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Film Review: Mr. Turner

January 1, 2015 1 comment

Mr. Turner (2014; Directed by Mike Leigh)

The cinema in 2014 gave us several fascinating perspectives on the nature and source of artistic genius and inspiration. It was defined alternately as an innate gift divorced from experience and formative circumstances (Frank), a collaborative hybrid of pure creative outpouring and regimented organization (The Lego Movie), and a product of technical ingenuity and dedicated work ethic (Tim’s Vermeer). Its ossified and fragile patrimony was worth protecting from the violent upheaval of history at the cost of human lives (The Monuments Men) and its blistering self-expression was worth wringing out of willing vessels at the cost of human kindness (jazz-school drama Whiplash).

In Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, artistic genius is simply a fact of everyday existence. The sublime cannot be summoned, captured, or marshalled; it simply is, and those with the right kind of eyes and the proper technical training can occasionally craft a slight reflection of it. Suffering or pain do not motivate or inspire an artist to greater work any more than these common bedfellows of human existence motivate a baker, a tailor, or a factory worker. Art is an object that many people can craft but some can craft better than others, and profound treatises considering the reasons for this discrepancy are unproductive, wrongheaded follies.

This grounded, realist approach is symptomatic of Leigh’s filmmaking, but it is not an impediment to aesthetic beauty or sympathetic insight. Indeed, Mr. Turner is one of the year’s most gorgeously photographed films, and will surely earn cinematographer Dick Pope an Oscar nomination (if not a win) if enough Academy members have the right kind of eyes. Portraying the key adult creative years of Britain’s greatest painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner (played with grunting, Falstaffian, bearish reality by the ever-excellent character actor Timothy Spall, who might also get an Oscar call this year), Leigh’s film is chocked full of the stuff of a complicated but earthbound life with little of the romantic bohemianism of the myth of the genius. But in exquisitely-shot landscapes that often directly recreate Turner’s grand canvasses in the motion picture frame (including a breathtaking Low Countries field with sunlit windmill as well as the full panorama of The Fighting Temeraire), Leigh and Pope demonstrate the occasionally-glimpsed sublimity that Turner was able to muster out of his mostly mundane daily life.

That daily life included the loss of his proud ex-barber father (Paul Jesson) after years of the elder Turner assisting the younger in his work, his refusal to acknowledge a mistress (Ruth Sheen) who bore him two also unacknowledged daughters, his blithe disregard and occasional sexual exploitation of his psoriasis-afflicted housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), and his eventual quasi-marital bliss with widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). He meets with wealthy patrons and fellow Royal Academy artists (there’s an amusing episode at the annual salon between Turner and his landscape rival, John Constable), learns of the scientific nature of light and colour from a natural philosopher and foresees the fundamental shift that the embryonic practice of photography will herald in painting, and endures and then wittily mocks the insufferable erudition of influential art critic (and hagiographer of his future reputation) John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire). He lives long enough to sees major shifts in fashions in art and to witness the increasingly abstract works of his later years dismissed by early Victorian society (and even by the aesthetically particular Queen Victoria herself).

The constant through it all is Spall as Turner, swaying his trunkish form with observant determination. There seems to be little corporeal distinction in the man’s body from hips to shoulders, but he has the interesting face to end all interesting faces, to borrow a Hollywood casting director term. Spall’s Turner is consistently unlovable in his behaviour and especially in his relationships to others. He often speaks abruptly and directly, grumbling frequently, vocalizing his reactions in ursine grunts and groans of an astonishing variety and expressive breadth. Leigh’s script is peppered with understated humour, but the film’s truest chuckles (and Turner’s ultimately winning personality) stem inevitably from Spall’s communicative croaks.

Strokes of painterly beauty aside, Mr. Turner is a deeply realist biographical portrait of an artist who could pull the sublime out of the natural (and the unnatural) world. A different filmmaker might have elevated Turner as his work elevates what it depicts, but Leigh keeps things stubbornly grounded. A good exemplification of his approach can be descried in a famous episode in which Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a sailing ship to observe (and later to paint) a maritime snowstorm. It’s a wonderful image of borderline-insane artistic commitment, and another filmmaker might have used the full technological toolbox of modern moviemaking to make an epic, sweeping sequence in long shots approximating the grandeur of a Turner canvas. They might not have even been wrong to do so.

But Mike Leigh shows Spall being tied to the mast in medium close-up, cuts wide briefly to demonstrate his crow’s nest elevation, and then goes back in close, showing Turner splashed by clumps of snow, hooting in exhiliration at the experience. Then he shows him coughing and breathing heavily, his doctor fretting that he’s given himself bronchitis. It’s a choice of mundane reality over the mythically grandiose that is highly representative of Leigh and, if we share his view of the great artist and not-quite-so-great man, ultimately of J.M.W. Turner as well.

Categories: Art, Film, Reviews

Alex Colville: Unambiguous Representations, Ambiguous Anxieties

September 3, 2014 2 comments

I must confess to a lack of familiarity with the paintings of renowned Canadian artist Alex Colville before venturing into the Art Gallery of Ontario’s solid retrospective of his life and work, which runs until the end of the year. Such gaps in the continuity of knowledge are surely the consequence of the essentially autodidactic instruction in art history that I’ve managed to give myself in a piecemeal manner in recent years, but I was glad to add Colville’s eerie paintings to my personal annals.

My memory has already been marked by particular memorable images of his making, certainly. To Prince Edward Island, which customarily hangs in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, is definitely familiar; it’s likely his most famous work, a sort of Canuck Las Meninas, even if it is not really his best. But it typifies the most notable features of Colville’s art: a sense of mundane realism raised to the level of the uncanny and the mythic, witty play with planes, juxtaposition, and perspective, and a core of unsettling mystery. The woman in To Prince Edward Island stares directly at us, the viewer of the painting, but the binoculars hide her eyes: her view of us is magnified even as our view of her (and the lounging man behind her) is obscured (the exhibit notes a shot in Wes Anderson’s nostalgic time-capsule Moonrise Kingdom that seems to be a direct homage to the picture). The arrangement of this quotidian scene makes it vaguely unnerving; Colville is masterly at taking moments of everyday humanity and transforming them subtly into something superhuman, inhuman, non-human.

Born in Toronto in 1920, Colville learned art at Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia, where he later taught and then lived and painted until his death just last year. His formative creative experience, as the AGO’s exhibition presents almost right off the bat, was as a War Artist near the conclusion of World War II. He painted Europe’s war-torn landscapes and the bowed soldiers that made up the armies trying to restore order, but he also, vitally, witnesses the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, producing at least one fine painting inspired directly by what he saw there.

But Colville’s war experience, and his brush with the Holocaust in particular, seems to have infused an uneasy anxiety into his paint-on-canvas enigmas. Seemingly innocuous compositions of his peacetime experience in Nova Scotia college towns would unexpectedly contain seeds of the 20th Century’s dominant horror. Witness Professor of Romance Languages, a portrait of a neighbour of Colville’s who frequently walked alone, set in front of an industrial edifice whose smokestack inadvertently raised painful memories of the professor’s family past in the death camps. The supercharged resonance of Colville’s captured moments turns every detail into a potential symbol. Church and Horse, for example, gains some current affairs applicability when one learns, as the AGO exhibit makes clear, that the horse was based on Black Jack, the riderless steed being lead at the tail end of John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession (the picture is dated to 1964). But the image sounds deep wells of meaning whether or not one considers this particular source.

The AGO show finds Colville’s influence not only in Wes Anderson’s films but also in those of David Fincher, Stanley Kubrick (the notoriously exacting auteur used several Colvilles in the background of The Shining, including the resonantly symbolic Horse and Train to mark the Torrances’ fateful decision to winter at the Overlook Hotel) and the Coen Brothers, whose work Colville greatly admired. A painting like Pacific, with its calm menace and anticipatory stillness, seems to suggest a definite aesthetic affinity with the Coens’ patiently-crafted crime-noir Americana in Blood Simple, Fargo, or No Country For Old Men (the latter association is made explicitly in the AGO retrospective). The coldly superb composition of the picture amplifies the promise of violence just as the Coens’ visual poise and narrative acumen brings the inevitable bursts of hot blood out in sharper relief when they do arrive. The space is bissected by horizontal and vertical lines (cleverly referenced by the ruled table) which serve to frame the restive, casually shirtless and faceless man. But the muted colour palette is key as well, especially as the eye is caught and the mind is disturbed by the stark, intrusive black of the handgun’s barrel.

The AGO’s Alex Colville exhibition comes highly recommended by yours truly, even if it has its unfortunate omissions. Like many contemporarily-mounted big-ticket exhibitions, this examination of Colville’s paintings reads their symbols and extrapolates their sources in his personal life but has less to instruct concerning the technical features of his work. A close physical examination of the original canvases (or as close as the public is allowed to get) reveals that Colville’s vaunted vivid realism is stylistically the result of a painting method resembling a subtler pointillism, with many dot-like dabs of paint forming the entire image. None of the textual accompaniment to the pictures discusses this, nor is Colville’s clear representational approach properly situated in contrast to the increasing abstraction of modern and contemporary art advanced by his peers elsewhere in the art world. In many ways, Colville’s paintings evoke an earlier age in art, one of unambiguous representations with ambiguous significance. The earlier comparison to Velázquez was not a facetious one; Colville has more in common with such an Old Master than with a New Master like Rothko or Pollock. Alex Colville’s addition to the established profile of clear representational painting is the infusion of a very modern anxiety, that ever-present aura of an unstable present, a haunted past, and an uncertain future.

Categories: Art, Culture

Film Review: The Monuments Men

July 23, 2014 3 comments

The Monuments Men (2014; Directed by George Clooney)

The contemporary World War Two film finds itself in a tough spot. The grand stories of the 20th Century’s defining conflict have been told onscreen, and they are among Hollywood’s canonical texts: Patton, The Great Escape, The Best Years of Our Lives, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List. The big narratives of the Big War have all been told and often retold; POW films, Pacific theatre films, and Holocaust films are all bursting subgenres in the larger war film megagenre. Even the war’s margins have produced classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia; post-modernist deconstructions (Inglourious Basterds) and art film digressions (The Thin Red Line) have predominated in recent years, though some traditionalists (Clint Eastwood with his Janus projects Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) have reached into the cynically discarded themes of honour and duty for inspiration. Fundamentally, though WWII films are still made, it seems like a largely spent mine narratively speaking; the precious metals have mostly been extracted.

George Clooney’s The Monuments Men typifies this problem: as interesting as it may be, it seems (painfully at times) like a less-vital side-story to the central drama of World War Two. It doesn’t present an unappealing story, though it does present that story with uneven earnestness, stiffness, and the dull middlebrow self-regard of a prestige film that isn’t ever good enough to earn the sobriquet. Though my own familiarity with the efforts of the titular agents of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program stems more from The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas than from the account by Robert M. Edsel that was the source for Clooney and Grant Heslov’s screenplay, I was pre-invested in the story told by The Monuments Men to a greater extent than much of its audience. And if even I found the film unengaging and inconsequential, there were clearly some issues in its execution.

For those unfamiliar with the Allies’ wartime program to safeguard, preserve, and recover the unprecedented number of works of art, architecture, and furniture either looted, threatened, or displaced by the war in Europe, Clooney provides a useful summation at the movie’s opening in the form of a pitch to the U.S. authorities that are his project’s potential patrons. As Allied forces press inexorably towards Berlin post-D-Day, Frank Stokes (Clooney) highlights the existential threat to many of the continent’s greatest masterpieces. Military types would sooner blow up a medieval monastery than risk losing a man to capture it with its historic treasures intact (as happened at Montecassino in Italy), and the Nazis under failed artist Adolf Hitler and avid collector Hermann Göring were taking truckloads of paintings, sculptures, and other objets d’art from conquered territories (and from well-off Jewish families shipped to concentration camps, concerning which the film offers only a soft-focus symbolic gesture) for either their own villas or for a massive museum planned in the Führer’s Austria hometown of Linz. The cultural patrimony, Stokes insists, must be saved for the sake of future generations.

Stokes’ unseen audience (implied to be the President) expresses some pointed doubts about the relative value of art to soldier’s lives that neither Stokes nor the movie ever answers satisfactorily. Still, Stokes gets the green light and assembles a team of mostly middle-aged white men from the country’s top cultural institutions to be shipped to the front to do the job. There’s a young curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Matt Damon), an architect (Bill Murray), an overweight sculptor and professor (John Goodman), a sharp-tongued art critic (Bob Balaban), even British and French academics (Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin) for some international colour.

Even if the war is turning rapidly in the Allies’ favour, the front remains an active war zone and is not without its dangers. The unit is shot at and shoots back (not everyone lives to see VE-Day), and must not only pursue dissembling German agents of the Reich’s systematic art looting infrastructure but also must locate the missing masterpieces before the Soviet Red Army does, lest they fall forever behind the expanding Iron Curtain that was the main cost of Churchill and Roosevelt’s Faustian bargain with the Mephistopheles that was Stalin to win the war.

There’s plenty of narrative, dramatic, and comedic meat here, but Clooney doesn’t seem to know how to grind it down into anything tastier than a street hot dog. The getting-the-team-together montage is perfunctory, as the fish-out-of-water element of high-culture types going to war is played for a laugh or two in basic training. The caper genre potential is badly squandered thereafter. The squad is quickly split up to hunt down specific artworks and the ensemble impact is diminished (one feels that Clooney was working around busy schedules and limited availability windows with his cast). Murray and Balaban are great together (they have a nice exchange with a German scout that they happen across at night in a forest), Goodman and Dujardin less so, and the paternal Clooney floats about with his mustache and smile of indulgent self-possession.

Damon’s James Granger, meanwhile, is saddled with a stop-start sort-of romance subplot in repatriated Paris with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). Based on the remarkable Rose Valland, who worked with the French Resistance and secretly catalogued thousands of displaced works of art while working at a gallery under the noses of the German occupiers, Simone is reduced to glaring at Nazis and alternately dismissing and flirting with Granger, with whom she has little chemistry (blame the generally befuddled Damon, who seems to mainly be here to help sell the movie as a species of WWII Ocean’s Eleven prequel). Valland deserves a film of her own, and Blanchett would have been a fine choice to play a more fleshed-out version of her, but she’s just another anecdote in a film that consists entirely of them.

This attempt to shoehorn every notable story from the Monuments Men epic into this one square, inert film is central to its failure. It’s too busy getting to all of these art world anecdotes (the Ghent Altarpiece being found in a salt mine, Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna rushed out ahead of the Russian advance, the loss of masterpieces taken by the Nazis) to craft an overarching narrative of intelligence, pathos, or dramatic heft. It never earns its grandiloquent closing thesis statement about the preservation of cultural heritage (much of what they’re saving is just rich people’s stuff, lest we forget), thus making it seem like the frivolity that the army brass felt cultural protection in a war zone to be. The Monuments Men attempts to tell a compelling and resonant story from the margins of World War Two, but becomes lost in those very margins. The great tales of the conflict have been told, but that need not mean that there are no stories left that could be great. There was plenty of reasons to expect that The Monuments Men could have been one of those stories, and a marked disappointment that Clooney wasn’t able to tell it in the way it deserved.

Categories: Art, Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Tim’s Vermeer

July 20, 2014 2 comments

Tim’s Vermeer (2014; Directed by Teller)

Tim Jenison is an inventor, which means to say that he solves problems by using technology. This description might seem to be considerably removed from, if not diametrically opposed to, that of the artist, who doesn’t solve problems so much as diagnose and represent them aesthetically, or else imagine and conjure up a vision of an idealized absence of those problems. This last description in particular would seem to be an apt description of the artworks of Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch painter of delicately composed, timelessly poised, exquisitely lighted interior scenes of contemporary quotidian life.

Vermeer’s paintings achieve a vivid serenity that feels practically impossible. But Tim Jenison thinks them all the more possible because they’re so practical. Having made a comfortable living developing and manufacturing high-tech video technology, Jenison has examined Vermeer’s paintings and his expert eye has recognized a photorealism that can only have been achieved with the aid of some more primitive form of visual projection technology. The prevailing theory is that the human eye and the artistic imagination are simply, technically not sufficient to produce the effects seen on Vermeer’s canvases.

Tim’s Vermeer documents Jenison’s thorough multi-year effort to first devise a mechanism allowing him (a total novice as a painter) to replicate Vermeer’s artwork and then to set about the time-consuming task of actually replicating it. Stage magicians and spokesmen for rational empiricism Penn and Teller produce and direct, respectively; Jenison is an old friend of theirs, and has dedicated his life to a more practical magic. His methods and practices are quite wondrous, all the more so for their tinkerer’s ingenuity, and the film’s greater message is that this mix of qualities was more than likely Vermeer’s as well.

Investigating and designing the type of mirrors-and-lenses optical device that Jenison believes Vermeer likely used (documentary evidence on the painter’s life is scant, and little or nothing is known or can ever be known for certain about his techniques), our hero rejigs the reflective apparatus of a room-sized camera obscura to craft a simple but fiendishly clever device that places an inverted reflection of any given object in a small shaving mirror rigged at eye level above a desk and canvas. All one needs to do is take up a paintbrush (which Jenison has never done before, but he’s a quick study) and painstakingly transfer the image that the eye sees in the glass to the canvas directly below it. It’s a visually intuitive process, albeit one requiring a high level of concentration. If you’re doing it right, the edge of the image in the mirror should blend into the one on the painting surface.

It might sound like a complex and confusing process in description but Jenison’s demonstrations for the camera as well as for artist guests like Martin Mull and David Hockney (who has written extensively about the potential use of optical aids like Jenison’s in achieving the Renaissance’s great leap forward in realistic artistic representation) are revelatory (see it demonstrated in the excerpted clip embedded below). “It’s not subjective,” Jenison says of his method, “It’s objective.” Once he’s shown that the device can produce virtual verisimilitude with a variety of simple objects, Jenison decides to undertake the odyssean task of applying its operation to the work of the master himself. He elects to use his device to produce a painstaking copy of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson.

The practical logistics that this project requires would surely daunt a less meticulous and determined person, not to mention a person lacking Jenison’s financial resources, technical manufacturing know-how, and apparent vast reserves of free time. To accurately create a painted copy of the The Music Lesson using his optical device, Jenison must construct, stage, and light the entire interior scene that it depicts in a warehouse studio, then sit in front of it for the better part of a year, diligently painting the mirror image in all of its considerable and minute detail. This designing and building process, though only a prelude to the grueling task of painting that exhausts and even begins to depress the seemingly unflappable Jenison, is impressive in itself. Jenison makes or tracks down the specific windows panes, tablecloth, mirror, chair, virginal (the period keyboard instrument played by the pupil) flooring, and clothing. At one point, he chops an expensive electric lathe in two because it isn’t long enough to make the virginal legs he requires.

Jenison pursues and executes the project of producing a Vermeer to call his own with an admirable but slightly frightening scientific obsessiveness. Tim’s Vermeer can feel like an extended Mythbusters episode with greater sophistication, more of a wry sense of humour and no explosions or production deadlines. The Guardian‘s art critic Jonathan Jones ripped into the film’s total lack of mystified awe at the rare power of artistic genius, accusing it of reducing The Music Lesson‘s creation to a mere “trick”. Jones is far from fair concerning Jenison’s investment in Vermeer’s art. If the tremendous investment of time and resources and mental exertion required to produce “a copy of a poster” isn’t proof enough of Jenison’s admiration of the original, his quietly moved reaction after being allowed to see the painting at Buckingham Palace should appeal more to the sort of mesmerized worshipfulness that the critic seems to feel appropriate when faced with Vermeer.

But my own reaction is that Tim’s Vermeer makes the master’s achievement seem grander and more ingenious even while systematically demystifying the amorphous cult of the genius. Nothing can ever be proved beyond doubt concerning Vermeer’s use of optical aids in the production of his masterpieces, but Jenison collects data to support the hypothesis in the course of the experiment: many almost imperceptible visual details in the original painting that are familiar to his trained techie eye suggest the use of image projection, including a very slight curve in the supposedly straight horizontal lines of the virginal that would not be reproduced if painted from life through the human eye alone. Obviously a working artist like Vermeer had to be quicker in producing his work than Jenison was, although a longer production period would serve to explain the relatively small number of known works by the master.

But the technical ingenuity and problem-solving acumen that Tim Jenison demonstrates and implicitly attributes to Johannes Vermeer need not preclude the evolved creative instincts and aesthetic vision that are breathlessly (and lazily) imparted to ineffable “genius”. Jenison’s device and painstaking model scene-setting allows him to merely (if convincingly) replicate The Music Lesson. Vermeer had to conceive of this transcendent tableau of light, air, and stillness and then apply whatever ingenious methods he formulated to execute its making. The Jonathan Joneses of the world acknowledge amazing technical acumen but seek to segregate it from the sublime ephemerality of artistic genius like high priests mediating between supernatural mystery and the empirical reality of their dull mud-splattered congregants. Tim’s Vermeer suggests more open-mindedly that sophisticated technical achievement is its own form of genius, and can tessellate seamlessly with loftier visions to form the genesis of a most memorable art. And even better, it shows us how. A most practical magic, indeed.

Categories: Art, Film, Reviews

A Sojourn in Spain: Thoughts on Andalucia

July 17, 2014 2 comments

It’s a deep historical irony that some five centuries after Spain’s rulers utilized all of the power at their disposal to remove conquered non-Christian minorities such as the Muslim Moors and the Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, many of the country’s major cultural tourist attractions are grounded in the unique heritage of these vanished communities. This is most true of the southern region of Spain that was held under the sway of Islamic authorities for the longest period, known from the 8th to 15th Century as al-Andalus and now the semi-autonomous region of Andalucia. The Muslim influence on the history and culture of this part of Spain is now especially reified and monetized as a particularly notable feature of the region, despite a long history of official erasure of this precise sort of cultural difference.

Across Andalucia are telling signs of this process of erasure of these now-restored elements and replacement with Spain’s particularly fervent Catholic culture, often emblazoned into the enduring architecture of its ancient cities. Moorish architectural embellisments survive on old gates, walls, arches, and buildings, with occasional more extensive masterpieces surviving behind walled-off sections of interiors and thanks to the rare progressive impulse towards preservation winning out under the aegis of Early Modern and Enlightenment authorities. Some Jewish sites, including three pre-expulsion medieval sinagogues, survive as well (although two of them are further north, in Toledo). Even when the specific original edifices are no longer standing, architectural concepts endure: the comforting, leafy courtyards (“patios”) that hide in private residence in Andalucia’s cities are a direct inheritance from the Moors, just as the ablution fountains and minarets of their mosques became garden cloisters and bell towers in the Catholic cathedrals built over them. Defining cultural features of modern Spain (and Andalucia especially) like tapas and flamenco are often traced to Muslim sources as well.

IMG_2953The region’s largest city and governmental seat, Seville, preserves mere echoes of the once-thriving Islamic kingdom. In its Alcazar palace, Moorish gardens with citrus trees and gently gurgling fountains ring the interior rooms, many of which boast spectacular, intricate decoration in the Moorish style commissioned of converso craftsmen by King Pedro I soon after the city was conquered by Christian armies. These are the quintessential works of the mudejar architectural style, the adaptation of Islamic architectural tropes for the buildings of Christian rulers. Seville’s most recognizable building, the Giralda bell tower adjacent to its massive, gloomy Gothic cathedral, is an adapted minaret, the elegant patterns on its lower section now topped by Late Renaissance crenelations for the bells.

In this way, the narrative stream of history as it is written on buildings is perhaps more immediately and strikingly visual apparent nowhere but in Andalucia. The architectural intrusions of early post-Reconquista Christian monarchs on the magnificent constructions of the defeated Moors demonstrate the sudden, harsh detours connected with the privileging of a new faith or set of cultural and aesthetic beliefs over an older one.

One Christian perpetrator of these surmountings stands above all others in the Spanish context: King Charles I, a.k.a. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Every major surviving Moorish landmark in Andalucia seems to have survived its greatest threat in Charles V’s ostentatious Renaissance legacy projects. Pedro’s mudejar chambers in Seville’s Alcazar stand alongside Charles’ austere rooms with wooden-beam ceilings, which replaced more elaborately-decorated older designs. A monumental square palace still bearing his name seems to have been dropped into the midst of the organic, sensual sprawl of Granada’s hilltop Alhambra like a heavy book on an elegant spider, though it cannot intrude on the rare magnificence of the Nasrid-era palaces next to it. Most damningly and unfortunately, the sylvan procession of elegant columns and candy-striped arches of the Great Mosque of Cordoba are sharply interrupted by a horrifying, gaudy Baroque nave, altar and choir that even Charles V had enough sense to realize was a tragic aesthetic mistake (not that he was so distraught as to undo the change, mind you).

It is in Cordoba’s great monument to the era of al-Andalus that history’s upheavals are writ largest and starkest. Though colloquially referred to as the Great Mosque or the Mezquita-Catedral in tourist-focused literature and advertisements, it is never called anything but a cathedral upon the holy premises themselves. There is a certain defiance to this labelling that transfers into the audio materials and guides for visitors, which call Charles V’s Baroque addition “controversial” but steadfastly IMG_3145refuse to elaborate that the controversy is above all aesthetic, as well as imparting cynical pecuniary motives to those among the city’s grandees who contemporaneously opposed its construction. The building may only be so notable due to the architectural inspiration of a rival faith, but never is the visitor allowed to forget which institution of belief runs the show now.

Still, even if the sightlines of marching columns are fouled by the central Christian addition and the numerous side-chapels, the Mosque of Cordoba offers illustrative microcosms of the historical processes that witness one value-system overcoming another. Multiple eras of history are visible, sometimes simultaneously in the naked eye of the observer. A glass floor reveals excavated mosaics beneath the church floor from a former Roman basilica, Visigothic ruins sit in display cases nearby, the Muslim arches run along in colour-alternating rows (the oldest of them held up by repurposed Roman and Visigothic columns), and Christian devotional paintings hang from chapel altars. The eras of Cordoban history are stacked before your eyes like a layer cake. Cordoba’s Mezquita-Catedral, perhaps more than any other historical site in Europe if not in the entire world, renders the gradations of historical change with the clear visual demarcations of geological layers in the earth.

Spain itself today still reveals those gradations of historical change in its society, culture, and monuments, though you may have to look more closely to find them than in Cordoba. If Spain at large is a kaleidoscope of regional identities and conflicting histories drawn together into a patchwork state, then Andalucia is a microcosm of that effect as well as an amplification. Spain, it seems, is more Spain in Andalucia than anywhere else.

Categories: Art, Culture, History, Travel

A Sojourn in Spain: Thoughts on Madrid and Toledo

A mere two weeks in a country with such regional diversity and historical richness as Spain is hardly enough to get a full measure of one of Europe’s most fascinating nations. But the character, history, and artistic heritage of certain of its regions can emerge in even so short a time spent exploring them.

For many, the entry point into Spain is Madrid, the national capital, largest metropolis, and transportation, institutional, cultural, and geographical centre of the country. A bustling modern city, Madrid cannot boast the deep, fascinating history of many of the older Spanish cities (especially those in the South). Though the city site has been continually habitated since pre-Roman times, Madrid has only been a significant centre since the mid-16th Century, when Hapsburg King Philip II relocated his court there from older, less growth-friendly Toledo. Consequently, very few of the city’s landmarks pre-date that time, with the majority of its institutional and royal edifices built in the century or two after this shift. In contrast to the tight-packed, labyrinthine medieval streets of older cities like Toledo, Seville, or Granada, Madrid is laid out in the wide boulevards and plazas of the era of its Bourbon monarchs.

Madrid does aggregate cultural attractions from across Spain’s historic realms, however. Its golden triangle of major national art museums – the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza, and Reina Sofia – bring together an embarrassment of artistic riches (many of them derived from the Habsburg royal collection) from Bosch to Velazquez to Goya to Picasso in a concentrated area. More treasures can be seen in the Palacio Real across the city centre and El Escorial, the devout Philip II’s massive palace-monastery-basilica complex outside the city limits. But Madrid, lovely and easily-navigated and livable as it is, carries the feeling of a relatively recent and governmentally-forced national capital for a nation defined by its resolute regional identities.

El Greco’s View of Toledo

Its obvious counterpoint is Toledo. Formerly the nominal capital and base for the royal court, Toledo’s growth was stunted by its unique and picturesque location along the slopes of a commanding hillside, its iconic Alcazar and Gothic cathedral crowning the rise with the aforementioned medieval streets spidering paths to and fro below and around them. A civic construction that makes much more sense as a defensible Middle Ages stronghold than as a sprawling modern Western democratic capitalist economic unit like Madrid has become, Toledo’s skyline is nonetheless lodged in the popular consciousness thanks to its legendary native artist, El Greco, who famously painted the cityscape of his time with swirling, foreboding clouds above it.

And yet Toledo, with its historic sites and strong claim to the title of Spain’s religious capital, is also redolent of the complex web of diverse influences that makes up Spanish history. Philip II put the city’s golden years as Spain’s active heart behind it in 1561, and his father Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) and Spain-unifying great-grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella spread their historical legacies and major monuments across the great former Moorish cities of Andalucia (which I will discuss more in a subsequent post). A city now best known for its surviving Catholic landmarks and now purely-touristic swordmaking industry, Toledo’s deeper connection to what can be tentatively but perhaps anachronistically called “Spanishness” can be most resonantly traced through its two most celebrated creative figures: El Greco and Miguel de Cervantes.

In addition to defining the city of his time on canvas, El Greco spread many of his finest works throughout Toledo, where he lived and worked for the better part of his life. His spectacular masterpiece The Burial of the Count of Orgaz remains one of the city’s top attractions, and the 400-year anniversary of his death has seen the entire Castile-La Mancha region launch a commemorative cultural celebration of this most famous and iconic “native” son.

But those quotation marks are key to understanding what El Greco means to Spanish cultural nationalism: El Greco, as his frequently-employed moniker indicates, was born in Greece (Domenikos Theokotopoulos is his real name) and resided and trained in Italy before finally relocating to Spain. Operating outside of the royal patronage that most significant artists of his period relied upon (he contributed only a single commission to Philip’s enormous El Escorial project, and that was purportedly a disappointment to his patron) and also failing to secure multiple commissions for the Toledo Catherdral (following a contentious negotiation with the cathedral’s committee over his fee for The Disrobing of Christ), El Greco’s singular and avant-garde artistic vision and thematic daring put him outside the artistic mainstream of his period, though his abilities were recognized by his peers and he had an active workshop nonetheless.

El Greco did very well as a portraitist, but it is his religious paintings, with their elongated, otherworldly figures and almost Expressionistic flourishes of haunting, spectral paint strokes, that define him in the collective consciousness. Commonly identified with a strongly mystical strain of Catholicism (he was an icon painter in his formative years on Crete), El Greco is the master artist of the Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain of the Black Legend, that vaunted, lamented Northern European conception of Spain as a land of grim castles overlooking parched plains, dim stone cathedrals, black-clad priests and inquisitors, and deep-seated populist superstitions and mystical beliefs and practices.

First circulated by English and Dutch Protestant propaganda during those countries’ Late 16th-Century conflicts with the Spanish, this pernicious but false idea of Spain finds some support in the fervent Catholicism of its defender-of-the-faith monarchs, from Ferdinand and Isabella’s completion of the Reconquista and expulsion of the peninsula’s Jewish population in 1492 to Charles V’s opposition to Martin Luther and Henry VIII’s potential divorce to the continuing sinister activities of the Inquisition. In fact, El Greco’s very presence in Spain, like that of many of the Italian artists hired as court painters and to work on El Escorial at about the same time, stands as compelling evidence for the international scope and cosmopolitanism of Habsburg Spain rather than to its religiously-stunted insularity.

Additionally, El Greco’s contemporary Cervantes and his literary masterpiece Don Quixote exerts a strong presence in Toledo and further undermines the Black Legend framing of the culture and society of Golden Age Spain. Located in picturesque La Mancha, the home seat of the wandering, delusional, self-styled knight-errant of Spain’s virtual national novel, Toledo is awash with Quixote memorabilia, and the traveller half-expects a tall, thin old man in armour on a skinny horse to be glimpsed on the sun-cracked roads cutting through the plains outside of the city at any moment, a plump sidekick on a burro riding at his side. Although frequently identified as a highly religious text supportive of national church doctrine, Quixote includes in its sprawling narrative plentiful critiques of the society and culture of Cervantes’ Spain as well as the unswerving authority of the Church. Its colourful and deeply humanist pastoral view of Golden Age Spain challenges the discursive prerogatives of the Black Legend.

It is also a text deeply troubled by Spain’s struggles with the non-ethnic Spanish internal minorities that it had spent the past century marginalizing and eventually expelling: not only the Jews in the late 1400s but also the conversos (Jews or Muslims who accepted conversion to Christinanity in order to remain in the country) and Moriscos (specifically Muslims who took the same deal, or their descendants) affected by later decrees. The cultural and artistic legacy of these departed peoples, of the ghosts of Spain’s unmatched social diversity in Medieval Europe, is much more apparent in the former Muslim realm of al-Andalus, now known as the semi-autonomous region of Andalusia. A second set of traveller’s thoughts will consider these ghosts along their historical pathways in the south of Spain.

Categories: Art, History, Travel

Art, Deception and Oppression from the Same Brush: Michael Frayn’s “Headlong”

December 10, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Art, History, Literature, Reviews

Identity, Image, and Art: Exhibitions from Ai Weiwei and David Bowie

October 11, 2013 1 comment

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.

According To What?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.

Categories: Art, Culture, Music

The World’s Most Expensive Paintings and Art Nouveau: Consumption and the Arts

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.

Peter Paul Rubens’ ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’, now at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto

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.

Victor Horta’s Art Nouveau house in Brussels

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.

Categories: Art, Culture, Television

Frida and Diego: Self-Iconography and the Biographical Narrative in Fine Art

October 28, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Art, Culture