24 hours in…Sumptuous Siena with AHA alum Frankie Dytor

Perhaps less well-known and certainly less visited than its neighbouring city Florence, Siena was founded in antiquity by the two sons of Remus (whose brother, Romulus, founded Rome). I recently spent two glorious weeks there to brush up on my rather non-existent Italian skills. The post below is a condensation of what I consider to be the highlights – arty and foody – of my time in this beautiful and bountiful city. I hope you enjoy!

The famous Campo: night time haunt of young revellers

 

AM:

The Duomo – Vasari was generous in his praise when he described the decorated pavement of the interior as “most beautiful…grand and magnificent”; so it comes on good authority that Siena’s Duomo rates pretty high in the must-visit-Cathedrals-of-Italy list. After admiring the ornate gothic facade, prepare to marvel at works by Bernini, Donatello and Nicola Pisano. Make sure you don’t miss the Piccolimini library, painted partly by a young Raphael with his teacher Pinturricchio.

Lunch – Il Gallo Parlante, Via Casata di Sopra

This soon became an established lunchtime favourite during my stay in Siena. A glass of rather good house wine will set you back just €2, and the menu changes daily. Expect to find a party of Italians eating a huge shared bowl of either ribollita or papa al pomodoro outside – neither of these two dishes, local to Tuscany, are to be missed.

PM:

The Baptistery – Stroll around here for a game of spotting bible stories. The  font, realised by the main sculptors of the time (these including the choice selection of Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia and Ghiberti; not bad really), stands proud and beautiful in the centre.

The Crypt – This is one of Siena’s hidden gems; if you go in the later afternoon you may pretty much have the place to yourself.  The 13th- century fresco cycle, heartbreakingly rendered by none other than Duccio, depicts a range of scenes from the New Testament. These would originally have been accompanied by a parallel set from the Old Testament, but the loss of these in no way detracts from the breathtaking potency of what remains.  The tender humanity of Giotto is already present. In the Lamentation the faces of Mary and Jesus seem to morph into one, yet it is clear that he is not with her, try as she might to desperately search for life within his cold, stiff body.  The others, crowded around the slab, appeal to the limp figure, total disbelief at what they can see. They have not yet comprehended the gravity of the situation – they are still imploring, still begging him to get up. And suddenly it seems that Mary understands. She stares, static against the frenzy of activity around here. Mary and Jesus are united by a halo of terrible solemnity. The viewer can only watch, and maybe weep.

Words can only do injustice to the beauty of the crypt

Aperitif – Diacceto’s, Via Diacceto

In need of a drink? Head over to Diacceto’s for an Aperol Spritz, a steal at only €3. According to your willingness to flirt with the owner, an abundant range of snacks will also be served. If he takes a particular shine to you, the delightful porchetta crostini will  soon be wheeled out. Relax here and take in the surroundings with all the locals as they come here for an after-work drink.

Dine in Italian rustic style

 

Dinner – La Taverna del Capitano, via del Capitano, 6/8

The proximity to Siena’s main square may set alarm bells ringing, but the dulcet tones of Italian floating out of this place will soon set even the most adventurous of diners  at their ease. Simply ask for what they recommend here – my original order was rebuffed, and I was instead strongly advised to sample ‘pici cacio e pepe’ as my primi. It certainly did not disappoint. A Sienese dish made out of only pici (a thickish type of spaghetti), the finest pecorino, olive, pepper and salt it was quite simply one of the most delicious dishes I have ever had during my extensive culinary adventures of Italy. This was Italian cooking at its best – humble ingredients of the highest quality combined in perfectly balanced proportion. It was a happy, but rather full, stomach that left the restaurant a few hours later.

AM:

Museo dell’opera del Duomo – Situated in the nave of what was intended to be Siena’s new and upgraded version of their current Cathedral, the location is a grim reminder of just how devastating the plague was for the city. Inside, the paintings testify to a city that literally halted in progress after the Black Death in the 14th century. But the art of the Sienese school has plenty of artistic merit in its own right, and the museum gives total validity to this in the masterpieces displayed.

Lunch – Gino Cacino, Piazza del Mercato, 51

This tiny deli, tucked away in the beautiful square of Piazza del Mercato, serves panini such as have never been served before. I had previously taken an attitude of mild complacency towards sandwiches – useful for a quick lunchtime bite, but generally underwhelming compared to the rest of what Italy has to offer. But goods offered here changed my mind completely about this. Hyperbole can only do the panini injustice so I will do is urge you to go – and to try either the ‘porchetta arosto crema di senape al miele’acacia’ or, and this sandwich must be the food of the Gods as the name indeed suggests, ‘elisir di miale e pecorino caldo’. If you ask for the staff favourite, they will without a doubt recommend this, with beaming smiles and half-eaten panino in hand.

Munch and enjoy a spectacular view from the Piazza del Mercato

And finally, if you are in the neighbourhood of Siena, certainly consider taking the short train to Arezzo to make a pilgrimage to Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle of ‘The Legend of the True Cross’. Unmissable art.

 

Marina Abramovic at the Serpentine: 512 hours of being by AHA alum Frankie Dytor

How may art be made out of nothing?

How may space become something?

Three, almost empty rooms, turned into an extraordinary piece of performance work.

Abramovic: pioneer of performance art

As the slogans surrounding the exterior of the space pronounce, the exhibition is a “landmark”. It proposes something totally new. The audience themselves have to become a living piece of art. Their reaction is essential in transforming the rooms from an area simply populated by art lovers to one that may considered of artistic value and credibility.

 

It is difficult to describe exactly how ‘512 hours’ works.  But that it does work, as an entirely viable innovation, I was entirely convinced. The notion of energy and ‘being’ lie at the core of what Abramovic seems to be aiming for. The audience are invited to focus entirely in on themselves; it is not an experience where you ‘lose yourself’ but rather become keenly aware of the workings of your own existence. Chest heaves up and down. It must do this eternally for us to live. In our day to day lives this goes unnoticed. But here, in this space of total self-absorption – every participant is given sound blocking headphones – it is all that you are aware of.

 

Yet there is also a kind of strange bond between everyone in the rooms. Everyone moves at the same pace, even though you are never specifically directed to do so. The best comparison to this sensation is the automatic stillness and hush upon entering a church. Abramovic has turned the gallery into a type of holy space. She moves throughout the rooms as supreme creator; the sense of artist as God was potent, even though she had in material terms brought nothing. Opening my eyes and seeing her next to me was like receiving an electric shock. Although it sounds rather incredulous now, my heart beat at twice its normal rate. For a few seconds it was difficult to breathe, and my vision was horribly clouded by tears.

Present in the exhibition, the artist herself will guide you

There are moments when you fall out of the trance. Suddenly it all seems ridiculous and rather posed, a gathering of posturers who all take themselves terribly seriously. And then, with the effort of mindfulness you may fall back in. It was an all enveloping white room, charged with such intensity that by the end I couldn’t stand it any longer. I left feeling utterly drained and curiously empty, even though in the actual rooms I had perceived the experience to be an uplifting one.

 

‘512 hours’ should certainly not be missed. It really is a show like none other, and the thrill of actually being able to see the artist herself (and maybe even be touched by her) is certainly worth the small queue to get in. One word of advice – go alone, or with someone that you entirely trust and love. It is a deeply powerful experience, and one to be shared only with the very best.

The exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery continues 10 am – 6 pm until Monday 25 August.

Lift Off! A review of Gustav Metzger’s current exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, by Frankie Dytor

“So, it’s, um, auto-destructivist art. A creative form of political protest through destruction and disintegration”.

Such were my words in an attempt to convince my family to come to the new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, ‘Lift Off!’, featuring the work by the activist and artist Gustav Metzger. This rather paltry attempt to enthuse was fairly unsuccessful, and it was a sullen group that shuffled into the extension of Jim Ede’s bequeathed house. I needn’t have worried, however. Twenty minutes later we were all lying on the floor in awed silence, transfixed by a particular piece entitled ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’.

Liquid Crystal Environment

In it, this all absorbing and all encompassing rapture, slides containing heat sensitive liquid crystals are rotated, creating movement that is projected onto the walls. As they are heated and cooled the crystals also change colour, creating a protozoic psychedelia. The wish emblazoned on the wall in the previous room suddenly became manifest; that Metzger wanted art that would “levitate”, art that would “gyrate”. Faced with these endlessly moving shapes, his wish was transparent. Removed from the acts of human and consciously physical creation, a new type of artistic distance is created. But did this distance permit greater comprehension?

 

In ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’ politics, an element so strong in Metzger’s writings,    did not seem to me to be a primary concern. Or certainly it inspired no political anxiety within me. Rather a state of abstract being. It was like lying back and looking at the stars, whilst the immediate present remained irrelevant. The forms were histological, although it was not they that changed but rather their colour and luminosity. Eventually, their flickering grew stronger, more urgent. Saturation increased with violent luminosity until it was almost painful to look at them. But, as if in a trance, everyone in the room stayed. The light became blinding, and reality became the vision you get when you shut your eyes after too much brightness. And then, popping in and in with less confidence and determination each time, the forms slowly faded to black.

 

This spectacle required no artistic foreknowledge or understanding. Simply every human’s deep attraction to light. And there was a certain beauty in that, one quite different to many of Metzger’s other works, such as ‘Dancing Tubes’. Without the choice sentences from his fifth manifesto (a nice curatorial choice) the work would have been totally baffling. Every ten minutes, two tubes… well, dance. All very interesting, but what of it? The words of Metzger must be turned to, in particular his notions regarding random activity. Art, he says, is the “drawing of belief”, whilst random activity “escalates an extension of accepted (unproductive) concepts of art, nature and society”. The presentation of activity with the minimal amount of interruption by the artist is “belief at its maximum’. So random activity allows the work to take on a new state, to reach a particular “transcendence…which the artist could not achieve except through random activity”. A perfectly logical explanation to the seeming chaos of the work.

Metzger’s work is exciting and inspiring. His works combined with his words force you to think about the implications of technology, the effect of machines and the social responsibility of the artist. What is interesting is that he uses this problematic technology in his art, and in so doing creates things which are profoundly beautiful. It’s a pity that the exhibition is so small, but it leaves you with that delicious feeling of wanting more.

Gustav Metzger: Lift Off continues at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge until 31 August 2014.

Tumblr and the New Generation – Frankie Dytor takes a look into our ‘period eye’

Visual culture in the twenty-first century is profoundly different to anything that has ever gone before it. This may seem like an obvious statement – everyone, of course, is aware of the effect that new technologies have had on our perception of art. But do we really understand the influence this has had on the nature of our ‘period’ eye, as Baxandall would say?

 

According to Baxandall, in order to best comprehend and analyse a piece of art we must understand the cultural conditions from which it was produced. (This theory, as many of you will know, he applied most famously perhaps to Renaissance Florence). It is, of course, extremely difficult – perhaps even impossible – to develop a true and unbiased understanding our own period eye.  This blog post – rather fearlessly then – is a small attempt to do just that!

Tumblr: shaping our generation's aesthetic?

 

To propose the media site tumblr as a source for shaping our culture’s period eye is maybe an exaggeration. After all, how many people does it really reach? Can we claim that it really has any effect on the production of art? Well, tumblr has an estimated 216.3 million viewers each month, with currently 108.9 million blogs and counting. Granted, this is a tiny percentage of the Western world. But it seems that those who use tumblr are generally more likely to be involved in artistic processes.

When something is treated in nail art, you know it must be popular

Firstly, it provides a platform in which budding new artists can showcase their art. There are an abundance of blogs which either belong to a specific artist, or, as is the unique nature of tumblr, display an assortment of the art that one person – artist or layman – enjoys. The effect of this is many fold. Primarily, it means that even those who do not specifically create or commission art are now being involved in the art ‘market’, if not in a commercial sense then certainly in terms of contemporary taste and sensibility. We are all aware of the profound influence of the media on young minds in shaping issues such as body image and sensationalism, but have we ever considered its effect on the aesthetic of today? Such bloggers have a huge power in shaping taste, particularly if we consider the susceptible nature of tumblr’s main demographic:teens and those in their early twenties. Its potential here is precisely why Yahoo deemed it worthy of a $1.1 billion investment.

 

Because anyone can reblog an image, tumblr may be seen as an ultimately democratic site which strips away the elitism so often attached to art. Even a thirteen year old from a small village in the countryside may become part of a cutting-edge art circle. But perhaps this carries many inherent dangers; do we want this to be the case? Is art in a sense degraded through such mass proliferation?

Maybe bloggers are the new Academicians...

Maybe the reverence and sanctity of art is slowly being degraded by mass culture. But is that really such a problem? Prints have been in circulation since the fifteenth century, although they in some sense only proved to re-enforce the distinction between art for the masses and ‘high’ art. Sites like tumblr treat both equally, and it is the viewer’s individual taste, rather than their  economic means, that determines whether they want it to be included as part of their own unique artistic profile.

 

Tumblr ultimately serves as an example of the changing way in which we may perceive art in an age where politics, art, food, fashion and more are regularly placed side by side.  Multi-media now encourages the world to engage with ‘high art’ on a day-to-day basis, rather than placing it on a pedestal. At the same time, Tumblr encourages all things to be viewed as potentially containing artistic significance. And for that, in my mind at least, it is hugely important.

Fancy entering into the world of tumblr? A few favourites……

caravaggista.tumblr.com

cestlavieparis.tumblr.com

erynlou.tumblr.com

jesusisperdu.tumblr.com

lustik.tumblr.com

r-i-n-o.tumblr.com

standingatadistance.tumblr.com

unefemmeparfaite.tumblr.com

And the most bizarre of them all….

scorpiondagger.tumblr.com

 

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

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

In defence of feminism: by AHA alum Frankie Dytor

Feminism seems a bit passé nowadays. It belongs to a resentful minority, part of a slightly embarrassing episode in History. Women, on the whole, are now happily emancipated, and certainly do not need screaming bra burners to champion their cause. This is the attitude, I fear, that many take to the philosophy – I maintain that it is a philosophy, a set of values, despite its occasionally political agenda.  Certainly, this negative view is held by most adolescents, for whom the 70s is a forgettable era, rather than an actual memory. Mention your allegiance to the feminist cause to the average teenage boy and they recoil. You might as well add your membership to a right wing military organisation.

Deconstructing feminism

This misunderstanding is a serious problem. Feminism has become too attached to the extremity of the Second Wave – the Suffragettes, in contrast, belonging to the First Wave are generally respected. What they achieved – the vote- is solid and tangible. The Second Wave inspired a more general cultural change. And whilst it was important, crucial even, to female equality, it is not the only notable aspect of Feminism.  Feminism is now much more rounded.  The idea of female Suprematism is, rightly, a laughable notion. The state of Feminism now is the promotion of choice. Choice to stay at home, choice to go out and work.

But this article is not intended to display the social benefits of Feminism, but rather argue its remaining importance for Art. Feminism is important because of the reappraisal that it forces. It is not content to accept one way of looking at a picture, but will challenge and contest. It is therefore pivotal in ensuring the History of Art is not determined by individuals of power. Manet’s ‘Olympia’, for me certainly, remains the clearest example of the utility of a Feminist approach.

Manet's Olympia: examining the gaze

Much has been written about the gaze of Olympia, the  sad and vulnerable prostitute that Manet has displayed (proclaimed?) on the canvas before us. Critics of Feminism might assume that a Feminist approach would be concerned with trumpeting the evidence of male oppression upon the figure. Certainly, that may be one aspect. You could read Olympia as a victim of bourgeois hierarchy, fighting the oppressors through her insistence on looking straight out, confronting every member of the Salon.  But is this Manet’s real concern? Is he not instead fundamentally rewriting the rules of the artist-model relationship? Woman as Muse had  dominated Western Art for centuries. Beauty, slowly abstracted from the actuality of the body, has been shown through the female form for both earthly and divine purposes. In her template, therefore, Olympia is a Goddess. But in her substance she remains a street walker. She may be receiving flowers, but these are wrapped in cheap newspaper. The sordid oozes in the painting. Whether Manet feels any empathy for her situation, I do not know. She is raised just high enough to remain out of compassionate reach, and it is Olympia, the model, who watches Manet, the artist. It is this critical eye that flips the traditional relationship on its head. And it is feminism that examines this issue. Feminism that is interested in human relations, in the transference of power.

Feminism is like ultimately ‘Olympia’. It will not look away, and indeed it forces us to look again, to challenge accepted culture. It fights against complacency, protests against accepted ways of seeing. And for that, it still matters a lot.

The Guerilla Girls, champions of angry Feminism

 

Flesh and Bone: Moore and Bacon at the Ashmolean by AHA Alum Frankie Dytor

Bacon and Moore are displayed side by side for the first time at the Ashmolean

Francis Bacon and Henry Moore are hefty subjects for an exhibition. Both giants of modern Art in their own right, the combination was a promising one. But other than a shared era, could any more but tentatives links be drawn between the two? Such were my feelings on walking through the balcony corridor to the exhibition. The introductory posters did little to dispel these fears, highlighting Bacon’s lack of training in comparison to Moore’s academic credentials.

The first point of comparison given was the shared influence of Michelangelo. But what they drew from the Renaissance master is clearly very different. For Bacon, it was in the beauty of the male form, ever edged with the thrill of homoeroticism. For Moore however, it was in the treatment of material. In an interview with David Sylvester (the exhibition has a board of every newspaper clipping or article in which a comparison between the titular artists is made) he is quoted as saying “[Michelangelo] used a contrast between a highly finished part and a part that is not so finished, and this is something one likes”. Whilst not a particularly insightful comment onto Michelangelo’s work, is it nonetheless useful for establishing the key areas that Moore drew from.

What I had never personally noticed before the exhibition, or certainly not in such an extremity, was the grotesqueness present in so much of Moore’s work. Clearly, Bacon’s work is saturated with the grotesque. His figures are stripped of their form to become pure dripping matter. The only thing that saves them from total dissolution is the structure of the “room space“, to borrow a phrase from TJ Clarke. But Moore – he had always been the lover of smooth, curvilinear forms to me. Faced with ‘Woman‘ (1957 – 88) the polite classicism vanishes. Flesh bulges, almost to the point of oozing, but there is a horrible stillness in her mutilation – with no arms and legs she is totally trapped. The body has become master of the mind, and there is a kind of visceral elasticity to her body.

Moore's image of fertility

Brutality is, therefore, a common theme. A brief socio-historical context offers an easy answer to this – the presence of the Second World War at formative times for both of the artists. Some drawings by Moore during the air raids of the Blitz are even included. Yet there is an inescapable feeling that it cannot be so simply explained. In the shelter drawings, for example, there is an eternal quality to the figures. It is not three women huddled together, but the three fates. They almost all shrouded, personifications of some everlasting doom. Bacon’s work perhaps feels more contemporary, if only for the unremitting boldness of his colour.

Bacon's 'Portrait of Henrietta Moraes' - almost abrasive in tone

How much the exhibition worked as a comparative exercise, I am not sure. Certainly, there are links to be made between the two, most evidently in their influences. The real strength of the exhibition however is the quality of works that have been chosen, particularly for Moore. The middle room, in particular, is a staggering testament to the virtuosity of the pair. It is, for me at least, British Art at its absolute best.