The Importance of your Artistic Signature: Learning from Amy Sherald

First Lady Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald. Fair Use.

American painter Amy Sherald (born 1973) has been a prominent name in the art world news recently—thanks especially to her portrait First Lady Michelle Obama (2018) that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC. The commission has definitely been a significant event in her artistic career—as has been the 2016 Outwin Boochever Prize awarded from the same museum for the painting Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance). But a good share of Sherald’s fame can also be attributed to a very distinctive feature about her practice.

Her African-American subjects are portrayed and celebrated in their individuality—there are no direct references to historical, social or political issues. The viewer is invited to consider the inner lives of the characters without the lens of the oppressor/victim narrative that dominates the media. This, though powerful, isn’t all that uncommon. What is more striking about Sherald’s art is the fact that her characters have skin painted in grayscale rather than dark flesh tones.

Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) by Amy Sherald. Fair Use.

Hailing from the state of Georgia and now based in Baltimore, Sherald gives good reasons behind this “signature” of hers. Having grown up in the segregated society of the Deep South shortly after the Civil Rights Movement, she has always been concerned with matters of racial identity and its representation, or lack thereof. She adopted her unique style to challenge the stereotypical depictions of African-Americans.

She explains: “A Black person on a canvas is automatically read as radical. My figures needed to be pushed into the world in a universal way, where they could become a part of the mainstream art historical narrative. I knew I didn’t want it to be about identity alone.” That is, she wants her characters to be seen as persons rather than members of a particular race.

Figures in a group by Amy Sherald. Fair Use

The National Portrait Gallery adds on Sherald’s practice: “This grayscale technique, also called grisaille, is connected to the artist’s early personal experiences. Sherald, who was born in Columbus, Georgia, remembers looking at family photo albums as a child and getting to know her grandmother Jewel through a black-and-white photograph. She was captivated by her grandmother’s beauty, self-possession, and confident, direct gaze in the photograph.

“When Sherald looked for painted portraits of people who looked like her in art history books in local libraries, she realized that her family’s story was absent in the history of painted portraiture. She was also discouraged when she did not find people who looked like her in the public spaces of museums. Sherald’s larger project of painting portraits of African Americans seeks to make up for this absence by addressing the history of representation.”

Individual figures by Amy Sherald. Fair Use.

As it turns out, the grayscale has its philosophical logic—and that is valuable. It is also very useful from a marketing perspective. It is a quality that instantly sets Sherald’s oeuvre apart in a crowded visual arts economy. It gets people thinking and guessing. When art lovers discover that the artist has implemented this feature in painting after painting—their curiosity is piqued. Grayscale skin in an otherwise coloured artwork here is incongruous. People are not used to it. It makes them wonder—Why so? What is she up to? People are intrigued by the statement Sherald wants to make through her images. They find her decision to go against convention bold and impressive.

Sherald is a great case study for artists who are serious about building a large audience. Attention is a scarce resource today. If you want people to interact with your content, just being technically excellent in your form of art may not be enough. There should be something different about you—that nobody else is doing, that actually makes you hard to ignore as people scroll down their social media feeds. Perhaps a juxtaposition of elements or a manner of execution that is unexpected.

American author Seth Godin uses an interesting metaphor for such a phenomenon in his writings on advertising, marketing and product development: “purple cow” . A strange aspect that will make your brand visible and keep you relevant. “Purple” and “cow” is not a connection that comes naturally to our minds, and so seems particularly distinctive. Cows are never purple, just how the skin of African-Americans isn’t gray.

Learning from Amy Sherald, artists can develop a unique visual language wherein there are features big or small that disrupt our sense of familiarity—maybe oversized human eyes, maybe green domestic atmosphere. It need not be outright shocking. It could just be unusual, even a bit weird. Slightly out-of-place and repetitive so that it can keep people engaged.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The Story of Blue and White Pottery

A blue and white ceramic bowl. (Credit: Pxfuel)

I’m always fascinated by patterns that are able to stand the test of time and space, that are able to transcend geographic and cultural borders as eras and fashions come and go. One example is the Dutch movement in visual arts named “De Stijl”, which I have already covered. It began after WW1 and is found all over the world to this day. An even more interesting case is that of blue and white pottery. Professor Anne Gerritsen of the University of Warick, author of The City of Blue and White (2020) calls it the “ultimate global commodity”. 

If you do an online search on blue and white ceramics, you will encounter similarity and variety. Many collections of plates, vases, bowls and more, show Chinese dragons and landscapes. Some have Central Asian Islamic geometric and floral designs. European styles are also available—Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese. There is a whole batch that is manufactured in the western Indian city of Jaipur. Examples are also available far away in Mexico. Which place and period does this craft ultimately come from? What were the migratory routes like? We can’t really guess by looking at it.

Rows of blue and white ceramics kept with other varieties in Bukhara, Uzbekistan by User “…your local connection”, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Flickr.

It turns out the origin lies in both China and modern-day Iraq. Chinese ceramics go back to the Palaeolithic era. Earliest pottery was earthenware and stoneware. “Qingbai ware”, a type of white glazed porcelain, became popular under the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Very basic blue floral motifs on white were found upon white pottery in Henan province during the Tang Dynasty in the mid-800s.

Later, as trade routes between China and other parts of Asia were opened, developments emerged. It is believed that the craftsmen of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1517), especially in the city of Basra, inscribed palm trees, garlands and Arabic writing in cobalt blue pigment (mined in Persia) upon Chinese white porcelain. A form of craft was created that combined foreign technology with local taste. (A fascination with blue had existed throughout the region since ancient times. The metamorphic rock lapis lazuli was extracted as early as the 7th millennium BC at the Sar-i Sang mines in present-day Afghanistan. Deep, intense blue had also been used in the jewellery of Mesopotamia and Egypt.)

As China increased contact with the Islamic world, versions of pottery richer than the experiments at Henan became prominent. A centre emerged in the city of Jingdezhen in the northeastern Jiangxi province in the 14th century.

A 17th-century blue and white dish from the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

With more commercial and colonial activities over the subsequent centuries, blue and white pottery spread to Europe, Japan, India, etc. The Jaipur branch was developed when the practice was passed on from Mongol artisans via Turkic conquests of India between 14th and 17th centuries. The Dutch East India Company (1602-1799) imported hundreds of thousands of pieces made in Japan and China, which led to a style known as “Delftware”. The pottery reached distant Mexico via Moorish influences in Spain. 

An article on Victoria and Albert Museum website mentions a phenomenon known as “Chinamania” in Britain in the 19th century: “In the 1850s and 60s, antique blue-and-white ceramics were discovered by a small group of artists and intellectuals linked to the Aestheticism movement, who valued ‘Art for Art’s sake’ (art that didn’t tell stories or make moral points, but was enjoyed purely for visual pleasure). Engaged in the ‘search for beauty’, influential Aesthetic artists such as James McNeill Whistler and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti began eagerly collecting Chinese blue-and-white, sometimes known as ‘Nankin’ or ‘Old blue’, which was seen to embody true beauty in colour, material and form.”

Ewer of Medici porcelain, Italy, c. 1575–87, Met Museum, New York, Public Domain.

A blue and white pottery bathroom set from Jaipur, India on sale on kalakyari.com.

It is quite remarkable how easily blue and white ceramics were able to penetrate and permeate through lands following dissimilar belief systems, climates and lifestyles. Blue, symbolising peace and tranquillity, is the colour of the sky and sea, accessible to all. White, evoking purity and newness, is always acceptable everywhere.

The pattern is also democratic in its availability—found among antiques for royalty to mass-produced objects for the average citizen. Its ubiquity is proof of our common appetite for beauty, and also, to an extent, the same kind of beauty.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The Art and Science of Branding

The art and science of branding are endlessly fascinating (Credit: Pixabay)

What is a brand? In the simplest sense, the identity (verbal and visual presentation) of an individual or organisation that sets it apart from others. In this article, I try to list a few characteristics of good brands, based not on textbooks but my own experience. I begin with these questions: Why do I keep going back to certain content platforms and people? Why are they even in my mind in a crowded, insanely competitive world? After closely examining the brands I am attracted to, I have come up with the following:

  1. Clear and Confident Story & Mission

Firstly, a good brand has a narrative that it can share with the world in a distilled form. In one or two sentences, we get what the entity is doing and why (we needn’t have the “how” all at once). The brand doesn’t waver from this core message, it can enhance it over time but it won’t change it arbitrarily. Canadian YouTuber Evan Carmichael, who runs a popular motivational channel for entrepreneurs, says it succinctly and passionately: “Solving the World’s Biggest Problem”, which, for him, is untapped human potential. I also think of Arianna Huffington’s new startup Thrive Global that states: “We’re helping the world’s leading enterprises end the stress and burnout epidemic. One Microstep at a time.”

2. Memorability

Next, a good brand has features that make it worth remembering. This could be its use of colour, structuring of content or particularity of design. The School of Greatness podcast by American entrepreneur Lewis Howes in which he interviews high achievers has caught my attention especially because of its energetic and positive orange. Personal development guru Tim Ferriss circulates a “5-Bullet Friday” email wherein he shares 5 things that he may be doing (watching, drinking, reading, celebrating, daydreaming, pondering, etc.). The categorisation makes his material easy to retain. In case of design, I think of New York Review Books that publishes literary authors from all over the world. Their covers are unusually artistic for the book world. Each has a block in the middle with the title. This graphic element makes the publisher instantly recognisable.

NYRB regularly shares readers’ photos of their books on Twitter.

3. Quality & Consistency

Also, brands draw audiences when they produce quality content consistently. Both are important. If somebody posts 10 great images with great text on social media over two days and then disappears for three months, chances are they will be forgotten. On the other hand, if they post mediocre material every single day, chances are they will not make a big impact. Two projects that I think have mastered both quality and consistency in content creation across their channels are Humans of New York (photoblog celebrating stories of ordinary people) and The Criterion Collection (a gatherer and publisher of the greatest films from around the world).

4. Openness to Evolution

A good brand, though it has a fixed core message, can have a fluid profile. It can embrace change, grow and innovate, and by that, keep the audience from losing interest. For example, the Indian luxury wellness brand Paro Good Earth—rooted in the spiritual and philosophical traditions of the subcontinent—transforms its Instagram feed regularly so as not to appear stagnant and stale. During spring, it used contemporary photography and during monsoon, historical miniature paintings to get its ideas across. A public figure who has evolved and stayed relevant is Oprah Winfrey. Upon ending The Oprah Winfrey Show that brought her global fame, she moved to new projects, particularly prominent among which was Super Soul Sunday, where she continues to speak with important personalities.

5. Audience Participation & Community Building

Next, a good brand welcomes you, it asks you questions, allows you to express your opinions, it connects you with others, making you feel part of a community. Two examples I think of here are popular YouTubers Shallon Lester and Tom Bilyeu. Lester, who unpacks celebrity gossip to give enlightening and entertaining insights on human behaviour and condition, loves addressing her viewers as “Shalloners”, “Shallontourage” and “Shalligators”. Tom Bilyeu, who runs the talk show Impact Theory, aimed at personal development, calls his followers “Impactivists”. He also directly asks them to text him. Not every brand may use names for members of their community but engendering a sense of belonging is always a great idea.

A manifesto for Tom Bilyeu’s “Impact Theory” community. The term “Impactivist” is used in points 2, 6, 11, 14, 22, 24.

6. Concrete Deliverables

If one is a doctor or real estate agent or lawyer or plumber, their product/service is obvious. But in certain industries, while the knowledge of the individual/organisation might be easy to perceive, their exact deliverable and revenue model might not be so easy to guess. A good brand will always make its offer and expertise direct and leave no room for confusion. I think of the global cultural communications agency Sutton that serves a variety of outfits in different ways. It mentions its Clients as: (1) Artists and Foundations, (2) Galleries, (3) Museums, (4) Architecture, (5) Collecting, (6) Design, Craftsmanship and Luxury, (7) Performing Arts and (8) Biennials and Triennials and its Services as: (1) Cultural Strategy, (2) Content Strategy and Media Relations, (3) Digital Advisory, (4) Marketing and Brand Strategy in very attractive presentations. I also like how the media platform Big Think operates Big Think Edge beyond its free content, introducing it right away on the homepage: “Big Think Edge helps individuals and organizations by catalyzing conversation around the topics most critical to 21st century success. Led by the world’s foremost experts, our dynamic learning programs are short-form, mobile, and immediately actionable.”

7. Something Unique

Lastly, brands make an impression if they truly have something unique to offer. I like the luxury lifestyle management business Quintessentially because it is very comprehensive, covering travel, art, education, food, wellness, at-home entertainment, everyday errands, and more for high net-worth clients. This type of concierge service is a recent industry and Quintessentially has established itself as a leader because of its 360-degree approach. 

In people, an unrepeatable personality that immediately comes to mind is New York-based psychotherapist of Belgian-Jewish background Esther Perel. She is known for her concept of erotic intelligence. Her practice revolves around the management of the tension caused by the collision of two sets of human needs—one for security, familiarity, intimacy, safety, security and the other for mystery, adventure, space, distance, freedom. While there are countless relationship coaches and marriage counsellors around, what makes Perel stand out is her intellectual rigour coupled with deep knowledge of real-life situations. She beautifully merges the world of abstract ideas with that of everyday existence and articulates paradoxes in a manner that is very uncommon.

The seven principles above can be applied by anybody, regardless of industry. Painters, sculptors, photographers and others skilled in the arts in various capacities can take their projects to new professional heights if they follow these characteristics with seriousness and true commitment.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard: A Major Name in Rococo Art

The Swing (1767) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Wallace Collection, London.

The word “Rococo” immediately conjures for me 18th-century France and highly ornate architecture. Gilded, flowery design. Cream walls, pastel blue ceilings, trompe-l’œil scenes. Elaborate costumes. Marie Antoinette and her cakes. It’s a style that I have been aware of but barely paid attention to.

Until recently, that is—when the painting The Swing (1767) by French Rococo master Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) flashed before me multiple times on Instagram, and I was driven to search a bit more.

Rococo—with all its extravagance—it turns out, was a reaction against the more formal French classicism or Style Louis XIV. “The Swing”, which is a fitting representation of the movement, is believed to have disturbed the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who wanted art to be serious, dedicated to depicting reason and the nobility of man. When you look at the painting, the quality that is most perceptible is “frivolity”. It freezes a moment of frolic and carefreeness in a seemingly cultured and sophisticated garden setting. The figures, who look as though they belong to polite society of etiquette and ethics, appear to secretly indulge in what might be an impermissible act. The enduring appeal of the artwork lies precisely in this contrast. 

An elegantly dressed woman is swinging happily, one shoe thrown in the air. A young man is in the bushes on the bottom left, looking up at her, one hand reaching out. An older man is behind on the right, pulling the rope, perhaps unaware of the young man. A cupid-like sculpture does a shhhh.

Alina Cohen of Artsy explains: “Baron Louis-Guillaume Baillet de Saint-Julien commissioned The Swing from Fragonard with salacious intentions. Saint-Julien wanted a picture of his mistress that also featured him looking up the lady’s skirt. Initially, the Baron tried to hire history painter Gabriel François Doyen to make the work. Given the sordid nature of the task, Doyen refused. Fragonard had no such qualms—and his career benefited from it. After all, austerity was hardly in vogue throughout Marie Antoinette’s France. With the success of The Swing, Fragonard was able to successfully transition from a history painter frustrated by royal bureaucracy to a favoured artist of the upper class—members of which, ostensibly, were more willing and able to pay on time.”

There are other paintings by Fragonard that are worth engaging with—a set, in fact, titled “The Progress of Love” (1771-73) that was commissioned by Madame du Barry, the mistress of King Louis XV, for her château. They were, strangely, rejected by her. They changed houses and owners and, in 1915, were purchased by American industrialist Henry Clay Frick for $750,000.

The four artworks are The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned and The Love Letters. They are definitely less famous than The Swing—because they are simply less mischievous and almost more moral. But they possess technical and thematic beauty of their own.

The flowers, the trees, the sky—everything is quite enchanting in these scenes. In the first artwork, we see a young man offering a woman a rose. Another female is present in the painting, a companion to the object of affection. Later, there is a tryst. Then, the crowning of the man by the woman with a wreath—signifying commitment. Lastly, the two are together in a bond, and look back fondly at their letters.

Romantic and sexual symbolism is hidden within the garden through the stages of courtship. For instance, in the opening image, the fountain might point at future consummation. In the tryst, the two characters meet below a statue of Venus, the goddess of love. The man’s red stands for passion, the woman’s white for purity. In the final image, they are seen before a personification of friendship, which implies their relationship has matured to a certain warmth and stability and ease.

The way in which the drama of the series unfolds, with depth and exuberance, is quite alien to our current age of superficial dating apps. What we hear of now is an abundance of options for a potential partner, rapid swiping and ghosting, disposability. Flippant, boring behaviours. Fragonard shows us a completely different and much more interesting world. A world of concentration in one person, effort in wooing. Better manners, higher standards, and therefore, more fun, more play.

The Progress of Love: The Pursuit (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Meeting (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Lover Crowned (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Love Letters (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Famous Examples of “Preliterate” Art

Cuevas de la Manos (Cave of the Hands), dating back to 11,000- 7000 BC, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Photo by User “Mariano”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.

The word “prehistoric” is very popular but when it comes to art made before the advent of settled life and writing systems, I try not to use it. Many believe that history officially begins with scripted records of human life and culture in the Ancient Near East around 6000-4000 years before the present. This somehow implies that the time prior to that period isn’t included in the grand narrative of the human race. But we have so much evidence available of human consciousness and creativity from the deep past…30,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago—not written accounts on tablets, certainly, but drawings and figurines, signs and symbols that speak volumes. All that cannot not be a part of history. That’s why I prefer the word “preliterate” over “prehistoric”.

Here I will examine five famous examples of preliterate art from different parts of the world and what they might tell us about our ancestors. Very little is known about the cultural context of these hunter-gatherer societies. The works may have had a ceremonial or merely decorative function. Despite the lack of clarity, we might deduce something precious about the human condition by exploring them.

The first artwork that comes to my mind is the “Cave of the Hands” from southern Argentina, about 13,000 years old. These stencilled paintings of dozens of hands (the pigments, it is believed, were sprayed through bone pipes) highlight our inherently social identity, how we must band together for safety and survival. They also indicate our desire to be remembered—as in “I was here”.

Another cave I think of is Lascaux in southwestern France, which has paintings of wild animals going back 17,000 years. Some observers have linked them to an idea known as “sympathetic magic”—the term was first used by Scottish social anthropologist and folklorist James George Frazer (1854-1941).

Depiction of horses, aurochs and deer in a painting at Lascaux caves in the village of Montignac in southwestern France, believed to be 17,000 years old. Photo by User “Prof saxx”, Public Domain, Wikipedia.

Sympathetic magic means a kind of procedure aimed at bringing good luck to the hunters. It could have been performed by shaman-like personalities in a state of trance believing that “ritual actions imitate the real ones you wish to bring about”, that by visualising and meditating on big game, a community will be able to encounter and capture them for real.

Venus of Willendorf as shown at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Photo by User “Bjørn Christian Tørrissen”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia.

Next, I think of 25,000-year-old “Venus of Willendorf” (Willendorf being a village in northeastern Austria)—a 4.4-inch-tall statuette that was discovered during excavations by Austro-Hungarian archaeologist Josef Szombathy (1853-1943) and others in 1908. This female figurine with plaited hair or headdress and large body could be a mother goddess—that is, a personification of creative forces, fertility, the plenitude of nature found in many cultures, primitive and advanced.

Fourth example is that of the paintings found at the Bhimbetka rock shelters, located in the Raisen district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. About 10,000 years old, these depict animals like horses, bison and deer, weapons like arrows, shields and swords, scenes of hunting and also, interestingly, dancing. They give us a glimpse into a slightly more developed community. Here we understand that even with a harsh existence devoid of the comforts and luxuries of civilisation, our ancestors could make room for entertainment and take time out for fun.

Paintings in Rock Shelter 8, Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by User “Bernard Gagnon”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.
Dancers at Bhimbetka. Photo by User “Nandanupadhyay”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.
Ain Sakhri Lovers, British Museum. Photo by User “Geni”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia.

Lastly, I have chosen the Ain Sakhri Lovers, a 102 mm high figurine—now at the British Museum—from a cave near Bethlehem, discovered in 1933 by René Neuville, a French consul in Jerusalem. This is the oldest known representation of a copulating couple. It is also a phallic symbol. Like the Venus of Willendorf, it can be said to denote fertility but within a relational framework.

When observed from different perspectives, it looks like different sexual organs—breasts (top), penis (side), vagina (bottom), also testicles. The artwork is about 11,000 years old and belongs to the Natufian culture of the Levant that was known for its semi-sedentary lifestyle even before the dawn of agriculture. Archaeologist Ian Hodder of Stanford University has interesting thoughts on the entwined figures:

The Natufian culture is really before fully domesticated plants and animals, but you already have a sedentary society. This particular object, because of its focus on humans and human sexuality in such a clear way, is part of that general shift towards a greater concern with domesticating the mind, domesticating humans, domesticating human society, being more concerned with human relationships, rather than with the relationships between humans and wild animals, and the relationships between wild animals themselves.

British art historian Neil MacGregor writes that to him the tenderness of the embracing figures suggests not so much reproductive vigour but love. People were beginning to settle and form more stable families and “perhaps this is the first moment in history when a mate could become a husband or a wife”. From this point onwards you must make an effort to continue the species, not in a purely animal way as did those before you, but within the structure of a more definite, committed interpersonal dynamic.

These are only five. Every example of preliterate art can lead to a contemplative or enlightening experience if we engage with it deeply enough.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Interior of the Villa of the Mysteries by User “Raffaele pagani”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Looking into ancient Greek and Roman visual art, I recently discovered a curious location that is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the comune of Pompei, near Naples, in the Campania region of southern Italy. Situated on the outskirts of the ancient city of Pompeii, the Villa dei Misteri or “the Villa of the Mysteries” was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, excavated around 1909 and restored between 2013 and 2015.

The villa is famous for one particular room—containing dazzling red frescoes that show a religious ceremony. Ancient Rome is known for its murals or wall paintings. This form of art has a long history in the Mediterranean, where the Minoans, a pre-Greek people of the Aegean islands, regularly used it as early as the mid-second millennium BC.

Exterior of the Villa of the Mysteries by User “ElfQrin”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The frescoes in the villa, dated to 70-60 BC, are believed to depict a rite associated with a “mystery cult” of Dionysus or Bacchus—the god of wine, fertility, theatre, madness and ecstasy. Greco-Roman mystery cults were religious schools reserved for initiates known as “mystai”. The details of membership were not revealed to outside parties.

In the red paintings, we most likely have a bride who is being initiated into the Dionysian/Bacchic Mysteries in preparation for marriage, her elaborate costume being a wedding dress. We cannot know the exact meaning of the paintings. There have been several interpretations.

Frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries by User “Shakko”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
Scenes 1, 2 and 3

In the first scene, a boy—standing before a priestess—reads from the scroll. The initiate enters in purplish apparel. She is also shown leaving in darker, slightly different clothes, now with a wreath and a tray of sacramental food.

In the second scene, the initiate, the priestess and an assistant weave a basket. On the right, Silenus plays a lyre. (Silenus is a folkloric figure of the forest who is a man with some features of the horse; he is a companion of Bacchus.)

In the third scene, two more characters appear: a satyr (drunken, male nature spirit) plays panpipes and a nymph (minor female nature deity) suckles a goat. The initiate is in a dramatic pose. She is probably in the process of establishing a close connection with nature, leaving the human world to immerse herself more in her animal side. This psychological shift is needed for regeneration and rebirth in ancient rituals. The initiate is absent from the next two scenes—which means she has undergone “katabasis”, which is a kind of journey or descent. From the country to the coast or down into the underworld.

Scenes 4, 5 and 6

In the fourth scene, Silenus holds a bowl. One satyr looks into that bowl. Another holds a mask (resembling Silenus). This is a strange and intriguing tableau. The bowl could be a vessel of divination, giving a vision of the future—possibly of death. Maybe the death of innocence and childhood that the initiate must submit herself to.

Next, in a damaged part of the fresco, we can see Dionysus leaning onto his mother Semele. In scene six, the initiate appears. She is wearing a cap now and has a staff, signs that she has reached a new stage in the initiation ritual. She is reaching for a long object covered with purple cloth, placed in a basket (perhaps a phallic symbol or a signpost of some sort indicating a new discovery). On the right is a winged figure—Aidos, the Greek goddess of shame, modesty, respect and humility.

Scenes 7, 8 and 9

In the seventh scene, the initiate kneels before the priestess. A female figure whips her, another one dances. It is as though this is some kind of final test of strength, and a cause for celebration is at hand.

Eight and ninth scenes show completion. The initiate is in new clothes, an assistant behind her. Cupid shows her a mirror. Then, she is enthroned, Cupid again by her side.

The logic behind mystery cults is interesting. In a book titled The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era (2009), historian James S. Jeffers writes: “The state religions of the Greeks and Romans proved unsatisfying for some. Those who longed for a sense of salvation, and for a more personal connection with a deity, often looked for them in the mystery religions.”

The appeal of these frescoes lies in the very fact of their being beyond full comprehension. They attract the viewer with their sense of secrecy. They also engage as they exhibit a timeless human impulse—to achieve a kind of maturity, an elevation of the spirit, a connection with the divine in some form.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Aristotle’s Four Causes and How they Relate to Art

A sculptor at work in his studio. (Credit: Pixabay)

A particular topic that has remained very clearly in my mind since my MA days is Aristotle’s Four Causes. Change, motion, contingency, the coming into being of phenomena (and the mechanics behind)—these are subjects that one will find time and again in the ancient Greek philosopher’s voluminous and wide-ranging oeuvre. It is his treatises Physics and Metaphysics wherein he articulates an exhaustive account of “causation”.

The Four Causes are all-embracing in their application and provide a framework within which the proper value of things (from the entire cosmos to a tiny blade of grass) or acts (morality, art-making, virtually anything that is done) could be ascertained or decided. They are, namely:

  1. The Material Cause (the substance out of which or from which a phenomenon is made)
  2. The Formal Cause (the design or structure of the phenomenon)
  3. The Final Cause (the purpose or end towards which the phenomenon is directed or for the sake of which it is created)
  4. The Efficient Cause (the agent or condition that brings the phenomenon into being)

If we consider Michelangelo’s David through this four-fold lens—(a) the material cause would be marble, (b) the formal cause is David the Biblical figure, also a young athletic man, (c) the final cause would be the decoration of the Cathedral of Florence and (d) the efficient cause here is the act of sculpting, also Michelangelo himself.

Close-up of Michelangelo’s David (1501-04), displayed at Accademia Gallery, Florence. (Credit: pickpik.com)

When I think about late modern and contemporary art, and also visual culture broadly through the decades, I feel that somehow “formal” and “final” causes have gradually faded away from the practice of creativity.

The “efficient” and “material” are still around, that is, it is always important as to who has made the art and out of what. But (a) what exactly has been put up on exhibition in what kind of appearance or contour and (b) what are its consequences going to be on the psychologies of those who witness it—I am not sure if these matters are given enough thought today. Sure modern/contemporary art and visual culture have great scope for innovation—and much of it can be terrifically thought-provoking—yet somehow its practitioners find it too convenient to not take the trouble of deeply engaging with the two aforementioned issues.

A very common example of contemporary abstract painting retrieved from Google search that may be taken seriously and easily found on the walls of commercial galleries.

A loss of “formal cause” means that anything today is capable of being passed as very serious art meriting gallery representation or museum acquisition as long as the artist wants to do it that way, no further justification is required —think random splashes of colour on a canvas, an empty room with lights going on and off, a few words in neon. Such fairly undemanding works would have been absolutely unthinkable in medieval or Renaissance West when Aristotelian thought had a greater grip on intellectual circles and wherein cathedrals or manuscripts or frescoes would take years of meticulous research and precise effort. Today the standard for the “formal” constitution of artworks is entirely fluid, no fixed criteria remain.

Additionally, a loss of “final cause” means a lot of visual content is generated for a fleeting moment and within limited (immediately capitalistic) logic with a disregard for its long-term outcomes for the society in general. Modelling and advertising agencies—and the portrayal of women—come to my mind straightaway.

It is hard to have a sensible discussion on social media as to the repercussions of certain depictions of females. Where does the line between liberty/empowerment and objectification/enslavement lie? What is a marketer (of lingerie or cosmetics) eventually achieving by producing countless monotonous images of young women of a particular physique who are, so often, made to look as a mere collection of parts, devoid of personality, agency, thought processes, opinions, even emotions of their own?

Results for a random Google search on “Instagram models”. What’s the point of these images—produced in tons? In what way are they helping womankind as a whole evolve? Could there be more meaningful ways of exploring femininity, confidence, achievement, fashion, luxury and style? Such questions that probe a bit more are suppressed as soon as they are raised because they are perceived as attacks on the liberty of the subjects to “be themselves”.

What effects are these depictions having on young men or school-going girls? What message is it sending them about the capabilities of womanhood? It is extremely difficult to raise these questions in a civilised dialogue today as the wild individual will of the marketer reigns supreme and it won’t take any responsibility apart from profit-making for itself. It also quickly deems any suggestion (to adhere to a different level of quality) an assault upon its freedom of expression. Today the “final” rationale behind visual content isn’t an area many care to explore.

What Aristotle’s Four Causes have to offer is a more thoughtful, richer, challenging, multi-dimensional approach to the production of art or visual content. The philosopher affords recognition to the creator and the substance used. With that, through his emphasis on design and structure, he wants us to think more carefully about how things should look and be presented—so that they can be truly pleasing to the eyes of others and not just cater to own purely subjective whims. Furthermore, with his insistence on teleology, he encourages us to be more reflective about the gradual and ultimate meaning of what is produced—so that it can be genuinely useful and stimulating to the mind. These are suitable correctives for our culture that can be big on self-worship and reckless urgency.

Keeping Aristotle’s framework in mind, the artists and content creators among us may ask ourselves questions of this kind: (1). I am a painter who wants to explore humankind’s relationship with the natural world without being too figurative. Are the strokes and symbols that I am using definite enough to be identified by the viewer or are my themes getting lost and turning incomprehensible in a lack of proper outlines and colours, (2). I am an art/culture/entertainment journalist with a considerable social media presence. How many stories that I am posting tell people something that they haven’t already heard before in some way or another? Say, instead of a banal coverage of the latest Hollywood divorce (which the world does not need to know) could I inform my followers of some beautiful classic of world cinema the experience of which might delight them for years?

And so on…

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

How Artists Could Explore Climate and Ecology

Credit: Needpix.com

As we all know, important discussions around climate change and the ecological crisis have been around for the last two to three decades. In my memory, what sticks out are media like Michael Jackson’s Earth Song (1995) with its unforgettable visuals of burning deforested land and the movie The Day After Tomorrow (2004) with a frozen New York City. I also think of the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth by former US presidential candidate Al Gore and Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato si’: On Care for our Common Home. Justin Trudeau’s deep disappointment over the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord in 2017 is one relevant event from the world of politics that I remember.

In the past few months/days, the debate around the issue has become more urgent and forceful—with massive fires in the Amazon and Australia, and Greta Thunberg’s passionate activism exploding over social media and reaching the Davos elite. February 2020 and Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, has finally pledged $10 billion to save the environment after countless appeals and demands.

How are artists to participate in this crucial discourse? How should they contribute? What new perspectives and practical tools can they offer? These are matters I have been interested in for a long time. I have found several noteworthy creatives, galleries and museums doing thought-provoking work—but a lot more needs to be done in this area.

The first thing, I believe, that could be considered is that we have had plenty of calls that have brought attention to the damage already done and its possible consequences. They come as news items that evoke “guilt” (example, a bird covered in oil from a British Petroleum spill in the Gulf of Mexico) or frightening, apocalyptic scenarios that serve as “warnings” (example, Stephen Hawking predicting rains of sulphuric acid and temperatures of 250C before his death). Earth Song and The Day After Tomorrow also fall within these categories. Such an approach in art—that focuses on the negative—as I have written in a previous article (https://melbourneartclass.com/art-more-as-proposition-than-protestation/) can certainly be effective as it acts as a loudspeaker and highlights pertinent matters.

Apocalyptic visions of ice caps melting and freezing the earth or temperatures rising and setting the earth on fire have been common in books, film and music videos (Image: Icy Fiery Planet by user “behrang” / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Many artists till now have followed the guilt/warning route and come up with interesting exhibits. Spanish artist Isaac Cordal is known for sculptural installations in puddles that show half-submerged figures looking like politicians or corporate men. So engrossed are they perhaps in discussing trade deals and driving the engines of industry that they fail to realise the criticalness of global warming. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has hauled 100 tonnes of free-floating, glacial ice from the waters of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland to public sites in London and Copenhagen. Concerned about rising sea levels, Washington, DC-based artist Noel Kassewitz makes buoys and floats for disaster preparedness.

Follow the Leaders, 2011, Berlin by Isaac Cordal (Fair Use)

But protest is incomplete without proposition, I want to repeat. Exposure (what has been done wrong) must be complemented with recommendations (what could be done right). It is the other side of the narrative that must be emphasised—new ways in which we could see the environment, useful measures we could adopt to ensure that the delicate cycles and chains of nature remain undisturbed and are, rather, reinforced. I want to mention four artists whose works we can consider in this regard with reasons as to why:

  • Courtney Mattison (US) – for moving the spotlight away from homo sapiens
  • Alma Heikkilä (Finland) – for revealing relationships among organisms big and small
  • Tomás Saraceno (Argentina) – for proposing sustainable ways of inhabiting the environment
  • Ernesto Neto (Brazil) – for creating sensory spaces that connect us back to the earth

Courtney Mattison, who has an academic background in marine ecology and ceramic sculpture, has been making large coral reefs. She marries scientific detail with artistic prowess and shows the underwater formations in all their varied and intricate beauty. Mattison is an ocean advocate who wants to inspire policymakers and the public to conserve our changing seas. So much of global visual culture is anthropocentric—concerned only with human needs and wants. Mattison’s work is special because it shifts our viewpoint and, with professional seriousness, gives centre-stage to an ecosystem that, even though is distant from us, remains susceptible to damage by our activity.

Alma Heikkilä gives audiences a symbiotic view of life, that is, she underscores the complex, interdependent dynamics between humans and other organisms, including miniscule microbes. In her paintings, she zooms in on bacteria that are everywhere, in and around us, and are absolutely essential for our survival. It is her belief that “in order to combat climate change we need to stop thinking of humankind as unique and individual from other life forms.”

Fusing art with the worlds of engineering, architecture and the natural sciences, Tomás Saraceno lays out innovative models of design and ways of living. His vision of Air-Port-City and “cloud citizenship” take us to floating metropolises made of cell-like structures with elastic boundaries powered by solar energy. His projects “In Orbit” and “Aerocene” have further explored the possibility of an airborne existence.

Works by Courtney Mattison (top left), Alma Heikkilä (top right), Tomás Saraceno (bottom right) and Ernesto Neto (bottom left) / Fair Use

Finally, Ernesto Neto produces work that engages all our senses and blurs the boundary between artificial and organic. His installations are often made up of nets and cocoons and may also contain substances like spices and sand. Plant-like and root-like, the works take us further into the soil, rather than away from it. They offer a corrective to the modern buildings of hard concrete, glass and steel that can make us feel alienated and cut off from the beauty of nature.

All four artists pick up on human fault but leave us with a positive message and feeling, enabling true reflection and/or reasonable action. They go beyond judgment and provide solutions.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Frida Kahlo’s Rich and Expansive Understanding of Reality

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) by Frida Kahlo,
Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas, US (Fair Use)

There is a quote by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) that I find very interesting: “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” The truthful depiction of “reality”—as we normally understand it—in the arts is simply known as Realism. It is a factual representation of the world, one that is free of phenomena that might seem unbelievable or fantastical or supernatural, a reflection of things that exist, of things as they are, as they are seen, heard and felt.

Realism, if you search it out in Google Images, will yield results showing peasants in fields, city-dwellers in cafés, fruits on a table, a family at supper. Lots of brown, yellow, some green. Historically, the movement began in France in the 1840s (around the 1848 “February” Revolution). Fairly enough, it was a reaction to the emotionalism and exoticism of the Romantic period. Realism sought to portray every social class, ordinary life and labour during a time of rapid industrialisation with accuracy, eschewing depictions that were idealised or artificial, and confronting aspects of existence that were uncomfortable or harsh.

A typical Realist scene—The Gleaners (1857) by Jean-François Millet, Wikipedia

On the other end of Realism is Surrealism—having grown out of “Dada” experiments in Switzerland following World War I that revolted against the logic of modern society and capitalism and embraced nonsense. Surrealism, as we know, is a style that merges dream and reality, the rational and the irrational, the conscious and the unconscious, and, as a result, breaks through predictability and patterns. Its strange juxtapositions unsettle our sense of order and expectation.

A good example of Surrealism—The Elephant Celebes (1921) by Max Ernst, Wikipedia

When I look at Frida Kahlo’s work, it seems as an enterprise, that it could be placed between Realism and Surrealism (perhaps Magic Realism is the best term—as some have described it?). She draws inspiration from the events of her own life but her art clearly isn’t all stark and factual, which means we cannot straightaway call her a Realist. Also, it isn’t jarring and beyond reason, so we cannot consider her an outright Surrealist—her paintings retain a certain dreaminess, embellishment, strangeness and otherworldliness but her intention isn’t to create an effect of surprise or shock. Rather, it is an invitation to a deeper immersion in her complex and multi-layered being.

Kahlo is in the middle of extremes. The Realist side of her openly acknowledges the human condition with its travails and tragedies. Having struggled through polio in childhood, a severe road accident, a tumultuous marriage (to artist Diego Rivera) and childlessness, she exhibits her suffering before the world without shame. For example, in The Broken Column, her injured spine becomes an Ionic column.

The Broken Column (1944) by Frida Kahlo, Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico City, Mexico (Fair Use)

On the other hand, her Surrealist side celebrates the human ability to indulge in reveries and hallucinations, and emancipate herself, albeit temporarily, from the weight of life through the sheer thrill of imagination and creativity. In What the Water Gave Me, we find a mysterious association of flora and fauna, a volcano, a dress, images of Kahlo’s German father and Mestizo mother, a modern skyscraper, references to torture, erotic encounters, death and dance. The entire theatre is acted out in a bathtub wherein the artist lies submerged.

What the Water Gave Me (1938) by Frida Kahlo, private collection of Daniel Filipacchi, Paris (Fair Use)

In her visuals, Kahlo revealed a two-fold reality—of the body and the mind. She presented the sensuality, fragility and stamina of her outward physical presence (which was objectively available to everybody) alongside the wild, wide-ranging, sometimes confused, activity of her hidden inward dimension. And she deemed this latter invisible, intangible, volatile domain as true and important as the former (who on earth considers the meaningful thoughts he/she thinks daily under the shower as fake or false or unreal?). In Kahlo’s context, I remember a powerful question asked by Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007): “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Kahlo is enduringly popular in a very special way, I think, because she gave us a reality that was more expansive than the most faithful and exact instances of Realism. That movement showed us peasants toiling in the fields and that alone, it stopped before attempting to explore the drama of their internal faculties. Also, Kahlo’s reality, despite its bits of wild fantasy, had a concrete form and personality that made it more immediately accessible to the viewer than a lot of Surrealism with its bewildering amorphousness. She successfully demonstrated these lines of Neil Gaiman: “Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe.”

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

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.