Saturday, June 19, 2010

Provence then and now

In our trip to France, we visited St. Remy (the asylum where Van Gogh painted some extraordinary artworks), this is the view out of his window from his tiny room. It is my perverse nature to begin our trip with a view of his barred bedroom.  The olive trees look just like his paintings.
The asylum continues in use today, and there was a mural created by children living there. I guess having had a really famous artist living there must be an inspiration to them.

Aix en Provence (Cezanne's home Jas de Bouffan, Cezanne's studio, and Cezanne's quarry, Bibemus) - Here's Henry in the quarry listening to the guide who told us the geology, the art history, and the history of the quarry. Just after this we turned around and saw Mont St. Victoire  as Cezanne saw it.

Vallauris and Castle Grimaldi (Picasso), here is a sample pot by Picasso, no pictures allowed in most places, but I got this one in Vallauris. The sculpture is in a nearby plaza.
There were amazing contemporary artists working in ceramics also.

The Maeght Foundation (modern art especially Miro), here is a sample. Below is the facade with a mosaic by Chagall. Miro's work pays homage to the farmers who were still working there in the 1960s. He had an entire sculpture garden of work that needs a separate entry or a slide show. Braque had a tiled pool and stained glass. Every art work suggested new perspectives on old friends.

The Vence Chapel (Matisse), entrance, amazing stain glass inside

The Matisse Museum in Nice with joie de vivre, Sunday afternoon in France in the foreground.

The Museum of Prehistory (wonderful website, you have to search for it in French Musee Prehistoire so here's a link) in out of the way Quinson, Verdon. We were so lucky to get in with the school children with my press pass, since it is closed on Tuesdays, the day we showed up. It was a high point of the trip for me. Interactive educational displays and state of the art media. They took us through the stages of human development based on a cave discovered nearby with remnants of human life starting 700,000 years ago. The stunning museum was designed by Norman Foster. The school children in France are studying evolution.  Here is also the earliest example of stone carving that they found in the cave.

This was near the gorge of Verdon that we hiked in
and the exquisitely beautiful town of Moustiere Ste Marie recommended by my good friend Romson Bustillo. Here is my salute to the good life in a small restaurant there.

The Museum of Resistance in La Fontaine de Vaucluse, called Call to Liberty 1939 -45 told the story of Petain's capitulation to the Nazis, his cult, his sending of French men to work in German industries, and then the amazing resistance movement with its multiple identities, courageous participants, and its successes (sabotage) and failures (killing and persecution). It had a whole section on the artists in the resistance, especially writers, like Paul Eluard.
One poet memorized 140 poems while in prison and then wrote them down when he got out.

In Avignon there was a national strike in France and a great March in the main street ending at the Papal Palace. Of course that was another high point.The French socialists had the best chants and were thrilled to meet an American socialist ( that's me)  they didn't know there were any. The French were protesting the threatened cuts in benefits and pensions because of the economic crisis. Of course my personal ( absolutely unverified and unverifable) theory is that the privatization people wanted to force Europe to stop giving all those services, and the crash was a great way to force them into it.

Seeing the art of these famous artists in the locations where they lived and worked was enlightening. (We missed out on Leger, that will have to be on the next trip).

They moved to Southern France when it was dirt cheap, one after the other, Cezanne came from there and never left, and he painted in his own back garden as well as a quarry and his studio. Amazingly limited geography. He was forced to the sea during the Franco Prussian war and painted the Meditaerranean "l'Estaque" like a big blue wall. No crashing waves for him. Van Gogh of course moved for the sun and color.

Matisse in Nice were a perfect match of light and color, Picasso went there in 1946 (having spent the war years in Paris) and spent three months painting with makeshift materials at the Grimaldi Castle. It is now a Picasso Museum right on the water, in what was a grim old castle. Today it is filled with light and air and an extraordinary group of paintings, many of them in tones of grey and brown.There is also a stunning group of black and white photographs of Picasso painting in the Palace, with Francois Gilot, the only woman who every left Picasso, from those same months.  And then there is Picasso's amazing pottery. He painted on preexisting pots in Vallauris and restarted the entire pottery production there.

Apparently he didn't like the fact that Matisse made a chapel for nuns at Vence. He was an atheist, but a very competitive one, so he did a chapel in Vallauris with War on one wall and Peace on the other wall. It has been closed down though. Here is War. Peace will come soon. Below is a photograph of the Chapel from the web. The murals are painted in a Romanesque chapel with a barrel vault and he painted it completely. Of course the formalists don't like any of Picasso's political work.
I've never even see these work reproduced before. Not part of the MOMA canon, that's for sure.

And then there is the Maeght Foundation. We went there on a perfect Sunday morning, blue sky, sun, green grass, the building designed by Jose Sert, the unity of artists, site, and spirit was perfect. Aime Maeght was close friends with the artists represented here, he supported them right after the war and they supported his museum. There is a unity of place, persons, art that is rare in the art world. It belongs to a lost time, the 1940s - 1960s, before the Cote D'Azur went crazy and became what it is today, a rich person's play ground.

We managed to find one tiny beach S Juan des Pins, that was public and had a picnic and took a quick swim. Apparently that is where the famous photograph of Picasso holding the umbrella over Francois Gilot was taken.

I didn't know that Matisse moved to Vence during the war, after the Germans occupied Southern France, or that his daughter was tortured by the Gestapo. I didn't know that the Resistance was centered in Provence because of the rugged countryside or that the US Allies bombed Avignon killing many civilians, in order to prepare for the invasion of France (sound familiar? ). I also didn't know that Picasso had lived in Aix following the footsteps of Cezanne and ended his life near Avignon. Right to the end he was soaking up other artists work. Matisse was always the man of pleasure that Picasso could never emulate, his line he said was "a description of the states of the soul". Picasso was always striving, stretching, and creating big failures as well as big successes. 

 His "three keys of Antibe" painted in pale gray on the wall of the Grimaldi Palace is simple mystery, perhaps a magic charm. I was not able to photograph it, but I did draw it. Maybe I can scan that.

I am on the emotional side with Picasso, but I can still enjoy Matisse. Cezanne I felt was so priviledged, how could he fail to be a success. All he had to do was paint!
There will be  more pictures soon. Here we are reflected in the water from the famous Avignon Bridge

Monday, June 14, 2010

Henry Moore, Steve McQueen, "War and the Body" and "War Horse"

This shadowy photograph shows a sculpture by Henry Moore at the Tate Britain. It is in the permanent collection, not part of their new exhibition of Moore's sculpture. It represents a sculpture based on one of the shelter drawings from World War II, with its flowing robe and awkward pose, it has been pulled from the many drawings he made in the London Underground and other shelters during the Blitz.

There was footage in the Tate show of Moore actually walking through the tube underground stations. He explained that he only drew people afterward and usually sleeping as he did not want to be too invasive. I didn't realize that these famous drawings in the London Underground depicted sleepers on the platforms ( of course they did, if you think about it) and that the people there were in non sanctioned shelters. They just went there in droves. After the fact, the government sanctioned it as a shelter.
Moore commented (and this explains some of the drawings), "the only thing at all like those shelters that I could think of was the hold of a slave ship." You see emaciated cadavers in facing rows and close up couples. Moore found that their gestures while asleep told him a lot about their state of mind. He also found the sight "pathetic, sordid and disheartening." According to the museum though, he "transformed London's poor into heroic figures and the uncertainty of their situation into stoic resignation. "

One of the most fascinating details in the exhibition were his sketches of preliminary ideas for drawings ( he was commissioned by the government to paint the war). In his tiny sketches he drew burning cows, and sheep with airplanes flying overhead. How rarely we see the impact of war on animals.

The heart of the exhibition was the war period. His drawings of miners in the same time frame, commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Board, are equally strong (his father was a miner), suggesting claustrophobia, as well as courage and perseverence under incredibly difficult conditions deep inside of mines.

The framing of Moore by the Tate aside from this section which cut through their efforts like a knife, was to focus on sexuality, surrealism, modernism and materials. The exhibition brochure was organized by medium, a particular stone, a specific wood, etc.
I went through the exhibition with my inlaws who had been to Moore's studio with the artist. He felt that touching the sculpture was crucial to understanding it, but of course in the musuem, the materials were simply an aesthetic reference, not a tactile experience.

The gallery materials gave us no biography (such as his roots in working class England), and only cursory references to his exploration of other art forms such as Egyptian and Meso American (which the museum calls Ancient Mexico  "dominated by sex and religion).  It mentioned the importance of Roger Fry's book Vision and Design, without saying when it was published (1920) and included some wonderful sketches.

Moore's art and his own words trumped their efforts. For example he said " Trunks of trees are very human. To me they have a connection with human life." So from a material, wood became an active spiritual presence.

Steve McQueen's "Queen and Country" at the National Portrait Gallery is a very different type of art about war, also commissioned by the government.  He has been on a long campaign with Royal Mail to get these stamps used on letters. He has created 160 sheets of stamps, each stamp with a single face of someone who has died in Iraq in 168 stamps.

Steve McQueen is part of a long tradition in England, the official war artist. He went to Iraq in 2003 to try to make a piece but was barely able to leave his room. That's when he thought of stamps. But Royal Mail and the Ministry of Defense have been very difficult to deal with in creating the project, he couldn't get the addresses of soldiers who had died. And this article raises the question of how such a project would be received in the US where even photographs of flag draped coffins are censored.

Meanwhile at Blackall Studios, London, there is an important exhibition called "War and the Body." I didn't get to see it although an installation "The War Experience Project," which was shown in Seattle by Rick Lawson was included. Lawson is a veteran who works with veterans on painting military jackets with their own war experience. He hands these jackets together and the result if deeply moving. Furthermore, the artist,
refuses to narrate his experience, saying it is far too traumatic to tell in a sound bite.
Another artist included was Sama Alshaibi, an important Iraqi/Palestinian artist.

The important premise of the exhibition was that war is "embodied", that seems like a pretty straightforward idea. But when you think of the real physicality of all those young people on both sides, as well as children and babies, who are killed in war, it really hits on the essence of why war is insane.

We also saw an amazing play in London called War Horse, which used life size horse puppets made of pieces of flexible cane and leather. They moved with three puppeteers ( head, tail, and heart) of the Handspring Puppet Company, that amazing company from South Africa directed by Brian Jones and Adrian Kohler. The puppeteers manipulate the puppets directly with their hands in an extraordinarily dexterous and gymnastic performance. The emotional life of the horses, expecially the star Joey in the play, are conveyed in its tail, skin, eyes, ears and even the movement of its body in breathing.

We were utterly convinced of their souls and spirits. The theme of the play is the role of horses in World War I, their courage and needless deaths, in the midst of the mindless slaughter of trench warfare. The World War I music was beautifully arranged, and the story of young innocents going to war only to be killed was direct. But the star of the show were the horses, in their movements on stage, galloping, falling, nuzzling the people who cared for them. The poignency was heartbreaking. When the main horse was caught on barb wire we all cried with him.We felt the mindless, stupidity of war.  

The play is based on a book, (Michael Mopurgo, War Horse, 1982, a children's novel written from the perspective of Joey, the main horse in the play). but the memories of the role of horses in World War I are taken from conversations with someone who was part of that War   The other interesting fact is that it was similar to the multimedia approach of William Kentridge, with animations, puppets, music, and real actors, although here all the components were more literal and easily understood. The shadow plays and other techniques were abstracted, but not avant-garde.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Two Iraqi artists and one Palestinian artist

I had the good fortune to meet two Iraqi artists during a brief stay in London. First Hana' Malallah, whom I have written about on this blog before. She left Baghdad in the fall of 2006, reluctantly driven out by the war. She has been in London for two years now and has a studio where she is producing art works using canvas that she partially burns, then rips, cuts, and collages onto larger canvases. The result is imagery that is both painfully specific and absolutely abstract, a rare phenomenon. Naturally the paintings recall the destruction of art in Baghdad and the destruction of Baghdad which now, she states, has no government. The change has been shocking and absolute, particularly for professional women. Those who remain must be covered when they go outside and still risk being killed everytime they walk in the street.  

Hana' taught at the College of Fine Arts, Baghdad University. She also earned a Ph.D. in art theory there.  Art students came from all over the Middle East and Europe, and could attend free of charge. Saddam Hussein abolished private universities. Now the University where she taught has lost its faculty to diaspora, it building was ravaged, its library destroyed and private universities are returning to Baghdad.

She told me of the deep contradictions of life under Saddam Hussein, there were no elections and if you joked you could die, but prior to sanctions she could travel freely. She had six works purchased by the government in the Modern Art Museum.
During the sanctions, Hana' went to the archeological museum for inspiration.
She stated that she belongs to a group of artists who are pursing the theme of ruins, who all belong to what she called the "80s" generation in Iraq. They include Kareem Risan who left in 2004 for Syria and now lives in Canada, and Nazar Yahya who is in Jordan.

At the end of my trip I visited a second Iraqi artist, Dia Azzawi. He is older than Hana'. He has a degree in archaeology in 1962 from Baghdad University, then a degree in Fine Art in 1964. He worked at the archeology museum until the mid 1970s when he left Baghdad. He said it was "politically obvious that he could not stay. "

Azzawi is a fiery, brilliant artist. His creates monumental abstract sculpture, large paintings, mixed media "objects" and  small book art works. He is currently working on a monument to the over 600 PhDs who have been killed in Iraq. The targetting of intellectuals has gone almost unreported in the media.  This is a preliminary study for the monument.

Azzawi makes detailed references to Arab poetry and historical art. For example, in a recent work a photograph of his father shows him wearing a type of scarf as a headress that we associate with the Palestinians, but he juxtaposes it to Gudea of Lagash, the ancient lawgiver of Mesopotamia who wears a similar headdress. Fortunately we had just seen that stunning work of art in the Louvre.

He bemoans the lack of knowledge of their own history of art among Iraqis. 

He is also a collector of contemporary art from Iraq.
He suggested to other artists the idea of  book art, a new format for Iraqi artists that was easily transportable. Selections from his book art collection have been shown in the U.S. in several venues with the title Dafatir, curated by Nada Shabout.

Azzawi  is also a curator. He has just created an exhibition called My Homeland of the work of seven Iraqi artists in Dubai and is also contemporary art advisor and curator for the Qatar Museum
He explained to me that there is a big market in fake contemporary Arab art. As the market demand has grown for contemporary Arab art, particularly among the emirates, who have a lot of money, but don't know much about contemporary art, the collecting of works of name artists has led to the production of fakes. Jawad Salim for example, a was a premier Iraqi modern artist who was commissioned in 1958 to create the  Monument to Liberty in Baghdad, by the newly created Iraqi Republic (1958 - 1963, led by Abd al-Karim Qasim whose ties to Nasser led to his assasination by Baathists in collusion with the CIA)   Jawad Salim died in 1961 before his sculpture was completed. His work is currently being forged from old photographs.

Finally, the work of Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour is in an exhibition in Paris. Above you see her Palestinauts. I have followed her video work for two years and I think she is one of the most talented video artists addressing Palestinian issues (and the competition is stiff)

This show featured "Intergalactic Palestine. "All of her videos are riffs on populist genres, from cooking shows to horror movies, with the deeper metaphor of the anguishing condition of Palestine. But her trademark is that we laugh as we cry.
This video is a riff on science fiction about space. She even uses a remastered sound bite from Stanley Kubrick's 2001 "A Space Odyssey." 
It starts with the artist, as a Palestinaut (cosmonaut plus astronaut), in her space ship, getting ready for take off. We hear "Jerusalem, we have a problem" , then "everything is back on track." She lands on the moon and plants the Palestinian flag, walking carefully in her moon boots. She declares " One small step for Palestinians, One giant leap for mankind" as she waves to the earth. Then she floats away into space and disappears.
The artist has explained " The work reflects the fact that Palestinains are in limbo, without a state, as their homeland shrinks like a spot on the horizon . . . The moon landings reflect a widespread anxiety,  that in leaving home, we might never be able to return home again.Yet because this anxiety is universal, the pain of the real forced exodus of the Palestinians is doomed to remain a private grief, forgotten by the rest of the world."