A Day in the Life of an AHA course

Part 1: The Morning Session

The timetable said we would “begin our exploration of Rome with an introductory walk and a Church crawl via the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.”

That doesn’t begin to describe our delight as we ventured out amongst the ochre-coloured buildings of various ages, over the Roman cobbles. And already the learning begins …

MBell street view
Roman street (Photo: Michael Bell)

The cobbles are called “Sampietrini” which translates as “little St Peters”: they were mined from the surrounding volcanic hills by the ancient Romans, so some are 2,000 years old.  I’m amazed when I see from some repair work that they are shaped like little teeth, the root going down into the earth.

Our hotel is in the charming and lively Campo Dei Fiori, the old flower market. It now holds the most tempting selection of food you can imagine from stripy aubergines to freshly chopped salads and huge, whole Parmigiano Reggianos. I can’t wait to buy our picnic lunch …

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Campo dei Fiori market

 

We are heading towards the Piazza Navona, when the tutor diverts us into an imposing courtyard and asks us to look up (a phrase we’ll hear a lot).  Around the upper levels are niches filled with extraordinary statues which we are encouraged to explore with our eyes … is that a pair of dolphins at the feet of one figure … what does it all mean?

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Statue in the Palazzo Spada courtyard (Photo: Michael Bell)

A “forced perspective”

We learn that this is the Palazzo Spada bought by the Cardinal Spada in 1632.  The stucco work in the inner courtyard is full of symbolic devices: dolphins at the feet of a female figure signify Venus, who was carried ashore by them.  Our tutor then points out an arch in the courtyard which goes through to another courtyard.  We are all enjoying the lovely long vista to a distant statue, when someone in the other courtyard steps into the vista.  Suddenly it feels all “Alice in Wonderland” – what’s going on?

It turns out that what we thought was a life size sculpture at the end of the vista is only 60 cm tall! Cardinal Spada commissioned Borromini to work on his palazzo and it was he who, with the help of a mathematician, created the forced perspective optical illusion in the arcaded courtyard (see title photograph).

In it, diminishing rows of columns and a rising floor create the visual illusion of a gallery 37 metres long (it is 8 metres) with a lifesize sculpture at the end.  We are amazed: to think that Borromini was working in the 1600’s, over 400 years ago with no engines and no electricity.

The “pièce de résistance” of the Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona, Rome
Piazza Navona, Rome (Photo: Michael Bell)

But the Palazzo Spada’s clever tricks are just an aside on our orientation: we push on to Piazza Navona.

Moving from the tight-knit street to the glorious Piazza gives a sense of space and freedom that delights. The sun gleams on the dome of Sant’Agnese in Agone, which we learn is the titular church of the Pamphilj (Pope Innocent X’s family).

Everyone is drawn to the central fountain, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), built in 1651 by Bernini and topped by the Obelisk of Domitian. It is stunning. The water looks so clean and we’re told you can drink the water from all of Rome’s fountains … it’s delicious.

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Fontana alle Quattro Fiumi, Piazza Navona

The sculpture on the huge fountain is impressive and amusing when you see that it drains through a fish’s mouth.   Examining it in detail, it seems extraordinary that anyone could create it out of marble: it is truly monumental.

The square itself is humming with people, busy restaurants and the man selling helium balloons who has them on his fishing rod so they float high in the blue sky, advertising his wares.  As we absorb the Italian background hum, we notice the different shades of ochre and pink that the surrounding buildings are painted, the false windows on the house opposite the Quattro Fiumi, and the evidence of past wealth, politics and a fascinating history over many centuries.

The Romans invented concrete …

The Pantheon, Rome
The Pantheon, Rome

Covering a few more “sampietrini” we come out into a square, Piazza della Rotonda, with an incredible building to one side. Another obelisk to mark the spot and what looks like a triple row of huge columns* announces the grandeur of the Pantheon.

Our tutor explains a little of its history but nothing prepares you for the immense, circular space behind the columns, the open hole at the top, the “oculus”, allowing light and weather into this ancient place. And then we’re told the roof was made of concrete … in 200 AD! The Romans invented it but the art of making it was lost when the Empire fell and not “re-discovered” until the 1800s. To hold the weight the wall is over 6m thick and it is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

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Oculus, The Pantheon, Rome.

Built on the site of an earlier building (like everything in Rome, it would seem) it was completed by the Emperor Hadrian in about 126 AD. He kept the inscription from the earlier building which reads “M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit” or “Marcus, Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time”.

We have learned so much in such a short time and already it is lunchtime. It’s not far to a restaurant where the owner greets our tutor by name and we know that we’ll be eating like the Romans do … with such a lot to discuss.

*It is actually 8 in the first row and two groups of 4 behind.

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.

 

Ming: 50 years that changed China at the British Museum. A review by AHA alum Will Martin

Ming is a word familiar to most of us, and tends to be synonymous with any fragile, rare Eastern pottery. We all know the trope of the Priceless Ming Vase; someone on a (usually pretty mediocre) TV show happens upon a Ming vase, and is at pains to ensure that no harm comes to it. What happens next is inevitable – one particularly clumsy character will knock it off its absurdly precarious perch, smashing the vase into a million pieces, before spending the rest of the episode frantically trying to repair it!

Longquan shrine (Yongle era, 1406). Stoneware, celadon glaze and gilding. Zhejiang province

In reality however, the Ming dynasty, also known as the Empire of the Great Ming, was the ruling house of China for around 300 years between the late 14th century and the middle of the 17th century. The influence of the Ming dynasty on the politics, art, governance and history of Asia is huge, but it is perhaps not always appreciated.
Now though, light is being shed on the dynasty through a new exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition focuses on the years 1400 to 1450 – the period in which the dynasty cemented China as a superpower in an increasingly globalised world – and brings together artefacts from various museums in China, as well as the British Museum’s collection, and pieces from other museums in the UK.

The effect of this collaboration between the various museums is a stunning array of pieces, spanning the obligatory Ming porcelain, gold, jewels, textiles, paintings and much more. A large amount of the antiquities displayed have never been seen outside of China until now, and as such, this is a rare chance to view some truly stunning Eastern artwork.

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration of lotus flowers (1426-1435). Made in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi (province), China, Ming dynasty Xuande (reign)

The exhibition starts with a brief video, providing a timeline of the five rulers of the dynasty during the 50-year span covered. Initially focusing on the Yongle emperor and his decision to move the court of the dynasty from the city of Nanjing to Beijing, the exhibition moves on to look at all parts of Ming society, examining military, religion, hunting, every day courtly life, trade, and everything in between.
There is surprisingly little porcelain given its indelible association with the word Ming, although the standout piece is a huge, polychrome cloisonné jar, covered with dragons and various other regalia. Also amongst the collection are a vastly opulent sword, whose handle takes the form of a gilded dragon, a beautiful golden Buddha, a Daoist shrine crafted from a single piece of jade, and numerous pieces of red lacquered furniture.

Cloissoné enamel jar and cover with dragons, Xuande mark and period (1426-1435)

Furthermore, adorning the final wall of the exhibition is, strangely enough, a painting by Andrea Mantegna, the northern Italian Renaissance artist. It depicts the Adoration of the Magi, but is notable for featuring a small Ming porcelain bowl, illustrating the pervading influence of the dynasty throughout the world at the time.
These are some of the very best pieces, but truth be told, almost everything in the place is a highlight – such was the quality of the artefacts on show, it took me nearly three hours to leave what is essentially a single room of pieces!
I went into this exhibition with virtually no knowledge of anything to do with the Ming dynasty, but came out feeling far better acquainted with what is a truly fascinating part of history and of art. Tickets are not cheap, but for such a brilliant exhibition, they are worth every penny.

Tickets for Ming: 50 years that changed China, are available to book online, and cost £16.50 (£13 for concessions). The exhibition is free to British Museum members. The exhibitions continues until 5 January 2015.

Copyright for all images belongs to the Trustees of the British Museum

For more information; visit www.britishmuseum.org

The Diagnostic scans of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, by AHA tutor Freddie Mason.

It is often said that the life of Maurizio Seracini is like something out of the Da Vinci Code. He studied bioengineering at Harvard in the 70s before returning to his home, Florence, to develop technology to investigate Florentine renaissance paintings diagnostically and non-destructively. Since then, he has adapted medical and military technology to scan paintings and disclose secrets locked within the layers of paint.

In the 90s he used this technology to scan the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio to find a lost Leonardo fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, believed to be under the Vasari frescoes that are visible today. More recently, he turned his attention to an investigation of da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. What his work uncovered in this latter piece is simply spell binding.

 

 

Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi, 1481

I recently helped to write a chapter in a book to be published about what was discovered. I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what Seracini’s work means for Leonardo da Vinci scholarship and the future of art history.

Leonardo’s enigmatic Adoration is unfinished and in a somewhat unsatisfactory state. The yellowing varnish that covers the entire piece mutes the vibrancy of the forms a great deal. Art historians have long suspected that a hand other than Leonardo’s applied the paint to the work at a later date. The dark brown smears in the foreground certainly seem much cruder than the delicate forms of the congregation.

But despite its unsatisfactory condition, it is clearly a bold work, exhibiting the young Leonardo’s precocious talent. With the painting, Leonardo broke decisively from the moods of pageantry and celebration that Gentile da Fabriano chose for his famous Adoration half a century earlier and instead gave the event a highly unusual sense of troubled urgency. Figures approach the Madonna in a state of unrest, desperately trying to catch her attention or a glimpse of the miraculous occasion. Gone are the dreamy, utopian landscapes of, say, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, and instead we have a work that finds a kind of disquiet in the worship of the young Christ. It is a painting, I think, which associates the coming of Christ from the trauma of his crucifixion.

With Seracini’s scans we are able to see Leonardo’s original intentions for the piece. They provide us with unseen Leonardo drawings and a fascinating insight into his compositional process. We are literally able to ‘step into’ the painting.

 

 

Underdrawing for Leonardo’s Adoration.

Notice how the leg of the Virgin is bathed in an ethereal light in the under-drawings. This detail is completely lost in what is visible today. The scans restore a former luminosity to the seated Madonna and a sacred atmosphere to the event. This luminosity perhaps explains why one of the figures to her left appears to be shading his eyes.

Notice how Leonardo thought it necessary to design a much more complete architectural setting in his preparatory sketches. This is a truly remarkable insight into Leonardo’s compositional process: he seems to have felt the need to build the temple first before subjecting it to imaginary ruination. In the discovery of these hidden sketches we can see Leonardo working as a master of naturalistic gesture and anatomy, but also as an architect.

Notice how Leonardo included figures rebuilding the temple in his preparatory sketches. The ruined temple is a common theme in adoration scenes. It is meant to represent the decay of paganism at the birth of Christ. But, its rebuilding displays a desire to preserve, reawaken and revere the forms and ideals of pre-Christian antiquity. It seems Leonardo intended a more complex symbolic duality to the image of the ruined temple. The condemnation of paganism combined with the respect for classical antiquity is after all a contradiction at the heart of all renaissance religious painting.

These are just some of the amazing details you discover when observing Seracini’s scans. I think it is safe to say that his work has changed art history for ever.

Crucially, the scans are not just an important moment for scholarship, but also a deeply pleasurable aesthetic experience.

 

 

Portraits from a Warzone: Photojournalism, life and death in conflict, by Helena Roy

It seems that the concept of a finite war has collapsed in the face of long-term conflicts without geographical limits. In the same way, reporting has changed and as smartphones have emerged as a reporting device, perhaps art seems out of place in a war zone. Static, micro-level portraits will not headline the ten o’clock news or sprint through Twitter. The ease of taking grainy last-minute iPhone footage befits the chronicling of ceaseless long-term struggles, it seems. But a portrait can just as easily convey the enormity of a conflict as a graphic battle scene. And as  today’s battle scenes  have chenged, becoming shattered generations rather than muddy, shelled fields – portraiture reflects some of the deeper consequences of war, reverberating across countries and time.

And so, artists are creating collaborative projects to thread communities out of those displaced by war. On 1st February 2014, in central Kiev, anti-government protestors were barricaded in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, living under a lethal siege. Armour was improvised in a setting of ice, fire, smoke and soot. Anastasia Taylor-Lind, a photojournalist from London, set up a makeshift portrait studio by the barricades. The result of her work is immensely powerful. Against a blank black curtain, ordinary men and women confront the viewer, vulnerable in their homemade protective clothing. As time progressed during this project, the artist’s subjects morphed from revolutionaries brandishing weapons, to women cradling flowers for the dead.

'Anika' by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Kiev, 2014)
'Eugene' by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Kiev, 2014)
'Olena' by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Kiev, 2014)

When conflicts feel like relics of history, or too distant to be relevant, photojournalism throws forward untold stories that demand attention. Photojournalist Michael Kamber published photos from three of the Iraq war’s most prominent photographers. Frustrated at America’s desire to tune out of the war, and the US military’s encouragement of indifference by taking an active role in censoring what could be photographed, the cautiously obscure portraits – some shocking and gruesome – convey an unavoidable sense of perpetual sadness.

In Ali Musayyib, an Iraqi child jumps over the remains of victims found in a mass grave south of Baghdad. The victims were killed by Saddam Hussein’s government during a Shiite uprising here following the 1991 Gulf War. (Photography by Marco di Lauro, 27 May 2003)
An Iraqi woman walks through a plume of smoke rising from a massive fire at a liquid gas factory in Basra, as she searches for her husband. The fire was allegedly started by looters picking through the factory. (Photograph by Lynsey Addario, 26 May 2003)
Samar Hassan, five, screams moments after her parents were killed by U.S. soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division. The troops fired on the Hassan-family car when it unwittingly approached during a dusk patrol in the tense northern town of Tal Afar (Photograph by Chris Hondros, 18 January 2005).

The mass of social media flowing from every war zone makes it almost impossible to separate out nuanced understanding from the fake or unrevealing. Portraits from warzones offer a considered insight into the effects of war and social displacement around the world. Kamber’s portraits show wounds scarring both Iraqi and US communities, as soldiers bring home injury, grief and disillusionment with their sovereign state’s confused world identity. Syrian artist Tammam Azzam’s version of Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’, superimposed on a hauntingly empty, bullet-ridden building in Damascus, is a passionate plea for empathy and kindness amidst cold brutality. Here, the golden ghost of Klimt’s tender portrait mourns the splendour and love the city once offered.

Alan Jermaine Lewis, 23, a machine gunner with the Third Infantry Division, was wounded July 16, 2003, on Highway 8 in Baghdad when the Humvee he was driving hit a land mine, blowing off both his legs, burning his face, and breaking his arm in six places. He was delivering ice to other soldiers at the time. (Photograph by Nina Berman, 23 November 2003 - Milwaukee, Wisconsin.)
Syrian artist Tammam Azzam's 'Kiss' in Syria

As conflict after conflict is buried under an avalanche of new crises, it is too easy to forget one for another. The interchangeablity of hashtags perhaps references this better than anything:  #Ukraine, #Syria, #Iraq and #IslamistState. Photojournalism moves with a society undergoing struggles, capturing the suffering that will remain with people for generations. Most importantly, portraits encourage us to consider the status of the subject in a world perplexed by the boundaries of nation, class, race and religion.

With thanks to Anastasia Taylor-Lind, Michael Kamber and Tammam Azzam for photographs.

Twenty-four hours in Seville – by AHA alum Helena Roy

If ever a city was primed for the stereotypical ‘city break’, it was Seville. Packed with a perfect cocktail of culture, sun (essential), and great food, it is walk-able, explore-able and exudes a warm comfort and curiosity from its sandy Moorish architecture. From a couple of visits, here is a haphazard checklist of what to do, see, taste and take note of in 24 hours in the city…

1. Don’t go in summer

The hardest thing to organise about a trip to Seville the temperature. Believe it or not, summer is ‘low season’. If you manage to get sunburnt in Cornwall (as I do) – don’t attempt to disprove this. September through to April is prime time to visit – when I visited in January, it was 23 degrees Celsius.

Snippets from Seville in January...

2. Don’t take a map

Seville’s winding medieval streets are sights in themselves. Be ready to get lost – you will stumble across a multitude of squares and churches that are all the more beautiful in the surprise of discovering them.

Random figures around Seville's squares
A skyline view of Seville's sprawling layout

3. Visit the Cathedral and Palace

Dead centre in the main square lies the famed Seville cathedral. It is huge and majestic, containing an eclectic mix of art and Christopher Columbus’ tomb amongst other wonders. Built mostly in the fifteenth century atop the twelfth-century Almohad mosque, the mosque’s minaret (the Giralda) still towers beside it. Climb the bell tower for stunning views of the river, the neighbouring palace and the cathedral’s Gaudi-esque roof. The Moorish fortified palace, adapted by later Christian kings, is an impressive building in itself, but explore the plush and peaceful gardens, which really steal the show.

Views from inside the cathdral

 

 

Views from la Giralda

 

 

4. Try Sangria and tapas

If you’re looking for tapas, just south of the cathedral is Casablanca – apparently a favourite of the King and Queen of Spain. Be brave and ask for a selection of the best traditional favourites. Seville’s streets come alive at night. Wander through the bustle and grab some sangria (there is a winter variety) from one of the bars tucked away in corners between tottering layered apartments.

5. Look out for festivals

Wandering around in January we came across celebrations for the three kings. This included music in the main square, and a parade of huge cars decorated as an assortment of ships, clouds, and fantastical shapes gliding through town with children throwing sweets from the roofs. Read up beforehand and explore at night, and you may find yourself caught up in similarly unexpected festivities.

6. Explore by bike

Seville’s equivalent of Boris bikes are available to rent and allow you to whiz round the more remote locations. The mammoth terracotta Plaza de Espana was built for the Ibero-American exposition in 1929. Intricate towers and balconies shield a tiled stream with small bridges leaping over it. Rent tiny wooden bucket-y boats and race around the square at sunset, when music starts playing out of the adjoining park as well.

Plaza de Espana at sunset

7. Fit in a long stroll by the river

Lining the banks of the Guadalquivir are famed orange trees (don’t try them – they’re marmalade oranges and give a new meaning to the word ‘sour’), and an explosive wall of street art. Better than any indoor gallery, they’re packed with colour, references to a multitude of artists (including some brilliant Picasso imitations) and creative panache.

Street art on the banks of Rio Guadalquivir
Street art on the banks of Rio Guadalquivir

All photos are the author’s own.

Where Communism and Commercialism Collide: Beijing’s 798 Art District and Shanghai’s M50, by AHA alum Helena Roy

China’s art is exciting – it really is. Extremely simplistically, the PRC’s art history can be divided by pre- and post-Mao’s rule. What little art there was in between was either so corrupted it is purely propaganda, or was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. This makes modern Chinese art one of the few windows into their confusing, contradictory and colourful political system.

Graffiti in the 798 Art District, Beijing

Modern art in China comprises expressions formed by political, economic and cultural combustion. In the 798 Art District in Beijing, and M50 in Shanghai, China’s revived interest in nudging at societal boundaries have bred edgy art scenes. With many relics decimated during the Cultural Revolution, the low rent and spacious rooms in the disused factories of mutating cities gave artists a unique and low-cost way of creating a Chinese artistic history.

The 798 Art District in Beijing
Graffiti in M50, Shanghai

Closeted amongst decommissioned military factories built by the East Germans during the Maoist heyday of the 1950s, the 798 Art District in Beijing is a thriving microcosm of artists’ studios, boutiques and independent cafés. ‘Saw-tooth’ roof design, high ceilings, north-facing windows and right-angles give each building a distinctly utilitarian feel. Communist slogans paint the walls in fading red letters. Quietly riveting exhibitions confront depictions of the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward and China’s “great leader”, with established or fresh mainland artists pushing forth ardent political messages from minimalist gallery walls.

A statue in the 798 Art District

Once the Chunming Slub Mill, and now the nerve centre of Shanghai’s art scene, M50 is a similar complex, with galleries and noodle bars stuffed into every crevice of a disused cotton factory. Satirical undertones pervade the air: the Maoist personality cult haunts modern China, which now paints Little-Red-Book-waving PLA soldiers with dummies in their mouths.

ShaghART gallery and streets in M50
Political art depicting a PLA soldier in M50, Shanghai

But no matter how exciting the art may be – no matter how many times it embellishes China’s rigid daily politics with under-the-surface views – it is neither Communism nor political repression that mars the 798 Art District or M50. Neither escapes the rampant, almost religious commercialism that paints nearly every street in the Chinese metropolises. Wandering the manicured boulevards, you enter a bubble of Sino-Europe. At Café – a wild café with bombed-out brick walls in Beijing – serves spaghetti bolognese and tuna niçoise. Illy Coffee signs jump out between every gallery, offering respite to tourists, and a chance to imitate the West. Previously an oasis of individualism, born by the low-cost nature of the shabby setting, both complexes have become playgrounds for people who want street-stall souvenirs to be sold in Scandinavian-style shops.

Perhaps this is utterly inevitable as China strides confidently forward into the world economy, squeezing every drip of GDP it can from its culture. But in doing so, the subtle political dissent the galleries quietly put forward is overrun by capitalisation of what attracts tourists to the art districts – shopping for mass produced Communist memorabilia and homesickness for good coffee.

The 798 Art District and M50 are triple-tiered exhibition fields. On one level, China’s socio-industrial history creates a backdrop to modern Chinese art where the forgone creativity of the late 19th century should have been. On the second level, the cultural aspirations of modern China offer timid satire of China’s political system. In reality, however, a third level of crazed commercialism drips over both, clouding what modern Chinese art is really for.

Abroad, Chinese government officials often justify their regime by putting the economic enfranchisement of millions on a pedestal. If everyone’s getting rich, who needs more than one political party? It is certainly ironic, but possibly even intentional, that the Chinese commercialism post-Mao Zedong has almost become a new form of political repression.

All photographs by Helena Roy.

Under a Tuscan Sky: AHA alum Anna Fothergill reviews Tuscany’s lesser know treasures.

During my AHA experience, back when I was a young bright Gap Year student, drinking in the wonders of Italy (as well as the prosecco), the days we spent in Florence and Siena secured themselves a special place in my Italian Romance. And for so many others, the lure of Tuscany is undoubtedly present. This summer, I was fortunate enough to return to the land of pencil cedars, rhythmic hills and Medici fortunes. And I soon realised, that while Florence and Sienna might be the most famous gems of Tuscany, the surrounding region has ancient villages atop every hill, and endless landscapes to fill any camera.

 

View from San Gimignano - Own photo

So if you are drawn back to the heat and beauty of Tuscany, here are some places to consider visiting if you want a taste of real Italian life.

1) San Gimignano. A name which you may have heard, but know little about. I spent one gelato-meltingly hot day there, and was awestruck by the quiet beauty of it. Be warned that most of your time will be spent walking around looking skyward to the 14 remaining “power-towers”, which give San Gimignano it’s distinctive skyline. The town appeared to me like a 14th century Manhattan, with each stone skyscraper attempting to tower over its neighbour. There is a gelateria that claims to be the World Ice Cream Champion, and of course I sampled it to assure you all that it lives up to its title. If you wander into the Duomo, first being wrapped in Crete paper to protect your modesty, the church is illuminated with wall to wall frescos that for me were reminiscent of those in Giotto’s Area Chapel in their colour brilliance and animated expressions. The hellish portrayal of gluttony was particularly descriptive.

 

Sam Gimignano

 

Frescos in San Gimignano Duomo

Should you leave San Gimignano in search of new adventures, a place for a true taste of local Tuscan life is Montepulciano, a town where they have their own version of the Palio…trading the horses for barrel rolling. The town has wide, movie set streets and bars resting on sloped paved roads, any number of which will serve for apperitvi, before you head to the viewpoint to take in the sweeping countryside. A highlight of this town for me was the atmospheric Ristorante sotto L’arche, a pizzeria which seated you under a canopy of a lighted arch, the owner greets you as his own family and live music accompanied every bite of the unforgettable pizza (the real Italian stuff, not your standard Dominoes). The meal was loud with laughter and music, the manger himself as concerned with performing an aria as he was dutiful to his customers. Definitely  worth a visit.

Primi Piatti - Own photo

For those who wish for rest and relaxation, an escape from the endless supply of cultural wonders, it can be found at the villas of La Foce. The massive estate has a fascinating history as well as breathtaking views. Built on the volcanic lands of Val del’Orcia, it has served as a farming estate, was taken over by Nazis, secretly fed artisans during WW2, and today one can tour the gardens, relax by the pool and even attend olive oil tastings – the golden syrup is grown right beside your villa. The whole complex radiates with the smell of cedars, lavender and olives. the coolness and calm of La Foce is an oasis in the dry Tuscan heat.

La Foce

Sunset over La Foce -own photo

These are just a few of the things I was fortunate enough to discover in only a week. This is what amazed me about Tuscany. How there can be so much to do if you desire to do things, yet such an emphasis on Italian lifestyle. On enjoying eating and drinking, taking hours over meals, feeling no pressure to go to any 14th century town today because it will still be there tomorrow. If you are in Tuscany in the next year, know that you can see as much or as little as you want, and it will still be a wonderful Italian holiday. Of course, there is always Florence.

Firenze -own photograph

 

Art, Religion and the Smartphone: The Selfie by AHA Tutor Freddie Mason

When people take pictures of famous paintings in galleries, these pictures are often selfies: ‘this is me in the Louvre, pointing at and smiling next to the Mona Lisa’. It is the ‘me’ and the ‘next to’ that the selfie really cares about; people want to watermark their own original version of the painting with that thing that is indisputably their own: their face.

Someone taking a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa

 

What we are now able to do with Smartphones is put ourselves in the same picture as the Mona Lisa. We can enter the same frame as her. We can place our face into the same visual context as the most iconic face in existence. We can change ourselves slightly. We can get something new about ourselves to take back across that mysterious threshold between art and life.

For the cultured ‘art-lover’ there is nothing more embarrassing than the selfie. There are those that take selfies in front of Leonardos and there are those art-lovers that look on in despair.

Why is this?

I think this opposition between different kinds of gallery-goers has a lot to do with the theological oppositions between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Let me make a crude summary:

One of the things that particularly annoyed the new modes of protestant faith that developed during the Reformation was the worship of holy objects, relics. The worship of relics involves a very bodily orientated kind of faith: it is all about your physical proximity to the holy object. This catholic mode of worship is an externalised kind of religious being that is based upon the arrangement of people and things within space. In some cases, religious objects are even touched, a ritual act I’ve always found exquisitely dramatic.

 

A nail from the 'True Cross'

Protestantism, on the other hand, is much more internalised. It requires the individual to contemplate, in the solitude of prayer, their own fallen existence: faith and faith alone. One should not need the bones of the saints or a bit of the true cross to help absolve sins, only your own intense relationship with the word of God.

But, what has this got to do with selfies?

The tourist that sidles up alongside a Caravaggio to take a selfie is really interested in this Catholic belief in proximity. The tourist is not ‘learning to look’ as the exasperated art history tutors that surround them would like. What’s really important is that they were there, here, near, right next to the divine presence of the ‘original work of art’. In the world of art experience this pertains to a very Catholic set of values. ‘I was physically there. Next to this! The actual one!’

The desire to affirm physical presence in relation to the original artwork with a selfie is, I think, related to that mysterious, much more ancient impulse to physically touch works of art or religious objects.

Some artists have noticed this desire, creating works that ask you to break the rules. Meret Oppenheim’s ‘Objet’, for instance, cries out to be touched.

Meret Oppenheim, Objet, 1936, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

On the other end of the spectrum of gallery-goers is the good student who keeps their Smartphone switched off in their bag, listens attentively to the tutor and looks carefully in the hope that they might one day ‘learn how to look’ properly at art. For the good student, the whole affair is much more internalised. For them, proximity to the original is part of an individualised learning process through which they might gain a private aesthetic sensibility. With regards to their experience of art, they are acting like a Protestant might.

A sign in a gallery

 

Max Weber’s ‘protestant work ethic’ perhaps applies here: does one have to work to understand Caravaggio? Or is being there, having made the journey, the pilgrimage, enough?

I do not want to say something boring about which kind of gallery-goer is more or less superior. Instead, I think we can learn something about our historical position by observing this opposition. This is: however much we think society has become secularised, our ‘secular’ activities are structured by impulses that have their origins in religious ritual or dogma.

 

 

 

News from the field! A mini photo blog from AHA Northern II course student Kyle Canter