Art Tests Religious Argument

Art has many functions in a society and one of them is being a litmus test of political, religious or social argument or policy. This function is not invoked very often, but when it happens the consequences are usually very dramatic. “Is this art” may seem a hollow and innocuous debate topic for glamorously styled critics with posh neck scarves and pocket kerchiefs, right up to the moment it folds into a dialogue between the hangman and his victim.

A court in Saudi Arabia sentenced Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet, to death the other day for apostasy, with the conviction based on a poetry book he wrote years ago and a witness who claimed he allegedly heard Fayadh cursing Islam and Saudi Arabia. There was also something about the long hair the poet was wearing at the time of the arrest.

For me, this is a test for all Muslims who say Islam is not a violent religion.

This is my logic:

Lately, ISIS terrorists blew up a Russian passenger plane with 224 people, killed 130 people in Paris, beheaded two hostages, slaughtered 20 people in Mali, and murdered numerous others in Syria and Iraq of whom we would never know anything.

As all of the atrocities have been preceded or accompanied by praise to Allah, non-Muslims inevitably develop Islamophobic feelings. Our brain is built this way. Once we know what a snake looks like, we recoil from it without thinking or rationalising why the hell did we jump away from something that looked like a snake.

Non-Muslims can’t escape fearing Muslims. 

A simple neuro test can prove, beyond any doubt, that even the most tolerant non-Muslims feel this fear even if they don’t admit it. Give me a most liberal Guardian reader, and his palms would start sweating when I show them photographs of Muslims in their traditional garb. There’s no cheating impartial electrodes, folks.

Non-Muslims can be blamed for their fear as much as gravitation can be blamed for not letting us somersault in the clouds instead of running on a treadmill.

But consciously, rationally following this fear with behaviour is a different story.

This is exactly what ISIS wants non-Muslims to do. Convert fear into hate; hate into behaviour; and make non-Muslims push the big red button of European apocalypse by raising the level of intolerance to Muslim communities, which will trigger its own chain reaction of alienation, protest, and more violence.

Hate-crime rate in the UK has reportedly surged 300% already. A few Americans were detained by police for making threatening calls to mosques in the States on the night of Paris attacks. A few mosques have been vandalized and even shot at.

Commenters, intent on preventing the escalation of violence, went online writing that Islam is a religion of peace; that if all Muslims were terrorists we’d all be dead by now; and that ISIS is not about Islam, but about their own version of it, which has nothing to do with true Islam.

Those are valid arguments, all of them.


If we follow this logic, European Muslims need to raise their united voice now in defense of Ashraf Fayadh.

Is Twitter flooded with messages addressed to the Saudi king with the hashtag #FreeAshrafFayadh?

Do we read reports of European squares and streets being blocked by marching protesters?

Do we read embarrassed comments of Saudi officials who can’t get to their embassies around the globe because they are picketed by hijab-wearing true-to-Quran Muslim protesters demanding freedom for the Palestinian poet?

I am afraid the answer is “no” to all these questions.

Even an online petition to free the poet stands at 13,000 and not tens of millions of true Muslim votes.

If murdering people who live and think differently is not true Islam, then Saudi Arabia shall become the focus of European Muslim protest right this minute.

To the best of my knowledge, it doesn’t happen.

And if it doesn’t happen, does it mean that European Muslims, who denounce ISIS methods, approve of morbid brutality when it is prescribed by the Saudi King? If Islam is a religion of peace, beheading a poet for his art is a crime against Islam, just as obvious as any of the terror attacks by ISIS.


I want to understand (not criticize) Muslims who say Islam is a religion of peace but approve or fail to denounce its continued brutality.

It is time for true Muslims, who believe that violence is not an endemic Islamic feature, to start opposing and condemning non-true Muslims, who think beheading is good. Otherwise, the main argument about Islamists being of a different faith than Non-Violent Muslims loses credibility as a punctured hot air balloon.

If you are a Muslim and don’t sign this petition, you are making three errors in the word “PEACE” when you place it next to Islam, because it is, in fact, “DEATH“.

PS Tell me what you think, please, and don’t try to be correct politically or in some other way. Just tell me what’s on your mind. 

Watching boring life can be exciting

If you love Russian literature, you will probably like this realistic painter whose oils give the viewer iconic scenery fit for any of Chekhov’s plays or Turgenev’s novels.

He is a typical Russian artist, whose work rarely shows any conflict, be it the one between colours or shapes, or lines. His palette is soft, pastel, and very predictable. His style is like that of an impressionist painter who’s been warned not to use pure colours unless he wants to end up with all his fingers broken.

Think of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, for instance. Let’s walk inside it.

Reduced whole

The table, set for tea, might welcome you to step into the painting and take one of the chairs if the artist thought of putting tea cups on it. Let’s assume it was a servant’s oversight, so now you can vent out your frustration at Natasha or whatever was the name of that young housemaid, and then complain to your friends about servants being not as good as they were in the old days.


Otherwise, the setting is perfect. The red-backed sofa makes the table the centre of attention via its subtle contrast with the greens outside. The highlights on the table-cloth are the brightest spot in this painting, and the more detailed brushwork, with which it is painted, glue the eyes to the play of light on the pots standing on it (this can be easily seen on the picture with reduced brightness).


As your eye roams the table and appreciates the coziness of cushion on the chairs, the painter offers you a few more elements to help you walk through the scene: a carefully arranged bouquet of  flowers on the right side (at least the maid knows how to do that), and a row of potted plants on the left.


It is easy to imagine yourself on this terrace, waiting for your cup to be brought from the family china cabinet, and listening to the rustle of trees.

It is just as easy to imagine yourself bored to death with this life, and, following Chekhov’s sisters, crying passionately, “To Moscow!” meaning, please, get me the hell out of here, and don’t mention the rustling trees ever again.

This painting would probably fetch something like 1.5 or 2 thousand dollars from a buyer who has never had a country estate with a terrace, and won’t be complaining about servants because he has never had one:  a buyer who wants a dream of peaceful rural life to hang on his wall.

Did you want to step into the painting when you saw it first time?

Do you like it? Do you like the style or the colours?

Do you think there is some potential here, if the artist is forcibly taken away from the confines of his Russian context and, say, taken to New York or Paris for a refreshment of themes and ideas?

Young Russian aritsts don’t want to stand out

This weekend I went to Moscow’s Central House of Artists, which is a huge building stuffed with dozens of shows of contemporary painters and sculptors. It was a sad experience, except for one sculptor (not, actually, young) about whom I’ll write next week, after I talk to him this Friday.

I never stop looking for new talent among young (below 35?) Russian artists, but the more the country is descending into a soft multi-religious tyranny, the less interesting its art tends to become. Young artists don’t want to stand out, except for Pavlensky whose work is impossible to collect, because it’s mostly about mutilating his own body, which, for better or worse, is soon going to be tucked away into one of the famously comfy Russian prisons anyway.

I am sure you are aware of Pavlensky’s latest performance when he set the main door of the FSB (former KGB) building on fire and stood in front of it until arrested. With all the media buzz it generated it appears as a powerful political statement, but… It’s a protest against a symptom of a disease, not the disease’s cause. It is a pity the FSB won’t be auctioning the door, even though they could get enough money for it to refit the whole building.


I had hoped that as the freedom of loud speech was getting restricted (because anyone can still whisper on Twitter or Facebook as much as they want), creativity would boil up to the surface. I expected that as Russia gravitates towards the Chinese level of freedom, a Russian Ai Weiwei will pop up. It doesn’t seem to be happening now, and I ask myself, why?

Quiet dissent is not banned in Russia (it is true that loud critics of the government or its policies risk a lot, including their freedom), and atheists are not branded terrorists like in Saudi Arabia so where are those clever artworks that would be delivering a subtle punch at society’s ills and pains?

Why does no one want to stand out? Come on, it is universally acknowledged that it is good to be a black sheep in a white community (no racial references here), a green apple in basket of red ones, or a urinal among works of classic art.

There are two answers to this question.

Some young artists believe it’s great to stand out, unless you are not crouching in a trench under fire, which is how they see the state of the arts in Russia nowadays, metaphorically.

You may say this is cowardice, but I say it is all about the habit.

Great works of art, rich in metaphor and deep in meaning, do not appear in tightly controlled societies on day one. It takes some time for artists to get used to the trench, so that their initial fear is replaced by a dream to get out of the ditch some day. Living in the trench must become a dull habit first. Then, as the dream grows and becomes stronger than fear, they start being creative.

Other young artists say standing out is great, of course, but obsequious crouching offers immediate benefits like participation in state-sponsored shows, sales to local rich customers, and getting on boards and panels of a variety of art groups, societies or events. They say they know they will not secure a place in art history by playing conformist, but putting bread on the table today is a far more attractive option than having their own bronze statue opened posthumously.

The good thing is that I don’t believe a great artist can remain a conformist for long, because creativity can rarely exist without ambition. Sooner or later creativity either dies out or takes over conformity.

So, my question is, how many more years I have to wait until creativity takes over acquiescence or crouching in the trenches grows into a nasty habit!? 


He might have used the N-word, but he wasn’t racist!

The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow announced today they x-rayed the original Black Square by Malevich and discovered two colour compositions they called proto-suprematist beneath the Square itself plus some text. The compositions seem to be quite suprematist but the research team refers to them as proto-suprematist because suprematism had not yet been invented by Malevich. While some art historians may consider it awkward, it’s a trifling matter. It’s the text that is important, and potentially quite embarrassing. 

Two things that you must know about the original Black Square are that it is not a square and it is not made with black pigment. Your eyes are fooling your perceptions that fool your mind that fools your response, and then you say “I could paint a square, couldn’t I?” No, actually you couldn’t, so let’s skip the discussion of whether the Black Square should be getting so much attention. It’s one of the most famous paintings in history, and that’s a fact.

To the text now.

The gallery said they couldn’t yet read the whole of it. First, their X-Ray machine seems to have been confounded by all the layers of different pigments in the Black Square, and second, Malevich had a terrible hand when it came to writing.

They deciphered the first word, and it is “Battle”.

Logic now tells the researchers it is going to turn out as “The Battle of the Negroes in the deep dark cave at night” which is an obvious reference to the eponymous work by Alphonse Allais (1893) who painted a simple black rectangle (indeed it was a perfect rectangle painted with perfect black pigment, and thus failed to become an artistic breakthrough).


So, art lovers, critics, curators, and artists are asking each other a simple question: What do we have now instead of the Great Black Square which Malevich claimed to had painted in a trance under the influence of cosmic forces that were guiding his hand?

Does the new discovery send decades of critical thinking down the drain, and innumerable volumes of art history books in the dust bin? Did Malevich simply paint over something he didn’t want to show? Then he added a joking tagline, and art critics went bananas rushing to explain its deep meaning. Was it all a big fat case of over-interpretation?

Well, perhaps not. I have a theory.

I think, we have a successful attempt to cover a colourful suprematist composition (that Malevich thought of as a failure for some reason) with paint in a way that the colours would not show through the surface when it dries up. You can’t just over-paint red with black and expect the black to stay black, you know. So Malevich had to invent a certain mixture of colours that will dry up as black at the end but without the use of the black paint. It is also possible he intended the colour composition to be painted over, except that why would he say it was some divine intervention?

And, let’s not forget it, he chose NOT to make it a perfect square. After all, he might have had a creative revelation along the way.

Of course, it is just a theory.

The Tretyakov Gallery promises a new book on the Black Square this year, and we will see if Malevich used the N-word or not. But something tells me my theory can be the right one. A lot of great things in human history have been created out of necessity. Perhaps, the Black Square is just one of them. 

There’s only one thing that disturbs me. What if some years later some memoirs of a Malevich friend will surface up in which his buddy would casually remark about the drunken state of Kazimir when he was painting the Black Square. That would really kill the imperfect square thing. That would be really embarrassing.

PS Chagall is in the works, but there are some headlines I can’t skip. 

Auerbach: Let me be frank with you

I hesitated to write about Frank Auerbach exhibition at Tate Britain. With Lucien Freud gone, Auerbach is seen as the most prominent living British painter. The show’s press coverage is dressed with superlatives so much that were those pepper, one could choke to death eating the dish.  I thought, “Who would be interested to read more on him?”

But as I went through rhapsodic newspaper reviews, I stumbled across a few dismissive comments in social media from celebrity intellectuals and art lovers.

I wondered if it might be useful to take a step back and talk about art that’s difficult to appreciate.

It is widely held that figurative art is more difficult to make and much easier to enjoy than abstract art.

It couldn’t be more untrue.

Great abstract art often takes more time to produce than a nice figurative painting; if you look up now, you’d see Rothko and Diebenkorn waving from the cloud at you and nodding in agreement. There’s a huge distance between “easily made” and “looking easily made”, which artists cover by working hard and (often) drinking a lot of alcohol.

Figurative art is often easy on the eye, true… but it can be hard-to-get as well.

Pre-Raphaelites are [mostly] easy.
Van Gogh is easy (or is made “seem easy” by mass media).
Claude Monet is so easy Cezanne referred to him as a “postcard maker”.
Even Francis Bacon is relatively easy, once you understand his view on life, universe, and everything.

Giacometti, some of Miro, most of Picasso, and Frank Auerbach are not easy at all.

We don’t like things we don’t understand. We get annoyed when something that we can’t get instantly is pushed our way. We are too busy to pause, watch, and ponder. That’s the way we are, it is the modern world, and it’s not our fault.

As a popular stand-up comedian put it,

She is right. When art is difficult, it often gets unpleasant instead of becoming a source of emotional uplift. Complicated art needs to be explained. Someone shall point out what is interesting, new, great, or exciting about it. Given time, years of education, and multiple visits anyone could, perhaps, “get it” entirely on their own. Alas, most visitors don’t have time for all this, and they need help. They are paying good money not to merely see art, but to enjoy it.

Does Tate offer any such help? Let’s read their comment to this Mornington Crecent:

Mornington Crescent

Straight from Tate’s mouth:

“It is the architecture that gives his paintings such authority. They dominate their given space: the space always the same size as the idea, while the composition is as right as walking down the street. The mastery of these compositions is such that in spite of their often precarious balance, like a waiter pretending to slip while carrying a huge pile of plates, the structure never falters. It is the viewer who has to hold tight.”

Any sane person would read this commentary and wonder what exactly the curator wanted to say. How is this cityscape any different from any other similar work? Why should the viewer, who has to hold tight, enjoy this painting-induced giddiness? How is Auerbach giddiness (let’s assume such thing exists) better than the one a merry-go-round can give you? Because the latter is obviously better (fresh air) and safer (if you throw up you won’t damage expensive art). Does architecture always give authority to paintings? If not, what is so special about Auerbach’s buildings that makes them authoritative? These questions may go on and on, but Tate curators don’t come rushing to you with answers or ideas.

So I totally agree with Jenny Eclair (whose twit I quoted) that this show is unlikeable. Not because of the paintings though, but its curators.

I will now try to remedy this. I add “try” because Auerbach is one of those painters who can be truly appreciated only when you see his work live. It is important to watch it in live size, live colours, all the textures, and all the 3D effects created by layers of paint upon layers of paint. Also, I don’t have hi-res photographs of his paintings, which is a problem because some of the colour changes I will be pointing out are so minor that I really could use a quality picture to close up on them.

The comedian I am quoting could ask a legitimate question now, of course: “Why should I bother to try to understand something that’s not instantly clear and likeable?” 

My answer is that the return on mental effort required to understand Auerbach’s work makes emotional life of the viewer richer than it used to be, which can lead to the viewer’s personal inspiration in whatever activities they are engaged in.

To put it simple, there’s a treasure buried in the ground, and to get it one needs to dig it out and break the rusty lock first.

Let’s get back to the Mornington Crescent of 1991.

Mornington Crescent

Let’s abstract ourselves from all the wikipedia knowledge of Auerbach’s horrible childhood and later years of hermiting his life away in Camden. Is this painting, stand-alone and out of context, any good?

Think of a big city. Think of a busy street in it. If you happen to live in one, I bet you cross such a street at least once daily. 

What do you remember of it? For most people (including myself) their home city (or any other city they’ve been to more than once) comes back as a blurred sensation of a place. It’s like a sea of people and cars with a few landmarks and familiar destinations perched up above the “sea level”.

Most people I’ve talked to about it believe they can “feel” their city but ask anyone to describe the building in which their office is located, and you’d be surprised they don’t remember what is the colour of the granite slab over the entrance they go through each day. So where do the “feelings” about a city come from? Perhaps, it is the crowd in the streets? Perhaps, it is the energy of the pedestrian and car traffic? Or, maybe, it is the layers of history hidden in its pavements, roads, and buildings? Or all this and something else, combined?

But do we know all these people or buildings’ history? Of course not. There is too much chaos, too many people, all following their own paths, going to their own destinations and destinies, for a casual observer to remember their faces, or their clothes, and to develop any interest in them.

Yet, they, their energies, the crisscrossing lines of their travels, their lives (which create all this chaos) are what makes the city or the street what it is.

If we take a photograph of the street (I am taking Mornington Crescent from Google maps from the spot Auerbach was standing at), we would lose the chaos, the dynamism of life, and, if we are lucky, we can “freeze” a few people here and there in this photograph in mid-stride, as if they have lost both their point of origin and destination. Mornington Crescent does look like a quiet neighbourhood that used to be slightly more pleasing until the industrially looking building on the right side was repainted white.

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 18.47.29

So, if our objective is to make a portrait of the city = a portrait of our “feelings” about it, a photographically realistic “snap shot” is never going to do the job.

Frank Auerbach has found a way that works for him, and, as it turns out, for a lot more other people.

This is how it is done.

The really funny thing about this painting is that in terms of contrast it is indeed reminiscent of a face, if the colour is removed and the contrast is maxed up.

mornington-crescent - копия (3) - копия

Even if this effect has never been intended, Auerbach gives the viewer a bright spot towards which the eye gravitates along the lines provided by buildings vanishing in perspective:


Yet, the composition is a bit more complex: Auerbach doesn’t paint buildings standing perfectly vertically (or, like in a photograph, leaning towards each other), he changes the rules of the game perspective and opens the street up for you:


The net effect is that you are invited to walk inside the painting, towards the white building in the centre, as if the buildings stepped aside to let you through.

But this is only the first step.

Next, Auerbach brings you this street and the whole of London the way he feels [about] the place. He has developed his own language to tell a story to the viewer. In mathematical terms, it might be called a model with varying parameters such as:

  • colours, or palette
  • lines
  • length of brush strokes
  • number of layers of paint
  • strength, or energy of brush strokes (you can see it when you watch his paintings live, because energetic stokes leave furrows of varying intensity)
  • change of colour in a single brushstroke from its beginning until its end (I’ll show this in a minute)
  • etc.

I start being boring, don’t I? Well, the magic of his paintings is that nothing, not a single “parameter” in them is left to chance, but they look spontaneously expressive. As you look closely, it turns out to be the spontaneity of a genius who makes decisions based on years of study and months of painting a single piece. Just as in a good novel all the characters and scenes are justified and play a role, in a great painting no brushstrokes are unnecessary.

So, let me translate Auerbach’s language the way I understand it (if you look at his paintings long enough you may develop your own view of his vocabulary and grammar, of course).

It is a given that an artwork is not interesting unless there is a conflict inside. We don’t read books that don’t have conflicts. We won’t laugh at a joke without a “contrapunto”. In painting, one of the ways to create a conflict is to use complimentary colours, that is the ones that are located opposite each other on the colour wheel.

Auerbach uses green and red for buildings on the opposite sides of the street (pun intended, I believe as I doubt they have even been painted in these colours) with specs of red on the green house and the green chimney towering next to the red building.


And then he creates a dialogue or struggle between them because the green building emanates green and blue radiance and the red building emits reds and oranges that clash in the sky above them. Look back to the colour wheel above: while green and blue are friends (just as orange and red) blue is the opposite to orange. Using four fighting colours instead of just two makes the whole conflict quite spectacular.


Now, as we look down at the pavement below our feet, we can see yellow. Have you even seen yellow pavement in London? I don’t mean the yellow line that can get you fined if you park by it. Really yellow asphalt road? Frankly, I don’t know why it is yellow, except that it legitimises the use of magenta in the sky, and besides the conflict that rages between the left and right side of the painting creates a conflict between the bottom and the top.


Thus, using just one “variable”, the colour palette, Auerbach offers us several conflicting situations that create tension between all parts of the painting.

Does it look like a visual trampoline to you now?

Now you may want to inquire what’s the meaning of these conflicts. The artist, in his turn, would be absolutely right to tell you, “you are a big boy/girl, invent your own meaning”. Auerbach involves you in watching his paintings and then tells you that if for some reason it starts resonating with you, talk to your own shrink. I believe he secretly hopes that things he expressed in these conflicts ring a bell for quite a bunch of art collectors or Tate patrons, but he’d never admit it.

I find that this particular painting represents quite a lot of London’s character to me. I think of a prestigious postal code bordering on a poor neighbourhood with envy, arrogance, fear, respect, pride, and curiosity creating emotional tensions between them.  Eventually, all these micro tensions make London what it is, a unique multicoloured melting pot of cultures and civilisations. You can make your own story, of course!

There are a few more Auerbach’s variables you need to know about to enjoy his work even more.

He puts layers of colour on top of each other and then cuts through them with a single brushstroke. Its colour, upon contact with surrounding colours picks them up (or other colours interfere with it) and by the end of the brush stroke its colour becomes something else, sometimes, entirely different:


I have put “S” for “Start” and “F” for “Finish” for a few brushstrokes below. See how the colour changes each time:


This change-of-colour game reconciles “conflicting” colour areas and brings harmony out of chaos. It is also highly symbolic of change in general. Walk along a beeline through a few London neighbourhoods and see if your world view is changed. I am sure it will, but please stay away from those areas that tend to feature in evening crime news. We want a positive change, don’t we?

Another variable is the energy the artist used to make his brushstrokes, which makes tracing his streaks of paint a dynamic game, actually. The viewer goes with the line of the brushstroke and, without even touching the surface, can feel the energy with which the brush was making it because it leaves grooves in layers of paint beneath it (Unfortunately, this is something you can’t do with a photograph). As the viewer’s mind registers the artist’s energy trace (without any conscious effort, of course), it becomes attached to the colour, and you can have not just reds or greens now, but “energised green” and “quiet red” (yes, it is possible to find these contradictory colours in some of his paintings!)

And now, the last question:

Why do I (or anybody else) need a coloured heat map of Auerbach’s feelings about Mornington Crescent, London, Life, Universe, and Everything?

I guess, because it’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s stimulates both the left and right side of the brain. In fact, it’s very close to music, or rather listening to music, because just like with opera, you can’t fast-forward Auerbach’s performance. You need to watch it in full, and in the right tempo to enjoy.  (I hope you don’t ask why should people listen to music)

And the very last question, at least for me, is whether Auerbach is indeed a great artist.

I think he expanded the language of painting significantly enough to secure a place in history. I also believe his compulsive choice of the same city scape motifs, and the very limited number of models he has used for portraits may prevent him from leaving a truly great heritage.

What is important is that if you are an artist you simply can’t skip a show of a man who [re]invented the lingo of painting.

Let me know what you think of Frank Auerbach! Especially if you see his work live.

PS. I am using the standard colour wheel, with pure colours. Auerbach doesn’t use pure colours, but their tonal values are more or less the same. What’s interesting, he chooses colours that are slightly different form being exactly complimentary. But describing this effect would be too much for this post. Truth is, I also didn’t cover the way Auerbach uses colours to create distance and space, which is often quite remarkable. Next time, then, when I am done with Part II on Chagall I promised some weeks ago.

Not a good painter, but a great artist

This autumn, the National Gallery in London hosts Goya: the Portraits, a show which preparation spanned a whole decade.

As you start looking at Goya’s portraits, a terrible realisation hits you like a ton of bricks. Goya was not a good painter, in the classical sense.

He was so bad with colour nuances that his seated men look like men whose legs were cut in half. He could rarely separate an object from the background and most of his characters look like cut-outs pasted on a background painted by an amateur theatre decorator. His attempts to add depth by mixing colours of the background and the garment of his sitter are appalling.

Here are a few examples of his failings:


Yet, he was a great artist.

To judge Goya by the standards of classical realism is like…judging Einstein by spelling errors in his thesis on the theory of relativity.

Goya was a prophet. He foresaw the new levels of inhumane cruelty that would blast the world apart a hundred years later. He felt that the time was coming when Man would become a suicidal mass murderer. He drew the WWI and WWII a hundred years before tanks and gas chambers were invented.

I understand there was no space for it, but if I curated the exhibition, I would show at least some of his Disasters of War to remind people of his greatness that exists beyond his career as a court painter.

But even if he never produced his haunting images, he would still be a great painter. His radical inventiveness might have come from his desire to hide his lack of painterly skill, but it doesn’t make his innovativeness any less seminal.

He brough the genre of Reclining Nude to a new high by replacing nudity with nakedness in his Nude Maja. It was not just about the body. It was about transforming women from a passive object of male desire into an active party in negotiating a sexual situation.

P00742A01NF2008 001

He then created the concept of eroticism that is still in use today with this reclining girl:


A note to my male readers. If a woman has never thrown herself at you, you may experience the feeling standing in front of this painting. Beware! She is also so innocent that when you catch her, you’d feel an immediate urge to propose.

Would you care then that the cover on the bed could be painted somewhat better? There were hundreds of classical artists all across Europe at the time, but you wouldn’t want to propose to any of their nudes or semi-dressed girls. In ten minutes, you wouldn’t even remember what they looked like.

Again, his nudes were not his major achievement as a painter. I began with them because I hoped they’d motivate you to read further on.

His most important contribution was the introduction of an artist’s attitude to the sitter as an essential element of portraiture. He was honest with his sitters, showing their faces with all the defects, wrinkles, and after-stroke consequences, and he was honest about his feelings towards them.

This makes his portraits alive and speaking to or even conversing with the modern observer. Not all of them, of course, because we are generally very selective about people we want and like to talk to, but regardless of how picky you are, you can find your perfect mate among the 70 portraits currently on show at the National Gallery.

Goya’s sitters have been dead for two centuries already, but their types live on.

A wise man who wants to make the world a better place and knows the recipe? To whose ideas the world resists (which is normal) and creates in the man a melancholic attitude?

Meet Mr Jovellanos, portrayed in 1798.


We can skip the symbolism of Minerva (she’s a retired goddess anyway) and, having appreciated the melancholic pose of the portrayed (who wouldn’t get stressed out by so much paperwork?), focus on the face:

Francisco_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_-_Gaspar_Melchor_de_Jovellanos - копия

The guy is talking to us. Goya captured one of his words in mid-air. He may be tired, but he is still interested to know the observer’s (or, rather, the listener’s) thoughts on the subject he is talking about.

Perhaps, he is explaining why he hates wigs, and that the man’s fundamental freedom to wear his hair the way he wants it should be respected by the king? We don’t know. Appropriate this wise guy and make your own story.

Or, if you want to meet a man of action, here’s your hero, Mr Saavedra.


The man’s impatience is conveyed by his pose and the camp table that can be folded and moved any moment now. There are only a few sheets of paper on it. The sitter is not a man of many letters, but of much action.

I have to note that many observers go dizzy about the way the chair, the legs of the table and those of the sitter are arranged, wondering if Mr Saavedra may require assistance to disentangle himself, but, as I said at the beginning, the composition Goya had chosen for this portrait might simply have exceeded his abilities to paint it.

Eight legs are difficult to handle, but it is not an important (albeit funny) part of this painting. It’s the sitter’s eyes, his gaze, which is inexplicably intense and serene at the same time, that makes him into an archetypal action hero.

Or, perhaps, you don’t care for wise or action men, and want someone to share you passion for arts and music?

I have a buddy for you. The Marquis of Villafranca.


This man could become a second (or first) Casanova, but he’d chosen music as his passion. He is wealthy, but modest (his hat is quite ordinary). He is sporty (note the riding boots) but cultured (he leans on a piano). He’s got great legs and tender hands.

And the way he looks back to the observer still sends crowds swooning.

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You can imagine how many more friends there are in this show to choose from.

Goya brought his love, respect, adoration, and sometimes hate of the sitter into his paintings.

A modern man may wonder why an artist would want paint a portrait of someone he detests. That’s the downside of being a court painter who is obliged to paint his king.

So, here is my warning to you:

As I was standing yesterday in front of his official portrait of King Ferdinand, the tyrant who came to power after the French were finally kicked out of Spain, I was overwhelmed with a desire to kick first his knee, then his groin, and when he would have bent over with pain, his face. My murderous intent was so strong, I wondered if the National Gallery should place a couple of armed guards in front of this painting. I am afraid there bound to be a visitor who may not have the nerve to hold back.


Ferdinand VII was a bastard, metaphorically and literally. His mother confessed on her deathbed that none of her children were conceived by her husband, the king. Ferdinand was selfish, vengeful, dishonest, and, above all, dumb, which made him exceptionally cruel to his people, friends and enemies, both real and imaginary. He bankrupted his country and left it in the throes of a civil war upon his death. Well worth kicking in the groin, if you ask me.

I can’t recommend to skip, to walk past this portrait because it shows how innovative Goya could be when he had strong feelings towards his subject.

The embroidery on the king’s cape is pure abstract expressionism. In fact, it is so expressive it can be a painting in its own right. The royal symphony of pure reds, golds and silvers is poisoned by streaks of pure black that represent the chaotic and toxic character of the king better than a wikipedia article on him.

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So if you decide to go to Goya: the Portraits show at the National Gallery in London, leave all sharp objects at home for you might be tempted to use them on a painting.

Besides, there’s a bag search at the entrance.

Was Chagall a great artist? Part I

Unlike Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky or Malevich, Chagall has left neither an “ism” for art historians to chew on, nor a horde of followers who’d change the course of art history. It is not that no one has tried to play with Chagall’s manner or imagery, of course. Kandinsky himself, in 1911, fell under Chagall’s spell with The Lady in Moscow and failed so spectacularly he never dared to venture into “Chagallism” again. There are, of course, artists who paint in the manner of Chagall today (I saw one at a French art gallery a few years ago) but their feeble parroting is nowhere near the original.


Chagall is on top of Kandinsky, obviously. What did go wrong with Kandinsky’s painting? Share your view in the comments!

A Chagall show traveled the world in 2012, leaving a comet’s tail of glowing reviews about Chagall’s colours, love metaphors, Hasidic heritage, and bio highlights.

Most of the reviewers carefully skirted the question of whether Chagall was a great artist by simply quoting Picasso who once said,

“When Henri Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.”

In fact, this is a not a full quote. Picasso went on to say,

“I’m not crazy about his roosters and asses and flying violinists, and all the folklore, but his canvases are really painted, not just thrown together. Some of the last things he’s done in Vence convince me that there’s never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has.”

The full quote makes Chagall a remarkable colourist (although second to Matisse) with questionable content, but is this enough to become a venerated genius? It reminds me of a man who compliments a woman he doesn’t like by saying she has beautiful eyes.

Perhaps, Chagall wasn’t great? Perhaps, he was a primitivistic painter whose childish doodles can talk to Hasidic Jews only?

Perhaps, Chagall couldn’t draw and paint, just as, according to this mob of trolls, Renoir*)?

Many of my friends say something along these lines:

“I like some of his work”,
“I like his early work”,
“I like his work, but I don’t really love it”
“I don’t care for Chagall”

The last phrase comes from an artist and it is really very clever. It is an honest admission that an artist doesn’t talk to someone without passing a judgement if the artist is great or bad.

The Renoir trolls could learn from this, were it Renoir and not fame that they were after.

Enough of “perhaps”, though.

I believe Chagall is a great artist, and I hope to make you see his greatness in this series of posts.

To jump the queue, I will offer my view of the Chagall appreciation problem right from the start.

Marc Chagall is so easy on the eye and so strenuous on the mind that many feel it is either unnecessary or too tiring to follow through.
The net effect of this is that Chagall is easy to like, but difficult to love.

Chagall’s colours, often referred to as “brilliant” and “luminous”, offer a simple, undemanding pleasure. His figures and shapes are instantly recognisable: a fiddler, a cock, a cow, a log cabin, a church. We know what they are the moment we see them.

It is easy to say, I like Chagall’s colours, or I like Chagall’s compositions. All the figures and colours fit the space of the canvas and balance against each other in an effortless and harmonious way that not only doesn’t strain the eye, but is quite pleasing.

Chagall, Blue House, 1917

Chagall, Blue House, 1917 — a great example of a composition that balances the blue mass of the house just the right way for the observer to hear its wood creak.

This easiness on the eye makes it simple to rejoice at Chagall’s harmony and move on to the next painting, in full certainty that Chagall has accomplished his artistic task of giving us a visual candy.

Wait! Don’t move on! Visual pleasure was a tool, not the purpose! Walking away from Chagall now is like using a silver dollar coin to buy a Coke.

Phew… I am happy you stayed! Now we can talk about the effects of Chagall on the mind.

Chagall’s symbolism, ambiguous and often unexplained until today, provides critics with unlimited opportunities for dissertations. Besides, it puts the mind of an observer to an exercise that some people find quite exhilarating and rewarding. Solving a riddle usually ends in pleasure: “I’m smart enough to decipher this code, Hurrah!”

The problem is that, having solved the code (or some of it), the happy observer stops enjoying the painting and goes off to the next one, thus missing the whole point of what the painting was actually about.

You see, abandoning Chagall after his code is solved is like throwing away a book in which you’ve read all the words in random order but stopped short of connecting them into coherent sentences.

Stay. Don’t hurry off to celebrate your code-breaking talent.

Reading Chagall takes time, and just as a book, his painting can narrate an inspiring story if you give it a chance.

And this is the journey I will be taking you on.

Stay tuned.


*) I wrote about Renoir here once, explaining how great this artist was. A post about Renoir portraits, nudes, and the underlying male chauvinism is long overdue, I know.