A Tale of Two Masters

Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán
Rijksmuseum © Olivier Middendorp 2019

Before I left for Europe, my father told me that I had to see the artwork of one of the greatest Spanish artists, Diego Velázquez. So it was a wonderful surprise when I stumbled on an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam called ‘Rembrandt-Velázquez – Dutch & Spanish Masters’, a comparative exhibition including a collection of Dutch and Spanish artists from the 17th Century.

Each charcoal coloured wall had two or three masterpieces hung next to each other. The curators had identified a key idea that they shared and chose particular paintings to be exhibited together. The most unique aspect of this exhibition was that all the Dutch and Spanish Masters lived through and created their art during the Eighty Years’ War. This war began because the King of Spain, Philip II, was persecuting a religious minority of Calvinists in the Netherlands. As Spain was predominantly Catholic, the King felt it was his duty to fight Protestantism and protect Catholic values throughout the empire. After eight bloody and murderous decades, the Dutch eventually seceded from the Spanish Empire and declared their independence in 1648.

Interior of the St Odulphuskerk in Assendelft by Pieter Saenredam
Rijksmuseum © Olivier Middendorp 2019

The complicated history of religious tension between Spain and the Netherlands is articulated in the first pairing of the exhibition which is Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán and Interior of the Sint-Odulphuskerk in Assendelft by Pieter Jansz Saenredam (pictured above). The Spanish artist draws on traditional Catholic iconography of the lamb as a symbol of Jesus Christ. In contrast, the Dutch painter focuses on the speaker at the pulpit as Protestants believe that all religious teaching should be centred on the Bible. Furthermore, the simple decoration of the Protestant church reveals their contestation of the Catholic veneration of Saints and Mother Mary through the lack of icons and imagery that adorn the walls of Catholic churches.

Although visually and technically quite different, both paintings demonstrate a fundamental truth of which the artists appear convicted. As these paintings sit side by side it seems simple to point out the similarities in the way that religious ideas are conveyed. This is the unique power of the exhibition. It allows conversations between the artists through their masterpieces that would not have been possible in the time they were intended.

However, these paintings being exhibited together also highlights a weight of pain. So much time has passed that we are unfamiliar with the suffering endured due to the fundamental differences that caused the Eighty Years’ War. Yet, these images intimately reflect the pain of loss, the fight for one’s religion and the struggle for freedom that permeates not only this war, but the multitude of conflicts throughout history caused by religious division. The paintings transcend their time and represent the individual’s perseverance and resilience for their faith and culture. We cannot imagine what these images sitting side by side could have meant to the people who lost everything due to the Eighty Years’ War.

Diego Velázquez (left) & Rembrandt van Rijn (right)
Rijksmuseum © Olivier Middendorp 2019

As we continued to weave through the viewers, a series of four paintings by Velázquez and Rembrandt appeared. The structures and pigments of each work resembled the next with only the majestically draped clothing slightly altered. It is hard to believe that these were not painted by the same artist, or at least influenced by each other. Velázquez and Rembrandt never met despite being Masters of their craft in the same era. Here you can almost hear them chatting as friends and colleagues, sharing techniques and enjoying the craft they both love. As the Netherlands broke away from Spanish rule, a new society was created that was founded on citizenship. Dutch painters such as Rembrandt worked for a free market, as seen in these portraits that were commissioned by wealthy, newlywed merchants. Spain remained more traditional and was ruled by an influential Royal House. Spanish artists such as Velázquez were primarily commissioned by the Church and the King to create their artwork. This is evident in his subjects who were nobles in the Royal Court.

The social and political differences in the structure of these societies gave rise to the selection of subjects by the two Masters. However, these unique positions of status could have influenced their depiction of the subject so much more. The nobility could have been shown with a valuable symbol to demonstrate their high position in society. The newlyweds could have been positioned to show the beginning of their future together. Instead these five incredibly wealthy and powerful individuals, though living in different contexts, are painted with the least embellishment possible. They stood before us almost life-size, revealing only our shared human experience.

Self-Portrait by Diego Velázquez & Self-Portrait with Beret and Golden Chain by Rembrandt van Rijn
Rijksmuseum © Olivier Middendorp 2019

The way that these individuals were crafted speaks volumes about the crafters themselves. On the next charcoal wall, we see Velázquez and Rembrandt’s self-portraits exhibited next to each other. The paintings parallel each other both visually and emotionally. Dark brown hues encase detailed, creamy faces. Their steady gazes are locked with the viewer. Both paintings are humble and unpolished. They show the raw talent of the artists and give us a unique view into the depths of life that the artists experienced.

Velázquez and Rembrandt both played leading roles in their own societies. Velázquez held a high position in the Spanish Court and Rembrandt was an influential painter and printmaker. The curators eloquently note that ‘while their social environments were worlds apart, their artistic ambition and unsurpassed ability to fathom the human depths of their models hardly differed’. Three hundred years after the war has ended, it is a joy to listen to these Masters conversing and to find with them the similarities that surpass their differences.

Written by Bella Corsini.

Art More as Proposition than Protestation

The question we need to consider is this: what should art be more like – a thermostat (should it set the temperature of the world) or a thermometer (should it merely reflect the temperature of the world)?

A few days ago I came across a 2017 article on Frieze website titled “How Important is Art as a Form of Protest?” (https://frieze.com/article/how-important-art-form-protest), presenting a survey of 50 respondents from over 30 countries sharing their views in the wake of the political and economic turmoil and instability that has gripped the world particularly since…roughly 2014?…the threat of terrorism, the fear that migrants will steal jobs from local populations, civil wars, aggressive nationalisms, totalitarian turns, racism, rising inequality, etc.

Barcelona-based artist Daniel G. Andújar said: “Art must be a sign of resistance to a political model that is increasingly hierarchical, diffuse, global and standardized.” There is no shortage of artists today who are precisely executing their practice as a sign of resistance against established systems. The most prominent example is easily the Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei who has been bringing to light important issues like human rights violations, corruption and the refugee crisis. You can pick up any country at random, do a bit of research on the art being produced, and you are bound to find artists, some truly excellent ones, engaging with and critiquing social problems. In October, Banksy’s painting Devolved Parliament, in which he replaces British politicians debating in the House of Commons with chimpanzees, was sold for £9.9 million at a Sotheby’s auction in London in the middle of confusing and complex Brexit negotiations.

I like several artists who operate in this frame of mind, for example, the Mozambican Gonçalo Mabunda who transforms weaponry into colourful thrones, masks and totems to denounce the absurdity of war (he grew up during civil war in his country) and Tibetan Tenzing Rigdol, who adjusts traditional Buddhist iconography in a way that can reveal the conflicts in his region.

Devolved Parliament by Banksy (Credit: Christie’s)

Of course, art is highly effective in this capacity. It functions as a loudspeaker and immediately directs one’s attention to pertinent matters. Even so, I feel that an artist I know called IMPREINT (working mostly in London) has something interesting to say regarding another way of doing things. His website states:

IMPREINT has always been of the opinion that art should have a social impact, but that this should be achieved through proposition rather than protestation. With forcefulness often being met with resistance, a more suggestive approach yields greater opportunity for the opening up of conversation and thus the exchange of ideas.

Balloon by IMPREINT. His art uses simple materials and his projects frequently involve the participation of the public. He writes: “Very few things in life express a universal sentiment. Particularly ones of innocence and freedom. One day I found myself holding a balloon and felt captivated by the idea of something that unequivocally evokes happiness.”

IMPREINT’s idea of “proposition rather than protestation” appeals to me and appears as something fresh because today most people are very much living in the “responsive/reactive” mode. An explosion of social media has meant that we can now be bombarded with a huge amount of information 24×7. True, communication technology has been democratised, but in truth, most people continue to be passive consumers and not actual creators of content.

The material that ends up being widely disseminated is still that which is generated by a limited number of large news organisations, famous brands and influencers who possess the wealth to buy ads on every platform – your Instagram feed, beside your Facebook timeline, inside the YouTube videos you watch and on top of your Gmail inbox. As a result, the vast majority of us are always at the receiving end of existing products, services and, above all, stories (which can be regularly negative in nature). And then we are impelled to offer our comments, likes and dislikes—our reactions and responses. In such a digital ecosystem, it is understandable that art as a form of protest should emerge and proliferate. But by largely being in the responsive/reactive, artists sell themselves short and operate below their faculties. They get too involved in exposing what is wrong, when they could devote half their time to recommending what could be right.

What IMPREINT’s view does is turn the dynamic around. It encourages artists to be more proactive and imaginative, take another level of responsibility. For some reason, I cannot help but think of Dante here. In his Divine Comedy, he puts forward three visions, three ethical programmes. In the first, he depicts what is wrong about the human race. In the final, he shows what could be right with the human race. One approach, uncomplemented by the other, will always be deficient. While it is imperative that the artistic soul expose and condemn vice, it must also be courageous enough to exhibit and celebrate virtue.

A Devolved Parliament can certainly fetch millions. But what does a politician of good character look like, how does he/she behave, how does he/she talk? What is a peaceful and harmonious society? Portraying such subjects without seeming silly, hollow or unrealistically utopian…this is the big task that lies ahead for the socially-conscious artist.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Functionality and Ornamentation

New York Review Books (https://www.nyrb.com/collections/classics) is one of my favourite publishers. NYRB editions cover the best in world literature and are known for their superlative translations, expert introductions and attractive covers. I have read quite a few books from this lot, both fiction and non-fiction. One that stands out is a novel titled Houses (1970) by Yugoslavian author Borislav Pekić.

Born in Montenegro in 1930, Pekić was educated in Belgrade and went to jail in his youth for involvement in political causes. The success of Houses enabled him to migrate to the UK, where he died of lung cancer in 1992. He did, however, keep visiting Serbia after the collapse of Communism, and helped form the Serbian Democratic Party.

Houses will appeal to anyone interested in architecture, fantasy and modernity with all its ideologies. It is the story of architect Arsénie Negovan, who at 77, is trying to write a will on what might be his last day on earth. He has spent the first half of his life building houses in Belgrade, giving them endearing female names—Simonida, Eugenie, Christina, Emilia, Serafina, Katarina, Agatha, Anastasia, Daphne, Xenia, Eudoxia. Post-World War II and the Nazi Occupation, he has imprisoned himself in one of his buildings, and looks at the rapidly modernising city through a pair of binoculars. He is utterly frustrated with the newer trends of aesthetics and real estate as they do not align with his beloved personal ideals and tastes.

Arsénie believes that modern buildings are like sad prisoners devoid of individuality. (Credit: Pixabay)

Arsénie loathes the fact that buildings have turned abstract, lost personality and vitality. They are now featureless, expressionless, homogeneous, purely functional cardboard boxes of concrete, glass and steel, like a sad and ugly group of prisoners devoid of individuality. Together they make up an unsightly omni-body. What’s more, the property owner is now a gambler rushing madly for easy profits, addicted to the stock exchange, decidedly a disciple of Mammon.

Arsénie’s philosophy is one of Possession. He maintains that the relationship between house and landlord must be a mystic marriage, and the roles of the possessor and the possessed are reversible.

As I read this brilliant but complicated book further, there were two paragraphs that really made me pause and think. In Arsénie’s houses, he writes:

too much expensive space was used up for no purpose at all. If the furniture that encumbered them were removed, they would look like the empty caverns of the Pharaoh’s tombs. Their ceilings were excessively high, like domes above a church nave…and their disposition was irrational, vainly wasting expensive space on entrances, hallways, corridors, verandas, terraces, and balconies, turning the house into an impassable labyrinth dear only to the hearts of children.

And then, the building materials: the finest stone, the hardest wood, the best plaster, the most durable paint. Marble from Venčac–sometimes even from Carrara! Porcelain, mahogany lamps, plaster rosettes, ceramic floors, wallpaper made in Prague! Finally, all those decorative and expensive eaves, loggias, oval niches in which we placed impressive standing figures, and the charming alcoves, chains, balustrade, candelabra, bas-reliefs with mythological scenes, and ornaments–all that stone flora and fauna which at my insistence blossomed from the facades of my houses.

Arsénie does not mind using expensive space for no direct purpose. (Credit: Pixabay)

I could totally relate to the character’s dislike of strictly utilitarian constructions and his yearning for ornamentation. In our world, increasingly now, we see tasteless skyscraper after skyscraper being erected, wherein everything is neat and ordered but their atmospheres tend to be cold, almost brutal. So many new cities have public spaces that give off an air of sterility, even deadness. If we want to see and experience true and long-lasting beauty, it requires travel…to cities like Rome or Paris or London (at least its older, as yet unpolluted parts).

The modern mindset is very much about immediate gratification and it builds things that can be of instant use to it, after which, it easily discards or abandons or annihilates them. It finds it difficult to comprehend the logic behind objects or structures the value of whose being/purpose cannot be measured in instant, tangible terms…that’s why those charming niches, loggia and corridors seem silly and futile to it, dismissed as unnecessary extravagance or avoidable wastefulness.

But I have always felt that by suppressing our capacity for conceiving and enjoying these “extra” embellishments somehow we suppress our very humanity. Because pure and immediate functionality can even be attained by animals, there is nothing exceptional about it. Bees build hives, ants have hills and birds have nests. We can go further than mere survival and monotony; there is no reason why we should not. The aesthetic ability that humans have is an addition, a distinguishing feature that sets us apart, and it must be not taken for granted.

Also, the big question remains—how useful truly are those sterile skyscrapers? What great purpose are they serving if we keep getting lured back to the grandeur of ancient or medieval cities? Paradoxically, it is the structures with precisely those “useless” entrances and hallways and bas-reliefs and labyrinths that, when all’s said and done, turn out to be more “functional”. For they succeed in employing and engaging all our faculties, magnify our sense of well-being, over not decades but centuries.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Sarah Murray – Internship Experience

Sarah Murray, pictured here with her artwork, 2019

Of the many things that I have learnt in doing an internship with the Melbourne art class, the most prominent was the importance of fostering community and art’s unique ability to reach people whoever they are. I am a Visual Arts student studying at the Australian National University in Canberra and have been completing a course requiring the students to pursue an internship in an arts-based organisation. I jumped at the idea of doing my internship in Melbourne, the lure of a new city with an amazing arts culture, a multitude of galleries to explore and artists to connect with. However, I was most interested in the prospect of working with Melbourne Art Class for the unique opportunity to do practical studio work with an artist and gain teaching experience in the art class setting.

In Melbourne Art Class children’s classes and adult studio classes I observed how Marco taught and I also provided assistance to the students and gave presentations. Melbourne Art Class puts a focus on the individual’s development and fosters each student’s learning in establishing technique and creativity through their own directed works. I learnt that teaching is more beneficial when it is through guidance rather than instruction, that the teacher must meet the student where they are and to leave your ego at the door and accept that you do not know all the answers. The classes that I attended had a great sense of community, each group had gotten to know each other and created a great learning environment where the students could learn from what each other were doing as well as from their teacher.

Unnamed, charcoal on paper, Sarah Murray 2019

In the studio work I had the opportunity to do some life drawing, some of my own work and the underpainting or first layer of Marco’s work. I was most excited for the time in the studio and not only learnt practical knowledge but had the opportunity to pick Marco’s brain about his experience as a working artist and fostering an art’s career. I learnt that process and consistency are essential to creating work. I really benefitted from working through a process of conceptualising and idea, sketching the composition, drawing details and then painting. This process allows for problem solving along the way to reach a successful work. The consistency came from setting a schedule to do studio work and staying faithful to the routine in order to get the work done.  It was so wonderful to see into how another artist works, starting from the initial idea and going through the process to achieve completed artwork.

Unnamed, charcoal on paper, Sarah Murray 2019

In this time, we also visited many amazing local galleries to gain inspiration and knowledge from other artists which can feed back into the studio practice and fosters the art community. One of my favourite galleries was the Australian Galleries stockroom in Collingwood. The stockroom had paintings covering all the walls and sculptures surrounding the floors, it was bursting with art from many different artists, it was incredible to see so much work and in a unique way to how it is normally displayed in an exhibition.

My time with the Melbourne art Class and with Marco Corsini has been incredibly formative and sparked a way to see that an arts career is not so unattainable when surrounded by community.

Written by Sarah Murray.

Wabi Sabi: An Antidote to our Obsession with the Spectacle

Over March and April, prior to his solo exhibition in London, I had a long conversation with American artist Joshua Hagler, 40, (@haglerjosh) who is known for his haunting, visceral, psychologically-charged paintings hovering between the abstract and the figurative. Joshua explores a range of heavy subjects—memory, religion, politics, violence, rhetoric, mythology, American history, the overall complexity of life and things and ideas.

We instantly connected over common interests and concerns, from our fascination with the French thinker René Girard to our frustration with the Left/Right divide and how it has deteriorated public discourse. There was, in particular, a point Joshua made about contemporary visual culture that stayed with me: “In an era of über capitalism and Trumpism, in which no message can be sent or received outside the sphere of the spectacle, I feel a sense of loss—a loss of intimacy, of privacy, of a broader humanism.”

We feel the “spectacle of über capitalism” most outrageously on social media. Technology itself isn’t the problem here, it is the most dominant ideology of our time—behind the digital devices—that has vitiated our manner of communication. If people don’t have an immediate product or service to offer, they resort to selling their own lives. They feel compelled to advertise themselves. As a result, things are frequently projected as larger than their original size or value, the wins are magnified, the milestones celebrated, adventures duly recorded—a new job, car, a relationship, vacation in an exotic land. And along side all of this, the defeats, the struggles, failures, stresses and heartaches are carefully (and shamefully) edited out and hidden from the sight of others.

Staged posts such as these are widespread on Instagram, particularly with influencers, combining a sense of adventure and the promise of a loving relationship, giving the impression of an unperturbed, envy-inducing life.

But many of those who craft these spectacles of faultlessness are indeed aware that they are fooling both themselves and the world. Some are honest enough to admit it. I recently found a globetrotting model, who makes good money posing for magazines like Playboy and Maxim and endorsing a number of fashion brands, divulging painfully: “For the past year, I have been struggling with really strong anxiety attacks. It was caused by the trauma of something that I had to go through for over a year, being trapped in a very toxic relationship that I finally ended a year ago…It all looks so perfect and glamorous on social media but what we struggle with away from the screens of our iPads and phones is sometimes something so far away from the reality we try to create on social media where everything seems to be so candid and perfect.”

An antidote to this pressure to look impeccable all the time and the obsession with perpetual salesmanship could be found in the Japanese philosophy of “Wabi Sabi”. Wabi Sabi is a position that celebrates the imperfect, the incomplete and the impermanent. Rooted in Zen Buddhism, the aesthetic regards the quotidian—the small, everyday, transient happenings—with a loving, reverent eye. Rather than striving for magnitude or invincibility, it looks for elegance in little things—a tea-drinking ceremony or cracked pottery. An affection is developed towards objects that are old, worn-out, also towards fleeting natural phenomena, like the play of light and shadow on the moon. The fragility of and flux in stuff are acknowledged, and quietly celebrated.

A Japanese tea-drinking ceremony illustrated in a print by Yōshū Chikanobu (1838–1912), a prolific woodblock artist of the Meiji Period. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The words “wabi” and “sabi” are not easy to translate in English. They have evolved since the 14th century, as author Alain de Botton mentions in a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmHLYhxYVjA) for The School of Life. Wabi initially meant a kind of misery, the loneliness of living in nature, away from human consolation and contact. It now means the bittersweet, exquisite experience of being on one’s own. Sabi initially referred to that which was lean, chill and withered. It now evokes the grace that may emerge from age and use. It also incorporates an artful mending of damage and an appreciation of the cycles of life. The concept is close to “kintsugi”, the practice of repairing brokenness in objects with gold, to show that scars make a thing not less but more precious. Wounds and cuts need not be rendered invisible but ought to be displayed with pride.

Wabi Sabi, in general, embraces a perspective that is in sharp contrast to Western aesthetic ideals, which, since antiquity, have laid a lot of emphasis on the eternal and unchanging. The great cathedrals, houses of parliament, mansions, bridges, stadiums and theatres have been built upon principles of symmetry, wholeness, mathematical precision, proportion and harmony. Such an outlook has its place in art, culture, public life, even private life (as in, when applied to ethics or morality, it can send one on the path of personal development) but, fused with consumerism and the media, a preoccupation with perfection has created and extended a jarring, misleading, unrealistic film  over the actual world.

People today have a distorted idea of what is grand, remarkable, important and meaningful, and live in a continuous state of FOMO—Fear of Missing Out—news, items and experiences…the most engaging conversations, the latest smartphone, the best food, mind-blowing cruises, luxury bags or watches, the shiniest leather jackets, the smartest boots, anti-ageing formulas, the most outstanding partner and children, the list is endless. It is exactly here that Wabi Sabi can help, calm down our frantic spirits, give us a sobering yet still joyful view of existence. Its application can be easy and immediate. A session with friends under the moonlit sky on the terrace instead of a trip to the mall, stitches that may tighten or loosen an old shirt, the writing down of a brief, educational conversation with a stranger in a journal, a vase made out of a Coke bottle or simply a barefoot walk on the grass.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Taking Responsibility as Content Creators

The Louvre Museum and Kim Kardashian on Instagram

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity of interviewing Marine Tanguy, 30, a London-based entrepreneur who has started the world’s first artist agency—MTArt Agency. You will find talent agencies in fields like modelling, speaking and writing but the concept is new in the world of visual arts. Marine is committed to accelerating artistic careers in innovative ways; she encourages people to invest not in art but artists. She borrows the idea from the agencies she encountered in Los Angeles, where she worked in her early twenties. They had a more 360-degree view, she says, of managing talent, generating visibility and revenue than the traditional gallery model.

Her award-winning venture helps artists cover their studio costs and sell their works. It also implements a variety of public art projects, cultural and commercial partnerships (for instance, with the Mayor of London’s #LondonisOpen campaign). MTArt has big plans, and wants to eventually rival the major Hollywood talent agencies that look after actors and celebrities.

Marine is active as a speaker. One of her TEDx talks, given in Lausanne in 2018, is titled “How social media visuals affect our mind?” and highlights the big difference between the Instagram followings of the Louvre and Kim Kardashian. Currently, the museum has 3.2M and the socialite 146M. Marine likens the narcissistic, hyper-sexualised imagery of the latter to junk food. It is harmful and “makes people feel like crap”, she maintains. She scientifically backs up this claim with evidence collected through AI monitoring.

As a response, she does not suggest any kind of suppression or censorship but greater diversification of content on social media platforms so that we can be more visually nourished. She has no problem with Kim Kardashian per se and does not want to punch her type. What troubles her is that there is just this one kind of persona, representation of what a female should be that has such a massive, sweeping hold.

Given the identity of the individual on top, Instagram is suffocatingly crammed with bikini models—most of them passive objects of the male gaze. Marine herself got the greatest engagement on the day she decided to do a test and posted a picture of her bottom (instead of her usual posts on her eventful life as a pioneering businesswoman). That is what people want and mainly respond to. Who is to be held accountable for such behaviour?

Marine’s answer has two points. First, social media only shows what already exists beyond it, it reflects the entertainment and advertising industries as they have operated for decades. And second, more importantly, the academic world and the art industry have long refused to take part in actively sharing content. This is something that we always forget to mention. Universities and museums did a poor job of making meaningful conversations and creativity available via the television. And they are still quite slow with the internet. Institutions have remained shut off from the outside world, and continue to provide high culture to a small, elite crowd.

“Institutions have remained shut off from the outside world, and continue to provide high culture to a small, elite crowd.” (Credit: Pixabay)

They’ve believed that somehow engaging everyone is something bad, Marine adds. “If they did share any content, they would remove all directness and empathy and make the material too conceptual, not related to our lives.”

If the vast majority of people have an aesthetic sensibility that cannot quite go far beyond Kim Kardashian it is because they never really had a chance to be exposed to and get familiar with anything better. The content was not developed in the first place. It wasn’t offered to them.  

“So, as an industry we have to step in and start sharing valuable content regularly,” Marine says. “At MTArt, we are tackling this by taking art to museums but also through public projects and social media. We want to stay in the landscape. Say if you are a tech company or if you are in the city space, we want to provide you with visuals.”

It is easy for people in the creative industries to complain about their work not being appreciated, about the general public having unsophisticated preferences. But the big question is what have they done or what are they doing to attract the attention of and connect with the average person? There are huge untapped audiences—professionals in fields like technology, finance, healthcare, law—who would love to be culturally educated, invited to the discussion, and even collect art—and they must be reached out to.

In this day and age, we are fortunate that anybody can become a content creator—from professors in the humanities to teenagers with a budding interest in sculpture or literature. And artists, writers, art dealers, art journalists, art curators have an even greater responsibility. We have communication tools at our disposal that enable us to instantly share material and start a dialogue. An attempt to straightaway equal Kim Kardashian’s 146M would be unrealistic but small, regular, energetic, passionate efforts—a couple of beautiful, thought-provoking paintings from emerging artists shared on Facebook every week, more and more Instagram accounts dedicated to art history, WhatsApp statuses with quotes from prominent art theorists—all of these could be the first steps that, over time, by way of organic growth, may expand and redefine the taste of the masses.   

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Building Melbourne, creatively

Swanston Street, 9 -10 February, 1985
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald, 2019

The idea of building a creative city has been at the forefront of how we imagine and develop cities like Melbourne for the last decade or two. As an artist, I’ve found this city creatively liberating and I’m thankful it has given me a place where my own skills have been developed and shared. However, at times, I’m made aware that I am living in the midst of suffering due to drugs or homelessness or mental health issues or some form of displacement. The recent reporting about injecting rooms and some of the associated conversations I’ve had with friends have highlighted the dichotomies present in our city. I do believe that working in a creative industry does build and enrich our lives and Melbourne supports this well, but how do we think about creativity in the context of the city that is often suffering?

There has been a significant influence upon our city policy makers concerning the role of the arts in our cities. In recent decades Richard Florida and Charles Landry have influenced many planners across the globe including those planning for Australian cities.[1] Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class, has had a particularly big impact. Florida makes a connection between a successful economy and economic development based upon the presence of technology, talent and tolerance within that area. Florida’s argument is that in order to attract creative workers, that city has to have a lifestyle that is attractive to the new ‘creative class’. This ‘creative class’ values diversity and tolerance in the places they live. Florida says that companies will follow creative workers who have taken the opportunity to choose their location based on their preferences. For Florida, attracting and retaining talent rather than focusing on capital projects such as buildings and stadiums is the means to economic growth.

Rowland Atkinson and Hazel Easthope believe that there are significant reasons for the popularity of these ideas by Florida and Landry. They write, ‘First, the ideas of both Florida and Landry fit well with a broader recognition of the importance of the cultural industries in the economy… Second, particularly in Florida’s formulation, the creative class thesis is not at odds with economic rationalist or neoliberal policies.’  However, they raise the concern that gentrification tends to accompany the attraction of the creative classes which raises housing and living costs, displacing a sub section of society. They conclude that it appears that ‘urban governance approaches seek to enhance’ the possible benefits of a creative city agenda but are ‘generally ignorant of those excluded from, or unable to join, the new economy.’[2]  So, while there are many benefits touted about building a creative city, the focus on economic gains sometimes means that we fail to see those that are marginalised by the aspects such as rising house prices.

Charles Landry’s work which is concerned with urban renewal is perhaps better suited to creatively solving the problems of a city such as Melbourne. Landry’s, The Creative City, written with Franco Bianchini in 1998 argues that creativity can and should be used to tackle economic and social problems. Landry states in a later interview, that all aspects of a city are required to contribute to sustainable cultural environment, not just a creative class. While people in the arts can provide content, it is those working in infrastructure that are key. ‘If content is to have any effect, you need creative logistics analysts, creative engineers, creative educators. Above all, you need creative bureaucrats.’[3] Perhaps along the lines of Landry’s argument, broadening the scope of who is creative, to insist that all roles need to be creative, could enable more diverse solutions to our cities problems.

The original idea of a creative city has its basis in the works of several thinkers of the 1980’s, notably Australian David Yencken in 1988 who described ‘The Creative City’, in an article of that name, published in the literary journal Meanjin.[4]  It was Yencken who paved the way for imagining Swanston Street closed to traffic when in 1985, he proposed that for Victoria’s 150th celebrations, Swanston Street should be turned into a giant green park. So, for one weekend, 13,250 square metres of grass was rolled out along four blocks of Swanston Street. Tens of thousands of families picnicked in a park that had previously been a bleak road in the centre of the city.[5] Yencken was offering a vision that this car ridden centre of Melbourne could eventually be made completely car free. This eventually happened, as after being restricted to traffic from 1992, Swanston street was made completely traffic free by 2012. This serves as an example of how Melbourne was a beneficiary of creative thinking that didn’t come from an artist, rather from David Yencken as secretary of the Victorian Planning Ministry.

Daniel Pink writes that the future belongs to a person who thinks like an artist, inventor, storyteller a holistic ‘right-brain’ thinker. For Pink, the aptitudes that will make a person successful will be those of design, story (listening and communicating), symphony (connecting various elements), empathy, play and meaning. Recalling Landry’s ‘creative bureaucrats’, it seems that deepening our use of these aptitudes in our work, whatever that work is, will enable us to connect with the bigger picture, solve the bigger problems. Perhaps this is the key; that we all remain creative, seek meaning, listen to the stories and communicate using stories, connect the obscure dots and carry empathy, so that we can find creative solutions to our city’s problems.

I recently had a  conversation with Luisa, a Studio Art student at MAC. She described creativity as ‘finding a door where you once only saw a wall’.  Applying this thought to our city, we are not going to fully realise what a creative city can be until we all look for a door where we only can see a wall.

Written by Marco Corsini.

[1] Rowland Atkinson and Hazel Easthope, The Consequences of the Creative Class: The Pursuit of Creativity Strategies in Australia’s Cities, 2009 The Authors. Journal Compilation © 2009 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

[2] ibid

[3] https://www.strategy-business.com/article/10306?gko=f6f79

[4]Yencken, D. (1988). “The creative city”. Meanjin. 47.

[5] https://www.smh.com.au/national/the-man-who-helped-re-imagine-melbourne-20190705-p524mc.html

The Philosophy of Gardens

The Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man (1617)
by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, Wikimedia Commons

Anybody familiar with the great myths, legends and epics of history will know that gardens have long fascinated the human mind—from the tale of Gilgamesh to the Bible to the Odyssey to the Decameron. Repeatedly, we have envisioned the summit of happiness as a garden experience. What is it about them—I have often wondered. Why do they occupy such fundamental, pivotal places in stories that are timeless and especially dear to us?

In his book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008), Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison provides an interesting analysis of the phenomenon. Looking at gardens both real and imaginary, he articulates their significance and function, and the reason as to why they have been a source of perennial aesthetic delight to us. According to the author, human beings are not capable of gazing too long and hard at the “head of Medusa”—which is to say at violence, rage, destruction and suffering. And this is not our flaw.

The impulse to look away from the frenzy and tumult of existence is precisely what motivates us to create, to institute mechanisms that can make life bearable, even enjoyable—gardens happen to be one of them. They counter the annihilating and anarchic forces unleashed in history and re-enchant the world. (This restorative role is well on display in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, wherein seven young women and three young men leave behind a plague-ravaged Florence in the summer of 1348 to take refuge in a villa in the surrounding hills.) If not a heaven, a garden is at least a “haven”.

The Enchanted Garden (1917) by John William Waterhouse
based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1313-1375), Wikimedia Commons

In a garden, appearances are lush, bright and colourful. Everything glows, looking as if originating from hidden, mysterious depths. Being itself seems full, an inexhaustible blessing. The cover of flowers and leaves gives the impression of operating as a portal to another dimension, a gateway to some otherworldly source—primal, rich and infinitely abundant. It is for this reason that gardens are often the sites of epiphanies—spiritual or erotic or otherwise.

Harrison adds that although they can quickly cast a spell on us, in truth we long for only a particular kind of garden. Within a garden in which everything pre-exists readily and faultlessly, we can surely succumb to boredom. If history without gardens is a wasteland, a garden severed from history is superfluous, pretty much useless. We want to be able to, to some degree, “engineer” the enchantment a garden provides, we wish to be engaged nurturers.

Even in our fictions, we see ourselves abandoning the gardens that do not present before us the challenge of cultivation. For instance, the garden mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey—on the island of Ogygia where the nymph Calypso keeps the hero Odysseus captive for years. This garden is exuberant but it is too magical and requires no human intervention. No wonder Odysseus rejects Calypso’s offer of immortality and decides to return to Ithaca to his aging wife Penelope—to the more demanding and uncomfortable life of commitments and concerns.

Odysseus and Calypso (1616) by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Wikimedia Commons

We dislike gardens that are too wild and perfect. We also find it difficult to entertain the ones that are too strictly regimented. Here Harrison uses a factual example—the Palace of Versailles, where the iron laws of symmetry can feel somewhat oppressive, whose meticulously manicured lawns are artificial, more representative of monarchical control than democratic participation.

The Gardens of Versailles, Pixabay, Public Domain

Towards the end of the book, Harrison meditates—from a “gardenly” point of view—where do we stand? What is our situation today?

We find ourselves in absurdity. We want to re-Edenise the world through capitalistic forces, we aim towards a kind of abundance. But our frantic cult of consumerism, as it attempts to reach that position of intoxicated pleasure, mounts assault after assault on Creation. “Our action does not so much bear fruit as devour fruit,” the author notes. “Thus we find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of seeking to re-create Eden by ravaging the garden itself—the garden of the biosphere on the one hand and the garden of human culture on the other.”

At this juncture, all we can and must do is slow down, recover the lost art of registering the splendour of nature and learn back, if I may put poetically, our pre-lapsarian (from before “the Fall”) vocation of care.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The in between of things

Veiled Beggar Woman (Mercy), 1919
Wood (oak) 38 x 30.4 x 33.7 cm
Signed and dated on left of plinth: E Barlach 1919
Source: http:// http://www.moellerfineart.com/moeller-fine-art/notable-sales/ernst-barlach?view=slider

The figure of Ernst Barlach’s “Veiled Beggar Woman (Mercy)”, is unidentifiable. We can see some garments and arms firmly outstretched, patient, dignified and expectant. The beggar is further dignified through the use of the oak wood that is carved economically in blocky forms. But a cloth covering the head hides the identity, seemingly, of a woman. Being an artwork rather than a real person, we are unlikely to feel the need to rummage through our pockets for a coin or respond by walking on resolutely, rather, if we spend enough time with the sculpture, we may move from reaction to reflection.

Although appearing still, the beggar’s posture demands something of us. There is a clear material need that the figure is expressing, but not as an inferior being. An absence of identity inhibits our ability to judge and therefore to distance ourselves on the basis of identity. The cloth over the head is not due to shame, rather the anonymity draws attention to the figure being just like us. This is an equal who remains dignified, on the basis of its inherent sameness to us, on the basis of its right to ask and receive a response, because in a way, it is us.

Ernst Barlach: The Refugee, 1920
Bronze (cast 1937) 35.4 x 38.4 x 14.1 cm
Ernst Barlach Haus Hamburg, acquired 1994
Source: https://www.barlach-haus.de/en/museum/collection/

“Refugee” also by Barlach, describes a figure thrusting forward in diagonal movement, cloaked heavily and protecting a loaf of bread. The face which is visible seems to push forward in hope with quiet determination, summing all available resources and human energy to move to a point where living is feasible. It is consumed by a lunge for life with all the life it has within it.

Neither the beggar nor the refugee use sentimentality. Neither try to draw pity from us. Key to both works is how the lines of the sculptures relate movement. For the beggar it is the motionlessness solidity seeking our response. The only movement is that of the extended arms, reaching out to us. The only thing this figure has, is us, the viewer and our response. The question then, is how do we respond? Any one of us could be beneath that cloth. A call is issued as we encounter ourselves in an other’s need, in what Emmanual Levinas called the ‘face to face’. We are really face to face with ourselves and we get to decide through our response, what is important and what we abandon. By comparison, the refugee is itself, all movement, caught mid step. Strong diagonal lines of the cloak show a driven figure as it escapes past us. There is no security or certainty in this moment and we watch as bystanders. The refugee unlike the beggar asks us not to break the movement, not to get in the way and interfere with its lunge to freedom. The call is upon us again, this time, not to needlessly hinder this lunge for life.

Words are approximate in their meaning. With language, some things fall through the gaps. However, this does not indicate that there is no reality beyond language, rather, our greatest values are established there. Powerful art gives access to that which lies beyond the limits of language, also beyond our political arguments and divisive maneuvering which are often based on language. Powerful art, even at its most figurative, never points to something. It points past it. That which is being represented is not, in almost all cases, meant to be taken on face value. Powerful art points to the in between of things, as with these works of a beggar and of a refugee where what is being described is the space between ourselves and self in the other. These works point us to where human vulnerability requires a response from us and our response establishes the value we place on human life.

Written by Marco Corsini.

Lucio Fontana’s “Infinite Dimension”

Concetto spaziale, Attese by Lucio Fontana, ca. 1965 (Fair Use)

A modern artist whom I find very intriguing for philosophical reasons is the Argentine-Italian painter, sculptor and theorist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968). Fontana was the founder of “spatialism”, a movement that he began in Milan in 1947, by way of which he ambitiously sought to synthesise colour, sound, space, movement and time into an innovative variety of art. The ideas of the project were based on his Manifiesto blanco (White Manifesto), a text that he had published a year earlier in Buenos Aires. He intended to abandon traditional forms—like the easel painting—and adopt techniques such as neon lighting and the television. Of late, there has been a great interest in his work on the auction circuit, with one piece of his, Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio (1964), being sold for  $29,173,000 at Christie’s New York in November of 2015.

In 1949-50, Fontana began to punch holes (buchi) and cut slashes with razors (tagli) through his canvases. Although they looked spontaneous, they were well-planned, and resembled the “zips” in the abstract expressionist paintings of Barnett Newman (1905-1970).

Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ by Lucio Fontana, 1960 (Fair Use)

Multiple interpretations are available of this bold and somewhat baffling artistic act. In an essay for Tate, Philip Shaw, a professor at the University of Leicester, applies a Freudian approach and sees the cuts as representative of female sexuality, the obscure object of desire. The lens of the Second World War is particularly common. In a book titled Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962, Los Angeles-based curator Paul Schimmel situates Fontana’s work within the context of the social and political climate of the postwar period—especially the crisis of humanity resulting from the atomic bomb. As a response, several “international artists,” he points out, “ripped, cut, burned, or affixed objects to the traditionally two-dimensional canvas.” Fontana’s enterprise had been significantly influenced by a Milan that bore the scars of Allied bombings, in which many buildings and monuments had been destroyed.

Concetto Spaziale by Lucio Fontana, 1964-65 (Fair Use)

But in Fontana’s own words, he was alluding to something far greater than just sexuality or war. Through his holes and slashes, he evoked the sublime—that quality in aesthetics felt at encounter with grand things, that is suggestive of awe and terror, both pain and pleasure. He is known to have announced, “I have created an infinite dimension”. He maintained that his experiments were constructive rather than destructive and that his aim was to rupture the surface and enable the viewer to perceive the stuff that lay behind.

Fontana mysteriously said, “I do not want to make a painting; I want to open up space, create a new dimension, tie in the cosmos, as it endlessly expands beyond the confining plane of the picture.” The region behind the picture was an entire plane of being. The artist was playing with the viewer’s understanding of the universe itself. The holes and slashes would either project inwards or outwards, which meant that this new space would either creep in forcefully to an existing domain or it would be reached out to from an existing domain. I cannot help but connect Fontana’s experiments to the wider modern/post-modern worldview of materialism—the position that produces these basic ideas in different guises—matter is the ultimate reality, the spiritual or the supernatural is non-existent, the immaterial mind is an illusion, what you cannot see or hold or measure cannot be true.

Fontana’s ruptured canvases, read within the framework of materialism, suggest a certain suffocation and urgency, a yearning to break free from the prison of a closed, lonely, dreary and insufficiently meaningful universe. They powerfully give expression to the human desire for a taste of transcendence, for “the unknown”, that might still persist after all the calculations have been made, the research papers have been published, experiments have been conducted and surveys have been taken in an arrogantly “scientistic” society.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.