From the infamous Black Square to a shark preserved in formaldehyde, modern and contemporary art often confuses, amuses, or annoys. Here is an example on why it (sometimes) deserves a second look.
This is Giovanni Anselmo’s Untitled (Sculpture That Eats). It consists of two blocks of granite, separated by a head of lettuce, all three tied together with a copper wire. The object exists as long as the salad insures the width of the structure. The more time passes and the salad disintegrates, crushed between the two slabs of granite, the more likely it is for the object to fall apart. Anselmo’s structures are often organized by energy, close to breaking point.
The Sculpture that eats takes the form of a mouth, demanding countless heads of lettuce in order for the object to remain on display. The contrast between the granite, usually associated with funeral art, and the vitality of green lettuce, is hinting to the fragility of life. The lettuce is the frailest part of the structure, but it is also what keeps it together. Anselmo is fascinated by granite and anthracite as fossilized remains of early organisms. In Trecento milioni di anni, he reminds us that a piece of anthracite was once organic matter, vegetal or animal, before being submerged under the earth and hidden away from light. Adding a lamp to his installation is a way of undoing these millions of years of darkness (hence the name).
The Italian artist is interested in essential elements: time, space, gravity and energy. The lettuce in our case illustrates the concept of entropy, popularly described as a measure of disorder. To understand entropy, imagine two pieces of metal that touch each other, one being hot and the other one cold. In time, the two will inevitably reach an even, lukewarm temperature. The metals will never exchange temperatures, the hot one becoming cold, or vice versa. Therefore, the (thermal) energy concentrated into the two pieces of metal will always spread out, disperse, just like ice cubes will eventually melt in a glass of soda. And since this is an inevitable process, occurring in all aspects of life, all of the energy clumped together in the universe will eventually disperse.
Giovanni Anselmo is a prominent figure of Arte Povera. The name was initially used for a new, experimental theatre, around 1967, promoting a direct exchange between the actor and the spectator, as a reaction against the multi-sensory qualities of theater in general. For artists, this translated into the use of primal forms, present in all aspects of life, experienced directly and not mediated through representation, ideology or codified languages. Arte Povera was a reaction of Italian contemporary art against the supremacy of the American art market, and against the consumer society. It was a new focus on the artistic gesture, rather than the art object, and a refusal of heavy equipment or abundant resources that tie the artist to cultural institutions.
… the members of the French Third Estate assembled, vowing to obtain a constitution, thus launching the French Revolution. When the representative of the crown tried to break up the assembly, the Count of Mirabeau presumably retaliated with the famous words: “Go tell your master that we are here by the will of the people, and will leave only by the force of bayonets!”
In January 1943 …
… nineteen-year-old Ukrainian Ulyana Gromova was executed by the Nazis and thrown into a pit, together with fellow members of the resistance in her village. Her story and that of the Young Guard, an anti-fascist organization set up by the youth division of the Communist Party, is difficult to untangle from the web of Soviet propaganda that was deployed after the war.
Nevertheless, she was an adolescent who stayed behind when the rest of her village was evacuated, so that she could take care of her sick mother. She took part in organizing a group of young people animated by the desire to do whatever they could to stop or slow down the invaders: they distributed leaflets, stole medicine, etc. As a final act of disobedience, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, they hoisted the Soviet flag above a local mine.
In March 2011 …
… the Rome Opera played Verdi’s Nabucco to celebrate 150 years of Italian independence. It is a story taking place during the Babylonian exile of the Jews, whose Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, Va Pensiero (Go, thought), has since become a second Italian anthem. It was first set on stage in 1842, when Italians, occupied by the Austrians, could identify with the oppressed Jews.
The 2011 performance was extraordinarily stopped by the director Riccardo Muti after the famous aria, and he subsequently expressed his concern that the lyrics “O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost!” could soon ring too familiar during a time when funds for culture were being cut. He then turned his back to the stage and directed an emotional encore, sung this time by the entire hall.
There are some works of art that everybody can identify and we all know a few stories more or less true about them. Just like celebrities, they have a luring effect on people, and they usually get looked at through the lenses of a camera.
Van Gogh’s dying sunflowers
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, with their dazzling yellows, are some of his most recognizable paintings. Unsurprisingly, Paul Gauguin’s portrait of the artist in Arles is showing him painting sunflowers.
Van Gogh’s series on these flowers begins in August 1888, at a time when he was enthusiastic about organizing a colony of artists in Arles, in the south of France, inviting fellow painters Gauguin, Emile Bernard and others. He conceived a villa in which every object, from furniture to paintings, is a part of a total work of art. His sunflower paintings were supposed to decorate Gauguin’s room.
Around the same time, Van Gogh’s beliefs take a turn towards a pantheist view of the world. His father was a pastor and he had been a passionate, even zealous, Protestant missionary in Belgium, but he replaces dogma with a vision of the divine manifesting itself in every part of Nature. He read Walt Whitman and he spoke about the importance of joy: that of the artist working, and that of the spectator in front a work of art meant to be as comforting as music.
Van Gogh paints his sunflowers as they are drying out. In fact, most of the flowers in the London National Galley version are dead. The artist was interested in representing the traces left by the passage of time on objects and beings. At the same time, Van Gogh is Dutch, and flower painting has been a staple of Dutch painting for centuries.
During the 17th century, the golden age of Dutch painting, such realistic representations of flowers served as memento mori, a reminder of our mortality: no matter how blossoming your life might feel, you have to prepare for the inevitable demise. But this shouldn’t leave us engulfed in despair, since the sunflowers have already formed their seeds which will continue the cycle of life.
The veiled Statue of Liberty
Our story of the statue begins with Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801). Meant to block Britain’s access to India while reinforcing the young French Republic, the campaign included scientists and artists, documenting and exploring the surroundings. This event created the science Egyptology and lead to an enduring Egyptomania, reflected in Verdi’s Aida as well as the Washington Monument.
In 1855, Auguste Bartholdi, the designer of the “Liberty Enlightening the World”, met Ferdinand de Lesseps, the developer of the Suez Canal, on the boat taking them to Egypt. The sculptor was fascinated by the country and he spends his time in Northern Africa drawing and photographing the locals and the monuments. Eventually, some years later, he begins working on a monumental statue, playing the role of a lighthouse for the Suez Canal, in the spirit of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. His drawings and terracotta models show a Fellah woman, an agricultural laborer in the Middle East and North Africa, wearing a veil and holding a lantern or a torch.
Despite the favorable reception, the monument was finally dropped, due at least in part to the excessive expenses generated by the construction of the Canal, inaugurated in 1869. However, Bartholdi never abandoned the project, and when his journeys took him to America, the Fellah woman transformed into the famous figure lighting the arrival into the New World.
Mona Lisa’s layers
The most famous Renaissance masterpiece arrived in France when Da Vinci fled Italy, welcomed by the king Francis I, who bought the painting for the Palace of Fontainebleau, near Paris. Just like any seasoned celebrity, the Mona Lisa is surrounded by countless anecdotes and rumors. Some of the most outrageous concern its disappearance from the Louvre in 1911, when the painting was stolen by an Italian worker who wished to return it to its homeland.
The Mona Lisa is almost intrinsic to the Louvre, and every one of its movements has been eventful. After Fontainebleau, it was displayed in Versailles, the main royal residence, and because of the 1789 Revolution and the fall of the Monarchy, the royal art collections moved to the newly created museum in the Louvre.
After a short stay in Napoleon’s chamber in the Tuileries Palace, next to the Louvre, the Mona Lisa barely left the museum, except for the two World Wars, when it was hidden for protection. The two occasions when the painting left France to be exhibited have been memorable: in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy convinced the French to borrow it for an exhibition at the MET in New York, where the United States Coast Guard escorted its ship entering the harbor. Finally, in 1974, the Tokyo National Museum and Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts broke visitor records thanks to its short presence.
It is easy to get starstruck in front of her smile, but this shouldn’t stop you from noticing some of the details that make it a masterpiece. Painted in Leonardo’s renowned sfumato, the portrait is a superposition of very thin layers of paint, each of them having to dry before the next one can be applied. The result is a seamless surface, particularly striking around Mona Lisa’s forehead, where a delicate veil frames her face and covers her hair. Leonardo was also interested in the aerial perspective, meaning that air is not transparent in his pictures: contours are blurred, and objects get a bluish hue as we move farther into the background.
Every language has its share of words hiding elaborate histories and quirky details about certain civilizations. Here are just a few, whose story deserves to be told:
Literally bad star in ancient Greek, this word is a reminder that before the development of astronomy, people used to believe that comets predicted catastrophes and other unfortunate events. The impressive 11th century Bayeux Tapestry, illustrating the Norman conquest of England and the adventures of William the Conqueror, includes a representation of Halley’s Comet. Returning to Earth’s vicinity about every 75 years, the embroidered comet is looming here above a scene depicting Harold’s coronation. The message is straightforward: this reign will end in tragedy.
Spring feeling in German, and one of those words impossible to translate. Just like Jean-François Millet’s painting, this word captures that moment when spring is finally chasing winter and its gloomy clouds away, while the best is yet to come. The painting is also hinting to two styles of painting: realist landscape as it was conceived by the Barbizon school and the impressionistic recording of a fleeting moment in time, in fresh colors and with a particular interest in light.
The word derives from the god Pan, overlooking fertility and nature, protector of the shepherds. One legend attributes to Pan the sounds heard by night on mountains and valleys and so he was the cause of any sudden and groundless fear. This god also inspired Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), a masterpiece of horror according to Stephen King himself.
Effortless elegance in Italian. As its creator, Baldassare Castiglione, explains in his 16th century The Book of the Courtier, sprezzatura is the art of never trying too hard, the ostentatious negligence of those who feel very skilled at doing something. This concept quickly transferred to painting referring to an artist’s “painterly”, impastoed brushwork, that dissimulated effort, for example in Venetian painting.
These are technically two words, both of them meaning second in French. The catch is that one of them, second, is the second of two, while the other, deuxième, is the second of many. It might seem as a pointless distinction, but calling WW2 la Seconde Guerre mondiale not only means you are talking about the second of two world wars, but it also implies that there will never be a third.
These two Russian words translate to truth [istina/pravda]. The first refers to moral values, while the second is our more mundane truth, dealing with reality. The prominent Russian painter Nikolay Nikolayevich Ge illustrates the first concept by focusing on one of the key episodes of the Passion of Christ. The son of God is facing Pontius Pilate and a fateful dialogue ensues:
“The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.
Looking closely, observing and contemplating the stars used to be an essential part of navigating, which is how we got the verb consider: con (with) + sidus/sidera (star/stars). Meaning that before offering someone our close attention, we should remember that we are in a way raising them all the way to the stars.
In 1909, a French philanthropist banker created The Archives of the Planet, a project designed to record and share the diversity of the world. Between 1909 and 1931, Albert Kahn financed missions around the globe, producing more than 72.000 photographs, as well as over 100 hours of video footage. A firm pacifist, he tried to enlighten decision-makers in order to achieve and maintain peace.
Faces from the past
His collection takes the viewer from the western Canadian coast to Japan, and from Rio de Janeiro to Benin, in Africa. With the help of geographer Jean Brunhes, Khan’s project integrated the principles of human geography, a branch of geography studying the dynamics between human cultures and their environment.
A changing world
Kahn’s photo-campaigns unfold during a time of dramatic changes, from relative peace to world war, and from rural to mass industrialization. This is also when the Lumière brothers invented the autochrome, an early color photography process. This new technique captured Khan’s attention, to the point of establishing one of the largest autochrome collections in the world.
Albert Khan’s intention was to capture disruptive events, transcending immediate reality. And his life was rich in such episodes from the beginning : he was born in 1860 in Alsace, France, a territory occupied by the Germans in 1871 and reconquered by the French after WW1. He died in November 1940, in Nazi-occupied Paris, not long after having declared himself a Jew during a census run by the new regime.
A very select face-book
His estate in Boulogne, on the outskirts of Paris, as well as his villa in Cap-Martin, on the French Riviera, hosted many of his high-society friends. Luckily for us, Kahn had a habit of placing his guests, no matter how select, in front of a camera, thus collecting a series of remarkable portraits.
Albet Kahn’s collection, as well as his gardens, are a part of the Albert-Kahn Museum in Boulogne-Billancourt, France. All the photographs are credited to the museum.
Peruvian ceramics are an amazing window into a very distant past. They show tattooed faces, ruthless traditions and unusual objects – all otherwise quite inaccessible since the people of the Andean region had no writing system before the arrival of the Europeans.
Most of the times, these objects have been found in tombs, but besides information concerning the buried individual, they offer an insight into the way these civilizations understood the universe.
Here’s an Inca peasant, displaying fascinating features, wearing his adorable chocolate-caramel striped shirt and flashing an axe on his shoulder.
Tattoos, scarifications, physical defects (such as the missing upper lip) and illness are recurring motifs.
Mountain scenes are believed to be common because this is the place inhabited by guardian spirits, where shamans are initiated, and where human sacrifices sometimes take place.
Peruvian ceramics also help puzzle out social hierarchy. This priest is wearing a striking monkey headband of which “a few actual examples have been excavated”, showing that “these depictions are realistic and accurate portrayals”.
And let’s not forget love, in all its shapes and forms, a subject that constantly occupied the inhabitants of the Peruvian coast.
Yes, this is a woman hammering a nail in the head of a sleeping man. It is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Jael and Sisera and not only is it a bizarre subject – at least for those who haven’t memorized the Old Testament – but the artist is a woman, which is blatantly uncommon for 1620 when it was painted.
Mind your head
It is a scene drawn from the Book of Judges (IV, 17-24). Sisera, the sleeping nail-ee, was a long-time enemy of the Israelites. After having lost a battle he fled the scene, seeking refuge in the house of Jael, the nail-er. She opened her tent to him, offered him milk, he fell asleep so she killed him and thus revenged her people.
Just like Artemisia’s Judith beheading Holofernes, also inspired by the Old Testament, the painting displays a strong woman carrying out rightful revenge after careful plotting. Furthermore, they both end in severe injuries to the head.
Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian painter who worked for some of the most influential people of her time, even if social and institutional structures were not working in women’s favor. Unfortunately, the assault she suffered when she was young (she was raped by her teacher and had to go through a gruesome trial to prove her … innocence) has served as a pretext for a distorting over-interpretation of her work.
But to end on a happy note, here’s a painting showing the Academicians of the Royal (British) Academy in 1771-1772. It reminds us that only 150 years after Artemisia’s painting two women, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, were founding members of this select institution. The only twist is that they show up as portraits on the wall, since, among other reasons, a respectable woman couldn’t appear in the company of naked male models.
Probably nobody. And besides, for some scholars, public monuments are obsolete symbols of society’s fixation on death. However, considering the recent Confederate statues coming down in the US, anyone can start reflecting on the choice of statues inhabiting their environment, and then drift into a whirlpool of questions about values and the sense of belonging.
Do you know how many statues were on the streets of Paris around 1870? Not as many as you might think, since there were only NINE ! Those considered statue-worthy at the time were:
(unsurprisingly) former kings: Philip Augustus and Saint-Louis, place de la Nation; Henry IV on the pont Neuf; Louis XIII, place des Vosges; Louis XIV, place des Victoires
Napoleon I, on top the Vendôme Column
Molière on rue Richelieu
Ney on avenue de l’Observatoire
Moncey, place Clichy
Out of fashion
All of these statues still exist today, but some of them had to be rebuilt as they went in and out of fashion. Poor Napoleon was put up the Vendôme column in 1810, meted in 1818, rebuilt in 1833, he went down again together with the column in 1871, and then he finally went up again in 1875.
As a visit to the Museum of Communism in Prague would show you, in 1945, the Czech decided to build a monument dedicated to Stalin. They went for a 30-meter high statue and because of its scale, the construction was unveiled TEN years later, after Stalin’s death, and just a couple of months before Khrushchev’s denunciation of his entire regime. The monument thus stood as an embarrassing reminder of darker ages, until finally, in 1962, they decided to blow it up.
Photo : taken inside the Museum of Comunism in Prague