condition, and of how to live humanely under inhumane conditions, if that is at all possible.

I would need several months to reflect in depth on the emotions generated by this extraordinary exhibition. It is the third time I have visited a major Kiefer show, but the Pompidou have excelled themselves in the attention to detail and the fantastic range of work exhibited. Unfortunately, the exhibition only runs until 16 April, but if you have any chance at all of getting there, it is very much worth it.

I have chosen to consider reproductions from two of the most powerful paintings in the exhibition, titled Margarethe and Sulamith, a thematic that Kiefer has explored exhaustively following Paul Celan’s famous poem ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue), concluding with the famous lines that reflect on the murder by immolation of the Jewish girl Sulamith (Shulamite in The Song of Songs) and contrasted with the golden-haired Aryan Margarethe, whose hair, represented in the painting by straw, according to Sue Hubbard in The Independent ‘symbolises the German love of land, and the nobility of the German soul, allowing Kiefer to play with complex notions of racial purity.’

According to Rebecca Taylor, ‘all of the canonical elements of Kiefer’s work’ are present in the painting Sulamith (or Shulamite): we find ‘a thick impasto resulting from a hardened mixture of oil, acrylic, emulsion, and shellac; a brittle, textured surface infused with commonplace materials (in this case, straw and ash); mythological or biblical references  . . . and a historical subject or location (a Nazi Memorial Hall in Berlin).

Funeral Hall

Wilhelm Kreis, Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldier  (Berlin, 1939)

‘ . . . Kiefer’s hall is not a memorial to great men with patriotic flags waving boldly, but a gateway to damnation, a dark and foreboding road to hell, enclosed by low arches and paved with massive stones —the whole mise-en-scène  . . . suggestive of an oven (immediately bringing to mind the hyperactivity of the crematoria at the Nazi death camps).’

Kiefer Sulemith 2

Kiefer has stated that he would have liked to have been a poet – though it seems strange to me that an artist whose work is so imbued with its own poetry would consider language to be somehow a ‘higher’ attainment than that which he has achieved through his extraordinary visual creations. But it seems only appropriate to close with Christopher Middleton’s marvellous translation of Paul Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’, which inspired Kiefer in these paintings.

 

Fugue of Death

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall

we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night

we drink it and drink it

we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there

A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden

hair Margarete

he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter he

whistles his dogs up

he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in

the earth

he commands us strike up for the dance

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at nightfall

drink you and drink you

A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden

hair Margarete

Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the

sky it is

ample to lie there

 

He shouts stab deeper in earth you there and you others

you sing and you play

he grabs at the iron in his belt and swings it and blue are

his eyes

stab deeper your spades you there and you others play on

for the dancing

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at nightfall

we drink you at noon in the mornings we drink you at

nightfall

drink you and drink you

a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

 

He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a

master from Germany

he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you

shall climb to the sky

then you’ll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie there

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at noon death comes as a master from Germany

we drink you at nightfall and morning we drink you and drink you

a master from Germany death comes with eyes that are blue

with a bullet of lead he will hit in the mark he will hit you

a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

he hunts us down with his dogs in the sky he gives us a grave

he plays with the serpents and dreams death comes as a

master from Germany

 

your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith.

 

Translated by Christopher Middleton

Edward Hopper in Saltillo

13 May
The former Hotel Arizpe Sáinz, where Edward Hopper stayed on his visits to Saltillo

The former Hotel Arizpe Sáinz today, where the painter Edward Hopper stayed on visits to Saltillo

After a hot weekend, the temperature drops by twenty degrees overnight and the morning brings a discernible chill and a fine rain. Saltillo has been the surprise of my Mexican trip, a kind of ugly, lovely town, as Dylan said of Swansea. However, the comparison is not to be taken seriously: Saltillo has a population of nearly 800,000, and serves as the capital of the desert state of Coahuila, which stretches all the way to the US border. Yesterday, after doing a radio interview, I walk around the historic centre with Julián and Mercedes, and pass a rather striking building of Colonial aspect, which Julián informs me was once the Hotel Arizpe Sáinz – now defunct – the favoured residence of Edward Hopper, during his visits to Saltillo in the 1940s. Attracted by the desert and the extraordinary light, Hopper made three visits, painting watercolours from the roof of the hotel. According to testimonies from ex-employees of the Cine Palacio, and others who knew Hopper during this period, he developed a love-hate relationship with the northern Mexican city, admiring the architecture, but not the climate or certain aspects of the ‘local character’ or city life, which he found noisy and congested. In fact, it sounds as though he didn’t really like the place much at all, and complained about the walls and towers and electric signs that obstructed the views. Nor could he find the right sort of blue-green oil paint for the mountains, which must have been a bummer. In fact this is the reason he settled on watercolours.

Having become disillusioned with Saltillo, Hopper abandoned the place, returning however for a final visit in 1951, although apparently not producing any new work.

 

Saltillo Rooftops: a view from the hotel roof, apparently available now as an iphone cover.

Saltillo Rooftops: a view from the hotel roof, available now as an iphone cover (!).

 

Saltillo: El Palacio

Saltillo: El Palacio

 

Church of San Esteban

Church of San Esteban

 

Saltillo Mansion

Saltillo Mansion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Frida Kahlo, Diego (and Dylan)

25 Apr

Frida self portrait

 

I have always been slightly worried by Frida Kahlo, perhaps it taps into some source of generalised male guilt, not for things that I have done myself – at least not intentionally, but that might be the very point – but for all the wrongs perpetrated by the men of the world against the women of the world since time began. And yet for all that, Frida does not come across as a victim: she made decisions, and tried to stick with them in spite of the disasters that overtook her (she said once that her life had been defined for her by two disasters: the first was being involved in an horrendous traffic accident when she was 18, the second was meeting Diego Rivera). She was also – and the two things, suffering and greatness, do not always go together – a great artist, independently of Diego, and the passage of time has probably elevated her to a higher position than him in the hierarchy, if not of ‘greatness’, at least of fame, since being adopted as a feminist icon (what a horrible term, I apologise for using it, but this collocation is always employed in reference to Frida, and a blog, for me, is a place of first drafts, which may or may not be developed and refined for publication elsewhere and at a later date).

So yesterday I tried to immerse myself in Frida’s life; took a trip to the twin houses/studios where she lived in San Angél – in separate buildings, connected by a footbridge – with and without Diego, and where I watched a film about her life; and then down to Coyoacán and the blue house that was her parental home, and where she eventually settled (Leon Trotsky was famously one of the houseguests).

I am not going to write in any depth about Frida’s work here: I am not sufficiently knowledgeable, and besides, there is plenty of stuff out there, but I was profoundly moved – almost to tears – by visiting her house, by seeing her instantly recognisable paintings, the extraordinary collection of Mexican votive miniatures she collected, and the clothes she designed (including the painful-looking contraptions she was forced to wear as a result of her deforming accident). There was a queue outside and it had clouded over when I arrived, a straggle of beggars and street people selling wooden toys added to a growing sense of misery. Inside I didn’t feel like taking photos, certainly not of paintings that can be seen in any catalogue of her work, although this didn’t seem to bother the large man with the ipad who barged his way to prime spot in each room, holding his device before him like a weapon, an irony if there there was one. I did however take a picture of a poster designed by Frida of the inter-uterine development of a human child, as this seemed highly appropriate to her personal story (she suffered numerous miscarriages). As I left the house I walked into a brief downpour. It seemed to fit. I was impressed by Frida’s resilience but ultimately saddened by the story of her life, and while I am not all encouraged by much that Mexico is doing for its women (the Ciudad Juarez femicides still stand out as one of the greatest unresolved crimes of recent history), it is good that there are places like this to reflect on the way that one individual can translate her own suffering into such a universal and powerful creative statement.

On a lighter note, I was struck in passing, while visiting the studios of Diego and Frida (his is still intact, hers is used a gallery for the work of contemporary artists) by the resemblance between Diego Rivera and Dylan Thomas. There is that whole 1940s things about their style and appearance, and something about the lips. That and the fact that both artists are widely known by their first names only. The similarity can only be glanced from certain perspectives, but for me at least, it is noteworthy.

Diego

Diego Rivera

Dylan

Dylan Thomas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And with their respective long-suffering spouses:

Diego and Frida

Diego and Frida

 

Dylan and Caitlin

Dylan and Caitlin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skeletons in Diego Rivera's studio, San Angél

Skeletons in Diego Rivera’s studio, San Angél

 

Diego Rivera's studio

Diego Rivera’s studio

Diego's house from veranda of Frida's house, San Angél.

Diego’s house from veranda of Frida’s house, San Angél.

Frida's house, showing connecting bridge to Diego's house

Frida’s house, showing connecting bridge to Diego’s house

San Angél

San Angél.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

frida_kahlo_frente

Frida Kahlo Museo, Coyoacan.

 

 

Frida Kahlo's design tracking interuterine life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just see where it takes you

7 May

Bible Dam by Jacek Yerka

 

Here at the end of things, a big drop, endless forest. Things fall away.

Here at the end of things where the forest is the world. A book falls on my head and I start into wakefulness. Never could I understand the cruel logic of beginnings.

Whoever might have predicted that I would wake up here?

Many years ago, I read a book by Ursula Le Guin called The Word for World is Forest. I can’t remember anything about the book, other than liking its title. It is a science fiction story with ecological leanings, that much I remember, and was apparently the inspiration behind the film Avatar. I probably wouldn’t read such a book now, my tastes have changed. In those days I read whatever was around. There is, as far as I know, no library in that book. Here, though, the library is the world. There are probably no dogs, but I can’t be sure of that.

 

Here are two pictures of dogs by Franz Marc, the German expressionist painter.

Hund Weiss by Franz Marc

 

We know that Franz Marc had a dog, but not whether this is it, in the painting titled White Dog, or another, Dog in the Snow, in which the animal appears to have a yellow or a tawny coat, perhaps in contrast to the snow in which it lies.

 

Dog lying in the snow

 

I suspect that the pictures are of one and the same dog, Marc’s companion, with whom he took long walks in the Bavarian hills.  So the story goes, at least.

I rely on a mix of biographical snippets, picked up in some art book, many years ago, remembering only the detail that Marc took long strides (he was a large man) and that his dog resembled his master in distinctive ways, the two of them sharing a strength of character and mildness of disposition as noted by the unknown, possibly fictitious memoirist.

And now I take this memory for granted, have even placed the reference to character and disposition in italics, because I have convinced myself.

The story cries out for authentication. The dog, in two portraits, offers something that approaches evidence.

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting for Godot and Caspar David Friedrich

1 May

 

How wonderful the little connections that pile up in the day to day. Blanco has long had an interest in the German expressionist painters of the early twentieth century, and was interested to learn, while reading about them the other day that Caspar David Friedrich, the great Romantic painter of lonely figures cast against majestic landscapes, was resurrected by the expressionists after falling into obscurity during the latter part of his life (when he was deemed ‘half-mad’) and after his death in 1840. (Friedrich was also taken up by the Nazis, as embodying the concept of heroic individualism, but he can hardly be blamed for that, and would, in any case – had he lived in the 1930s and 40s –have been incarcerated by them as a madman.)

 

Caspar David Friedrich, who died “half mad” in 1840

 

Samuel Beckett had a great love for the visual arts, and – largely as a consequence of a love affair – during the 1920s and 1930s made several trips to Germany, followed by a longer trip in 1936-7, in which his diaries detail extensive visits to art galleries.

It is interesting therefore, to learn that the author of Waiting for Godot, considered by many to exemplify the most profoundly pessimistic vision of humanity in Western literature, and the absurd insignificance of mankind, should have identified a work by Caspar David Friedrich as the inspiration for his play. According to his biographer, James Knowlson (whose work is based on extensive interviews with Beckett himself) the writer told his friend, theatre critic Ruby Cohn, while looking at the 1824 painting Mann und Frau den Mond betrachend (Man and Woman observing the Moon) in Berlin: “this was the source of Waiting for Godot, you know.

 

 

However things are rarely as simple as they appear. Beckett, it seems, might have been confusing two paintings, according to Knowlson, because “at other times he drew attention of friends to Zwei Männer betrachten den Mond (Two men contemplating the Moon) from 1819.” As you can see, the two pictures are not wildly different (and there are various versions of both, it seems).

 

 

The point is, the image of the two tramps, Estragon and Valdimir gazing out over an alien landscape, makes a lot of sense in relation to these paintings.

But there is more.

Caspar David Friedrich is regarded as representing the apogee of the Romantic movement in the visual arts, setting down images of the Byronic hero, manfully facing down the forces of nature, the unknown, the abyss. Romanticism is precisely this: it arose at a period when the idea of God was being translated into the idea of nature. Poets set out on hikes into nature (Wordsworth and Coleridge tramping through Wales and the Lake District, Byron in the Alps writing Manfred . . . and with Shelley in Italy). Posh chaps didn’t walk in the countryside until then – no one did except the peasant farmer and the humble shepherd – and suddenly ‘Nature’ was opened up as this vast, wild, unexplored terrain (which in turn informs an understanding of the Romantic Imagination).

According to the art critic Robert Hughes, in an article on Friedrich,

‘If there is one word for the mood of Friedrich’s pictures it is “longing”: the desire, never satisfied, to escape from the secular conditions of life into union with a distant nature, to be absorbed in it, to become one with the Great Other, whether that other is a mountain crag, an ancient but enduring tree, the calm of a horizontal sea, or the stillness of a cloud.’

How does this lead back to Beckett? Is Waiting for Godot, in essence, a play about longing? Longing for union with the godhead, with a distant nature, absorption with the Great Other, as conceived by a Romantic painter such as Friedrich?

Blanco can’t say, in fact is rather bowled over by all this and in need of a lie down. Any comments welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drinking mate

30 Sep

I began drinking mate six years ago, on my first trip to Argentina, and liked it immediately, even though many find it rather bitter. The picture, Mate, in which the woman drinks from the gourd while two gauchos look on admiringly, is by Juan Manuel Blanes, taken with a flash (unfortunately visible in the centre of the picture) from a book of prints of his works in the library of the National Museum of Visual Arts (Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales) in Montevideo, where last Thursday I spent a couple of hours researching Blanes’ work, with the kind assistance of two librarians, after hearing about him from Diego Vidart during a lunch of pizza and warm chickpea bread.

Blanes is the most influential Uruguayan painter, and to a large extent, the creator of the myth of Uruguayan national identity. In fact he deserves a post of his own, and one day he may get one. He did many paintings of rather glamourized gauchos, frequently drinking their national beverage, lassoing horses et cetera (the word lasso is from the Spanish ‘lazo’, a knot, bow or loop). In Uruguay everyone drinks mate, all of the time. In Argentina and Brazil it is also popular, but the Uruguayans are nuts about it. Everywhere they go they carry a flask and a gourd, and a mobile phone. They wear dark glasses too, when the sun is out, which is most of the time. This site tells you all you need to know about drinking mate, especially its many health benefits (it is, among other things, a powerful antioxidant) but the site is, I would venture, somewhat partisan.

All I know is that it tastes like supercharged green tea, delivers a healthy-feeling kick, keeps me alert, and takes the edge off my appetite, so must be good for dieting, and might eventually relieve some of the circumference of the Blanco belly. Plus it is somehow very comforting, sucking on a silver straw.

A short walk in Montevideo

22 Sep

The infinite has no accent

 

So yesterday I was talking about how people often judge a speaker by the way they speak, my point being that some listeners go into a kind of paralysis when confronted by a strange or foreign accent. So I wander into the centre of Montevideo and find graffiti that puts an interesting slant on the discussion. It translates as:

THE INFINITE HAS NO ACCENT

This made me very pleased. I am not sure the phrase means anything, but it sounds pretty.

A wide road called the Rambla curves around the south edge of the city, bordered by the vast River Plate, which you would be forgiven for thinking of as the sea. In the midday sun (it is the start of spring here, but like a July day in the UK) people are sunbathing on the low parapet at the edge of the pavement: there is a drop of a few metres and then a narrow beach and the river. Most people are clutching mate and a flask (Uruguayans are always drinking mate). I am walking quite briskly, but begin to absorb waves of lethargy from the sun lizards.

Eugen Millington-Drake

Half way into town the Rambla Argentina turns into the Rambla Gran Bretaña and to my considerable suprise, there is a large bust, on a plinth, of the onetime British ambassador, Sir Eugen Millington-Drake, described in Spanish as ‘a loyal friend of Uruguay’. Millington-Drake was ambassador during the battle of the River Plate, when the German cruiser the Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled in Montevideo harbour. The Graf Spee posed a major threat to Atlantic shipping in the early days of World War Two and had already sunk numerous vessels in 1939-40. Convinced by false reports of superior British naval forces approaching his ship, the Graf Spee’s commander, Hans Langsdorff, ordered the vessel to be blown up and on 20 December 1940 laid himself out on the ship’s ensign togged out in full dress uniform and shot himself . Apparently part of the ship still remains visible above the surface of the water in the harbour.

Three cheers for Millington-Drake, cast now on a stony plinth.

I wander through the old town, which reminds me of parts of Lisbon, but apparently also resembles Santiago de Cuba, but more than anything else resembles itself. Two boys are collecting rubbish on a horse and cart. It feels laid-back and gentle after the hectic whirl of Buenos Aires.

Diego Vidart

For lunch I meet the photographer and film-maker Diego Vidart and his colleague Martin Herrera. We eat in a restaurant above a very handsome bookshop. Diego and Martin have an exhibition opening today, part of an ongoing project that links Uruguay, Finland (and Wales) in a rather complex but ingenious narrative devised by Diego and which I first heard about last year in the back garden of Des Barry’s house in Cardiff. An account of the exhibition, titled Diario de un retrato can be accessed here. An unrelated, but parallel narrative can be found in David Enrique Spellman’s new novel Far South, which comes recommended by Des and which Blanco will be reviewing in due course.

The narratives that Diego, David and Des have respectively devised explore the tensions between our understanding of portraiture (and therefore of individuality), the blurred zone between biography and fiction (a favourite of Blanco’s) and the capacity of an audience to absorb and then unravel – in the manner of a detective – events which may or may not have happened. It is a fascinating exhibition based on the trope of an abandoned suitcase, a slide projector, and two simultaneous and overlapping videos, filmed in Finland and Uruguay. The show is on until the end of October.

Diario de un retrato

 

In the same square under which the exhibition takes place, there is a lovely sign, reminiscent of the one in Malcolm Lowry’s novel, Under the Volcano. In Lowry’s book the sign says:

¿Le gusta este jardín que es suyo?

¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!

Do you like this garden which is yours?

Make sure your children don’t destroy it.

 

The one here says ‘Montevideo is your home: this square also’.

Uruguay and Wales: Wales and Uruguay. I can see where Diego, Martin, David and Des have found so much to share between their respective countries and I think their ongoing projects are tantalizing. The problem – if it is a problem – is that the possibilities seem endless, or rather, infinite. Outside the gallery, on the Avenida 18 de Julio, my attention is caught by a neon sign advertising a financial service called GALES. Gales, of course, is the Spanish word for ‘Wales’. I waited for the red light before taking the picture. It seems to go with the sign better than the green.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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