Iconoclasm: a legitimate form of protest? AHA alum Helena Roy examines the issue…

Graffiti is one of the most ancient forms of protest, dating back to Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Today, it papers the walls of London. But this abundance has weakened its power to protest. No longer can it garner widespread attention (with rare exceptions like Banksy, now considered an artist). Taking its place as the creative demonstration of dissent is defacing art. But this is an illegitimate form of protest, which undermines the causes that those who perpetrate it seek to advance.

Rather bizarrely, then, the Tate Britain has just opened an exhibition on destroying art. Focusing on specifically on Britain and iconoclasm, it is an novel idea, to be sure, to show perspectives on the act in an art gallery. (The exhibition also shows how some artists use destructive force in their work – though this is to confuse the definition of iconoclasm.) However, Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm left me sure that, although intense, iconoclasm never inspires empathy for the causes it seeks to progress. Plus, giving the act an exhibition lends it some legitimacy as a political or ethical statement.

'Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm' on at the Tate Britain until 5 January 2014

Art is often targeted for pure attention, even if the protester’s cause is completely unrelated. This exploits the work of an innocent individual – violating their property rights. A man was arrested for defacing a portrait of the Queen in Westminster Abbey in June 2013: his cause was Fathers 4 Justice. In the same month, another ‘Fathers 4 Justice’ member defaced a landscape by Constable in the National Gallery. Both works suffered damage, though they bear no link to fathers’ rights. This random selection is unjust to the artists and those who appreciate their work. It seems difficult to call people ‘protesters’ when what they destroy bears no relation to what they are fighting against.

The portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Ralph Heimans in Westminster Abbey, before it was defaced with spray paint in June 2013 by a Fathers for Justice protestor
The portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Ralph Heimans in Westminster Abbey, after it was defaced with spray paint in June 2013 by a Fathers for Justice protestor

Vandalising art inevitably destroys historical sources. Art is an intrinsic part of our social fabric, and is history shared by all of us as a society. Those who attack it break a social contract that the public holds together. In 1970, an original cast of Auguste Rodin‘s The Thinker was dynamited by members of the radical group The Weathermen in Ohio. Individuals do not hold sole rights to art in public institutions, and can only claim some form of ownership as a component of society. Hence they do not have the right to destroy art for their personal cause.

An original cast of Rodin’s 'The Thinker' remains in its damaged state outside the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, after being dynamited by radical group The Weathermen

In cases where art is not publicly owned, protesters are destroying private property. This is an attack on an individual. In cases where art bears some relation to their cause, resorting to the courts is a legitimate form of protest – outright and violent destruction is not. In cases where the art or artist has no link to the disputed ideology, vandalism is completely nonsensical. This random, unfair selection is found in terrorism and other forms of dissent, and is manifestly unjust and illegitimate.

The strongest argument against protest through vandalism, however, is that it paradoxically quashes freedom of expression. Art embodies this principle, sacrosanct in any democracy. In protesting against views by destroying the art that represents them, protestors are suppressing freedom of expression while exploiting it themselves. In New York, Chris Ofili‘s Holy Virgin Mary (1996) was sprayed with white paint by retired teacher Dennis Heiner, whose blind wife thought it blasphemous (it depicts an African Virgin decorated with dung and pornography). Of course, if art causes huge offence (such as Marcus Harvey’s Myra) people should be able to challenge it. But they should do so in courts, not through violence. To do so through violence is to undermine artist’s right to freely express their views – rights held by each member of society.

Chris Ofili's 'Holy Virgin Mary' being sprayed with white paint by retired teacher Dennis Heiner in New York

To destroy art arbitrarily and for attention is unjust to the public and to the artist. To destroy art as a form of protest against the ideology it presents is to enjoy freedom of expression whilst trying to suppress it in others. It is a self-defeating act which undermines both that principle, and thus the cause of the protestor. Creating art can be a legitimate form of dissent: destroying it never can. Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm‘s saving grace is that it explores the destruction of art for religious motivations during the Reformation: a chilling reminder of how much of Britain’s visual culture was lost. This part feels like a mournful tribute. But in terms of modern iconoclasm, placing the act in a gallery celebrates it somewhat – perhaps because of its greater proximity to us today. Refusing to give the protesters the attention they desire, is the more effective and defensive response.

With thanks to the Independent, the Tate Britain and art-damaged.tumblr.com for photos.

‘Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm’ is on at the Tate Britain until 5th January 2014.

Why a Gap Year? AHA alum and Berkeley student Lucy Sundelson on what the experience meant for her

On the day I left for my gap year trip with Art History Abroad, I felt terrified.  I cried while I sat in the terminal, waiting to board my flight.  I was on my way to Italy, and for the first time in my life, I was on my own.

I had been accepted to UC Berkeley for the spring semester, rather than the fall, when my sister and all my friends would be starting.   Gap years are common in Europe, but not many American students take one.  I was worried.  What would I be missing?  Would I feel left behind?

As soon as I arrived in Italy, however, I knew that my time there would give me just as much as a semester of college, if not more.  My gap year course was my first chance to see the world as an adult.  It would teach me to make friends with people from across the world, to take care of myself, and to discover new passions. Every day felt like an adventure, as we ate, laughed, and learned our way through a dozen Italian cities, and I felt more independent and excited than I ever did in high school. I learned how to take risks: to get lost in the alleys of Venice, to dance in a nightclub, to sit in front of a monument or a sculpture and try to sketch it, despite the belief that I had absolutely no artistic ability.

I think it’s exciting that more American students are now taking gap years. College has been challenging and exhilarating, but I know that my experience with AHA is the reason I’m getting so much out of it. On the trip, I began to discover a new, independent identity—an identity I continue to explore in college. When I started at Berkeley, I already knew how to take care of myself and how to challenge myself with new experiences. My Italian journey is the reason I’ve been able to make so many friends in college, and it’s the reason I’m studying Urban Design. I’ve found the perfect niche in a place I never expected to feel so comfortable. I’ll remember my trip as not only one of the most exciting experiences of my life, but as one that helped me learn who I am and what I can do.

For more thoughts on taking a Gap Year and its benefits, see this article by founder of the AGA (American Gap Association) Ethan Knight.

http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/10/prweb11231428.htm

 

Authentic Banksy pieces go on sale in NYC. Is this Art? Faith Whitehouse discusses

There is a buzz in  New York City this month. It’s a buzz that is playing out over Twitter and Facebook; the unknown/known graffiti artist Banksy is in town and embellishing buildings intricately with his small graffiti works. This is all part of his October project,  ‘Better Out Than In’.

It is an exciting project and what struck me the most about it is his clever manipulation of the public. The most astonishing thing happened on the weekend of 12th October. A stall of Banksy’s original works was set up in Central Park attended by an old man – ordinary looking, like any other of the poster sellers on that stretch of pavement. Only three sales were made during the whole day, totalling $420. One buyer commented that he was only doing so to ‘put something on the walls’. It is only at the end of the day that Banksy stated on his website that these were 100% authentic and original pieces of his work. Amazing. So why did he do it? And why did no one buy them?!

 

Until we have a personal conversation with the artist we will never know  but I believe that the aim of the stall was to be ironic, after all this is Bansky we’re talking about; Bansky knows what the public want and offered it to them this weekend when they weren’t even looking. It’s a witty quip which says so much about the art market today.

Banksy’s Central Park stall also symbolises the binaries between reproduction and authenticity. We are now used to seeing reproductions of great artworks, making art accessible to everyone in some (albeit diminished) form. Walk down the sidewalk in Central Park and it’s not long before you spot an  Andy Warhol postcard – or a reproduction of another great artist, even one of Banksy himself. So I guess what Banksy was doing through his stall was confounding our expectations.

Of course, this project  could just be a publicity stunt, to give people another glimpse into Banksy’s hidden life and increase his popularity.  Whether or not it is,  it’s worked on me. I’m interested and looking forward to whatever’s coming next. I’ll also never walk past a stall selling Banksy repros again without giving it a second look. Will you?

Check out Bansky’s blog about the project here : http://www.banksyny.com/

Bansky also created a video filmed at the Market Stall.

Houghton Revisited by AHA alum Catriona Grant

 

Catherine the Great of Russia spent much of her rule as a sedulous and determined patron of the arts; in part to give herself authority as a ruler (having usurped her husband Peter III), but also to make Russia a key player on the international stage, both politically and in terms of the nation’s artistic aspirations. She was ruthless in her efforts to acquire the very best collections in Europe, most notably that of Pierre Crozat, as well as the body of works assembled at Houghton Hall by Sir Robert Walpole throughout his life.

Houghton Hall, Norfolk

In the 1799 the sale of Houghton’s collection of Old Master works was necessary in order to pay the huge debts left by Walpole (Britain’s first prime minister) on his death. Despite a hopeful appeal by John Wilkes to the House of Commons to purchase the collection for the nation’s museums, the £40,055 price tag proved too costly, and the works disappeared abroad. The Houghton Revisited exhibition recreates the 18th century Hall for the first time since the sale of the works, with over 60 paintings being returned to their original home for a 5 month exhibition.

This feat was possible due to the discovery of an original hanging plan (found in a desk drawer) detailing the location of Walpole’s works. The curators have attempted to place the paintings back in the positions they would have occupied, and have restored some of the pictures to their original gilded frames.

 

Velázquez, Pope Innocent X

The exhibition occupies the rooms of the piano nobile, flowing between the central stone hall, the library, several bedrooms and dressing rooms, and a grand saloon. Walpole’s hoard was hugely impressive, ably furnishing a growing museum collection in Russia. Some of the highlights include intimate and arresting portraits by Velazquez, Rubens and Rembrandt, and a powerful composition by Charles Le Brun of Daedalus and Icarus, c.1645-6.

Charles Le Brun, Daedalus and Icarus

Carlo Maratta’s Pope Clement IX (1669) depicts a frail Pope, just weeks before his death. The work recalls papal portraits by artists of the previous century, such as the understated power of Raphael’s Pope Julius II and the translucent brushstrokes of Titian’s Pope Paul III. Yet Maratta’s pope is striking in the direct eye contact with which he engages the viewer, the sharp delineation of his features and the details of the surroundings, for such a large portrait.

Maratta, Pope Clement IX

The house itself and the grounds are also spectacular, particularly the breathtaking walled garden and sculpture installations such as the flaming water feature. The popularity of the exhibition has merited its extension until the end of October, and I strongly recommend a visit for whoever is able. It is so special to be able to view these works in their original context, and such a unique opportunity to see a collection that has stayed largely intact despite being transported far from it’s original home.

The Walled Garden
Jeppe Hein, Waterflame

 

‘Laura Knight: Portraits’: thoughts on her recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, by Lucy Speelman

 

Volume after volume of academic rhetoric is devoted solely to the role of women in the arts and in their history.  I suspect it will continue to be such a hotly debated topic for many years to come, and I think it is unfortunate that so many artistic careers are overshadowed by the issue of gender, and that many works by female artists cannot be extricated from associations with feminism, whatever the artist’s intentions.  One of the first facts that I learnt about Laura Knight was that she was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy.  This is of course highly commendable, considering that the art establishment was so male-dominated.  But for me, her pioneering status is unrelated to her gender.  What I find extraordinary about her is the way that no subject was too trivial or uninteresting to her; no figure was too unimportant or too much of an outsider.  She never limited herself: her works display a huge variety of subject matter, all united by one theme – portraiture.  From gypsies to clowns, dancers to playwrights: each sitter was accorded the same amount of effort and significance.  This exhibition did its best to display each significant part of her oeuvre, and while it was small in size, it succeeded in presenting an impressive cross-section of this wonderful artist’s extensive career.

 

'Self Portrait', 1913, National Portrait Gallery, London

 

The first work visitors were presented with was her 1913 Self Portrait.  Controversial and criticised at its time of creation, this work is pioneering in the sense that it makes a bold statement about the equality of male and female artists.  Women had been painting themselves in conventional poses and smart dress for a long time already, but there stands Laura Knight with her back to the viewer, wearing fairly ‘ordinary’ clothes, in the process of painting a nude model (which was completely taboo for women artists).  The work seems to be a striking image of her life and ambition, reduced into one breathtaking painting.  Her bold use of colour is also seen in Rose and Gold (1914).  She once famously stated that “an ebullient vitality made me want to paint the whole world”, and this work is a perfect example of that sentiment.  Her startling brushstrokes and bright hues create a scene full of vibrancy and joy that perfectly embodies her passion for life.

 

'Rose and Gold', 1914

 

In 1919, Laura and her husband Harold moved to London, where Laura spent time backstage observing and painting Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and then actresses in Drury Lane and the Regent Theatre. She considered women performers to be her ‘fellow workers’ within the arts, and like Degas, she focused not on the polished grandeur of performance, but on the private intimacy of preparation and dressing rooms.  This theme of performers ‘off-duty’ and behind the scenes is continued in her paintings of circus performers, such as Three Clowns (1930).  By immersing herself in their daily routines, she gained a deeper understanding of their lives as travelling performers, and as a result her circus and gypsy works are full of colour and character.

 

'Three Clowns', 1930, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

 

Laura’s trip to Baltimore, Maryland in 1926 produced a skilled series of drawings of patients in the racially segregated wards of Johns Hopkins Memorial Hospital.  The drawings are closely cropped and reveal little about the identity or character of the subject, but are very intriguing and somehow haunting.  The wide-eyed child in The Piccaninny (1927) is particularly striking.  The group of drawings formed a quiet corner of the colourful first room of the exhibition, and the two styles contrast well.

 

'The Piccaninny', 1927, private collection

 

War presented Laura with a challenge.  Employed by the War Artists Advisory Committee, her artistic autonomy (particularly her choice of subject) was suddenly limited.  However, the result is overwhelmingly successful.  Only about 13% of WAAC artists were female, and they were usually steered towards depicting more domestic subjects, like nursing and food centres.  Take-Off (1943) is a stirring combination of vibrant colour and dramatic lighting that creates an incredibly striking work of action and intensity.

 

'Take-Off', 1943, Imperial War Museum, London

 

Her images of women at work promote and celebrate their position during the war, just as they were intended to.  Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring has grown to be an iconic image of the British women’s war effort.  It is dynamic, detailed and impressive, and perfectly fulfils the WAAC’s desire for a female factory worker role model.  The Nuremberg Trial, however, is an extraordinary work that shows the darker side of the war, the side of devastation and destruction that cannot be reduced or censored, and it contrasts well with the somewhat sterilised or idealised images of factory workers.

 

'Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring', 1943, Imperial War Museum, London

In my opinion, Laura Knight was an extraordinary woman, and this exhibition gave me a sense of the eccentricity and adventure that was her existence.  It was successful in showing that her work contains the same expressive vitality and dynamic spirit as she did as she made her inquisitive journey through life.

 

'The Nuremberg Trial', 1946, Imperial War Museum, London

 

For more information, please visit the National Portrait Gallery’s website.

Mad Man Dali: Artist or Icon? by AHA alum Anna Fothergill

Salvador Dali. The name immediately conjures up hallucinogenic images of dropping clocks and elongated body parts. He has never been one of my favourite  artists and indeed many critics were captured by his narcissistic nature rather than his surrealist art. He was once quoted to have said “”every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali”

Mr Dali

Nevertheless, his work has many loyal fans, even if I am not one of them. My exposure to Dali happened whilst I was spending a sunny week in Mallorca, thoughts of art and university far from my mind. One day, a bit of culture was called for. And so in the lovely city of Palma, a tiny exhibition of Dali sketches was discovered in a typical Mediterranean apartment, tucked away in some back street. The sketches I saw here were delicate pen drawings, often showing brutal and uncomfortable subjects. Initially, I was drawn to the soft colours and bareness of the paper, but as I studied the sketches, Dali’s love of the erotic and grotesque became profusely clear. His work attacks any kind of rationality and
in a sense, this is entirely reflective of Dali’s personality. I have to say, I was slightly repulsed by many of these sketches. However, a certain captivation began to take hold regarding the man himself. It seemed to me that the name Dali was more famous in the art world than any work he had produced. His obsession with projecting an image of himself means we will instantly recognise the waxed moustache and wild eyes, but give us a surrealist painting and we may not straightaway attribute it to Dali.  He has become a cultural icon with the title ‘artist’ as an afterthought.

 

Salvador Dali: The-Persistence of Memory-1931

There are countless stories of Dali’s outlandish actions, one in particular happened in 1973, when Dali pushed over the projector at contemporary film maker’s screening, claiming the man had stolen Dali’s idea, an idea he had never written down or told anyone but he swore that the filmmaker, “stole it from my subconscious!”. It was antics like bringing Russian wolfhounds to exhibitions, dining with kings or going to a fancy dress party as the Lindbergh baby that gained Dali fame and repute.  His involvement in movements such as Dadaism and the Surrealism, along with his eccentric political stance were all attempts to cultivate an eccentric image of himself. One critic said “it was Dali’s obsession with his image that was ultimately his downfall.” The fantastical stories that surround this man are essentially what interested me, far more than the sketches I was looking at. He was controversial, offensive, brilliant and arrogant. His work did indeed go on to influence many of today’s artists, and even today his moustache is as well known as the man himself. Whatever your feelings towards the work of Dali, you certainly cannot ignore the mad man.

Marle Place and its Sculpture Show – by Catriona Grant

 

If you wander to the outskirts of Horsmonden, a small Kentish village, you might stumble upon Marle Place, a privately owned house whose gardens are open to the public. The property belongs to a keen gardener and his artist wife, and each year hosts a sculpture show, exhibiting work by local artists at affordable prices.

The exhibition has been creatively curated, with thoughtful placement of the sculpture around the garden. Brass poppy seeds are placed in tall flower beds, almost camouflaged by the surrounding plant life, while gigantic, vibrant flowers emerge from various hedges and bushes around the garden.

In the pool, a metal seahorse sculpture sits half submerged by the water. It’s placement is playfully inviting with its silver reflection rippling around it. The bronze figure of a woman bent over her knees also complements an area of water in the garden, particularly in the fluidity of her hair cascading over her body.

 

The main lawn beneath the house is dominated by a large, low branched tree, beneath which sits a bronze sculpture of a young girl whispering to a butterfly. She sits cross-legged amongst the crocus bulbs that are sprouting from the ground around her. This seamless integration of art and nature makes the sculpture appear for a moment as though real, and only after several more glances across the lawn did one realise that the girl was a statue.

 

 

The array of works on offer mainly deal with themes of nature, or are figurative representations. One of the most striking of these was a work of two standing figures formed of rusted metal machine components, recalling the work of both Anthony Gormley and Eduardo Paolozzi. The figures face in opposite directions but are not entirely conceived in the round. As the machinery curves around to the figures’ backs it breaks off, leaving partial shells that suggest the figures are in fact halves of the same body, though the three-dimensionality of the building blocks, and the angle at which you approach the work, disguises this.

 

Gormley: Learning to See, and Paolozzi: Daedalus on Wheels

 

This sculpture show is by no means the only artistic venture that occurs at Marle Place. One of the out buildings acts as a permanent art gallery with changing exhibitions, again showcasing a cross-section of local talent. Art classes are also held in the grounds, teaching watercolour painting in the gardens that act as the students’ subjects. Stoneware, textiles and student art shows also take place during the year, with a genuine interest in displaying new and exciting design. The show exemplifies the aim of the owners to celebrate and support local artists, providing a forum for artistic appreciation within the surrounding community.

 

Images my own, and courtesy of: Fiona Grant, http://www.jesus.cam.ac.uk/college-life/art-sculpture/, and Google Images.

 

 

In search of a monument: Six new ideas for the Fourth Plinth Commission – by Jazzy Wong

 

 

The statue standing proudly on the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square is a fifteen and a half foot blue cockerel.

 

Image from rawstory.com

‘Hahn/Cock’, the creation of German sculptor Katharina Fritsch, won last year’s Fourth Plinth Commission – a competition started in 1998 in a move to fill the 150 year old gap left by an equestrian statue of William III. This statue intended to fill the space was never realised due to insufficient funds. Certainly, such a jarring juxtaposition of a contemporary vision amongst the uniform, traditional aesthetics of the rest of the square’s architecture is provocative, however mayor Boris Johnson, insists that “challenging artwork gets people talking and underpins London as a great world city for culture.”

Since the 25th of September, 6 new shortlisted works have been on display in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, one of which will replace Fritsch’s sculpture. This interchangeable nature of the space atop the plinth makes a statement about the vibrant change that takes its grip over the city,  whilst also questioning some established conventions such as the permanence and preservation of art.

Image from designboom.com

Compared to the vivid ultramarine hue of ‘Hahn/Cock’, this year’s submissions are fairly neutral in colour, however each subject matter is stimulating and inventive.  Hans Haacke’s ‘Gift Horse’ cleverly subverts the equestrian tradition by displaying only the skeleton of a horse, devoid of its rider, with a digital ribbon reminiscent of the London Stock Exchange’s ticker, possibly making a comment on the growing financial emphasis of the city over its artistic significance.  Mark Leckey’s ‘Larger Squat Afar’, a clever anagram of ‘Trafalgar Square’, is a chaotic amalgamation of all the sculptures which already exist in the area, giving the established historic imagery a digital twist through the use of 3D laser scanning and printing technology. The visual tropes of tribal masks are evoked in a cutting edge way in Ugo Rondinone’s ‘Moon Mask’, combining the ethnic style of Africa through modern means, freeing it somewhat from its cultural origin. Breaking free from the stationary aspect of the sculptures before it, ‘The Dance’ by Liliane Lijn evokes a mechanical sense of movement through the hypnotic rotation of two identical cylindrical spires, which, if chosen, will spin constantly on top of the plinth.

 

Image from freecondomproject.com

However, my favourite, and the one that ultimately won my vote, was David Shrigley’s ‘Really Good’, an absurdly distorted thumbs-up extending dramatically towards the sky. This gesture calls for positivity, which, in light of the economic crisis and seemingly unending political discord worldwide, is an apt reminder for optimism. Despite this, though, the hysterical and histrionic manner in which the thumb skyrockets makes a satirical remark as well, demonstrating an almost desperate and fraught effort to mask society’s downward spiral.

Image from london.gov.uk

Lastly, the beauty and genius of the fourth plinth Commission lies in its dependence on communal participation, for it is the decision of the public that determines which of these sculptures is to be displayed in the buzzing tourist district of the square. After looking at the proposed works, viewers are encouraged to fill out a voting slip, choosing which of the six best deserves a place on the plinth. Such an emphasis upon the opinion of the community demonstrates the efforts to expand the influence of the arts among modern society, maintaining London’s cultural vibrancy.

 

 

 

 

Harriet Israel experiences ‘La Grande Bellezza’, and likes it.

 

If you see nothing else all year, go and see this.

 

A frantic woman rushes through Bramante’s ‘Temptietto’, calling the name of her missing daughter. A nun is treated to a discount at an exclusive botox party. There is a giraffe in Caracalla’s Baths. All the while Rome’s bourgeoisie dance a grotesque conga towards the closing scene.

The pair who brought us ‘Il Divo’ in 2008 have created another masterpiece with Paolo Sorrentino in the driver’s seat. Leading man Toni Servillo is our Gatsby, aspiring (by his own admission) to become the ‘King’ of the upper-classes. It can’t be by accident that his apartment overlooks Nero’s swimming pool, one pleasure-palace in lieu of another – there is a timelessness to hedonism.

That is not to say that either the film or its conflicted hero take themselves too seriously – Jep Gambardelli’s dry misanthropy provides refreshing relief from the opulent parties he throws and the self-styled Abramović he is asked to interview. Even religiosity at the mothership of the Catholic church is a tongue-in-cheek affair.

Nothing is ever as it seems. Sorrentino’s ‘Berlusconi Era’ sees adults play as children, desperately clinging to their youth while the faces of children are imbued with maturity beyond their years. How are we to feel about one little girl’s forced tantrum-on-canvas? What becomes of tortured stripper Ramona, Jep’s unlikely love-interest? Perhaps these things are unimportant.

 

Sorrentino, ‘La Grande Bellazza’ promotional still

 

Yet in this world of ‘movers and shakers’ it is Rome which takes centre stage. Far from being the main subject of that ‘Great Beauty’ which gives the film its title, there is a reassuring permanence to the city – 16th Century Bramante and 2nd Century AD Rome re-appropriated for 21st Century use. Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography treats us to sweepingly luscious shots of cultural landmarks while Raphael’s candle-lit Fornarina emerges alluringly from the shadows, the face of the Dying Gaul betraying an emotional depth alien to the partying hoards. The works of art are simultaneously allegorical and beyond allegory – surely not a little contribution to the overall ‘Beauty’ of the film.

If ‘La Grande Bellezza’ is Rome in decline then Lele Marchitelli provides a worthy Swan Song punctuated by Arvo Pärt’s chilling rendering of ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’. With Vladimir Martynov’s ‘Beatitudes’ the narrative soars. The film is a rich tapestry of sights and sounds, mesmerizingly unapologetic while allowing the audience freedom to take from it whatever ‘Beauty’ they can find,

A final piece of advice: follow the film until the screen goes black. The closing shot ensures that the film, and its soundtrack, will stay with you long after the credits roll.

 

Sorrentino, ‘La Grande Bellazza’ promotional still

 

A Cultural Spring: the rise of Poland’s art and art market – by Helena Roy

There is hardly an abundance of Polish art on display in Britain. The vast majority of the population will never have seen Polish art at all. But interest is growing, in correlation with a cultural spring taking place in the Polish art world.

Poland is by no means lacking in renowned cultural figures – it has produced Joseph Conrad, Frederic Chopin, and has won four Nobel Prizes for Literature in the past 110 years. Henryk Stażewski (1894-1988) was a pioneer of the classical avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s and co-creator of the Geometric Abstract movement. But between the early twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, there was somewhat of a cultural freeze.

Henryk Stażewski 'Kompozycja fakturowa' (1930-1931)

The suppression of culture that went hand-in-hand with Communism stifled art in Central Eastern Europe in the twentieth century. Destruction of historical culture was perpetrated by all sides during the Second World War, and continued long afterwards with totalitarian regimes. This is now provoking an embrace of modernity in the Central Eastern European art world – perhaps to be considered a search for, or rebuilding of, an attention-grabbing artistic identity.

Andrzej Jackowski 'Sanatorium' (2006-7)

At the Venice Biennale this year, Polish artist Pawel Althamer displayed in the Arsenale. His installation Venetians was met with critical acclaim. The 90 ghoulish figures were composed of plaster casts (of the faces and hands of locals) and strips of plastic – draped over rough scaffolding supports to create a sinuous, muscle-like effect. Such work from a little-known artist exposed the dark imagination thriving beneath the surface of the glossy modern art world, often saturated with celebrity. Wojciech Fangor, Szymon Urbanski, Andrzej Cisowski and Andrzej Jackowski are other talented individuals.

Pawel Althamer’s 'Venetians' at the Venice Biennale 2013

Pawel Althamer with preview work
A couple in Pawel Althamer’s 'Venetians', at the Venice Biennale 2013

Wilhelm Sasnal’s work typically sells for several hundred thousand dollars, after being discovered by Saatchi. His work reflects Poland’s Communist history in a hazy memory. His piece Soldiers is mimics modern pop culture more than conflict. The Saatchi Gallery describes them as ‘reduced to a kitsch logo: war, oppression, and authority are reconstituted as youth culture communismo-chic.’ His work Factory is painted from a famous propaganda image, but swaps glorified labour for a hardened, grey, uniform reality.

Wilhelm Sasnal's 'Soldiers' (2000)
Wilhelm Sasnal’s 'Factory' (2000)
Wilhelm Sasnal’s 'Untitled (a)' (2004), displayed at the Tate Modern

One reason for the flourishing culture is a revival of the Polish art market. Acclaimed artist Anna Szprynger commented: ‘the trouble is after so many years of dictatorship that there is no tradition of an art market in Poland. People respect you if you’re an artist, but they expect you to lead the existence of a starving pauper and they don’t tend to buy the art.’ The modern art scene has been free from Communism for nearly 25 years, but it is restricted by poor financial support. Mentalities are changing, however. Disposable income is rising rapidly, and consequently the art market is now growing at around 20-30% a year. Skate’s, a New-York-based arts market research company, recently estimated the country’s “innovative and quickly growing art market” at an annual worth of £66m.

Recently there was a speedy 4-day exhibition called ‘Polish Art Now’ at the Saatchi Gallery – a mélange of highlights from the past 50 years and up-and-coming names. The force behind this project was Abbey House. Based in Warsaw, the auction house has devised a scheme whereby unknown artists are contracted for a 5-year period and given a permanent wage, in return for the auction house having exclusive rights to sell their work: amalgamating financial security with publicity and growth.

Szymon Urbanski’s 'Simon Paints' (2005)

Many have denounced Abbey House’s work: they argue it hikes the price of the artists’ work to extremes, distorting the market. But is this too large a cost, when the house gives many new artists an environment in which to improve and create? The prices may be marginally artificial, but they facilitate thriving culture. They allow artists to become self-sufficient, and in turn encourage more to take up the profession.

Government funding for the arts is increasingly scarce and insecure. This may encourage the treatment of art as a commodity – something to be priced, and a market to be manipulated – but if this allows art to grow when public subsidy is dwindling, is it detrimental to the nature of the product?

Andrzej Jackowski 'Hearing Voices III' (1993)

The prosperous trajectory of Polish art is worth this cost. Hopefully, the nationality will ultimately drop from the label entirely. Art should be appreciated regardless of its origin, and technique and meaning should be the focuses. With Warsaw overtaking Berlin as Europe’s artistic hub, however, an influx of Polish art is on the horizon.

With thanks to the Daily Telegraph, the Muzeum Sztuki, Deutsche + Guggenheim, theartnewspaper.com, it.phaidon.com, the Tate Modern and the Saatchi Gallery for photos.