Slightly frayed billion bucks

The single ultimate argument to visit Russia is the Hermitage in St.Petersburg. If Russia sells its contents to Qatar or China, it can buy out all of its neighbours without firing a single shot, and restore the Soviet Union to its former glory (minus the Hermitage, of course). Each room inside it is a treasure trove worth of a stand-alone gallery.

Take one of Matisse rooms.

The Dance takes one of the walls.

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The opposite wall displays the Music.

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There’s a half-dozen other major paintings scattered around, but just these two could easily fetch a billion dollars.

Now look at the frame.


It is a frayed base board holding together a $500-million painting.

I wonder if the director of the Hermitage should be sacked on the spot, or promoted to the Deputy Minister of Culture (Contemporary art department) for the inordinate feat of not giving a damn about the past.

Original research on Matisse (if you missed it):

Matisse’s Icarus
Matisse’s Dance
Matisse’s Serenity
Matisse’s Last Will – The Snail

To sample this blog, click on About at the top. It has links to some of my best or typical posts. There’s an Art & Fun shelf if you feel like in need of a laugh.

An object lesson from Matisse

Etienne de Silhouette was the kind of finance minister that people love to see hanged publicly. He was all about financial austerity. Not surprisingly, the cheapest way to get yourself a portrait (which was a paper cutout of a person’s profile in the 18th century) got his name.

For a couple of centuries, artists had been playing with silhouettes, making the misery method a rich art form as legit as painting or sculpture. And then came photography. And photographers.

This is when it got out of hand.

A bazillion of embracing couples against sunsets. Firemen against fires. Birds against the skies.

The art of silhouette has been devalued, but it still may come back. Silhouette is waiting for an innovator.

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Lanvin launched a silhouette line this year (it’s on me, and no, I didn’t buy it for myself) that makes the wearer a great target for street muggers. I mean if someone is wearing a pink hand from Lanvin at the front, there must be some fat wallet in the back pocket.

This silhouette sweater is an ideal outfit to wear back to front, if you want to ask someone for a favour. “Scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” becomes a pinky friendly message, and not an offer legally classified as corruption. It is important to stay away from areas where people love scratching each other’s backs for the sheer pleasure of it.

This glamorous hand reminded me of Matisse and his cutouts. Matisse discovered that a 2-dimensional silhouette in colour could be perceived as a 3-dimensional sculpture.  Look at this silhouette of a woman carrying an amphora (that’s clever for a jar) on her head.

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The rhyme of shapes makes it poetry, and there’s a bit of drama in it. Note the gap between the head and the jar, She rose her arms to steady the jar, but some fruit fell down. The only problem is that this silhouetted poem lacks volume. There’s no sense of distance, no depth.

It is not there, because I cropped it. Matisse makes the whole story 3-dimensional by a single vertical bar:


If there is a small god of silhouette art he probably is laughing right now at the small god of silhouette photography (I don’t doubt the existence of the latter).

I am getting over to the Silhouette Photo Challenge, to see if that sneering is justified. Quite possibly, it is not, and the sihouette god would be shamed.

P.S. You may wonder what is the role of the yellowish square at the background. Let me know why it is there, I’ve heard different opinions on that one. Let’s compare our impressions!



The rectangle creates a ship-like space for the girl who moves – despte the disturbance with the jar – with a cruiser’s grace towards the observer. Note the shape of her legs and feet: it is the bow of a ship.

The ship-like space protrudes into the bubble of the observer, and with the fruit falling out of HER space into the observer’s universe, the observer has to react.

It is not just a 3-D picture, it is a moving 3-D picture, and you don’t need special glasses to see it, just your imagination.

Don’t sell your copyright

Russians love eating bears.

Including myself. I can never resist taking a bite, if there’s a Clubfooted Bear on the table.

It is the oldest brand of Russian sweets, introduced in the early 1890s by a German entrepreneur (whose factory was nationalized and renamed into The Red October by the Bolsheviks).

The Soviets changed the name of the factory but kept the brand, which stayed the tastiest kind of chocolate sweets throughout the USSR’s uneventful history of confectionery branding.

The design of the wrapping was modelled after the painting with which I illustrated my previous post about the symbolic Russian bear. Russia’s top collector, Tretyakov, bought the painting in 1889, when the paint had barely dried. A few years later, Einem the chocolatier saw it in his collection, and licensed the image for the sweets.

The name of the painting is “The Morning in the Pine Forest”. It may be the most famous painting in Russia. The brand of sweets surely made it the most reproduced one. The painting is admired by millions of people, who may know very little about arts, but their love for the brand spills over. Everyone knows the painter, Ivan Shishkin, even though many would come back with a wrong name of the painting, if someone cared to ask. It has many aliases: “The Clubfooted Bear”, “The Three Bears” (there were a few versions of the wrapping with the fourth cub removed that have created a mess with the number of bears), or “The Bears in the Forest”.

What few people know is that the idea of the painting and the bears were not Shishkin’s. It was one of his buddies, also a painter, who suggested the idea and painted the bears in, after Shishkin completed the forest. The guy’s name was Konstantin Savitsky. Tretyakov (the collector) believed that Savitsky’s signature should be removed from the canvas, because most of the job was done by Shishkin, and bears were not, in his opinion, essential. It’s good he didn’t ask Shishkin to paint the bears over.

For 25% of the sale price, Savitsky ceded his copyright claims, and Shishkin removed Savitsky’s signature from the canvas. It is still possible to see traces of it:

Today, Shishkin is a household name, and Savitsky is known by a few art historians. It should be vice versa. It is the brand of sweets that made Shishkin’s masterpiece the most recognized painting in Russia (equivalent in its fame to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in Europe or his Starry Night in the US). The irony is that the brand and the painting are loved and known for the bears, not the forest.

I am not saying Shishkin’s forest is inferior. He was a great artist, and I wrote about his winter forest here. Perhaps, his summer forest is worth talking about too, for Shishkin’s technique is an interesting example of a counter-impressionist approach.

I will do it in one of my next posts, and, perhaps, Savitsky also deserves a roundup of his most prominent paintings.

The Russian manifesto on crisis avoidance

Ideas have immense power over people.

I know an antique dealer who’d kill a customer for saying, “Oh, what a great baroque piece!” while pointing at a gothic chest of drawers. The guy believes dating is sacred. No wonder he’s single: his attempts at the other kind of dating failed because women he met were attributing themselves to a different epoch. You don’t discount 42 to 35 in front of a man whose profession is about pinning a proper age tag onto the object he is about to acquire.

I also know a president, who believes his country is surrounded by enemies, which can’t sleep properly until his motherland is destroyed. Wolves of evil circle the clearing, waiting for the lonely pilgrim to nod off. So he sets fire around his camp torching up all the surrounding countries, and shoots at the firemen coming to the rescue, taking them for the Hounds of Hell that lurk in the fiery darkness.

You’d say it is not rational, and hence unlikely. One of the firemen would shout out for the pilgrim to stop shooting. I am sure one of them will. But if you are certain they are the proverbial Hounds of Hell, you’d just murmur, “No, you devilish creatures, I can see through your foul tricks!” and keep shooting. It is not about what’s real or true and what’s not. It is all about beliefs. Irrational behaviour in otherwise normal people is just as common as rational actions of complete psychos.

If you are convinced that Anglo-Saxons and Zionists conspire to turn Russia into a failed state (which is the prevalent theory in Russia right now), Russian politics start making sense.

The problem is that Russian politics are represented by very real tanks, soldiers, and nukes.

Today, we witness the Russian belief in a global conspiracy against it materialising into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if originally it was a figment of Putin’s imagination, it becomes real as the world watches Putin’s actions. Other nations start thinking they indeed would be better off with Russia in a restraint jacket.

Is there a way out of it? No one wants a war, bloodshed, shelling, refugees, and sanctioned poverty. Surely, everyone has good intentions, including the Russian President.

In a situation like that, good intentions help as much as a bullet-proof vest on board of a sinking ship.

That’s how it works.

Ivan Shishkin, Konstantin Savitsky, Morning in a Pine Forest, 1889

Ivan Shishkin, Konstantin Savitsky, Morning in a Pine Forest, 1889

Imagine a bear wanders into a hunter’s lodge in search for food.

A half-naked hunter barely escapes, slipping out through a small window at the back. He picks up his rifle at the last moment. He then buttresses the door from the outside with a log, and makes a 911 call.

The call is received by an operator who is incidentally a PETA activist, and before she calls a team from the nearest zoo, she makes sure a group of her fellow PETA members is on site to prevent any harm that may come the bear’s way.

The bear is barricaded inside the lodge, and PETA activists create a shield around the hut, waiting for the arrival of a suitable transport to take the bear to a safe location in the forest.

peta-not-bear-skinThe bear sees a crowd of people outside. They are very loud and aggressive, chanting something about bears, hunters, and fur hats (here the bear shudders) in hysterical voices. The bear’s best guess is that it is going to be killed. Hunters are known to have killed bears before, you know, so in human terms, it is an educated guess. The bear wants to find a way out of the wooden hut and run, run, run back to the forest: any bear knows it is dumb to confront an army.

After an hour of thrashing around, the bear is seconds away from ripping the door off its hinges and storming outside.

There’s no gun with a sedative bullet yet, just a regular one.

The hunter wants to train his rifle on the door to catch the bear disoriented when it emerges from the lodge. He knows there would be no second chance to create the first impression with a bear that size.

PETA activists shout that a pointed rifle may provoke the bear to assault people, and that it is better to throw out the gun altogether, because the bear would simply run off to the woods.


Now, add to the scene a bear cub that was discovered by PETA activists outside the lodge. It is a cute fluffy ball of fur, and very hungry. One of the activists takes a bottle of milk to feed the poor creature. The father-bear sees a human grabbing the cub and realises one of the cubs has been following its father to the lodge. The scary thought “They gonna take my son!” flashes through the bear’s mind.

The bear doubles up its efforts to break out.

The hunter cocks up his rifle.

PETA activists keep shouting at the hunter to lower the gun.

They all, including the bear, mean frigging well and are behaving noble-mindedly, god after all being on their side.

As the bear comes out with the door turned into flying shrapnel splinters, the hunter pulls the trigger, trying not to hurt a PETA activist, and… just wounds the animal. Wounded bear massacres activists, with the first to be ripped open being the one feeding the cub. Then the bear goes for the hunter. No one can outrun a wounded bear.

When the police arrive at the scene (which they see as a massacre site), they aim for the head and finish the bear with a dozen accurate shots.

That’s when they see a zoo van pulling in.

Oh, the important detail: the hunter was out there in the forest on a fishing trip, originally.

You may think it is now irrelevant, until you realise it was the surviving fish that benefited in this conflict, ultimately.

Now think of the bear cub as Ukraine.

Think of PETA activists, protesting that the gun is trained on the door, as Western “lefties” (that’s not difficult to imagine at all).

Think of the hunter as Western “righties”.

The bear itself is, well, Russia.

There’s no police within a thousand light-years.

The fish is somewhere in China.

The time is now.

What are the chances that the zoo van pulls in before the bear is out of the lodge?


Could the whole mess be avoided?

Yes, and here’s my manifesto on crisis avoidance strategy:

a) Avoid people who want to impose their ideas on others. They are well-meaning bears.

If (a) fails:

(b) Make sure your bear is fed, whatever or whoever it is. If it is not your bear, install electric fence.

(c) Do not allow liberally-minded and well-meaning people to manage a crisis

(d) Shoot to solve the problem, not aggravate it

(e) If you can’t solve the problem, hide to not become a part of it

If (b) to (e) failed, RUN or put on a Justin Bieber song, or find its equivalent.

P.S. No bears, hunters, or PETA activists suffered while this post was being written, but some people actually died in Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria, which means the bear is not necessarily Russia, and the fish is not always in China. And no, I am not feeling light-hearted about it.

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Summer art, Part II. Easy way to earn 1000 euro a day.

I was showing some clever public art in “Summer art. Part I“, and today we are having the type of public art that’s great for selfie backgrounds.

What you see above is a multi-figure installation in Florence. I flipped it over. The figures are not walking along the ridge, they are crawling up the side of a house. This installation is going to be the hit of the year, especially on Facebook or Instagram.

And it was impactful. Walk through this gallery to understand why there were more people with mouths gaping than shut in that street.

This installation celebrates the recent opening of a a boutique art hotel owned by the Ferrogama family. The creator of the anthropomorphic world is the same guy who designed the hotel.

The artist said he was inspired by the Medicis, and by Cosimo I, in particular.

This Medici ruler was often represented by a turtle (prudence) in the combination with a sail (action), and that’s the way he went down in history. As most medieval Italian princes or dukes he never hesitated to have an individual opponent killed, an opposing city drowned in blood, and would bleed his own subjects with impossible taxes to splash on arts in general, and Benvenuto Cellini, in particular. He left us the Uffizi building though.

The jolly good idea that people were/are/love to be/can be represented by animals has been around since the first fantasy writers in Ancient Egypt invented Anubis and Seth. Intellectually, the topic has been sealed tight by Ninja Turtles.

Yet, the way the figures are scattered around does make one stop and look around. You don’t see figures scaling walls very often these days.

Anything that’s (a) unusual and (b) static is bound to become a background for people posing for photos against it, as if to illustrate that unlike “fear”, or “surprise”, “DUMB” can be represented by a stunning variety of facial expressions. One can easily imagine what was the most favourite pose to be photographed at the starting point of this queueing group of figures:

PIMG_0865if I were a local teenager, and needed an extra euro, I’d be renting head masks of animals to people who want to get photographed crouching at the bottom there. I estimate I could make a 1000€ a day. If there’s anyone from Florence reading this, guys, it’s not too late to start. In August it can go up to a couple grand a day!


Summer art. Part I

Branding public art (or any art) great, not so great, and poor is a dangerous territory, unless you are a fast runner. Sculptors are usually people with strong arms, heavy tools, and short tempers.

I’d rather divide it along the lines of “public art that makes people think or feel something new”, and “public art that is an entertaining background for taking selfies and/or great meeting point landmarks”.

My preference is the first type of public art, but I have nothing against the latter type. I am simply not good enough at taking selfies. As landmarks, public art is invaluable: millions would be lost in the jungle of cities without the Eros in Piccadilly or the Bull in Manhattan.

So, this summer’s catalogue has two chapters in it, and today I am going to show what I liked from the “thinking|feeling art” category, saving the background art for my next post.

Very often. it is not so much the sculpture itself, but its context that makes it an interesting work of art. 

At first this kneeling figure does not appear striking:

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Pietrasanta, Italy

But when it is poised against the church gates, and the colour of the shirt is rhyming with the gate, the context makes you think something else.


The same could be said about this Eve by Botero. The guy is so popular someone even stole the tag from the plinth.


Pietrasanta, Italy

It could be another one of his Eves-with-an-apple, but as she looks down the main trading street that opens into the square with the main cathedral behind her, thoughts about the modern versions of cardinal sins may start bouncing inside a head or two.


Pietrasanta, Italy

As Botero is one of the most recognised sculptors around the globe, the tag is, indeed, superfluous. Even if you are not into sculpture, you must have bumped into one of his voluptuous girls, men, or sparrows.

This is one of the most erotic photos of his reclining nude:

And this is his sparrow that is believed to represent the species feeding off a McDonald’s joint:


About a dozen steps away from the Eve, Sophia Vari, Botero’s wife (also a sculptor) shows her Fruits of the Night.


Now, a lot of what Sophia Vari produces is like that. To me, she represents an interesting trend in modern sculpture: glamorising achievements of great artists in a way that a semi-literate oligarch would buy it. You won’t be surprised to learn that she’s based in Monaco.

Compare these best known pieces from Vari with Henri Etienne-Martin and Alicia Penalba:


I am not saying that processing revolutionary ideas of the past into glamourised souvenirs of the present is necessarily a bad thing. As a Soviet poet once said, “we need a variety of people with a variety of important skills”. He was referring to building socialism, but building capitalism is no different.

Vari’s predecessors were great sculptors.

One of my all time favourite “Penalbas” is this Grand Dialogue from Martigny in Switzerland, which I had a chance to enjoy live this summer:

Alicia Penalba, Le Grand Dialogue, 1964-1971

Alicia Penalba, Le Grand Dialogue, 1964-1971

Makes one think of “we-need-to-talk” situations, doesn’t it?

It makes me think of tension at its zenith, just before the sparks start flying around with shards of what used to be porcelain plates before the dialogue began. It doesn’t matter if you think like me or have your own vision: this abstract piece creates a universe of meanings from which everyone can draw their own interpretations.

A Etienne-Martin work, from the same place as the Grand Dialogue, made in 1947:

Henri Etienne-Martin, The Grand Couple, 1947

Henri Etienne-Martin, The Grand Couple, 1947

This was Etienne-Martin’s first step towards the geometrical abstractions that he became famous for in the 70s (the small pic above). For me, it is an example of how the concept of love, being together, and sex can be convincingly rendered in a non-vulgar way.

The background type of public art that comes next is much more fun, so stay tuned!


What good are the arts?

001It is easier to answer this question for animals than for humans.

Farmers have known it for some time now that music can make cows give more milk. Say no to Alice Cooper though, unless prescribed by the vet against constipiation.

Animals instinctively recognise great art. The effects of Mozart, Contemporary Rock, and the buzz of a ventilator were compared across three samples of mice to find out which music they’d prefer. Mozart rulezzzz: regardless of which sample a “lab rat” used to belong, when given a free choice, it would go for the classic.

Few would doubt it greatly benefited the mice’s subsequent career as guinea pigs.

We don’t know if the arts are good for people.

The Platonic thesis that art makes people better (less willing to spit on the pavement, and more inclined to use “please” each time they tell someone to bugger off) has never been scientifically confirmed.

There’s one thing we take for a fact. Love for classical music makes people dress better (go see the crowd leaving an opera performance). Sadly, we don’t know if those people produce more milk or make more of anything, for that matter.

On the contrary, there are far too many cases of art-loving maniacs and dictators: grouped together, they may lead someone lacking statistical education to believe art is actually harmful.

Watching people’s reactions to publicly exhibited art can make one believe art works like alcohol: brings out silly and sexually aggressive types of behaviour.

If you’ve seen the teaser to this post, you’d understand what I am talking about.


These girls were not shaking the hand of a ghost. They saw a statue and their gut reaction was to adopt the same stance, get photographed, and get going. They didn’t even stop to read the sign explaining who and why made the whole installation.

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It is only funny when you’re the prototype on which the statue is based:



Otherwise, you have to be creative in a clever way.

No. This is plain “stoopid”:


This is better, but it is all about violence:


I favour the ones that change the original meaning:


Still some of the best photos of people with monuments happen without people doing anything extraordinary.

This is my ALL TIME FAVOURITE, back from the Soviet times. It is a monument to Marx and Engels who inspired Lenin who founded the first socialist state which intended to allocate happiness to people according to their share in the collective labour effort.

The fruits of socialism enjoyed in the shade of its fathers.

marks and engelsHave you ever made photos that would be altering the meaning of monuments? Let’s have them shared, let’s prove art makes people better.

I’ll walk you through this summer’s exhibits in the meantime.