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

Pick of the week: 13 high octane Instagrammers by AHA alum Helena Roy

Instagram may seem unoriginal and spammed with selfies, but the tainted jewel of an app has the potential to inject some artistic colour into the palm of your hand. Instagram’s artistic stars are overrun with photographers and street artists, whose rapid style suit Instagram’s pop aesthetic; but the plethora of visual bites from around the world paints a creative description of day-to-day life…

Best artists

Ai Weiwei (@aiww) – this Chinese artist is on nearly every channel of social media known to man. His feed is a mess of photographs, snaps of artistic process and excitable pictures of everyday life.

Sara Rahbar (@sara_rahbar_) – contemporary mixed media artist, born in Tehran, living in New York. Heavily political, her feed is littered with bullets, flags, limbs and relics of war. Confusing and brutal fusion of East and West.

'Land of Opportunity' by Sara Rahbar

Tanya Ling (@tanya_ling) – A fashion-illustrator-cross- Instragram-whiz, British Tanya Ling creates art in grid form to move and mesh with Instagram’s format. Using multiple snaps to build the bigger picture, look out for clever manipulation of the social media site and microscopic perspectives.

Tanya Ling's picture puzzle Instagram feed

Best for street art

BeirutPost – grafspace (@grafspace) – a charming window into the burgeoning world of street art in the Lebanese capital, occasionally roaming beyond its borders.

Street art in Beirut by grafspace

Gaia (@gaiastreetart) – This prolific street artist is known for his oversized, curious and creature-like concoctions on the street. Thrown in are energetic admirations from similar artists across the globe.

Patternity (@patternity) – Finding order out of chaos, Anna Murray and Grace Winteringham scour the streets and burst off them looking for natural repetitions that inspire materialistic motifs.

Best for virtual travel

Art History Abroad (@ahacourses) – couldn’t slip by without a mention! Follow to live a virtual life of architecture, art, and food in the heart of Italy.

Corners of Italy snapped by Art History Abroad

Sam Horine (@samhorine) – Photographer based in NYC who makes photographs ‘on the go’. Shoots the skyline to the sofa, showing New York in majestic, lit-up and downtown detail.

Borojaguchi (@borojaguchi) – Tokyo-based, globe-trotting web director, snaps the tourist-y to the kitsche in an endearing fashion. Follow to notice things you never knew were there.

Best photography

National Geographic (@natgeo) – without a doubt the most stunning Instagram feed there is, National Geographic collates world observations from an army of adventurous, insane and genius photographers. Shows a side of humanity and the environment rarely seen or noticed, from the Amazon to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Paul Nicklen for National Geographic

Hawkeye Huey (@hawkeyehuey) – 4-year-old analog photographer, depressingly (or unwittingly) talented. Account maintained by father and National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey, who started it all by noticing his son’s playful shots. Follow for the first-time discoveries and Polaroid perspectives of a child.

Hawkeye Huey camera-ready

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (@nasagoddard) – When this world gets boring, move from National Geographic to NASA. Kaleidoscope views from space are an escape from the constant food-grams of someone else’s chocolate pudding.

Free-air gravity map of the moon by NASA

Simone Bramante (@brahmino) – surrealist photographer making use of fantastically filtered natural props and mundane habitats to bring storytelling to photography.

With thanks to Sara Rahbar, Tanya Ling, BeirutPost grafspace, Paul Nicklen for National Geographic, Hawkeye Huey, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Instagram for photography

 

Art, Religion and the Smartphone : Pictures and pictures of paintings by AHA Tutor Freddie Mason

Whilst in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, one of the more philosophically inclined students on the AHA early summer course remarked to me: ‘isn’t it funny that the first thing people do when they see an original work of art, is make a reproduction of it’. This struck me as an extremely intelligent thing to say.

She was referring, of course, to the expansive sea of Smartphone screens bobbing up and down in front of the original Capitoline Wolf, desperately catching snaps. The remark was intelligent because the student wasn’t looking to condemn the modern trigger-happy habits of gallery-goers, but contemplate it as a cultural phenomenon. She didn’t say ‘isn’t it hateful’ or ‘isn’t it irritating’ (which, I accept, it often is!), but chose that very thoughtful phrase ‘isn’t it funny…’.

The Capitoline Wolf, The Capitoline Museum, Rome

What I take ‘funny’ to mean here is:

‘I can feel something strange going on here that I might be able to learn something from’.

I want to suggest that we can learn a great deal about the history of art and religion from the strange spectacle of the Mona Lisa exploding into a thousand pixelated versions of itself on mobile phone screens all over the room.

The student cleverly noticed the irony of this act: all these people are here because this object is ‘original’, yet all they are doing is reproducing it. People are making out of the image exactly the thing they didn’t come to see: a reproduction. People appear seized by the paradoxical desire to make their own original version of something that is, we’ve been told, original.

But what exactly is an ‘original’?

This is not a straightforward question and one that has been pondered by a number of formidable minds. Its perhaps most startling discussion is by Walter Benjamin in his influential essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.

What we learn from Benjamin’s essay is that the whole notion of the ‘original’ is dependent upon the possibility of reproduction. In the 15th century, art couldn’t be ‘original’ in the same way that it is today. The whole notion of authenticity requires the invention of that which is seen as ‘inauthentic’ – fridge magnets, advertising, posters, book covers etc. All those silly little tourist-tat trinkets that carry the Mona Lisa’s image make space within us for a reverence of the ‘original’.

Andy Warhol, Cambell's Soups Cans, 1962

The 21st century experience of the Mona Lisa is fundamentally different from the 15th century experience of the painting because it has been reproduced so many times. Fascinatingly, a spirit of the originary (as I like to call it) has literally been added to paintings by their reproduction. The more an image is reproduced, the more thrilling people find the experience of seeing the original. This ‘spirit’ is enhanced by reproduction.

This all may seem obvious.

But, in an age where art is becoming an increasingly secular phenomenon, this ‘spirit of the originary’ gives works of art a bizarre, modern kind of religiosity. The reproduction of art works provides a substitute religiosity for the one that is being lost through art’s gradual detachment from formalised religious practice. The visual reproductive capacities of the Smartphone play an active role in re-spiritualising the secularised work of art.

When people take photos of paintings they are partaking in a ritual which makes that painting original. They are part of a congregation of camera phone owners who sanctify the object.

One last point:

Though the technology is 21st century, this camera phone habit has a history. When someone takes a snap of a painting in a gallery they are exhibiting a distinctly renaissance impulse – the desire to return to origins in order to appropriate those origins for your own ends. If I put a picture I’d taken of the Hercules from the Archaelogical Museum in Naples on my facebook page, I would be behaving a lot like Alessandro Farnese did when he excavated the statue from the Caracalla Baths and put it in his palace.

The Farnese Hercules, thought to be c. 216 AD, The Archaeological Museum, Naples

We shouldn’t be suspicious of the involvement of technology in art and art education. Instead, we should think carefully about how people use technology in their aesthetic experience to feel our position in human history with greater sensitivity – to realise, perhaps, how little has changed.

 

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.

Kaleidoscope Landscapes and Playful Goats: John Craxton, by AHA alum Anna Fothergill

John Craxton. The name many have little significance to the British public, but his recent exhibition at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge (which closed at the end of last month) served to change the fact.  And with just cause. The British-born, Mediterranean-bred artist, produced some of the most vibrant and beautiful work I have encountered in a while. Despite the small scale of the exhibition, it demonstrated the evolution and diversity of Craxton’s work, from delicate line drawings, to geometric landscapes.

Pastoral for P.W, 1948, Oil on canvas

Inspiration from artists like William Blake, Picasso and Samuel Palmer is clear throughout his oeuvre. His friendship and teaching from Graham Sutherland and Lucian Freud also found its way into the young man’s work. He was also appreciated as a good companion as well as an artist and the variety of his art testifies to his colourful character.

Lucian Freud, 1946, Conte pencil
Portrait of Sonia, 1948-57, Oil on Canvas

 

It was Craxton’s first visit to Greece in 1946 that  inspired him with light, food, landscape and nature. His work shed the slight gloom of his youth and took on the romanticism of the Mediterranean, where he spent the majority of his adult life. He demonstrated a unique ability to capture the easy pace of these sunny regions and the unique characters he encountered there. Many of his larger scale works are of pastoral scenes and the use of block colours, effective layering and intentional compositions work in harmony to  give an impression of an exotic culture – one that any traveller to Greece or Sicily will be familiar with. There is no doubt that his landscapes are seeking to create arcadia with their serene shepherds, chromatic light and whimsical goats.

Landscape with derelict Windmill, 1958, Oil on board

Still Life with Three Sailors, 1980-85. Tempera on Canvas

However, the most interesting aspect of Craxton’s work did not occur to me until after I had stood enjoying Landscape with the Elements, a monumental kaleidoscopic work. Craxton was producing works such as these in the aftermath of the Second World War, wanting to project a joyful, energetic picture of life – life in Europe that was continuing despite the years of loss they had suffered. To this end, he painted images of thriving landscapes, flourishing feasts and animated locals. Because he chose to remain in Greece for the remainder of his life, his work was not celebrated by the British art world for many years. Thankfully, it is now possible to view Craxton in the context of history and see him as a joyous contrast to the horrors occurring during his lifetime.

 

Landscape with the Elements, 1973, Oil on board

His paintings have a personal sensitivity to them and also capture the fullness of a life lived. He will amaze you with his talent, complexity, simplicity and emotional narrative. And his goats really are humorous too.

Study for Four Figures in a Mountain Landscape, 1950,

Matisse: The Cut-Outs. A review and other thoughts by AHA tutor Richard Stemp

Starting, unconventionally, in Pittsburgh, Richard Stemp looks forward – and back – to Matisse’s Paper Cut-Outs on display at Tate Modern, and then looks forward again to living happily ever after.

I have been to Pittsburgh four or five times, more often, in fact, than I’ve been to Boston or Washington DC, and most Americans would ask, horrified, ‘Why?!’ It still hasn’t recovered from the reputation it gained in the early 20th Century as the soot-blackened, smog-ridden steel capital of the States. But when I first went, way back in 1986 (ah, how time flies), it had just been voted America’s Most Liveable City. Andy Warhol was from Pittsburgh, as was Henry Clay Frick, a coke and steel industrialist whose vast wealth (from all that pollution) allowed him to put together one of the greatest individual art collections, the Frick, which found its home in New York and is one of the highlights of any visit to that remarkable city. Andrew Carnegie, another Steel Magnate and philanthropist from Pittsburgh, is perhaps not as well known, but you can still find Carnegie Libraries across Britain. It is intriguing to think that in the early 20th Century an American thought that the British needed to read, but he was British – a Scottish émigré, in fact, from Dunfermline. He gave his name to Pittsburgh’s wonderful Carnegie Museum of Art, well worth a visit, and home to probably my favourite work by Matisse, a paper cut-out called The Thousand and One Nights.

 

The Thousand and One Nights (1950) Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

I know this image remarkably well. Having seen it several times in the late 1980s, it was still in my mind when I moved in the late 90s.  The new flat was in the basement, and had a long, narrow room underneath the ground floor entrance, ideal as a study. At the far end was a window, perfect for a coffee table and an armchair, so I could sit and read, work and relax at the same time (Matisse once said that art should be like a comfortable armchair). I thought The Thousand and One Nights would look perfect there, and planned to write to Pittsburgh to see if they did a poster. But before I got round to writing, I was forced to go to IKEA. That’s what love does – it makes you go to IKEA. It makes you go to Pittsburgh. True love means you don’t have to do these things if you don’t want to, and, a couple of exes later, I haven’t been to either for a long time now. But this was Kismet – a perfect concept, in this context – as IKEA actually did do a poster, and it fit perfectly on the wall by the window at the end of the study for four years. And, when I moved ten years ago (exes being what they are), it found a place above my bed.

 

I don’t always sleep very well (though better, I’m sure, than Matisse, who suffered terribly from insomnia), but The Thousand and One Nights is the perfect companion for a sleepless night, a great tale well told. Scheherazade knows that the King, angry at the infidelity of his first wife, has killed many subsequent wives after just one night of marriage. Nevertheless, she accepts his proposal, and to save her own life she tells him a story, keeping his attention throughout the night, and leaving off half way through as dawn breaks. She lives to see the day – and to tell the rest of the tale the following night. Only she never finishes. Well, not for a thousand nights, by which time he has fallen in love with her, and from the thousand and first night, we presume, they live happily ever after. Matisse tells his tale in separate sections, using five main ‘blocks’, which he developed separately and then joined together, chapters in a story. The first, a smoking lamp, as night falls, is followed by a stylised, blue female form: Scheherazade herself, perhaps, in obeisance before the King. Flashes of stars, and leaf-like forms take us through the night, which draws to a close with another, smokeless lamp. Day has dawned. And finally, a rich, round, red oval – the rising sun? The warm heart of the story? Or something more sensually direct? And then the image opens up, a red leaf crosses from the hard edge of the last ‘block’ and brings the white background into play, an open-ended, happy ending. Red and pink hearts trail along the bottom, and along the top, black hearts, which alternate with green, trail off into words: “…she saw the dawn appearing, and discreetly fell silent”.

The Dance (1932-33) The Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA.

I’ve always loved the cut-outs, and when I heard that Tate would hold a major retrospective this year I was very happy. Even more so when I heard that the Carnegie – who don’t always display The Thousand and One Nights, paper being so fragile – are lending it to this exhibition. It was remarkable to see it, like meeting an old friend, with whom you’ve been asleep for ten years, for the first time in twenty-five. It’s far larger than I remembered, and the colours far more subtle. Its physical presence, as a made object – not a machine tooled, flat plane of colour – is also essential for its understanding. The flatness of the printed versions of his cut-outs was something that disappointed Matisse himself, even though he developed them, in part, to avoid other disappointments of printing – the subtle shifts in colour, for example, between the preparatory maquette, or model, and the finished edition.

 

Two Dancers (1937-8) Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Initially, paper cut-outs were just a tool for him. He would use them while developing other works, a form of sketching, or drawing with colour. As such it was vital for the development of his mural, The Dance, of 1932-3, for another great American entrepreneur, Albert C. Barnes: the more-or-less vertical bars of pink, blue and black relate to cut-out elements in the preparatory stages. His interest in dance led to a commission to design the ballet, Rouge et Noir, for choreographer Léonide Massine. The stage curtain design is still held together with pins, the same colour as the paper, showing how the individual elements could be moved and adjusted to find the right combination of line and colour. But it was with Jazz – undoubtedly one of the most important artist’s books of the 20th Century – that he began to realise the full possibilities of the cut-out.

 

The Heart (1943), maquette for plate VII of Jazz (1947) Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Jazz is exhibited in its entirety in the Tate exhibition, and is one of the highlights. Indeed, it is exhibited twice, as the final, printed version is displayed alongside the original maquettes. Frustrated, as I have said, by the changes in colour from design to print, Matisse decided to cut into colour itself, using paper painted in exactly the same pigments as the printer’s ink. The original idea was to illustrate poems, but instead Matisse wrote notes about his ideas, his working practice and about the inspiration for the images. The text functions formally, a black and white breathing space between the brilliant intensity of the images. Already, with The Heart, we have the seed for the later tale of Scheherazade, with the same combination of black and green, pink and red, in adjacent blocks, and with the tell tale heart. This is by far one of the simplest of twenty vibrant images. It is wonderful to see them all together, and instructive, too: given the accuracy of the colour, Matisse was now disappointed by the flatness of the final image, and, of course, he was right. Side by side they are still glorious, but somehow lifeless, and later cut-outs were arranged together, loosely pinned to the wall so that cut leaves would wave in the breeze, as three-dimensional works. Different combinations of colours were tested against one another, much as Albers would focus on the square, or Riley on the line. Indeed, the undulating leaf forms so beloved of Matisse allow the maximum interaction between two different colours, in the same way that Riley uses long lines, straight or curving, to maximise the contact between the elements of her chosen palette.

The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Matisse used the technique to design book covers and posters, ceramic wall panels and stained glass, and even the decoration of an entire chapel (including the priest’s vestments) for the Dominican Nuns of Vence, in the South of France, one of whom had nursed him through a serious illness. But before long he realised that the paper cut-outs could be an end in themselves, they could live free of the restrictions of the canvas, and take up entire rooms. The Parakeet and the Mermaid, for example, was developed on the walls of his studio, and originally wrapped around a corner of the room, while the Oceania works developed, in part, as a way of covering marks on the dull and shabby walls of a room in Paris. As you go round this wonderful exhibition the works get steadily larger, his ideas become freer and you gradually find yourself encompassed by colour. If you do go – and you should – it will be the most positive, glorious and life-affirming thing you see this year – this decade, for that matter, or this millennium – and it will leave you happy, if not forever, at least for now.

 

Art and Politics too (2): In a second post inspired by his almost daily walk across Trafalgar Square, Richard Stemp considers the historical background to the great art of the Dutch Golden age.

My musings on Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock (see the previous post!) reminded me of a recent visit to the newly, and splendidly, refurbished Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. While many will flock to the works of the Golden Age, the Rembrandts and Vermeers (and you should flock, but get there early!), I fell in love with the display of Medieval and Renaissance art, which takes up one half of the basement. Looking at just three (or maybe four) of the exhibits should help you map out the progress of Amsterdam’s history from its earliest formation to its role as a Spanish colony, an essential precursor to that burst of creativity that was the Golden Age.

The very first piece you encounter is a Romanesque relief commissioned by Petronella, Countess of Holland, for the Benedictine abbey-church at Egmond.  She is shown as a donor figure on the right of the relief, whereas her son, Dirk VI, occupies the Position of Honour on the left – but then, she was only the Regent, her son, still in his minority, was the Count.  The County of Holland, a state of the Holy Roman Empire, is first mentioned by name in 1101 but emerges from the County of Frisia (roughly equivalent to the contemporary Provinces of North Holland and Friesland). The first Count of Holland is generally considered to be Dirk I, who inherited lands from his father, or step father (it’s a long way back, and even history finds it hard to remember some things) Gerolf, Count of Frisia, in 896 – although as yet it was not called Holland. Gerolf himself had been given lands by the last of the Carolingian Emperors, Charles the Fat (the names are not always encouraging). Dirk was, like Gerolf, rewarded for good service by King Charles the Simple (see what I mean?) with a gift of the Church of Egmond, which he re-founded as an Abbey – and it was for this abbey that Petronella commissioned the stone tympanum.

The anonymous Tympanum from the abbey church of Egmond, c. 1122 - c. 1133

Her husband had died in 1121 when their eldest son was only seven, and Petronella served as Regent until he reached his majority at the age of fifteen, some eight years later. However, that didn’t stop her – Dirk was apparently not ambitious, and was relatively weak: Petronella held onto the reins of power until her favourite son Floris was old enough to rule, although an initial burst of sibling rivalry ended with Dirk and Floris ruling side by side. Nevertheless, the period of the Regency helps us to date the relief – c. 1122-1133.

Details of six of the ten remaining Pleurants from the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon, attributed to Renier van Thienen, c. 1475 - c. 1476

The House of Holland died out in 1299, and was taken over by the House of Avesnes, who ruled as Counts of Holland and Hainault (no, not the one on the Central Line) until they were succeeded by the Wittelsbachs in 1345. And then, after a war of succession at the beginning of the 15th Century, Holland was taken over by Phillip the Good (the names get better) in 1432, and Holland became part of Burgundy. Phillip was succeeded by Charles the Bold, and Charles by Mary the Rich (see what I mean?). Mary’s mother, Isabella of Bourbon died in 1465, twelve years before Mary inherited the titles, and just before she did inherit she commissioned what must have been a splendid tomb for her mother, surrounded by 24 pleurants  or ’weepers’ cast in bronze. Today only ten survive, and are housed in the Rijksmuseum just round the corner from the Egmond Tympanum. Attributed to Renier von Thiene, they represent members of Isabella’s family as well as her ancestors: the fact that the latter were already dead may explain why they do not appear grief-stricken, and not even weeping, as their name might suggest. Their clothes, richly represented and intricately cast and chased, are rather old fashioned for the 1460s, possibly because they were inspired by figures on other, lost tombs.

Details of six of the ten remaining Pleurants from the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon, attributed to Renier van Thienen, c. 1475 - c. 1476

Mary herself married Maximilian Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor. Their son, Phillip the Handsome (still looking good – indeed, in this case, looking particularly good) married Joanna the Mad (ah… not so good). Admittedly she didn’t go mad until his death in 1506, by which time she had inherited the Kingdom of Castile (and Leon) from her mother Isabella and went on to inherit Aragon from her father Ferdinand. Phillip and Joanna’s son Charles ruled with her as King of the newly united Spain from 1516, and became Holy Roman Emperor when his grandfather Maximilian died in 1519: this was Charles V, and his realm included Holland. The Rijskmuseum has several treasures relating to his reign, ranging from a rather wonderful tapestry to a number of knives and a fork. The complexity of his inheritance is expressed in his coat of arms, visible on all these objects – and these are relatively simple versions. The arms of Castile and Leon are the lions and castles at top left, for example, with Aragon top right. The double-headed eagle behind the coat of arms represents the Holy Roman Empire.

Tapestry with the arms of Emperor Charles V. Brussels, c. 1540-1555

 

In 1556 Charles abdicated, handing the Holy Roman Empire his younger brother Ferdinand, and the Kingdom of Spain to his son, Phillip II. Unlike Charles, Phillip was entirely Spanish in upbringing, and had no real interest in his northern provinces. This signalled increasing unrest: more and more parts of Europe were adopting Protestantism and a wave of religiously inspired destruction swept though the Netherlands in 1566 – the Iconoclast Fury.  One victim of this was the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon. The main body of the tomb has ended up in Antwerp Cathedral, whereas the pleurants were pulled off and disappeared, only to resurface in Amsterdam in 1691 where they were bought by the burgomasters, who thought they represented the Counts and Countesses of Holland (maybe Dirk VI and Petronella were thought to be among their number).

A knife belonging to Emperor Charles V (anonymous) 1532

Two years after the Iconoclast Fury the Eighty Years War began, and in 1581 the Act of Abjuration officially deposed Phillip II. It was this struggle for independence, finally achieved with the Peace of Münster in 1648, which created the background for the famous art of the Golden Age. So when you get to the Rijksmuseum (I suggest 8.58am), and have spent some time on your own with the Vermeers (which you can, if you go straight there), then head back downstairs to the basement. Vermeer wouldn’t be possible without it.

A knife belonging to Emperor Charles V (anonymous) 1532

Pata Pica Photo Studio – a snapshot of modern medicine by Faith Whitehouse

In the Wellcome Trust’s exhibition ‘Foreign Bodies’, six artists took up residencies in medical research centres across the world. The result was spectacular and artists came back with artworkswhich embodied the ever-changing scene of modern medicine. A work which showcased this  for me was ‘Pata Pica Photo Studio’ (meaning ‘get the picture’ in Swahili) by the multi-media artists Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki.

The piece was created in 2012 and the aim was to explore how health researchers and the community worked together and how they perceived each other. They set up an open studio in Kilifi town and invited residents to have their photo taken inside. Props were placed in the studio that related to the medical research carried out by the KERMI- Wellcome Trust Centre. The props were props of education, religion, money, power and context showing the transient social landscape which James is interested in.

What was striking about these portraits was the interaction that the figures in the photographs had with their props.  Some held flowers, others leant against a table or simply stoond there looking outwards to the viewer.

It was clear from the outset that that Miriam and James wanted the viewer to take on the role that the people in their portraits had. This was complimented by the curators (and artists) setting up the same scene in the photographs in the gallery. Here the viewer was invited to take their own photograph in the ‘pata pica photo studio’ creating their own scenario and snapshot of modern medicine. 

To find out more about the project: http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/art-in-global-health/syowia-kyambi–james-muriuki/production.aspx

Foreign Bodies was at the Wellcome Trust until 16th March 2014.

Lights in the Landscape – The New Trend in Land Art and Installation by Anna Fothergill

My recent research has brought to light (pardon the pun) a trend which seems to be gaining popularity with both artists and the general public; the use of lights in ways and places they do not belong. It seems to me, there is a fascination in the collective artistic world of the way electric light can be manipulated in art. This is being done in many ways, such as in  Jessica Lloyd-Jones’s glass human organs containing neon lights or any display from Gent’s yearly Light Festival, an event which is definitely on my bucket list. However, I think it is the subtler use of light that appeals to the general public. Specifically, stimulated lighting in a natural setting.

Copyright Barry Underwood
Copyright Barry Underwood

The placement of ethereal shapes in a landscape creates a juxtaposition of a traditionally urban feature and nature, yet when it’s done well, there does not seem to be anything unnatural about it. The work of an artist like Barry Underwood perfectly illustrates how well this creation of an electric environment works in beautiful harmony, despite all logic.

Copyright Barry Underwood

Works such as these, whilst falling under the category of ‘land art’, also span many other mediums, and this could explain why it has gained such popularity. This fascination has even seeped its way into national advertising, like Ikea’s recent advert. These light installations are sculptures, surreal photographs and now advertising agents. Underwood’s work seeks to turn the everyday into something unique and unusual. These images, to me, are reminiscent of fairy tales, of something magical happening away from the every day world. They are scenes from a mysterious play, and each installation has its own dream-like narrative, which the viewer cannot help but be drawn to.

Copyright Barry Underwood

The collision of the material and the natural world generates a refined contrast.

Copyright Barry Underwood

The strange beauty of light cannot be captured to its fullest extent but this has not stopped artists from trying and at the heart of this use of light, we essentially see an example of the human condition, choosing light over darkness. Barry Underwood’s lights in a night landscape brilliantly brings together all aspects of installation, photography and a basic human instinct.

Copyright Barry Underwood
Copyright Barry Underwood