Cable Cars, Copley, and the American Dream: AHA Alum Cassia Price explores San Francisco

San Francisco, California, the second stop on my US travels of Summer 2013

 

 

San Francisco, California, has a much more complete world-view than my previous stop, Los Angeles. The feeling here is that San Francisco, leaning out into the Pacific, would rather find itself in Europe than the West Coast of the USA. The excellent Chinese food and surprising availability of decent tea marks this as an international city.

 

The entrance to Chinatown in central San Francisco

 

Where LA’s culture is reduced to its dominant industry, SF is alive with a variety of museums, ranging in subject from Japanese to Jewish culture. The latter was what I explored on a blustery, autumnal day (I am told every day is so in San Francisco). The Contemporary Jewish Museum was, as many of its kind are, quiet and bleak. It was not a weekend day, so its lack of business was excusable, but entering the white silence of the building was uncomfortable. If this was the purpose of the architect, it was crushingly effective, especially for someone visiting alone. The exhibitions themselves were interesting, with the Allen Ginsberg Beat Memories gallery revealing some poignant work, and the Beyond Belief pieces well-organised and emotionally captivating. However, I left both without buying post cards, which I see as the mark of an unsuccessful museum trip.

 

Photograph of Jack Kerouac taken by Allen Ginsberg in 1953

 

Despite the engaging photographs and wide range of spiritually inspired work, I think the use of space in the museum was designed in such a way that it was hard not to feel tense about any exhibition. This was the only building, apart from the distant Alcatraz, that made me feel this way in the city.

 

Our view of Alcatraz from the sea front in northern San Francisco

 

The rest of SF lived up to my considerable expectations. The architecture shows off its international origins, the tram (cable car) system was just as romantically dangerous as I had hoped (clinging to a railing and hoping not to crash into passing cars), and the city, renowned for its hippy culture, seems to indulge in art for the sake of fun.

 

A San Francisco cable car - romantically dangerous

 

Without the glorious weather that the rest of the state enjoys, the street art and places like Lombard Street (see below) shine instead. San Francisco has had a history of crime and difficulty, but having been scrubbed up by generations of hippies and hipsters, it is now not only safe but also alone in the happy atmosphere that may or may not have something to do with the city’s marijuana leniency.

 

Lombard Street, San Francisco

 

Examples of street art and architecture in San Francisco

Photographs thanks to The Contemporary Jewish Museum and my brother, Theodore Price

 

Cable Cars, Copley and the American Dream: AHA Alum Cassia Price explores Los Angeles

 

Los Angeles, California, the first stop on my US travels of Summer 2013

 

Junction of Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard in central LA

 

It’s very odd not to feel foreign in a place you have never been to, on a side of the planet you have never touched. In the case of Los Angeles, California, everyone thinks they know what they expect from this place and everyone is right. It’s glamorous and grotty, expansive and cramped, and you really do see the rich and famous everywhere if you know how to look. It’s a little like a work of art that is viscerally ugly but has a truth and complexity that is essentially winning. It’s America via Cannes. This is my first experience of California, and I really thought I would be disturbed by its vulgarity. However, after the initial shock of the shimmer and dust of this fake world faded, the vulgarity turned to charm.

 

Poolside at the Beverley Wilshire Hotel

 

The architecture is diverse and interesting, particularly stylish in comparison to the Mexican-inspired sprawl that makes up a great deal of this part of the world. One area in particular that shone from an artistic perspective was Silver Lake. It is widely known as the Hipster area, and although I could not presume to be one of that crowd, the brightly painted buildings, each with at least one stunning graffito, were the main site of our celebrity-spotting. Within the run-down and apparently unloved exteriors, there are stylish restaurants which all have things like kale and samphire on the menu. After my brother had his photo taken with Kate Mara, everyone in our small party felt much more likely to instagram our food or get an alternative piercing.  This, I think, is the effect of LA. Like London, it has a magnetism which draws people in and allows them to find their place in the mess of studios, 24hr gyms and vegan juice bars. However, LA also brands you with it’s style, even if your visit is only two days long. I would have seen more of the architectural gems of the city, had my stop there been longer, but the Getty Center was sacrificed for the live announcement of the 12th Doctor on BBC America, and before I knew it we were driving down the freeway to Burbank with film studios on both sides.

 

View of a freeway heading into LA

 

In retrospect, one of the features of this city that struck me, other than its size and style, was its arrogance. It is a one-industry town in which everyone is acting, from those I passed in hangars, cameras on them, to each sweetly-polite and sickeningly attractive shop assistant. The permanent “what if?” that hangs over the city (what if this person I am serving is a casting director? What if this is my chance to make it big? – this is, after all, the American Dream) makes it self-centred and indifferent to the outside world. Expecting this attitude to create hostility, I was pleasantly surprised, finding that it added to its integrity. However, writing this from the plane, I have higher expectations of my next stop, San Francisco.

 

Photos thanks to my brother, Theodore Price, and downrightred.com

 

‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’… Helena Roy considers whether art today is too secular

With the influence of Christianity declining in Britain, I was struck by Alain de Botton‘s statement in his recent book, ‘Religion for Athiests‘: ‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’. De Botton explores the power Christianity previously exercised over civilian life; many aspects of which he mourns as a loss to society. He is looking to replace what positives Christianity could bring to society with an atheist version. But what would this mean for art and museums.

Masterpieces which command global admiration today were often designed for worship in the past. Though some of these remain in their original intended setting, such as Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, many have been plundered from religious buildings, now only viewable in a sterilised gallery environment.

Titian's 'Assumption of the Virgin' in Venice (1516-1518)

Perhaps this sterility is the result of tension between secular and religious perceptions of art: Hegel defined art as ‘the sensuous presentation of ideas’; whereas De Botton argues Christianity  ‘never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to remind us about what matters… whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of.’ Religious culture’s power to move might be shown by the author’s own experience – an ardent atheist, he admits to a crisis of faithlessness in his twenties, which he attributes to Bach’s cantatas and Bellini’s Madonnas.

Comparing the two, it would seem that Christian art understands that images are important primarily in generating compassion, enabling the boundaries between strangers to dissolve, and provoking a sense of fragility that leads us to understand new situations and morals. Modern museums – as fascinating as their avant garde enclosures are – can be too frigid, detailing the material facts and dry context of a piece, not its meaning or what we should learn from it. Catholic architecture, for example, made a point, ‘half touching, half alarming’ about how humans function: as a race we suffer from ‘a heightened sensitivity to what is around us… we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon’, a vulnerability to which Protestantism, and our secular celebrity-heavy society prefers to remain indifferent or blind.

Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco in Venice

Maybe this is what scares people away from modern art: is it presented in an inaccessible manner, too technical and seemingly unrelated to the average bystander to merit a segment of everyone’s time? Modern museums tend to groups works of art according to the period they were born from; de Botton argues ‘a more fertile indexing system would group together artworks from across genres and eras according to the concerns of our souls.’ Perhaps in one room we would be taught about love, in another fear might feature, and another might show suffering as an impetus for pathos. A compulsory dose of culture by way of a visit to a museum would then be transformed into a structured encounter with some of the concepts which are easiest for us to forget, and the most essential and life-enhancing to remember.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice might be an example. Tall and striking with its ruddy terracotta facade, it is proudly indifferent to the dusty indexing science of academic methodology. The Frari instead presents an eclectic range of works – including a fresco by Paolo Veneziano (c. 1339),  Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with Saints’ (1488) and a large altarpiece by Titian (1516-1518) – designed to rebalance our souls, priorities and understanding. Sculpture, painting, and architecture are artfully thrown together from across regions and centuries to coordinate the impact of art on our sentiments; prioritising a coherent effect on our souls over a rigid grouping of origins and stylistic inclinations. Separating paintings by genre or period risks reducing any real coherence at an emotional level in museums. The art might not need to change, but museums maybe do.

Giovanni Bellini's 'Madonna and Child with Saints' (1488)

Maybe all of this is because modern priorities have taught us as a society at large not to worry about leaving an impact on art for future generations. This ignores art’s ability to shape society, however. Though many would not like to admit it, art is infinitely indebted to religion: beliefs, a desire for status and aggregated money has fed demand for art during some of the most important aesthetic periods and can still teach us new ideas today. Auguste Compte believed capitalism aggravated people’s ‘competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them from their communities, their traditions and their sympathies with nature… Capitalism would in the end always favour a skilled, obedient and unintrospective workforce over an inquisitive and emotionally balanced one.’ Art and culture is not part of the ends towards which our modern economic society tries to force everyone to hurtle.

But art can offer society a guiding moral force – less dogmatic than religion, merely challenging and probing. Religious pictures in the past presented images it would be easier to turn away from, but standing witness to them directs us towards those who deserve our sympathy. ‘Crucifixion’ by Andrea Mantegna (1459) demonstrates this. De Botton argues that the ‘unreliability of our native imaginative powers magnifies our need for art.’ In the past, religious works were commissioned to show specific scenes or emotions to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. Levels of literacy may be very different now, but the power of the visual is not. Art should seek to give us a moral lesson; and perhaps museums and commissioners should focus on this, marrying painters with thinkers. To specify which topics art should focus on is not to insist that it all appears identical.

This is not an argument for religion: there are many ways it has irrevocably damaged nations, societies and cultures; and its decline may be inevitable, as it increasingly struggles to reconcile itself with our scientific age. It is instead an argument for perspective; the kind of outlook religion once advocated and offered. Religion, in some ways, promotes a sense of humility in the individual, a sense of there being something bigger, greater than us; and perhaps that is a good thing.  Art can help spread that perspective; perhaps museums should work to facilitate this. There are few other institutions that can.

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.

Tarkovsky’s bleak brilliance: Frankie Dytor on his classic film ‘The Sacrifice’

End of the World films have now become synonymous with the
Big Budget mania of Hollywood. The recent Brad Pitt film ‘World War Z‘ is perhaps a good example of this. Plenty of fighting, a good looking protagonist,and lots of money to spend on special effects. So I must confess a certain degree of scepticism before watching Tarkovksy’s ‘The Sacrifice’.  The brief synopsis on the DVD packet promised a similar template to the Apocalyptic films that I know and have never loved.  The premise was simple: World War III is approaching, and Alexander, a retired actor, will do anything and everything he can to regain peace.

Now, in the film, War never actually breaks out. But it looms,
and when the threat is most apparent everything turns black and white. The boundaries between reality and perception are constantly blurred. It is crucially in Alexander’s dream that he finds the solution to ceasing the threat of nuclear warfare. We are never sure if his actions actually took place. But the moral necessity of his sacrifice remains.

Alexander promises that he will give up everything if the
war stops. And so when it does, he must bear the consequences of his promise. He sets fire to his house. As we watch the structure burn, so we see his sanity collapse, teetering on the edge of madness like the chairs he has arranged to construct the pyre.  Hysteria and silence run side by side in the film. In many ways Tarkovsky polarises gender, using long takes for the men who examine philosophy and semiotics, whilst the women are presented as irrational and wild. One is called a witch, another suffers from hysteria. Alexander’s mute child, known as ‘Little Man’, is unnervingly still. His only line is the final line of the whole film, an utterance of the opening of St John’s Gospel – “In the beginning was the word”. Language is questioned throughout the film in his continual silence but in that line we have hope that the world does have the possibility of another beginning.

Through the material purge of Alexander we can hope for a new simplicity. The world will not be transformed into a black and white one of war, but one where Alexander’s Japanese tree will finally blossom.

‘Offret’, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986, Swedish Language

The Art of Coffee: AHA alum Helena Roy visits a creative cafe…

Starting a career as a young artist can be tough: with inconsistent income, a heavy reliance on publicity and the need to gain a reputation. But a new coffee shop is changing that. Rather than contracting young artists, as a gallery might, they are offering their cafés up as hybrid coffee / art shops.

Taylor St Baristas treat coffee as an art, and want equally inspiring surroundings for their customers. The mod brand employs coffee enthusiasts who take their job extremely seriously: Costa and Starbucks are losing out fast. Their shops are more personal, their coffee delicious; even the milky patterns they weave on top of their cappuccinos are worth an extra five minutes walk.

The Taylor St Baristas in Mayfair, and their coffee signature

Italy makes the best coffee; but in Taylor St Baristas, it is facing competition. The brand was started by Australian siblings Nick, Andrew and Laura, during a bleak London winter in 2006, ‘as a much needed response to the dire state of London coffee.’ They weren’t wrong. With not only the state of coffee poor, but the state of the big brand’s finances questionable (Starbucks suffered a crippling consumer boycott when its taxes were revealed) , Taylor St Baristas offers a less commercial, more ethical café: perfect for feel-good lazy Sundays or a morning dash for caffeine.

And now, visual art is on their menu too. Gone are the bland Ikea prints of Café Nero and Costa; Taylor St Baristas offers young artists their cafés as a place to display their works. The exhibitions change bimonthly, and only include artists at the start of their careers. If their increasingly loyal following of coffee-drinkers take a fancy to piece while sipping a hazelnut latte, they can email the shop (katarina@taylor-st.com) and buy the work in question.

When you think about it, it is a prime location. Hundreds visit a single shop in a day: with nine branches having popped up recently, that number is hugely multiplied. Not only do they get a large customer base, but they are placed in some of the most affluent areas of London: Bank, Liverpool Street, Canary Wharf and Mayfair, to name but a few. People spend a lot of time there – comfy seats and a warm atmosphere encourage long lunches and extensive chats, and their coffee is gaining fame.

Imantas Selenis' 'Dunes'

Recently exhibited artists include Will Scobie (a Brighton-based illustrator and graphic artist), Imantas Selenis (a Lithuanian urban landscape and portrait photographer) and Hannah Devereux (who investigates the abstraction of landscape). Taylor St Baristas’ branch in the chaotic, commercial Canary Wharf is dripping with Michal Radzio’s calm landscapes – offering a caffeine boost and artistic refuge in one stroke.

Michal Radzio's 'Spaces'

In a cloudy economic climate, art has to be innovative – not just in its form, but in how it is sold. Taylor St Baristas is offering a personal hybrid with a huge network of potential art collectors. Artists, especially young up-and-comers, shouldn’t treat this as a second-best option to a gallery: it is an original and interesting display venue in itself.

With thanks to Taylor St Baristas and Imantas Selenis for photos.

Grimy politics: Vittorio De Sica's 'Bicycle thieves'. A Review by Frankie Dytor

It is . Miserable poverty is everywhere. You can see it physically in the grime encrusted suits of men, but you can also see it mentally in the desperation that pervades every worn and beaten down expression. The portrayal is horrific. Not because you see famine or violence, but because you can see the total absence of dignity, the humiliation of having nothing.

The story follows Antonio Ricci and his futile attempt to find his
stolen bicycle. He is accompanied throughout by his small son Bruno. At the beginning of the film Bruno is full of the confidence that small boys often have, in their imitation of adult mannerisms, cocked head and marked speech. But as the film progresses, stretched out over two endless days, his fatigue slowly conquers him. His father will not help him, will not carry his little body that cannot keep walking. His ‘treat’ is to be taken to a restaurant to
get drunk – because they are ‘real men’. In many ways this is the real tragedy of the film. Antonio is unable to recognise that it is not the bicycle that truly matters, but the hope that can be found in Bruno. It is only at the end that they find some semblance of true understanding with one another.

The cheeky swagger of Bruno

The cinematography, described by most film critics as Neorealist in
style, powerfully evokes the hunger felt by Rome’s citizens at the time. It seems that this is a predominately destructive hunger. It is not the hunger of change, hope and revolution. It is the hunger of a stray animal, feral and self-centred. In the market-place, wheedling sellers grab and shove, forcing their wares even upon the six year old child. Gangs are clearly commonplace, and identity is obliterated in the pushing crowds.

The pluralisation of the title, occasionally omitted by some translations, is crucial for determining the tragic nature of the film. Without wishing to ruin anything for those who have not yet seen this masterpiece, there is more than one thief in the film. And certainly one of them, De Sica hints, is the State
for permitting such terrible desperation. The final shot of the film is as stirring as any horror film – you’ll have to see it to find out what it is – and leaves us with a lingering question: what redemption is there for Antonio and Bruno now?

Vittorio De Sica, 1948, Italian

Reflections on the The French House Series, Iona Wolff: Marie Naffah

On a chilly autumnal evening, I headed over to Dean Street in Soho, into the charming little pub, ‘The French House’ in order to see London based photographer, Iona Wolff’s latest project, aptly named ‘The French House series’.

The exhibition lacked that sterile formality one often experiences at private viewings. People had that anticipated Christmas-esque excitement  and it was contagious. Despite the viewing being packed to its full capacity, the former Central St. Martins student was the first to greet me as if we’d been friends for life, leading me to the thirteen works that made up the exhibition.

The dominantly monochromatic photographs complement the luscious deep red walls, mirroring the red wine and rosy cheeks of friends, family and passers by that turned up to share in Wolff’s success.

‘I left two in colour because they really suit colour but Lesley (the landlady of the French House) and I had an agreement that the works would be predominantly in black and white’, Iona explains.

I ask her what gave her the idea for such an original collection and she tells me that she’d built up a close relationship with the landlady from frequent visits to the pub. Regarding her subjects, she says they’re either friends, or friends of friends, which probably explains how she manages to to capture so much in each image. She describes her process of composing a piece, inviting the subjects to come to the pub with their friends and simply ‘chat’.

Above: Iona Wolff

Wolff’s approach reminded me of two of my favourite artists.  The first was Lucian Freud, who like the photographer, was completely dedicated to accessing his sitter’s personality, taking them out to dinners and asking them questions before and during his execution of their portraits. The second, dating a number of centuries earlier, was the sculptor Bernini, who sought to grasp a ‘speaking likeness’ of Louis XIV in his bust portrait. All three artists, although rendering separate mediums, capture an awareness of character that shrewdly transcends many stagnant, detached portraits.

Call me old fashioned, but I was intrigued to see what Iona’s preference was in terms of digital or non-digital photography. Without hesitation she explains humbly, ‘I’m quite lazy and I want to see instant results’ championing digital over dark rooms, a position I find most photographers take today.

But is non-digital photography being completely phased out with other forgotten favourites like Furbees and yoyos?  With creations such as the camera phone and the notoriously acclaimed Instagram, I was keen to discuss with Wolff the potential threat these instant filters posed on digital photographers.

Unexpectedly, she waxes lyrical about it: ‘I absolutely adore Instagram’ it’s the ease with which you can come to something visually satisfying, and of course share your creations, which most appeals to her. She captivates me further describing how she occasionally combines advanced digital editing on her computer with further alterations on her iPhone, creating layers through the ‘screenshot’ function and enhancing the colour or contrast through implementing certain Instagram filters. She fuses the very best of both worlds to create an incomparable result.

Above: Iona Wolff

With my own mother already beating me at the perfect ‘selfie’, the concept of the camera phone and all the apps that are introduced with it seem to have successfully integrated themselves into our everyday lives. Will this be the end of photographic prints? Or will the 6 x 4 “ default print turn into a 4 x 4” that adheres to the square format of Instagram snaps? As I write this article, I start to wonder if the red line that keeps appearing under the word ‘Instagram’ will disappear on the next edition of word.

She used to cut up magazines and filter through family albums from the age of seven, but looking to Iona’s future, I ask the photographer of her plans and thank goodness she assures me that ‘more photographs’ are on the agenda. Such an uplifting exhibition that I would most certainly recommend. The French House series is open until the 10th December 2013 and watch this space, this girl is on to something.

Find out more here: www.ionawolff.co.uk

 

Why Study Art History? Economics student Helena Roy discusses…

In July 2012, I went to northern Italy with AHA to study Art History for two weeks (I had never studied it before). After a gap year, I have now started university… studying Economics. Some may dismiss my trip as contrary, perhaps unnecessary; but there is an intrinsic value to studying Art History even if your speciality lies in another subject.

Art History gives you a sense of perspective you can’t gain anywhere else. Aristotle argued that ‘the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance’. Art uncovers that significance in the myriad of political, social and religious thoughts it conveys. Where literature offers fictional allegory, art offers visual symbolism – Orwell analyses the class system through animal fables, whereas Lowry does through paint.

The social state of the working class in Britain’s Industrial Revolution, as shown by LS Lowry in 'Oldfield Road Dwellings, Salford', (1927)

An obvious benefit (the clue is in the name) is that art reveals a plethora of historical sources. Dry statistics can only teach you so much: art can communicate emotional details about events. Who has not been moved – even if disgusted – by Picasso’s Guernica and the chaotic destruction it depicts? That the bombing of Guernica caused 41 fatalities per ton of bombs is informative, but in a wholly different way.

Picasso’s 'Guernica', (1937) – conveying the terror and intensity of war

My enthusiasm for the subject stems from the two weeks in Italy. Art History is the most fantastic travel companion. Appreciating and seeking it out facilitates deeper understanding of a place’s culture – how better to see consumerism in 20th century America than in Andy Warhol’s work, or understand the power of Catholicism in Italy in Baroque altarpieces?

Andy Warhol’s 'Campbell’s Soup Cans' (1962), the epitome of post-WWII American consumerism, on display the Museum of Modern Art in New York
Nothing beats viewing art in its contextual setting… 'The Inspiration of St Matthew' (1602) by Caravaggio – part of a cycle of paintings situated in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome

In a time of dire employment prospects, students are turning to lucrative and traditional professions, allowing these to consume all facets of their interest as a means to realising that place on that bank’s graduate programme. But becoming a one-trick pony saps the energy and novel viewpoint someone can bring to the workplace. Work can only be balanced by hobbies you enjoy: study Art History, and you can benefit from it infinitely. (Picasso once said that ‘the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.’) Besides, it is relevant to countless professions in itself – journalism, consultancy, law, marketing and branding to name a few – and vital to Britain’s economic health (the sector accounted for 1% of GDP in 2011, and pays on average 5% more than the UK median salary).

Ultimately, studying Art History engenders a broader attitude to life. Art is something everyone can relate to. It is the impetus for conversation and debate, and introduces you to a new sphere of people. To understand Art you need to understand its political and social history. Art is painted against a backdrop of archaeology, anthropology, literature, design, science, geography – and innumerable other subjects. This interdisciplinary approach gives you a mammoth diversity of perspective.

In an era that relies so heavily on visual literacy, Art History offers invaluable lessons in the study of civilization. We are surrounded by things that demand our vision – film, advertising, architecture. Kafka said that ‘anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.’ Art History offers the broadest education possible in analysing what you see, and discovering beauty in unexpected places.

I went to study Art History after a friend did an AHA trip and spoke of nothing else for the summer – she is now studying Chemistry at university. Art History need not be esoteric – it is there for everyone to enjoy. It’s easy, but mistaken, to doubt Art History’s significance without trying – so find your nearest gallery, visit churches or museums while abroad, or just start here!

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.

Picasso’s Catalonia: AHA alum Helena Roy looks at the artist’s work in France and Spain…

On a recent trip to Barcelona, the recommendation constantly being thrown at me was to visit the Museu Picasso, in the city’s rambling Gothic district.
Clichéd that may be, but wrong it was not. The museum plunges you deep into Picasso’s style, life and artistic development – taking you on a journey through both Barcelona’s history and the inspiration it provided him with. This year it celebrates its fiftieth anniversary – half a century of displaying a mammoth but memorable collection of the famed artist’s work.
But first, a disclaimer: I am a novice when it comes to Picasso and much of the period he worked in. But while this may not be an accurate review, it is an enthusiastic account of seeing Picasso through new eyes.
Perhaps the museum’s greatest success is showing so clearly the artist’s development. Earlier rooms show soft charcoal academic studies of classical sculpture with a subtlety of form absent in later works. A portrait of Picasso’s father is tender, all tradition and tertiary colours; while seascapes are unadventurous and calm. Picasso soaked up his surroundings. There are richly expressive oil paintings, depicting Catalonia’s mountainous terracotta landscapes, and Monet-like renditions of Barceloneta. Sensitive religious works capture ceremonies such as ‘First Communion’ (1896) in a beautifully innocent way – the peaceful antithesis of a historic painting such as Delaroche’s ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’.
'The artist's father' (1896)
'First Communion' (1896)
But Picasso quickly moved on from safe, traditional material. ‘Science and Charity’ (1897) was painted at the height of social realism, juxtaposing the themes of religion and medicine. It boosted Picasso’s artistic presence: signalling his power to show uncomfortable social tensions harmoniously. More morbid social realism was to follow: a stillborn; a sick woman’s bedside; a fantastical kiss of death; and the bedside of a dead man.
'Science and Charity' (1897)
The iconic Picasso comes through from 1900 – his first trip to Paris gave birth to a harsher, intense style. ‘Still Life’ (1901) is vibrant and in-your-face; a mash of colours artfully splashed to form a table saturated with taste. His female subjects become sensual but unrealistic; ‘Waiting Margot’ (1901) complete with rouged lips and a bohemian turban against a green and yelow splattered background; ‘Old woman, seated’ (1903) is embryonic and scientific, while another female nude is encased in a deep cobalt womb-like oval.
There is a sense of violence pushing through Picasso’s work at this point: first with colour or distorted form – only later do the two combine. ‘Gored horse’ (1917) seems an isolated predecessor to ‘Guernica’ (1937) – the contorted pain represented in dead grey, as life withdraws to the earthy background. In fact, from this year he seems to have become ostentatiously more cubist – losing all realism from his younger works. This comes to the fore in his multiple studies of Diego Veláquez‘s ‘Las Meninas’ (1957). They have all the robust, grotesque confidence of ‘Guernica’, but are more innocent and composed in their subject. Picasso is stubbornly angular in his reshaping of the information he was confronted with – mixing flat black with blank primaries to emphasise this.
'Gored horse' (1917)
'Las Meninas' (1957)
It is brilliant to see Picasso’s work in the Catalan setting that so inspired him. There are recurring images of the balconies and windows that cascade onto the streets of Barcelona; nighttime in the city is portrayed with modernistic blue rooftops. A favourite of mine was the unfinished ‘Woman with mantila’ (1917): Picasso’s later vibrancy is scaled down to detailed dots here, to form a stunning female embodiment of Barcelona – all old and new, beauty and exuberance. Nor is he the only artist to be inspired by Catalonia: Salvador Dalí’s house is in the coastel Cadaqués, and the Dalí museum is located in nearby Figueres. Picasso also painted one or two works in Céret, just across the French border. Most obviously, that Barcelona inspired Gaudí is evidenced all over the city: from Parc Güell to the Sagrada Família.
'Woman with mantila' (1917)
Museum Picasso is, above all, personal. A tenderly distorted ‘Portrait of Jaume Sarbatés with ruff and hat’ (1939) introduces the man who donated many of the works which make up the museum, and was Picasso’s great friend. The artist himself gave many works – thus ensuring a fantastic legacy for himself. You come across famous styles, and more unique pieces; ‘Minotauromachy’ (1935) reveals less-seen mystical forms with heavy shading compromised of tiny lines – none of the colour and shading Picasso is so synonymous with.
'Minotauromachy' (1935)
The temporary exhibition I visited was a series of self-portraits by the artist. Heavy line drawings of his youthful self are seen next to his scrawling, expressive, alternative signature – hints of the explosion of creative force to come. We see Picasso through all his confused styles – his development both physically and creatively. Heightened distortion correlates to the ageing process (as in ‘Self-portrait’, 1972). Wild experimentation is present with a photomaton photograph with added gouache – showing Picasso in reality with his ultra-modern non-reality creeping in. The star piece is ‘Self-portrait’ (1907): it is rough and earthy, angular and staring – the eyes of the artist seeing you in a way no one else could. Museu Picasso reveals the multitude of tension both in the artist’s work, and himself. His subjects are varied – but so is he. Though clearly a museum for one artist, the visitor comes away having seen a myriad of facets of artistic interpretation. Technique, style, subject and message is constantly conflicted.
'Self-portrait' (1907)
It was once said of Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 that it gave ‘the impression of having been shouted onto the paper’. But Heller by no means lacked classical training – this was the intended effect. Picasso strikes me as much the same. His most idiosyncratic works are a carefully composed shout – drawing on a plenthora of traditions, but inimitable in their modernism and innovation. Picasso once said ‘Painting isn’t a question of sensitivity; we need to take the place of nature instead of depending on the information she offers us.’ Picasso warped the information imparted on him by his surroundings; but though his work was not sensitive to reality, it was to meaning and message. To some, this museum may seem to bombarde the visitor with works to prove try and prove that thesis; but for a novice, it is the most intense way to nurture an understanding of one of the most studied artists.
For more information, visit http://www.museupicasso.bcn.cat/en/. With thanks to Museu Picasso and Wikipedia for photos.

The Return of Looted Art is Not as Simple as it Seems, by AHA alum Charlie Whelton

It is a rare occurrence that a news story is quite as satisfying as this week’s announcement of the discovery of 1500 modernist masterpieces in a flat in Munich. First and foremost, the rediscovery of such an amount of artworks thought lost, perhaps destroyed by Allied bombs, is a victory for the art-loving world. There is also another side though, and that is that in a world made up of shades of grey, this appears to be a clear – if delayed – triumph for the good.

These paintings, the illicit collection of Cornelius Gurlitt, certainly constitute the most significant treasure trove of lost art in recent history. The full list of works that make up the collection has not yet been released, but it is believed that at least 300 of the pieces were taken from the infamous exhibition of degenerate art in Munich in 1937. Other paintings are believed to have been the property of Jewish collectors forced to flee Germany. Most excitingly, the haul is said to include previously unknown pieces by Marc Chagall and Otto Dix. That these ill-gotten gains of war and persecution are finally to be returned is heartening. Decades on, justice is finally being done.

A Franz Marc piece found in Munich.

 

The return of looted art is often a difficult prospect though. The advent of the internet and the dissolution of the Soviet Union have made the practical side of the repatriation of appropriated artworks easier than ever before. 2013 alone has seen four pieces from the Louvre returned to the families of Jewish collectors, 139 pieces from Dutch museums identified and catalogued as potentially plundered, and an announcement from the Hungarian government that they would begin returning stolen pieces from their museums. It is, however, in these cases that we see the shades of grey return to the issue.

Few people would argue against returning the paintings from Gurlitt’s flat to their rightful owners, but what if the disputed pieces were in galleries, rather than hidden behind boxes of noodles? Of course the paintings ‘should’ still be returned, but the actual effect of that becomes the opposite of the Munich case – paintings not becoming available for the public to enjoy, but being taken away from them. That was the case with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Street Scene, which was returned from the Brucke Museum in Berlin to the original owner’s family in 2006, sold for £24 million, and taken away from the public.

Even when restitution keeps the work in a museum, the issue is rarely simple. Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was returned to its original owners from an Austrian gallery in 2006 and sold for $135 million to Ronald Lauder for his Neue Galerie in New York. As Jonathan Jones writes in the Guardian,

This painting of a Jewish collector had shone in Vienna as a glorious reminder of the Jewish character of this city in the golden age of Klimt and Freud. In removing it, and selling it abroad, the campaigners for restitution actually diminished the evidence of Vienna’s Jewish heritage in the city itself – a strange victory for truth.

Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

While art plunder has been linked near-inextricably with Nazi Germany in the public mind, they were by no means the first or last offenders. The British Museum is a monument to light British fingers – the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone being the two strongest sources of controversy. Likewise, the Louvre would have a far less impressive collection without Napoleon’s well-documented plundering efforts. In the United States, article 36 of the military’s Lieber Code specifically authorised the plunder of works of art in wartime. These cases are not treated in the same manner as the works looted by the Nazis, perhaps because of historical distance, but perhaps just because of the nature of the perpetrators.

Of course, Germany lost art in World War Two too, mainly to the systematic looting carried out by the invading Soviet Army. The best-known examples include the ‘Baldin Collection’ of 364 artworks, and the Eberswalde Hoard of Bronze Age artefacts found in Berlin, both of which now rest in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. The Eberswalde Hoard prompted a minor international incident in June of this year, when Angela Merkel used a trip to Russia to call for the return of the artefacts. A BBC correspondent noted that the Russian position in the past has been that plundered art was “paid for with the blood of Soviet soldiers“.

It is this consideration above all that makes the repatriation of looted art such a difficult issue to navigate. Not only are there unfathomable sums of money involved (the Munich artworks are said to have “a value so high that it cannot be estimated”), but also strong emotions and painful memories. Each disputed artwork can speak of conquest and subjugation, triumph and defeat, nations and families – all at once. Such is the result of mixing two subjects as emotive as art and war. The Munich discovery is likely to lead to great complications in the future, but for now it is simply cause for celebration.

Works by Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse (attributed) and Otto Dix found in Munich.