Jun 29, 2012

Look back in angst

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Even ‘Scream’ free, a new Edvard Munch exhibition reveals the artist to be a self-absorbed prisoner of painful memories 
‘The Night Wanderer’ (1923-24)
‘The Night Wanderer’ (1923-24)

The most radical aspect of Tate Modern’s new show Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye is that it does not contain “The Scream”. Five “Screams” exist: two paintings, a lithograph and two pastels, one of which sold last month for $119m. More than Munch’s most famous image, “The Scream” is a logo of existential angst that heralded and embodied the 20th-century sensibility of introspection, alienation, terror. It is from these long-held associations that Tate aims to set Munch free.

‘The Girls on the Bridge’ (1927)
‘The Girls on the Bridge’ (1927)

Was Munch’s modern eye as formally experimental as it was psychologically probing? Certainly, with his reiterated “Screams”, six versions of “The Sick Child”, seven of “The Girls on the Bridge”, 11 of “Weeping Women”, Munch exploited the nature of the iconic image, its reproducibility, the aesthetic potential and commercial value of repetitions, decades before Andy Warhol was born. He also owned a camera and liked the cinema; more than a third of the works at Tate are his photographs, and there are also two films. As in shows within the past year devoted to impressionism and photography – the Royal Academy’s Degas and the Ballet, the touring Snapshot, Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard, currently at the Indianapolis Museum of Art – the idea here is to reposition a 19th-century master as an unexpected 20th-century multifaceted artist.

The exhibition opens with five self-portraits in as many media. A conventional oil painting depicts the young artist as earnest, melancholy bohemian. Then, in a sepulchral lithograph of 1895, the breakthrough year of “The Scream”, Munch subsumes his disembodied head in black tusche ink, enhancing contrasts of light and shade, mass and void – a gestural handling of lithographic ink as if it were paint. Fine, wispy lines model cold facial features in lithographic crayon; beneath the head, an icy image of the bones of a hand and forearm rhymes with the entablature bearing the artist’s name and date above his head. The work resembles a tombstone.

The woodcut “Self-portrait Facing Left” (1912-1913) is as grim: Munch’s face is built up by striations of white against a black background; the engraving process by which he gouges deeply into the grain of the wood mirrors the acute inward-looking temperament driving Munch’s work. “My art is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are?” he asked.

Beside such urgent expressive outpourings, the photographic self-portraits look like amateur games. A series taken in front of the house at Ekely, in rural Norway, to which Munch retreated after his nervous breakdown in 1908, fixes the artist in old age: still anxious, self-absorbed, defiant. A short silent film made in 1927 is a curiosity: Munch, inquisitive, leaning out towards the viewer but as self-obsessed as ever, is enjoying playing with a new gadget, a Pathé Baby camera. But the interest here is all documentary; it is hard to find any formal or aesthetic link between these and Munch’s oeuvre in paint and print.

Curators Angela Lampe and Clément Chéroux from the Centre Pompidou, Paris – where this show was launched last year – eschew biographical readings, presenting what they call “an exhibition of themes and theories”. But Munch is such an autobiographical artist that the work resists.

The long second room, for example, painted a claustrophobic red, displays on opposing walls celebrated series – the monstrous, auburn-haired femmes fatales in “Vampire” and “Ashes”; the figures facing an abyss in “Two Human Beings: The Lonely Ones” and “The Girls on the Bridge” – which Munch created in the 1890s and 1900s, then reprised after the first world war. A text-panel explains that “the central motif is uprooted from its original setting and reworked in a new context”, so that Munch became, Lampe suggests, “a highly recognisable brand in the modern sense”. But the overwhelming impression in this haunted red room is that the motifs were not uprooted at all: they remained fixed in the nightmare tunnel of memory from which Munch never escaped, and which was his art’s rock.

Of “The Sick Child”, a recollection of the death of his beloved sister Sophie, which devastated the already motherless Munch as a teenager, the artist wrote that there was no other painter “who had lived through his motif until the last cry of agony as I had ... I repainted the picture many times over the years ... and tried again and again to capture that first impression – the translucent pale skin against the canvas – the tremulous mouth – the shaking hands”. Versions from 1907 and 1925, both dominated by a putrid green tonality, are displayed here; the earlier picture, with its downward coursing marks, is more intense, sharply delineated; the 1925 one more fluid, loosely painted, abstracted – like memory itself, hazily receding.

‘Self-Portrait with Bottles’ (1938)
‘Self-Portrait with Bottles’ (1938)

This later style was the subject of a better-focused exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2005, which showed the searing yet sketchily painted self-portraits of Munch’s final decades. Some of the best are here – “Self-portrait Between Clock and Bed” (1943), where the 80-year-old artist, as skeletal as the ghostly figure in a panel hanging on his wall, counts the hours before death; the artist-as-barman in the 1938 stuttering, staccato “Self-portrait with Bottles”. (“The second half of my life has been a battle just to keep myself upright,” Munch said.)

The self-portrait which most demonstrates the impact of cinema – its close-ups, cropping, chiaroscuro effects – is “The Night Wanderer” (1923-1924), pinpointing a moment when Munch glimpses his gaunt figure in a mirror. The light from an electric bulb casts a Hopperish, film noir reflection on his face, transforming his dishevelled hair into a sulphur-yellow halo.

Echoes of the way film stretches space, and engulfs the viewer in vistas that seem to veer dizzyingly towards us, can be detected in “Starry Night”, painted around the same time as a rush of skies and darkness. And in “Murder on the Road” a black lump zooms up to the foreground, where a figure in shock, denoted by the barest outline of a face, dot-eyes and hunched shoulders, flees the scene.

Such works compel and appal because they are, first and last, imaginings of dread and horror by the godfather of expressionism. Photography here is an irrelevance; as Munch wrote: “The camera will not compete with brush and canvas so long as it cannot be used in heaven and hell.”



The War Photographer, Way Back in 1666

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For decades now we have relied on news photography to capture the horrors of war. But some 350 years ago there were artists risking their lives, sketching away as soldiers and sailors fell and guns blazed. 

Mel Bochner’s “Joys of Yiddish,” recently bought by the Jewish Museum. As a young man Mr. Bochner was a guard there.

A father-son team of Dutch old masters — Willem van de Velde the Elder and the Younger — were often in the center of the action, the father drawing and the son painting. An unusual canvas, “The Surrender of the Royal Prince During the Four Days’ Battle, 1st-4th June, 1666,” depicts a naval defeat of the English by the Dutch in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. In addition to the many ships gathered on the choppy waters of the North Sea there is a tiny figure in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting of a man sketching in a small galliot beneath the stern of the Royal Prince, the English ship, as it surrenders. That figure is van de Velde the Elder, recording the end of the battle, and it is impeccably painted by his son. 

“It was a sorry day in English naval history,” said George Gordon, co-chairman of Sotheby’s old master paintings department worldwide. “But the painting itself is an accurate description and it’s all happening before our eyes, in real time, so to speak.” 

“The Surrender of the Royal Prince” is coming up for sale on Wednesday at Sotheby’s in London, where it is expected to sell for $2.4 million to $4 million. For decades now art historians and curators have considered it an important historical document. The Nationale Konstgallerij, the precursor to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, tried to buy the painting in 1800, but it ended up in the Duke of Bridgewater’s collection in London. 

The painting stayed in the duke’s family until 1976, when an anonymous collector bought it at a Christie’s auction in London. The buyer paid £60,000 for the painting, or what was then the equivalent of $108,000. 


When he was a guard at the Jewish Museum in New York nearly 50 years ago, Mel Bochner was leading a double life. “I would work at the museum all day and paint all night,” he recalled in a telephone interview. “I would come to work tired. One day I got caught taking a nap behind a Louise Nevelson sculpture and got fired.” 

Back then the Jewish Museum was where artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg had major exhibitions well before they were as famous as they are today. “It was the premier venue,” Mr. Bochner recalled. “I never thought I’d have a show there.” 

But at 72, Mr. Bochner is poised to be the subject of an exhibition scheduled to open in May 2014. It will focus on his thesaurus-inspired paintings — canvases that chart his nearly 50-year exploration of words, language and text. 

In anticipation of the show, the museum recently acquired his newest thesaurus painting, “Joys of Yiddish” (2012). Painted in glazes of vibrant, greenish yellow scrawled over a black surface are words like kibitzer and kvetcher; nudnik and nebbish. Over the years, Mr. Bochner said, he has seen these words from the “ghetto language” that he had heard as the son of an immigrant seep into the mainstream of American life. 

The genesis of this painting dates to 2006, when the Spertus Museum in Chicago asked Mr. Bochner to decorate a 50-foot barricade in front of a construction site for a museum addition. He created a work with a boldly lettered list of 24 Yiddish terms. When Norman Kleeblatt, chief curator at the Jewish Museum, saw it, he asked Mr. Bochner to create a canvas version. Mr. Bochner eventually did. It is his first work to enter the Jewish Museum’s collection and was purchased from his dealer, Peter Freeman. 

“It’s all the Yiddish that has made it into the American vernacular,” said Mr. Kleeblatt, who is also organizing the 2014 exhibition. “It has that kind of bifurcation of nostalgia and discomfort, that edge between language and painting. Do you read the words or look at the painting?” 


A number of contemporary artists these days are looking at the work of the architect Buckminster Fuller for inspiration. The Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno said he studied Fuller when he created “Cloud City,” the dizzying multipolygonal habitat of reflective stainless steel and acrylic now on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The American artist Leo Villareal also considered Fuller in creating “Buckyball,” a monumental sculpture that will be on view in Madison Square Park Oct. 25 through February 2013. 

Mr. Villareal has done several prominent works in recent years. In March, at the entrance to the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands, he installed 20,000 cascading white LED lights. And in 2008 the National Gallery of Art in Washington commissioned him to make its first site-specific light installation, which features 40,000 LED nodes that span the 200-foot-long walkway between the East and West buildings. 

For “Buckyball,” Mr. Villareal applied concepts of geometry and mathematical relationships inspired by Fuller to produce two nested geodesic sculptural spheres made up of LED tubes arranged in pentagons and hexagons. Individual pixels, each capable of displaying 16 million distinct colors, will appear every 1.2 inches along the tubes, creating random compositions of varied speed, color, light and scale. 

“I’m responding to the installation being in the park,” Mr. Villareal said in a telephone interview. “The balls are lifted off the ground on pedestals to mimic the traditional monuments found in parks, but the work is very contemporary. What makes it different is that it is a form found in science and nature and not something expected like a figure on a horse.” 


Peacehaven man’s plea to help solve painting mystery

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Jim Burnage with the painting of the engine  Robert Blake .
Jim Burnage with the painting of the engine Robert Blake .

DO YOU recognise the painting in this picture? Maybe you are a relative of the artist Mr A Riley? 

If you can shed some light on its story, Jim Burnage, of Malines Avenue, Peacehaven, would love to know.

It is 70 years since Jim first saw the painting in Horsham where he was evacuated from Islington, London, when World War Two broke out. 

As the threat of danger grew nearer, Jim’s father decided it was time for him to join the exodus.

Luckily, Jim’s aunt Gwen Collett and her husband Bill lived in Horsham, so he spent the war years at their home in Oaklands Avenue. 

Bill Collett was a train driver working out of Horsham station in the 1940s and retired in the early 50s. 

On many occasions, an excited young Jim was taken down to the railyard, where, like many young lads of his generation, he dreamt of one day driving a steam engine himself.

To have regular access to the railyard and to also have a steam engine driver in the family, Jim thought life couldn’t get any better; until he was introduced to the picture of Engine no.855, known as Robert Blake. 

Bill had been given the painting, but when he saw his nephew’s reaction to it, he decided to put it on the wall above Jim’s bed.

The painting stayed in Jim’s room until peace broke out, and he had to return to London. 

Leaving ‘Robert Blake’ behind at Horsham, Jim was devastated. 

Only many years later, when his aunt died, did Jim get the chance to be reunited again with the painting of Engine no.855.

Now, Jim is desperately trying to find out more about Mr A Riley, the artist who painted the picture of the engine ‘Robert Blake’ in 1936. 

He always understood Mr Riley was a local artist from the Horsham area, but his own enquiries in the town have not garnered much information. 

Jim said: “Maybe you are a relation of Mr Riley? Maybe you or a relative have a similar painting hanging in your house? Maybe you knew or worked with the popular train driver Bill Collett?”



At the Rothko Chapel: Art, Meditation and Reverence

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"Resting the mind can be accomplished by meditation, and also by artwork, which allows the intuition to flow: the conscious mind recedes. Meditation and artwork at their best complement each other, and true things emerge."
Candace Loheed

In doing research for my recent blog about the impact of the Richard Diebenkorn "Ocean Park" exhibition at The Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), I discovered something noteworthy in the public response to the show. During my three visits to OCMA I had noticed that the galleries were unusually hushed, and that people were taking their time, lingering in front of the paintings. Slow looking, rather like the intense scrutiny a painter might give his or her own work during the course of its creation, was very much in evidence. 

Normally, I think that people go to art exhibits to "see" things, but something about Diebenkorn's large abstractions caused some to use seeing as a way to access another kind of experience. More than a few visitors wanted to meditate on the paintings; to use their inspections of the art as a means to turn inward towards both the personal and the spiritual. 

Meditating on a painting can be a way of "connecting" with the original state of mind of the image's creator, since the act of painting itself can be said to be a form of meditation. Artist Robert Morrisey, who is also a trained art therapist, explains how this might work:

"The practice of perceptual representation enlists the principles of and is analogous to the practice of 'meditation'. It cultivates an awareness of the intrusions and distractions of the mind that impede perception. It requires a slow, steady and sustained point of focus. It demands our time, patience and trust. It rewards the practitioner with a richer and deeper understanding of and empathy for the world we inhabit."

Several people intimately involved with the presentation of the "Ocean Park" show made a connection with meditation. The exhibition's curator, Sarah Bancroft, told me that her regular visits to the show had been a "daily meditation." 

Author Peter Clothier, who has observed that museum goers spend an average of six seconds in front of a painting, came to OCMA to facilitate one of his "One Hour/One Painting" workshops. Clothier gathered small groups to sit in front of individual Diebenkorn paintings for an hour. He then asked his participants to meditate on the works, with their eyes alternating between open and closed. Zen poet Peter Levitt, who contributed an essay to the "Ocean Park" catalog, later facilitated a standing meditation and writing workshop for museum docents. "I gave them ways to see them not with their eyes," says Levitt. 

Richard Diebenkorn, who was famously down-to-earth, would have likely been puzzled by the idea of people "meditating" on his works, and most art museums are conceived with the idea that shows should present well-lit paintings to crowds of visitors who will be chatting with each other, or listening to docent talks and audio tours. Meditation, especially silent meditation, seems to belong in temples, ashrams or memorial chapels. 

There is, however, one especially fine place in the United States where silent meditation in the presence of great modern paintings is encouraged. It is the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Established in 1971 by John and Dominique de Menil, who were avid collectors of modern art, the chapel houses a suite of fourteen deeply toned purple and maroon abstract murals painted by Mark Rothko in 1967. 

The entry lobby of the Rothko chapel displays sacred texts from a wide range of religious traditions, but the experience it provides doesn't have to be religious. "The chapel invites people to experience the divine on their own terms; or not." explains Emilee Whitehurst, the chapel's Executive Director. As Dominque de Menil explained in 1977, the chapel was conceived to provide a non-traditional sacred environment:

"The Rothko Chapel is oriented towards the sacred, and yet it imposes no traditional environment. It offers a place where a common orientation could be found -- an orientation towards God, named or unnamed, an orientation towards the highest aspirations of Man and the most intimate calls of the conscience."

Emilee Whitehurst says that one of the chapel's intended functions is to bring a sense of reverence into a secular setting using modern art as a touchstone. "The de Menils were very passionate about the need for reverence," Whitehurst notes. "They were Catholic, but they also had broader spiritual convictions. They felt it was a tragedy that the modern and the sacred were diverging, and that the Catholic Church was not recognizing modern art." 

Mark Rothko, who was Jewish, was commissioned by the de Menils to create paintings for the chapel because they saw his work as reaching towards a modern, universal religiosity. Dominique de Menil felt strongly that "...real creators, always working at the edge of their perceptions, may reach spiritual regions bordering on the sacred." She also held the conviction that Rothko's works represented a "search for the infinite," one that had emerged from "dark and silence." The reactions of visitors over the past 40 years, suggest that Mrs. de Menil was correct:

"These paintings are the colors I see when I close my eyes at night," wrote a visitor named Jessica on December 8, 1988. " I feel grief, a grave sense of loss... then exhilaration and calm." 

Mark Rothko once told art historian William C. Seitz: "One does not paint for design students or historians, but for human beings, and the reaction in human terms is the only thing that is satisfying for me." Rothko might have been surprised at the range of human interactions that now take place in front of his paintings. The Rothko Chapel is available for ceremonies including weddings, baptisms, bar mitzvahs and memorial services (without caskets). Programs, including concerts, lecture services and symposia regularly use the august Rothko paintings as their backdrop. 

Among the many regular programs offered by the Rothko is "Twelve Moments of Spirituality and Healing." Held on the first Wednesday of every month, the program provides "guided meditations offering an opportunity for healing and spiritual development." In the presence of Rothko's brooding murals, practitioners of Buddhist, Sikh, Tapping, Muslim, Christian and other meditation traditions will be leading meditations in the coming months. 

A Meditation Session at the Rothko Chapel in Houston

"The Rothko Chapel is here for people every day; it is such a gift," states Emilee Whitehurst.

"The world today needs many more Rothko Chapels," wrote a visitor in chapel's comment book in July, 1994, and the world seems to be getting more. Not far from the Rothko Chapel, James Turrell's new "Twilight Epiphany" at Rice Univesity provides seating for 120 people who can observe changes in the sky in a contemplative fashion. It is one of 25 "skyspaces" that Turrell has created across the world in the past four decades.

The Board of Trustees of Stanford University recently approved $4.2 million dollars for the construction of the "Windhover Contemplative Center," due to open in 2014, where visitors will "rest in quiet reflection" in the presence of four paintings by the late Nathan Oliveira. Unlike Rothko's Houston murals - which are abstract - Oliveira's large canvases are semi-abstract, and feature images of wings and horizons that connect with the vision of a soaring falcon in Gerard Manley Hopkin's poem "The Windhover: To Christ our Lord." 

Although Oliveira was raised Catholic, his "Windhover" paintings reflect a spirituality that is poetic and responsive He told Stanford Magazine in 2002, when discussing his series that "a painting is also a vehicle. I set it up to the degree that it gives you something recognizable to interact with, and if you're creative, you create your own metaphor."

Stanford already has a church, the glorious Italianate "Memorial Church" that has survived two major earthquakes, so to some, having a contemplative center might seem redundant. Of course, strictly speaking a church is for prayer, and prayer is directed to God. Modern art, whether seen in a museum or a contemplative center is meant to direct people inward, not outward. Meditation, and "mindfulness" are for an emerging generation who call themselves "spirtual but not religious."

Then again, maybe meditation and prayer are closer than one might expect. Buddhist author Phillip Moffitt equates Christian "prayer" with Buddhist "intention," and Buddhist "mindfulness" with Christian "observance." Whatever the case, it appears that there is a growing trend to see modern art -- especially abstract art -- as a spiritual gateway. 

In art museums and galleries, expect to see more slow looking and meditating. When I see it I plan to respectfully stay quiet and let it happen: I may try it myself. After all, for many of us, art galleries and museums are as close to church as we ever get. "With the eclipse of religion in the West," says David Greusel, an architect who specializes in the design of places where people come together, "the art museum has replaced the cathedral as the building type with the greatest architectural, social, and spiritual significance in a community."



The Betrayal of Art By Artist-Vandals

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Pablo Picasso in Cannes, France, in the 1960s. One of his paintings was defaced this month at Houston's Menil Collection.

What is it about Pablo Picasso that attracts vandals? It was almost 40 years ago that self-described artist—and now successful art dealer—Tony Shafrazi walked into New York's Museum of Modern Art with a can of spray paint and defaced Picasso's antiwar epic, "Guernica." And this month, a young man used spray paint and a stencil to do the same to a Picasso painting in Houston's Menil Collection.

A museum-goer caught the vandal on video stenciling a bullfight image and a slogan onto "Woman in a Red Armchair" (1929), and promptly posted it on YouTube. The Harris County, Texas, district attorney secured an arrest warrant against University of Houston art student Uriel Landeros, accusing him of criminal mischief. Police have yet to find him.

But the art world seems to have discovered him. This week the online magazine Artinfo lavished Mr. Landeros with the sort of attention aspiring artists would kill—or at least vandalize—for. The article, "Portfolio Review: The Art of Houston's Fugitive Picasso Vandal Uriel Landeros," praised his "vibrant oil painting" of a bullfight, saying it "juxtaposes this primal, ritual duel with symbols of humanity's fundamental split between male and female traits." 

Looking at other works on Mr. Landeros's Facebook page, Artinfo raves that he "incorporates an impressive range of symbols with a relative economy of means," noting that little spermlike squiggles suggest "Freud's death drive, and the Sartrean existential crisis induced by self-awareness." Another painting is likened to the work of "Georgia O'Keefe" [sic] and Vincent van Gogh. Oh, and don't forget the canvas featuring "lily pads floating on scorched waters" with its "environmentalist commentary on global warming."

I'd like to think Artinfo's writer is engaged in a terrific act of satire, spoofing art-world pretension. Alas, I fear it's just another example of the art world swooning for the "transgressive"—that is, anything that violates social norms.

As a matter of sane incentives, the gatekeepers of artistic fame might want to reconsider rewarding alleged art vandals with portfolio reviews. But there is also the more fundamental question long pondered by moral philosophers: Do artists' misdeeds matter in evaluating their work?

Should we care that Caravaggio was a killer? Think any differently about Stanford White's architecture because he had kinky tastes in Broadway? Does it diminish their music to know that Frank Sinatra could be a lout and that Miles Davis used his fists on women? Are Paul Gauguin's paintings any less beautiful because he abandoned his European family and took advantage of 14-year-old Tahitian?

It is that Post-Impressionist's behavior that has given us the philosophical term for this sort of conundrum, the "Gauguin Problem." At one end of the spectrum, we're told not to let a little marital infidelity dent our admiration for great works—artists (Picasso was an icon in this department). At the other end, there are the likes of Leni Riefenstahl, whose reputation as a filmmaker has rightly been blackened by the Nazi crimes she used her talents to celebrate. In between, it's anyone's guess—though rule-breaking is apt to burnish an artist's image.

Maybe science has the answer. After all, no question of morality seems to escape the attention of the lab-coat crowd these days, confident that science can unravel every human mystery. The Gauguin problem is no exception. A study published this month in the scientific journal PLoS ONE asked whether participants would withhold a music prize from a "talented but immoral young violinist." The researchers gave questionnaires to three groups—high-school students, teachers-in-training and police officers. The teachers-to-be showed a willingness to punish the do-badder; the cops and the kids didn't seem to care.

But the study may not show exactly what the researchers think it does. Consider the immorality the violinist was accused of—detuning other violinists' instruments and putting their music out of order. The student-teachers may not have been punishing the violinist for just any moral failing, but for betraying his art by ruining the art of others.

Which gets us back to the artist accused of tagging the Picasso in Houston. It doesn't help much to say that art trumps ethics if the crime in question is against art. Happily, conservationists were able to rush the Picasso into the ICU, removing the stenciled spray paint. But if artists are fed the debased and debasing notion that transgressiveness is all that matters—even transgressiveness against artworks—the next painting attacked may not be so lucky.



Jun 28, 2012

Edvard Munch: Images from the depths of the soul

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A month after Edvard Munch’s The Scream broke all records at auction, the Tate will open Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, a ground-breaking show of his work. Mark Hudson explores the life of ‘illness, madness and death’ that spawned the artist’s uniquely dark visions. 


A detail from Ashes (1895) by Edvard Munch
A detail from Ashes (1895) by Edvard Munch
After Edvard Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, his father, a priest, prayed for days on end, continuing often late into the night. The young Munch, then only five years old, was terrified by the sight of his father’s kneeling form. And it’s worth reflecting that for much of the time he would have perceived it not in darkness or by candlelight, but in the eerie glow of the midnight sun. 

Has any other artist created a more powerful sense of objects and human forms imbued with ominous force, of the individual hemmed in not by darkness, but by a light in which the terrors of day and night become fused? 

Munch wasn’t an artist of horror. He intended to paint simply what he “had seen”. But as one of the most autobiographical of artists, the character of his life, and particularly his childhood, inevitably permeated everything he did. His father, he wrote, was “obsessively religious to the point of neuropsychosis”. His elder sister Sophie died, also of tuberculosis, when he was 13, while a younger sister, Laura, was diagnosed with mental illness at the age of five. “Illness, madness and death,” he wrote, “were the dark angels who watched over my cradle, and have accompanied me throughout my life.” 

Yet if Munch is in many ways art’s ultimate outsider, this isn’t just because of his troubled life story, his preference for solitude and his challenging of mainstream values, but because of the simple fact of where he came from: Norway in particular, and Scandinavia in general. 

Munch is unarguably a huge figure, creator of some of the world’s most famous and instantly recognisable images – not least The Scream, which recently became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. Yet he still feels oddly marginal. His work intersects with some of the critical movements of the last century and a half – Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Expressionism – yet he all too easily gets left out of our sense of the sweep of art history, strung out up there on Europe’s cold northern edge. It’s all part of a pattern whereby we simultaneously admire and patronise the region that gave us Ingmar Bergman, Abba and all that immaculately stylish postwar design.
Now, however, the Nordic noir sensibility of which Munch is a forefather couldn’t be more in vogue. A wave of superbly produced television crime dramas (Wallander; The Killing; The Bridge) have made the idea of spending time in a Scandinavia of the mind – a place of heavy drinking, dour humour and, yes, that cool but obscurely threatening light – attractive to millions. Munch perfectly fits this terrain and his life story has enough elements to power endless psychodramas of his own: eroticism, obsession, shootings, charismatic villains, femmes fatales, and the sense both of a seedy underbelly and a propensity for wildness beneath society’s well-ordered, puritanical surface. 

Yet it’s possible that the popular image of Munch as an angst-ridden fin-de-siècle romantic has obscured his work’s richness and complexity. An ambitious new exhibition at Tate Modern proposes a more modern Munch: an artist who was born in the 19th century, but created the bulk of his work in the 20th century. Rather than tell Munch’s life story, the exhibition breaks his work down into themes that show how he responded to photography, film, popular culture and problems with his own vision. Yet all the time it concedes the impact of “illness, repeated bereavements, emotional dramas and problems with depression”. 

The photographic self-portraits assembled in Tate’s exhibition show Munch’s craggy features and pale eyes set always in the same expression of lugubrious remoteness. Yet if the bold nose and formidable jawline give an impression of physical vigour, Munch was prey to ill health throughout his life, and grew up in an atmosphere of dread. His family’s respectability was undermined by continual money problems, while his father, essentially a kindly man, would read his children ghost stories, the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Norse myths – hardly the most settling bedtime fare. All his life Munch was burdened by a sense of personal cursedness. “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies,” he later wrote, “the heritage of consumption and insanity.” 

As an artist, his early style veered towards stolid Scandinavian realism, dour landscapes and views of churches under snow. Though even at this stage his work was dogged by controversy; an apparently innocuous image of a girl sitting on her bed was lambasted as immoral. From the mid-1880s, the influence of Impressionism became apparent – The Ball (1885) was considered the first Norwegian Impressionist painting. Yet all the time you feel he’s trying to paint someone else’s idea of what the world looks like. Then, gradually, another sensibility begins to seep into the work: lines become more free-flowing as though they can’t be contained by the objects they describe, heightened colour bleeds out of objects into the mind and vision of the viewer. 

It’s difficult to tell whether this shift, with its increasing preoccupation with anguish and death, is a reflection of Munch’s growing inner turmoil or simply of the fashionable influences of Symbolism and Art Nouveau and the morbid, decadent mood of the fin de siècle. While Munch spent time in Paris, where he absorbed the influence of Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec, and lived for long periods in Germany, where he came into contact with the Swedish playwright Strindberg and other notable avant gardists, he claimed that his vision was formed in the Oslo bohemian circles dominated by the nihilist writer Hans Jaeger. 

A patently sinister figure, Jaeger advocated suicide as a means to freedom, and drove at least one of his disciples along that path. The young Munch might have appeared a vulnerable figure, moving in his wake, but even in this society of ostentatious individualists he stood out. This “fair Nordic Viking”, as his cousin Lodvig Ravensberg described him, “a lonely man who remained very much a mystery. There was something about him of the child… and then again this incredible complexity, this knowledge of deep secrets.” While Jaeger’s injunction that Munch should “write his life” – draw directly on his own experience – had a liberating effect on his art, the self-destructive behaviour of Jaeger’s circle, with its heavy drinking and playing with knives and guns, were a key factor in pushing Munch into outright psychosis. 

While Munch “wrote his life” in paint, exploring the themes of love, angst and death in images that he revisited and reworked throughout his life, he also wrote it in words, in journals, notebooks and quasi-fictional texts in which he endlessly re-explored incidents from different periods of his life. 

Munch’s sense of his tainted inheritance, that he “lived among the dead” – his deceased family members – poisoned his relations with women, who appear in his paintings in many guises: as embodiments of serenity and strength (as in the many paintings of his sister Inger); or as femmes fatales and harbingers of death (this was a time when every man lived in terror of syphilis). When Munch was influenced at the age of 34 by a beautiful woman of independent means named Tulla Larsen, he ran. 

Believing himself unfit to father children, and wanting to preserve the solitude that he thought fuelled his art, he fled to Berlin. After a four-year on-off relationship, culminating in a shooting incident in which he lost one of his fingers.

Munch’s paranoia is palpable in his written accounts of these events – which recall his dream the night after his first meeting with Tulla. But if he was paranoid. Obsessed with Munch, Tulla sued the artist for breach-of-promise following a proposal.

After a major breakdown in 1909, Munch sought treatment, and thereafter led a more measured existence. Public acceptance of his work increased, and honours and major public commissions followed. There is a widely held, romantic view that genius was cured out of Munch along with insanity. Certainly the majority of his best-known works were created in the troubled first third of his career. 

Yet Sue Prideaux sees his post-breakdown rehabilitation as not so much a cure, more a coming to terms with the quirks of his personality. As he said himself, “I would not cast off my illness, because there’s much in my art that I owe to it.” But Prideaux doubts, contrary to Munch’s own beliefs, that he was ever congenitally insane.

“There are lots of aspects to his condition, which makes it difficult to sum up,” she says. “He certainly wasn’t bipolar, which has often been claimed. When you examine the attacks he suffered in the early part of his career, they conform to the effects of heavy absinthe drinking, something he certainly did.” 

Like his near contemporaries Gauguin and Van Gogh, Munch gives us a sense of the artist in full that is almost unimaginable in today’s world of detached, ideas-driven art. And perhaps even more than with his great peers, his work is characterised by a dogged, self-lacerating honesty, a plumbing of the depths of the soul, which feels profoundly Scandinavian, but is ultimately universal in its relevance and appeal. 



Jackson Pollock painting Mural to be restored

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Jackson Pollock painting Mural
Some consider Mural to be the most important US painting since WWII

Jackson Pollock's seminal work of art, Mural, is to be shipped from Iowa to the Getty Center museum in Los Angeles for restoration work. 

The oil on canvas painting, which is 20ft (6m) wide by 8ft (2m), represents a key turning point in the abstract expressionist's career. 

It is hoped the 70-year-old painting can be returned to pristine condition. 

Mural will then be exhibited in LA for three months before being returned to its owner, the University of Iowa.

Pollock, who died in 1956, is widely regarded as one of the most influential artists in American history.

"This painting is of phenomenal importance in the history of 20th century art," said President and CEO of the J Paul Getty Trust, James Cuno.

Pollock is also credited with inspiring the emergent Abstract Expressionists of the mid-20th century. 

Mural marks the moment he began to move towards the abstract expressionism seen in his famous "drip" paintings, in which he poured paint directly onto the canvas.

It was created by Pollock as his first commission from legendary art collector Peggy Guggenheim, who gave it to the University of Iowa in 1951.

Filled with colourful, twisting animal-like forms, the artist described Mural as representing a stampede of animals from the American West.

Although it is dated 1943, it is believed Pollock created it in one burst of activity on New Year's Day 1944, after complaining for months that he was "blocked" and couldn't come up with an idea for Guggenheim.

He once wrote of the painting's size: "I've had to tear out the partition between the front and middle room to get the damned thing up. I have it stretched now. It looks pretty big, but exciting as all hell."

The huge work, which is valued at $140m (£90m) has started to sag over the years. 

A team of scientists and experts will investigate the materials and techniques used to develop a treatment approach, before cleaning the painting. 

It is estimated the work will take as long as 21 months, but it is not yet known whether the painting will be flown or driven to Los Angeles.

The Getty Museum regularly undertakes the conservation of key works of art from institutions around the world. 

Last year there was talk of putting Mural up for auction to raise money for art scholarships at the University of Iowa, but that idea was dismissed.

Todd Taylor, a state representative, said the sale would have amounted to "cultural vandalism."



What’s the Motivation Behind Recent Art Crimes?

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art crime

We usually think of art crime as calculated heists, diverting security guards and lasers while wearing black ninja attire.  If we manage to separate reality from Hollywood, we can at least hope that security in galleries and museums could prevent people from walking around with cans of spray paint to make a mark on the collection, or from carrying big bags to conceal stolen artwork. Three different incidents this month alone show us, however, that crime in museums is very easy to achieve. Elementary yet different in execution, these recent events allow us to ascertain what motivates people to commit art crimes. 

Stolen Salvador Dali Painting, June 2012

Stealing a masterpiece right off the wall proved to be no big deal for one man who walked into a recently opened gallery in New York City, Venus Over Manhattan, under the auspices of a normal gallery hopper on June 19. Pausing in front of Salvador Dali’s Cartel des Don Juan Tenorio (pictured top left), he asked a security guard if he could take a photo and was told it’s possible without a flash. Once the guard stepped out of the way, however, the man simply placed the artwork in a shopping bag and walked out with a souvenir worth $150,000 (pictured right). 

The value of Pablo Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair most certainly decreases with a bull and the word “Conquista” spray painted over it. Aspiring Mexican-American artist Uriel Landeros vandalized the painting (pictured below right) during his visit on June 13 at Houston's Menil Collection, an act caught on video  by another visitor’s smartphone - instead of stopping him. When Landeros finished, the other visitor chased him outside found out why he would do such a thing. Apparently he wanted to honor the cubist master.

spray painted picasso

Yad Vashem Vandalism

Mona Lisa Theft, 1911
 The June 11th spray painting on the walls of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum a few days earlier was on the contrary, as dishonorable as possible. In ten different locations around the museum compound, graffiti thanks Hitler for the Holocaust and other slogans, shocking Israel and Holocaust survivors around the world. The police were searching for a group that similarly defaced monuments in April, so only two weeks after the Yad Vashem incident, they arrested three people in connection with both crimes. A large compound displaying exhibits on Jewish persecution, history, memorials and artwork, the chairman of this museum said in a statement that it was the worst thing he has seen in his career.    With the evidence in place, security in museums is first called into question. A small gallery, as in the case of Venus Over Manhattan, surely has less security procedures than a large metropolitan museum, making it more susceptible to theft. Yet even the world’s best museums are frequently victimized - perhaps most notably when the Mona Lisa was stolen off the wall of the Louvre by Vincenzo Peruggia (pictured below right) in 1911, or when The Scream was stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo in 1994. The head of museum services at Britain’s Norwich Castle, where security measures were recently tightened after artifacts worth over $56,000 were stolen, explains: “One of the problems we have with museums is we are not Fort Knox. We want people to come and enjoy the collections - we don’t want people looking through bars.”   
Aware of so many examples of art crime, enough in fact to warrant an entire national FBI Art Crime division, we can excuse the security measures and discuss what motivates these acts to occur in the first place. The case of the stolen Dali painting is easiest to close first: most likely this novice thief aims to sell it. As Robert Wittman, who founded the FBI art crime team, explains frankly : "Generally speaking, art thieves are fairly good criminals, but they're terrible businessmen. And the true art is not the stealing, its the selling.” Usually these stolen works are recovered because of how much attention they attract when seen on the market. 

The motivations behind the other two June incidents of vandalism are more complex. In the case of tagging the Picasso with a bull, Landeros seemed to want to get caught. Outwardly vocal on the internet about his crime, he even posted the media coverage on his facebook wall. Clearly wanting attention for a future career as a street artist, perhaps Landeros isn’t as crazy as most would like to think. After all, in 1974 Tony Shafrazi spray painted the words “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s Guernica, housed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In a 1980 interview, he elaborated on his purpose: “I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life.” Now Shafrazi is a successful art dealer in Chelsea, making pretty profits from all of the modern works he manages to sell. 

Yad Vashem Vandalism

The last incident, at Yad Vashem, is perhaps the most perplexing, given the fact that those responsible sought neither money nor fame. It was purely an ideological act of political hatred, they used a museum as a forum for their message in the most cowardly way - spray painting slogans under the cover of darkness. 

This week, three people were arrested for the Yad Vashem incident and Landeros was charged, with a warrant issued for his arrest. Realistically, it’s only a matter of time before the man with a Dali painting in a shopping bag is found, as soon as he tries to sell the artwork. Museums and galleries around the world are forced to think in recent weeks if their security measures are adequate enough. And as for art lovers - after recovering from the shock of these consecutive acts, we can continue to be amazed at how art prompts people to act.