On its surface a comic novel drawing from an enduring mystery in the history of art, British novelist Michael Frayn’s Booker-shortlist Headlong is also more deeply a book about the ease of moral corruption and how human drives and desires rush us into wrong more often than they point us along the path to right. The title refers most particularly to a detail in an imagined lost masterpiece that his protagonist comes to feel encapsulates the artist’s social and historical context, his aesthetic impact, and irrefutably proves the work’s provenence. But it also describes the heedlessness of the protagonist’s quest to uncover the truth about the painting and his helpless determination to possess it for himself, if only briefly, before exposing its henceforth-unknown existence to the fine art world.
Frayn’s protagonist is Martin, a young academic who relocates to an English country cottage with his equally young art historian wife Kate and their newborn daughter at the onset of Headlong. The rural sabbatical has a specific purpose: the mercurial Martin has proven to be too easily distracted from writing a planned book, spiralling off into intellectual and scholarly tangents instead of focusing on the vital professional and financial project that it is hoped he will be able to hone in on in the country. The book itself might even be a tangent, or at least the neurotic overthinker Martin (tendencies that delightfully dominate Frayn’s narrative prose) suspects that his wife suspects it is. Ostensibly based in philosophy, Martin nonetheless is chasing a field outside his immediate expertise and in Kate’s realm: he fancies himself a budding art historian as well (an expression of his fondness for her that manifests unwittingly as competition with her), and his book purports to tackle the dry-sounding topic of the impact of nominalism on early Netherlandish art.
Martin’s willingness to pursue intellectual will-o’-the-wisps and become inextricably mired in a morass as a result is thus well and truly established. Predictably, rather than hunkering down to write, Martin becomes obsessed with a painting he glimpses only briefly in the decrepit country seat that neighbours his cottage. Once the impressive estate of the noble Churt clan, Upwood has fallen on leaner days under the unsteady stewardship of current master of the house Tony Churt, a rugged outdoorsman who has more interest in dogs and hunting pheasants than in the artistic family heirlooms strewn about the manor. He’s already sold many paintings to make up for the funds he’s squandered in a variety of ill-conceived schemes, and is receptive to Martin’s offer to broker the sale of more such works.
Martin knows less about selling art than he has made himself learn about analyzing it academically, but his amateuring dealing is all part of an elaborate scheme to get his hands on his true object of desire. The tantalizing painting that he is shown at the end of an uncomfortable dinner at Upwood is, Martin believes, a lost work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Bruegel was a prominent painter in the mid-16th century Netherlands whose masterful landscapes and detailed scenes of peasant life, at once satirical and empathetic, have made his small surviving body of work among the most admired and priceless in European art. Though Martin cannot be 100% certain of it (and never does manage to prove it, even to himself), he comes to believe strongly enough that the oak-panel painting he examines in Upwood’s breakfast-room is not merely a lost Bruegel but the missing sixth painting in the master’s famous cycle of seasons of the year, The Months (most of which are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna).
With reluctant academic, emotional, and financial support from the doubting Kate, Martin plots to raise enough money from selling a massive Baroque Italian painting of the abduction of Helen of Troy for Tony to purchase the supposed Bruegel along with a couple of other Dutch canvases for himself. Keeping his suspicions of the painting’s true provence from the Churts, he will then belatedly “discover” that it covers the missing months in Bruegel’s cycle and achieve notoriety and riches in selling it on to a public institution. Unfortunately, the process of pulling off this con requires not only escalating falsehoods but a painful stretching of Martin’s pecuniary means, of his relationship with Kate, and of the bounds of the law. It will also lead Martin into what increasingly resembles an affair with Churt’s dissatisfied younger wife Laura.
This modern comic pastoral is juxtaposed with Martin’s researches into the Netherlands of Bruegel’s time, which he hopes will uncover some clue, some scrap of evidence that the painting is an authentic Bruegel (and therefore valuable almost beyond measure). Entering unwisely into a dynastic political union with Habsburg Spain in the late 1400s, the Low Countries became a central front in the post-Reformation tug of war between Catholic monarchies and dissenting Protestant nobility. By the time Bruegel was at work in what is now Belgium’s Flemish region (his career roughly covered the 1550s and 1560s, though reliable biographical information is scant), Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II were brutally repressing Calvinists in their Dutch territories through inquisitorial practices, mass arrests and execution, and occasional indiscriminate massacres. Protestants responded with widespread iconoclastic riots, destroying relics, icons, and works of Catholic art in churches throughout the country. Cycles of persecution and retaliation lasted for more than 80 years, until the Dutch Republic emerged from a protracted war and became one of Early Modern Europe’s economic powerhouses by the middle of the 17th Century.
Although a major patron of Bruegel’s was a cardinal and inquisitor who pulled the strings of the Spanish imperial domination of the Dutch, Martin believes that the artist embedded details in his work that would have been easily recognized as commentaries or even satires of the social and political situation in the country at the time. Perhaps naively, he comes to believes that if he can connect the scene depicted in the supposed missing Bruegel spring painting with historical details, it will prove it to be genuine. Even if Martin’s conviction that a chain of academic interpretation can stand in for definitive attribution is a bit silly from an art expert’s perspective, the fact that the telling detail he seizes on (too late, as it happens) is one reflective of violent repression and terror visited upon the populace by the authorities is telling.
Martin does some bad things in the service of what he feels to be the higher purpose of art, but nothing nearly as terrible as the horrors visited upon the Netherlands under Spanish rule. And yet, out of that fire came the eternal masterpieces of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; indeed, with his creations supported by the reign of terror’s mastermind Granvelle, Bruegel was, in a way, a part of that terror, a collaborator, one of his own people’s vicarious executioners. Martin and Kate discuss the relative value of art and of human life at one point in Headlong, and the novel suggests that humanist leanings may not be so accurate in valuing a person over a painting. Martin is wrong to do so, and Frayn is clear enough about that, in his dissembling comic way. But Headlong also suggests that the same irresistible current that carried Bruegel – who painted what could not be painted, as a contemporary put it – to creative pinnacles also sweeps Martin along in crafting and executing his fabulously inventive but morally reprehensible deceptions in order to possess a piece of artistic eternity. And so, more troublingly, it carried (and still carries) the powerful towards oppression of the powerless. The same river waters carry us all, inevitably, to the same deep unknown sea.
The interesting confluence (if not quite congruence) of two blockbuster touring exhibitions sharing special gallery space at this moment at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto brings several potent issues revolving around image, identity, and representation in the post-modern age into a tighter orbit. Prominent Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei’s According to What? show runs until October 27th, and the recently-opened David Bowie Is admits visitors until November 27th. Although the sprawling, multifarious oeuvre of the wildly-creative Bowie would initially seem to share little thematic ground with the focused conceptual provocations of Ai Weiwei’s work, they in fact provide fascinating opposing case studies into the contemporary construction of identity in the public sphere.
Ai Weiwei may currently be the world’s most famous artist, his shaved head, scraggled goatee, and hardened gaze familiar features to any follower of current developments in the fine arts. Weiwei’s work, to a great extent, conforms to contemporary art’s dominant practice of large-scale abstraction and privileging of concept over form, signified over signifier. As such, it often shares the movement’s smugly self-confident pretention, its conviction of its vitality and importance in the face of evident self-indulgent conceit. Just how important, really, is a shark preserved in formaldehyde, or a turbine hall full of ceramic sunflower seeds (Weiwei’s famous installation at London’s Tate Modern), anyway? Most would say, and have said, not very.
But even if his form follows that of major contemporary art influences like Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp, and Andy Warhol, its function, its meaning, is subtly modified and possibly even deepened by his engagement with Chinese cultural history as well as with the country’s current political situation. Weiwei often employs traditional Chinese fabrication techniques and materials in his works and installations, connecting the intellectual metaphors of conceptual art with the cultural bedrock of his nation. Examples in the According to What? exhibition include sculptures made of wood from demolished Qing dynasty temples that take the form of the map of China and a traditional rural woodpile, scaled-down house shapes made from pressed tea leaves, traditional wooden stools (constructed without nails) arranged in a vertiginous sunburst pattern, and Forever-brand bicycles attached in a circle, a suggestion of eternity that puns on the brand name.
Weiwei does not merely adapt Chinese cultural tradition to more modern usages, however. He also challenges the sanctity of that cultural heritage with a series of works confronting contemporary China’s modernization efforts and its concomitant erasure of that heritage. He dips centuries-old vases into bright industrial paints, photographs himself dropping and smashing another vase from 2000 years ago, and paints a silver Coca-Cola logo onto Neolithic pottery. Is he defacing ancient and valuable artifacts, making them beautiful or meaningful in new and striking ways, or executing both acts at once in a commentary on the post-capitalist order’s own focus on progress over preservation?
This would all be interesting enough fodder for contemporary art, but would not necessarily make Ai Weiwei a figure of the gravity and integrity that he has been invested with. Weiwei’s antagonistic relationship to and frequent challenges of the authority of the Chinese Communist state accomplishes that nicely, adding a note of agitprop frisson to the subtle wit of his works. His support of political dissidents and efforts to compel greater disclosure from the Chinese government with regards to the death toll and infrastructure failures of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake has gotten him arrested, beaten, and currently under house arrest, his passport confiscated, preventing him from travelling outside of China. These events have found their way into his art, as other works in the exhibition include a huge snake made of backpacks (5000 children died in the Sichuan quake, many in collapsing, shoddily-constructed schools) and a shattered wave constructed of rebar, salvaged from destroyed buildings and laboriously straightened for use in the sculpture.
What emerges from According to What? is an artist whose presented identity is grounded in his country’s history and character as much as in the provocations of contemporary art. But even as he challenges the authoritarian system of China and engages with its rich and ancient culture, his processes of artistic production reflect the industrial and commercial underpinnings of that system. The Warhol-esque repetitions of his works require a large labour pool to achieve the desired effect; According to What? includes video of Chinese labourers hammering the aforementioned rebar straight, and the sunflower seeds were made by a ceramic works that once provided precious objects to the imperial court (the project saved it from bankruptcy, apparently). Is Weiwei exploiting the huge Chinese labour pool like the government whose record he often protests, or is he turning its almost immeasurable energies to more productive creative uses? As with most of Ai Weiwei’s creative interactions with the Chinese portion of his artistic identity, he leaves it largely up to interpretation.
Speaking of identity left up to interpretation, David Bowie Is (put together by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and featuring hundreds of items from Bowie’s personal archives) is a multifaceted examination of a popular artist whose many facets have been presented at different times. Spawned by a comfortable suburban English milieu, young David Robert Jones sought out substitute identities based on a variety of sources: Buddhist spiritualism, science fiction, German Expressionism, ambiguous sexuality, even mime. His boundless artistic appetite has expanded beyond music into design, art, dance and performance, and film acting. Indeed, perhaps the most contained expression of his chameleonic powers in the enormous exhibition is a screening room looping scenes from his eclectic cinematic career.
There are also clips of performances, handwritten lyrics, letters, and notes, movie and stage props, photographs and posters, and a constant stream of Bowie’s varied musical output. Most revealing, however, are the profusion of costumes on displays (sometimes revealing in more than one sense of the word). From extraterrestrial jumpsuits to oversized Weimar cabaret outfits to kabuki-style robes to an iconic distressed Union Jack coat, it is made very clear that throughout Bowie’s image transformations, the clothes have always made the man in terms not merely proverbial but profoundly identitarian. Bowie’s wardrobe has not so much enabled his assumption of shifting identities as it has constituted it. There is no better illustration of David Bowie’s unstable but always precise image changes than all of these sets of empty clothes that he once wore, now standing idle on mannequins.
What these concurrent shows by Weiwei and Bowie shows us, then, is that whether tethered to contemporary politics and national heritage or to only the whims of one’s imagination, identity is constructed through image, and image preconditions identity.
I have previously considered the subject of the common intersections of art and commerce in these parts, and two recent BBC art documentaries I’ve recently seen serve to further contextualize that discussion.
In The World’s Most Expensive Paintings, art critic Alastair Sooke (who also produced an illuminating documentary on British war art recently) presents a countdown show of sorts for the ten paintings that have fetched the highest prices at public auctions in the modern history of the art trade. Though the actual subject material of the program does not quite match its extravagant title (many works of art beyond all conceivable financial evaluation are held by public museums, and the undisclosed sums paid in private art sales are speculated to far outpace the publically-divulged auction prices), Sooke’s journey across the globe to reveal what he can about the art that costs its acquisitors so many millions of dollars is nonetheless an engaging odyssey into the secretive world of elite art collection.
The tone mixes wide-eyed aspirational envy of the mega-rich with mild rebukes of their splashy, ostentatious greed (much of the latter is reserved for bronzed billionaire Vegas developer Steve Wynn, who once owned Pablo Picasso’s La Rêve and boorishly put his elbow through the canvas in the process of selling it). Sooke cannot get near too many of the actual buyers of these hugely costly Van Goghs, Rothkos, Picassos, and Francis Bacons, settling mostly for conversations with their auctioneers, art consultants, and acquaintances as well as meetings with less flush collectors and contemporary art enthusiasts. Sooke is affable and knowledgeable when standing before a painting, pointing out its aesthetic valences and secret features. But he never does get terribly close to probing the exact nature of the relationship between art and money, as he promised. If anything, he demonstrates rather conclusively that art needs money. But why does money need art? Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption perhaps provides the only answer required to that question.
A more nuanced and informative exploration of these issues comes from Stephen Smith, whose BBC Four series Sex and Sensibility: The Allure of Art Nouveau delves into the defining visual artistic movement of Europe’s Gilded Age at the turn of the 19th Century. Art Nouveau was characterized by many of the defining features of major counter-cultural movements over years in the post-Enlightenment West. Its proponents in Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, England, and Vienna emphasized sexuality and sensuality in opposition to Late Victorian propriety, natural beauty and dedicated hand-craftsmanship in response to urban and technological expansion and increasing mechanization of production processes, personal expression in the place of the conventions of middle-class taste. It owes a considerable debt to Romanticism, directly inspired the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Deco, and its echoes could be felt in 1960s hippie psychedelia and the organic and artisanal pretension of 2000s indie DIY culture.
And yet Art Nouveau was a product of its own time as well; it defined that time, even, and Smith is clever in his exposition of how it did so. The focus on intricate, hand-crafted beauty in its products made them sought-after household decorative objects at the same time as it inflated prices. The very aesthetic philosophy that sought to set Art Nouveau apart from middle-class consumption therefore made it the preferred target of that consumption. Smith – amusing, self-deprecating, and more immune to Sooke’s species of hyperbole and platitudes – comes back to this part of Art Nouveau’s rich story again and again, dedicating a sizable portion of his episode on the movement’s legacy in Britain to toney London department store Liberty’s exploitation and mass-retailing of the work of artisans in the Arts & Crafts vein of William Morris and others. The store is the Urban Outfitters or Apple of its time, raking in considerable profits selling an image of enlightened consumption as much as a specific type of artistically-fashionable product.
Smith’s narrative benefits from the inherent drama of the lives of the movement’s principal figures. Prominent French designer Émile Gallé took an unpopular contemporary political stance against the persecution of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus and lost many of his wealthy patrons in the process. Two of the movement’s shining lights in Britain suffered even more greatly: Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and imprisoned for homosexuality, while his friend and sometimes collaborator Aubrey Beardsley, a revolutionary draftsman and artist, died from tuberculosis before he was 30. Even the blazing successes of the Vienna Secession are darkly underscored by the fracturing of its members’ loose partnership over time.
But this latter group’s ostentatious motto “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (“To every age its art. To art its freedom”) is a fitting epigraph to Art Nouveau. In seeking to give art its freedom, the practitioners of Art Nouveau gave their age its art, but it was an art of the age: a mere idealistic glaze of edgy Bohemianism applied to the cynical imperatives of industrialized mass-culture consumerism of the striving middle-class and the wealth-amassing elite. It is in this way that Art Nouveau should be most familiar to a modern world characterized by the prevalence of similarly-pitched subcultures, and to an art world as much in the thrall of exorbitant wealth as ever before.
Opening last weekend at the Art Gallery of Ontario and running until January 20th, “Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting” is a strong exhibition of the varied work of Mexican art icons Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. But, like so many other blockbuster exhibitions, it’s also a clear demonstration of how popular iconography, artist biography and commonly-circulated narrative tropes are employed in marketing and presenting fine art to the mass public.
Kahlo and Rivera were long-time spouses and lovers as well as fellow artists and sometimes collaborators, sharing intense personal interactions as well as deeply-committed socialist political principles (both were Marxists and Communist Party members, and hosted the exiled Soviet leader Leon Trotsky at their home when he arrived in Mexico near the end of his life). They were also both prominent artistic figures in their lifetimes, and though Rivera was more widely-appreciated and commissioned earlier than his younger partner, Frida Kahlo has surpassed him in the popular imagination since then, not only in her native Mexico but also in anglophone America.
Some of this is down to her art, with its vivid directness, flattened surrealism, and frequent incorporation of self-portraiture. Although the more traditionally-trained Rivera covered a wider variety of artistic genres and styles, from early experiments with Cubism in his youth in Europe to his famed Mexican mural art, and was perhaps more technically impressive, Kahlo was a figure more in touch with the shapings of modern tastes and mass image-making of her time and, even more so, our own. If there is no single Frida Kahlo painting that is as iconic as the defining masterpieces of the sort that received the Private Life of a Masterpiece treatment, it may be because Kahlo was her own greatest work of iconography.
In placing her own image, with her flower head-dressings, indigenous Mexican robes, and famous unibrow, at the centre of so many of her paintings as well as of the many photographs she posed for, Frida’s own constructed image defined her in the public eye. It certainly didn’t hurt, a decade back, to have an Oscar-nominated biopic starring another Mexican icon, Salma Hayek, spread that image to a wider audience than the gallery-bound art world would allow. Whatever can be said comparatively about their art, the droopy-faced, corpulent Diego Rivera could not hope to compete with his lover in the sphere of mass image marketing.
But Frida Kahlo has also been the posthumous beneficiary of a biographic narrative (which sometimes become bio-graphic, when expressed in her work) that conforms nicely to the popular imagination of great art as the direct expression of pain, tragedy, and even madness. Just as Vincent Van Gogh has become the definitive representation of artistic brilliance more for his mental disquiet, self-mutilation, and eventual suicide than for his memorable (but not unsurpassed) paintings, Kahlo’s addressing of her physical pain (she had polio as a child and fell victim to a debilitating traffic accident as a young adult) in her work aligned her with the popular idea of the great artist as a channeller of personal affliction.
Imagination, training, technique, and hard work (all of which her partner Rivera possessed in spades) matter less in the creation of notable art than having had harsh things happen to you, in this conception. That she and Rivera had a sometimes turbulent relationship (both had numerous affairs, for Kahlo with both men and women, and their marriage was ended for a year at the end of 1930s) and that she crossed path with historical figures like Trotsky make her even finer fodder for popular interest. But it is in her alignment with the modern individualist ideal of the artist as a conduit of personal, physical, and/or psychological anguish, as well as her exquisite self-presentation as a living icon through fashion, photography, and art, that has made Frida Kahlo the memorable figure in the art world that she remains to this day. And this, therefore makes her and her work suitable material for a major museum exhibition in the 21st Century.
The Private Life of a Masterpiece (BBC; 2001-2010)
The BBC’s long-running popular art history program mostly sticks to the same formula but covers its subject with admirable depth, sophistication and accessibility. The documentary series ran for a decade on the venerable British network, examining one great and famous work of art in all of its many facets per episode. It’s an admixture of art criticism, biography of its creator, analysis of technique, social and political history, chronology of the artistic provenence, and a more general examination of how these works of art penetrate the popular consciousness and tessellate creatively with prevailing mass capitalist moods (if my word choice sounds sexually suggestive, kindly observe the way that openly eroticized works like Rodin’s The Kiss and Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus are discussed in their respective episodes).
The choice of paintings hangs pretty near to widely-accepted works of artistic genius, hitting the usual Italianate (Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Leonardo, various other Ninja Turtles) and Netherlandish (Rembrandt, Vermeer, Breughel) masters. There is a striking dearth of British artists or paintings tackled by the series (only American-born, British-based James McNeill Whistler’s famous portrait of his mother made the cut out of the entire Anglophone world), which is odd considering the show’s country of origin. British art may not quite have produced a work as iconic as Munch’s The Scream or Hokusai’s The Great Wave, but if Simon Schama’s Power of Art found time to delve into Turner’s The Slave Ship, surely Private Life could argue for another homegrown masterwork.
Putting aside the focus on mass appeal, the involuntary continental bias, and the sometimes counter-intuitive observations of series regular and The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, the casual or newly-minted autodidactic fine art fan could do worse for general introductions into the art history realm than The Private Life of a Masterpiece, especially with so many episodes locatable for free on YouTube.
At the close of my previous post musing on visiting Paris, I wrote of the often-unnoticed ways that the City of Lights has seen its medieval historical heritage preserved down to the present day. If this can be noticed to some extent in Paris, then it’s nigh-on impossible to avoid in the small, often-maligned country bordering France: Belgium. For all of its mercantile history and contemporary participation in modernity, the great cities of Belgium (or, rather, of its Dutch-speaking northern portion, Flanders) are haunted by a past that had left behind it both aesthetic loveliness and troubling cultural implications.
Belgium has managed to cultivate a bit of an inferiority complex in European relations that doesn’t really befit it in cultural, economic, or political terms. It boasts an artistic timeline progressing from the Flemish Primitives to Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck (though not to my taste, both major artists) to Art Nouveau to Rene Magritte’s Surrealism to… well, I dunno where it ends, Gotye? It has often been an economic and therefore political powerhouse as well, from the thriving late-medieval port cities of Ghent and Bruges to the diamond trade of Antwerp to King Leopold II’s colonial exploitation of the rubber trees of the Congo to today’s membership (and, with its Brussels headquarters, leadership) in the European Union. Still, jammed only half-comfortably between two continental powers (France and Germany) that have often coveted, fought over, and indeed conquered it, and overshadowed even by the country of origin for its linguistic majority (Holland), Belgium is rarely afforded the respect that the unique history of its region, culture, and people have earned.
The aforementioned “Big Four” Belgian cities, all of which were ports of call on my holiday, typify different and even divisive aspects of Belgium even while also accenting the similarities throughout the nation. Brussels is the bustling capital of government, national and continental, dotted with the sort of bulky Neoclassical official institutions that often threaten to swallow other great capitals like Washington D.C. and the aforementioned Paris. French, the prestige language of the country’s elite, has not relinquished its central position in Brussels despite its geographic location in Flanders and increasing progressive concessions to the country’s Dutch-speaking majority. If anything, it’s easier for a visitor speaking French as a second language to survive with only the language in Brussels than it is to do so anywhere in France. In Belgium, no matter what the historical privileged class liked to pretend, French is always a second language anyway.
Antwerp, like Brussels, is both a historic centre and a modern city. The architecture of each is that much more festooned, the famous stepped-gable peaks of Flemish architecture graced with the supplemental gilding that copious profitable commerce affords. Antwerp has long been the town of flash and bang, overflowing with glittering diamonds, an astonishing railroad station, and cutting edge fashion design. The style-over-substance feeling of the place is embodied by its most famous son, the aforementioned Rubens. With his preference for towering canvases, clumsily indistinct lines, sweeping gestures, and rippling cellulite, Rubens is an artist for Antwerp: impressive, showy, and opulent, but largely without a sense of proportion or a soul-like core.
Ghent and Bruges, on the other hand, trade lucratively on their exquisite atmosphere of late-medieval and early-modern urban preservation. Though their aesthetic pleasures are undeniable and therefore quite hard to be critical about, ultimately, both cities present their canals and churches, their wedding-cake market squares and cobblestoned side-lanes, and their profusion of historical fine art for maximum touristic consumption. Ghent manages to escape a more cynical assessment by virtue of being slightly less popular with foreigners as well as slightly more ragged and liberal as a longtime university town. Its main museum to medieval life is the none-too-rose-tinted Gravesteen, an honest-to-god castle in the centre of town that quite openly acknowledges the quotidian brutality of the Middle Ages with its torture exhibits. It also doesn’t hurt that Ghent boasts a dynamic central skyline, one of the continent’s most welcoming cores (the beautiful, homey Graslei), and the Van Eyck brothers’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the true historic knockouts of European art that also has a fascinating history.
Bruges, on the other hand, although undeniably romantic and beguiling, works a bit too hard to construct itself to visitors as a living museum while simultaneously capitulating to modern tastes and capitalist ambition. As pretty as the Markt square is, only a few steps down any of its connecting straats will lead you into a Body Shop or a Zara or a Pizza Hut, and the city’s amalgamated museum bureaucracy, with its standardized pricing and plexiglass booths, drains the character of many a historical landmark (it doesn’t help, either, that the queue for an attraction like the Belfry is a major timesuck). It’s hardly much of a fairytale, though still pretty fine for all that.
Ironically, the cultural product currently most associated with Bruges, Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh’s rough and hilarious moral-comic gangster escapade In Bruges, subtly participated in the town’s self-romanticization as much as it overtly sent it up. The Bruges in the film is a “fuckin’ fairytale”, as a couple of characters put it, although another is less complimentary, repeatedly dubbing it a “shithole”. We laugh dismissively at the latter assessment because McDonagh constructs Bruges as a romantic Belgian burg indeed, albeit one with a subtle dark side. He has sound thematic reasons to do this, invoking the town as a simultaneous Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory where the moral actions of his characters meet with the variant sentences of a fickle, unseen judge. But it’s still a bit too perfect, so much so that it isn’t perfect at all.
And this is Belgium, too: kind of perfect but really much more imperfect. “Nothing works here, and still it works,” goes a local saying, and it speaks volumes about this small but vibrant and fascinating country’s self-image. In a global order of constricting capitalized ambition with consequences both wonderful and terrible, Belgium finds a way to embrace both possibilities and still seem like a land set snugly before the time of unrestricted consumption. This is why it’s such a great place to travel, and will continue to be.
Returning from my first vacation jaunt to Europe for over a decade, there are a profusion of thoughts on the arts, architecture, history and still-living culture of the rich and often-tumultuous continent that have been sparked by my travels, and seem worth sharing in one form or another. I begin with the town where so many continental travellers likewise commence: Paris.
The fascinating French capital bookended the trip itinerary, and while a couple of days was hardly enough to soak in enough of one of the world’s great cities, it was enough to get a feel for the character of the place. Seemingly equal amounts of righteous blood and inked superlatives have been spilled over Paris, amounts that feel both excessive and insufficient, given the city’s bizarre power. This shall not be an essay on the benefits of central urban planning, or a treatise on how Paris’ beguiling romanticism has survived revolutions, wars, gilded ages, and the influx of corporate culture (McDonald’s across from Jardins de Luxembourg, fashion chain stores dotting the Champs-Élysées, etc.). And certainly there are elements of the French civic culture that are less than praise-worthy, in particular the harsh ethnic, cultural and economic divisions between the dwellers and workers of central, historic Paris and the sprawling banlieues on its periphery, which occasionally erupt in violent, frustrated rebellion at the obvious network of persistent inequalities (and Torontonians like to think there’s a downtown/suburbs split in their city!).
One cannot ignore how the firm wall between the 20 arrondisements agglomerated in 1860 and the wider Île-de-France region has constructed the core of the modern Paris into a tourist powerhouse. The charming, romantic destination of legend (and largely, it must be acknowledged, reality) has always been a playground for the 1% and therefore a monument to inequality. Still, the centuries-long series of massive public works, monuments, and cheap, easily-accessible cultural institutions, from former royal palaces that are now public gardens (Tuileries, Luxembourg) or national museums (Versailles, the spectacularly comprehensive art museum the Louvre) to industrial- or corporate-age developments like the Eiffel Tower site, Pompidou Centre or the skyscraper city of La Défense has extended the glories to the people in a manner befitting a country whose modern history is still very much defined by a mass uprising against the assumptions of aristocratic privilege.
But it’s worth remembering that Paris’ history goes back further than the ancien régime, and that was what much of this visit was spent confirming. The city has done a fine job preserving hints of its deeper past in key places, in particular at the Musée National du Moyen Âge at L’Hôtel Cluny, with its treasure trove of medieval art, and at the city’s oldest standing monument, the cathedral of Notre Dame. The literal centre of France (kilometre zero for all distances in the country is the star in the paving stones on the square outside the church), the inspiring Gothic bulk of Notre Dame may well embody spiritual aspirations that the thoroughly secularized republic no longer shares, even if Victor Hugo contributed to its Romanticist re-casting with his seminal novel largely set in its environs.
But the exquisite stone sculptures adorning its towering facade, the famous twisted gargoyles (actually added in the 19th century restoration), pious knights, bishops and kings, and demonic fiends tormenting sinners at the Last Judgment, speak non-verbal multitudes about the nature of official power in the Middle Ages and today. In a vivid visual illustration for a mostly non-literate society, these depictions of the terrifying fate of sinners carried a clear message from the clerical (and, by extension, secular) authorities to their afeared parishioners: do exactly what we say, or be prepared for nasty beings to put the hurt on you for eternity. It’s a deeply medieval conception of Catholic morality, predicated on punitive assumptions, and it’s reflected strongly in the modern France’s civic order in which obedience to established power in which obedience is compelled by the threat of withering social disdain and bureaucratic sarcasm more so than by clumsy state-imposed force (although the paramilitary security forces patrolling the public squares that front on Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower suggest otherwise with an uncharacteristic lack of subtlety).
Similar ideas spring to mind, albeit in a divergent manner, in the other main location of travel on this trip, the oft-misunderstood but lovely nation of Belgium. Some related thoughts on these travels are to follow soon. Stay tuned.
The Art of the Steal (2009; Directed by Don Argott)
Nicely crafted but astoundingly one-sided, The Art of the Steal is another example of that most American of “progressive” message entertainment: the underdog story where the underdog is incredibly wealthy, attractive, or talented, or all three. And yet we’re still supposed to consider them plucky and genuine and worth rooting for.
As an exemplification of the way that the field of play overwhelmingly favours the U.S. monied elite, this documentary nonetheless has its notable points. It tells the story of the private art collection of Albert C. Barnes, a wealthy Philadelphia-based scientist who used his earnings in the early 20th Century to purchase a large number of then-unfashionable and thus fairly inexpensive Modernist and Post-Impressionist works of art and exhibit them idiosyncratically in his suburban Philly home. His collection includes nearly 200 Renoirs, dozens of Picassos, Cezannes, and Matisse (including a specially-commissioned piece by the latter in a ceiling alcove of the museum-house) and, after his death, was valued at somewhere around $25 billion.
The Barnes Foundation that he left his collection to after his death in his scrupulous will was tasked with preserving the complete collection in his chosen arrangement and location in Lower Merian, Pennsylvania. It also had specific stipulations about limiting the number of visitors to the collection and to use the art mainly for educational purpose, following his particular methodology.
Although a pupil of his followed his will for many years until her death, recent decades have seen a succession of shifting developments in the collection’s administration and the Foundation’s financial fortunes and board leadership that saw the collection go on a lucrative international tour (Toronto’s AGO was among the museums that hosted it), sustain larger crowds of visitors than Barnes’ chosen suburban site could support, and finally has seen it relocate to a more accessible building on downtown Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, just down the way from the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art. Opening this past May, this new site completes the collection’s move into the world of corporatized mass-attendance blockbuster fine art exhibition that Barnes’ will was careful to provide against, and much of the documentary’s outrage is directed at this contravening of his stated posthumous wishes.
But the whole argument for the Barnes Collection staying where it is (or was) comes across as epically snobbish, to say nothing of it being swamped by its own persecution complex. Is the ideal of art really for it to be seen by as few people as possible, to be so completely controlled by the idiosyncratic whims of its owner alone? And what truly separates Barnes’ vision for his collection from the similar exhibitings of the collections of Isabel Stewart Gardner in Boston or Henry Clay Frick in New York? I can sympathize with the Friends of the Barnes’ anti-corporate-capitalism views, certainly, but the art world, so lucrative and so prestigious, seems like an odd place to try and impose them.
The Victorians (2009; BBC)
Subtitled Their Story in Pictures and presented by BBC veteran Jeremy Paxman, The Victorians is an engaging and intermittently insightful examination of the society, culture, values, and above all the aesthetics of Victorian Britain through the rubric of art, architecture, and more quotidian forms of expression like photography, dress, and drink. Paxman, known for his abrasive current affairs programs and confrontational political interviews in Britain (he once famously asked then-Prime Minister Tony Blair if he and then-President George W. Bush prayed together), seems to relish the opportunity to unwind and slip on a cloak of pleasant affability.
The host talks his audience through visions of Victorian home life, social convention, foreign empire, industry and commerce, and nature and spirituality presented in the now rather deeply unfashionable paintings of late 19th-century Britain. If Paxman cannot match the art historian’s rigour and lightning-bolt interpretive epigrams that fellow BBC grandee Simon Schama unleashes in his superb Power of Art series, then he manages to cover more ground and have a bit more fun. Paxman bounces around the British Isles, touring edifices as diverse as Scottish art museums, ornate London sewage pumping stations, Oxford’s museum monument to natural history, and the neo-medieval Cardiff Castle. He picks up some seance tricks from latter-day mesmerists, samples absinthe, gazes at century-old photographic negatives, and blushes hilariously at the sexualized delight of a lady whose period corset he helps to tighten.
More so than Paxman, however, the art of the Victorians is the four-part series’ star attraction. Highlights include the fairy paintings of Richard Dadd and the famous work of the Pre-Raphaelites like Rossetti and Waterhouse (dissolute hippies of their day), but the more everyday images constitute a more complete panorama of Victorian life. Days at the races, a quiet card game in the parlour, or the rippling exertions of hole-digging labourers are rendered with vivid complexity in these paintings, and Paxman points our eye to just the right spots and lets us drink in the painterly detail. The Victorian Era is so much more often understood through its literature in general and its expansive social concern novels in particular (Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, etc.) that a perspective on the cultural reality viewed through the lens of its art is refreshing and often a little surprising. The first episode, which explores how Victorian Britain grappled with the unprecedented urbanization of the era, is embedded below, and the subsequent three episode are available on YouTube as well.
I will freely admit that I’m a late arriver to the art party. Although I’ve nurtured a childhood enthusiasm for museums into adulthood, the ones that interested me more as a minor were the scientific, natural, and to a smaller extent civilization-focused institutions. Part of this was a simple accessibility issue, Alberta (as well as nearby British Columbia) in general being infinitely richer in scientific and natural holdings as well as in First Nations artifacts than in the art of the great civilizations of Europe and Asia that fills the museums of the Eastern Seaboard metropoles and of European capitals.
But my general lack of interest in the fine arts was a matter of education and surroundings as well, as well as a mere cultivation of interest issue. By the time I was shuffled off to university, I had visited several fine museums and galleries, after all, from the Royal Ontario Museum and McMichael Gallery in the Toronto area, to say nothing of the Uffizi and Vatican Museums on an Italian trip in my last year of high school. It was only comparatively recently, though, that this gap in my cultural knowledge began to be seriously filled, and it’s hard to say exactly what sparked it. Living in the close vicinity of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the only truly world-class art institution that I’ve ever shared a city with, has likely struck a match or two, though a visit to the Met in New York and the idiosyncratic eloquence TV art historians like Simon Schama and Sister Wendy can’t go without acknowledgement, either.
Whatever the catalysts, and whatever the lacking areas in my autodidactic art-world catch-up act, my recent visit to Boston’s Museum of Fine Art was perhaps the most fully-formed and rewarding experience of art of my life thus far. The essential duality of great art (as with all cultural production) is that while it can easily be experienced and appreciated by the layman in a public museum setting, there is a spectrum of reactions possible, and a work can gain greater currency for an observer more completely versed in the nuances of artistic expression and production. I make no claim to such connoisseurship, of course, nor to the formative milieu of wealth and privilege that engenders the ability to look at art with such an eye, the eye of, for lack of a more aptly descriptive term, the art snob. But like most if not all forms of cultural production in our contemporary post-capitalist society, class and income disparity make their mark strongly on the art world.
The key thing to remember, however, is that, unlike the other corporate-controlled cultural forms that are largely a product of the modern industrial reproductive capitalism of the last two centuries or so (film, recorded music, photography, popular literature, etc.), art’s lineage is much older, and its symbiotic relationship with wealth and capital a much longer and more complex association. When counterculturalists like Banksy or his street-artist peers subvert or decry the commodification of art, they cannot afford to ignore the essential role of those financing their own artistic production, those underwriting the protest art. Indeed, one of the best things about Exit Through The Gift Shop was how Banksy’s film admitted, engaged with, and attempted to complicate the relations between commercial capital and art, instead of merely circulating the ingrained “sell-out” narrative of the counter-culture.
Independent artists are always perfectly free to criticize the profit-motivated machinations of the big art museums, the major dealers and auction houses, and the multi-millionaire and multi-billionaire purchasers and patrons that have turned the art realm into a lucrative and untranscendent meat market, of course. But every working artist is at least aiming to make a living wage from their work, after all; surely nobody is out to actually be a starving artist, even if there is a deluded romantic shimmer to that particular aspect of the bohemian ideal. Independent artists therefore differ from those they disdain only on the basis of degrees rather than on the basis of core motivation, their distinction one of quantity rather than, as they imagine, one of quality.
This hierarchy of concerns and criticisms and ideologies crystallizes nicely in large-scale public art events like last night’s Scotiabank Nuit Blanche in Toronto. A fundamentally scattershot aesthetic experience down to the level of its conception, Nuit Blanche also has to contend with the bred-in-the-bone distaste for corporate-funded art commissions (and, indeed, corporate-funded culture of any kind) that is a common truth in the self-styled counter-cultural underground. That the name of one of the country’s largest banks is permanently stamped on the event that they sponsor makes this hurdle even harder to overcome, even if it is pointed out, quite rightly, that acting on similar ideological qualms in previous moments in the history of Western civilization might have deprived us of great works by everyone from Michelangelo to Caravaggio to Rembrandt to Velasquez to Rothko. What’s the real difference between a commission from a 21st-century Canadian bank and one from a 16th-century Medici bank? There isn’t one really worth considering, in my view.
What these involved considerations of funding sources, purity of intention, and subcultural identification elide is the simple, direct experience of aesthetics, of that supposed common truth that cuts through the messy tangle of implications that I’ve laid out above. To some extent, does it really matter how a work of art is conceived of, produced, or paid for as long as it is, in that most bland but also most all-encompassing formulation of judgement, “good”?
What a well-preserved masterpiece in a museum and an elaborately-mounted conceptual piece on a closed-off city street can have in common, and what can redeem them both in the end, is that brief sublime moment of recognition that comes with viewing them. One need not be an art snob to have such a minute epiphany, and being one is unlikely to aid in the understanding or in the prediction of it. For whatever elements of aesthetic production drag it into the metaphorical muck, this tendency for the transcendent leap is always already its saving grace, its fundamental trump card. It can take some patience to find it, and it can be as hard to pinpoint in a gallery full of expensive paintings as it can at a sprawling public event like Nuit Blanche, but that brief moment is what keeps us searching.