Tag Archives: Art

20th Century Art in Scents – 1917

If you missed it: Chapter 1 – launch of the perfume L’Origan de Coty and Art Nouveau

By 1905, when L’Origan de Coty stroke a scented crescendo of the Art Nouveau age, this art movement had already been at its deathbed for a few years. Airplanes, fast steam engines, colossal ships, electric vacuum cleaners, radio transmissions, automobiles: they all promised a faster and more technologically exciting future. Art Nouveau had ceased being nouveau. New art movements were mushrooming faster than an art history student can learn about them today. Of course, at that time, nobody but a select few could appreciate analytical cubism or first attempts at geometrical abstraction, but those select few were the ones who were making artists into big names. To surprise and charm that elite group, a talented artist had to be disruptive, revolutionary, and – preferably – incomprehensible to the bourgeois masses.

There were also artists then who wanted to make new, but understandable art, something that would incorporate “times a-changing” dynamism and also… be useful. Like, think of furniture. Or architecture. Or wallpaper!

Most people don’t know the artists’ names today. Was it a conscious sacrifice to forsake fame for steady income there and then? I don’t have an answer.  Their names may not be known as well as those of Picasso, Matisse, or Kandinsky, but we all know their work. We know Palais de Tokyo or Empire State bulding, even if the names of their architects need to be googled up. We see Art Deco typefaces in logos, ads, texts, but we don’t know who invented them:

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We may sit in a chair like this at any West End theatre (or think of a theatre district in your city) unaware of who was its designer.

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From the early 1900s till 1912 Art Nouveau and Art Deco (it didn’t have a name then) co-existed peacefully, but the Autumn Salon of 1912 saw a clash of modern and uber-modern. The Salon housed Cubists, Futurists, and Dadaists (whose art caused an explosive political debate on the freedom of expression) but was decorated by the department store Printemps in what in ten years would become known as Art Deco.

Art Nouveau was effectively wiped out from the agenda of the future, yet no new scents had been offered!

It is easy to see the contrast between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Anyone could spot the difference between Alfons Mucha (very well known) and George Barbier (known to Art Deco fans only) or the shift to simplicity from an Art Nouveau ceiling dome to that of Art Deco!

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Cars can be an even better illustation of both technological and stylistic changes. Cars were highly visible, very desirable, and prohibitevely expensive. Perhaps, it was the automotive industry that delivered that final push to perfumers that made them think of new scents.

This is a Pic-Pic (Swiss-made) of 1911. It is exactly the “horseless carriage” type that we may find difficult to call a “car”. It is the epitome of Art Nouveau style.

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Same year as PicPic, Delaunay Belleville, a French marque, was producing their luxury (Russian Tzar favourite) model that was already taking the shape of a car:

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Yet, these babies could only be seen when the tzar or French Prime Minister would go out, and the more massively produced models were still angular and awkward, like Ford T of 1912 (US), the most affordable car then (at roughly $25K in today’s money). Stylistically, it is ahead of PicPic in the proper car category, but it does not herald a new design era (and while PicPic of 1911 could go 70 kmh, Ford maxed out only 60)

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And then suddenly, just as the WWI broke out and millions of people marched to their death, the world was stunned by totally new designs that owe everything to Art Deco artists working on streamlined geometrical shapes and sleek dynamic lines. Of course these designs had been in the works long before the war, but the timing of their launch still bevilders me.

This is Richet-Schneider of 1915 (France).

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And this is a new, war-like model from the luxury maker Delaunay-Belleville that they launched in 1914 and were producing until 1917.

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Can you imagine that ladies in the back of PicPic (1911) and Delaunay-Belleville (1917) would wear the same perfume? So, finally, at the end of the WWI, a new scent arrived.

Chypre de Coty – 1917

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It was based on 4 natural ingredients: patchouli, bergamot, labdanum, and oak moss, and has become a defining scent for modern perfumery.

Together, they produced dry and mossy scent with – as a connoisseur would say – amberly warmth.

The scent was still natural, but much more “serious” than the oriental flowers of L’Origan. It was a perfect transition from Mucha to Barbier.

You may notice that Chypre bottle is very similar to L’Origan’s one. Yes, Coty excelled in scents but their marketing sucked. This Art Deco revolution in aromas fell flat in sales.

Two years later (1919) Guerlain rolled out Mitsouko, with a fruity note on top of the Chypre base, and it became such a success that they would keep making it until today.

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Mitsouko was packaged in strict accordance with Art Deco guidelines and positioned as women’s fragrance, which didn’t stop Charlie Chaplin from becoming a life-long fan.

And yet, by the time Mitsouko hit the market, new trends had already been shaping and shaking the very foundations of European societies.

The Great War was over, but its echo was still heard very clearly.

Women had to fit into men’s roles – and even trousers – during the war, and they were not coming back to the inconvenient pre-war designs. Scarcity of textiles shortened hemlines and streamlined cuts. Ironically, cloth deficit did a lot of progressive re-educational job that Art Deco fashion designers would have to do otherwise. Men were getting bolder and experimenting as well, especially with adding colour to their everyday wardrobe. A Russian magazine of 1917 summarised the conservative fear of the changing morals and fashion in this caricature, capped “in not so distant future”, in which a man and woman switch roles. I am sure it was not meant to be prophetic.

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When Chypre de Coty was making its first steps, Marcel Duchamp scandalised the art market by his attempt to put a urinal in an exhibition. By 1919, when Mitsouko came out in all its glory, cubism had become mainstream (many believed it was already a thing of the past). Leading-edge art was half way out of representational or logical. It was time to start looking for a new scent; a scent that would go beyond a cheerful commemoration to the death of Art Nouveau and the rise of Art Deco; a scent for the fast approaching Roaring Twenties.

Two years after Mitsouko, this scent, one of the few brands in the history of perfumery that weren’t about the past but aimed at and defined the future, came to market.

I am sure you’ve already guessed right.

The next chapter is about Chanel No.5 of 1921.

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Two Masterpieces from Must-see Show in Moscow

The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow has put together a show of art collections of Schukin brothers, kings of the Russian textile industry at the beginning of the last century. Thanks to one of them Russia boasts a great collection of (post)impressionists, fauvists, and cubists. It was split between Moscow and The Hermitage in St.Petersburg in 1948 and is now reunited and exhibited to mimic the way Sergey Schukin hung his paintings.

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While critics applaud this decision, I can’t see real value here. Yes, most Russian avant-guarde artists got introduced to Western art when visiting Schukin’s home, and it might be interesting to see their “starting point” through “their eyes”, but something tells me it was not the hanging that inspired them, but the paintings themselves, and most likely, not as a group, but individually. Gauguin was striving to recreate a paradise lost, but I don’t think he would view his objective accomplished only after a buyer builds a wall out of his work.

All this travesty of Gauguin tapestry ended up with one of Van Gogh’s most amazing portraits, that of Dr.Felix Rey, being hung near the ceiling, where it can’t be seen properly. The portrait was rejected originally (being used to mend a chicken coop), and now it is pigeonholed as a painting which quality is somewhat below Gauguin’s works by hanging it to fill an empty spot above them.

This portrait is worth its own wall. Van Gogh painted it as a form of gratitude, immediately upon his release from Saint-Paul asylum. He portrayed the closest and most caring person in his life at the time. It is an icon of compassion and hope.

Look at the blue whites of his eyes! Look at the Monalisian smile created by his mustache! Look at the sensual lips an Instagram diva would kill for today! This young intern would become a world famous tuberculosis doctor…

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I wrote a bit about the secret to Van Gogh’s portraiture, and I can write a lot more about Van Gogh’s portraits, but let’s get back to the show, and, specifically Matisse.

We all know, thanks to Picasso, that great artists don’t copy, they steal. What is left unsaid, I believe, is that the theft must me meaningful: the stolen stuff needs to be processed and transformed by the artist into something new (even if Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst believe that out-of-court settlement would alone suffice, it would not). Matisse and Picasso were both thieves. They stole from Gauguin, from Cezanne, and from each other. Today, for the way they integrated African art into their own, they’d be facing cultural appropriation backlash on twitter. That thievery is well documented and appreciated. Yet, there was an artist in Italy from whom Matisse stole in broad daylight, and no one has noticed.

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Antonio del Pollaiuolo, 15th c., the Battle of Ten Nude Men. The etching reflects the idea that men can’t but fight each other. Matisse’s Dance is about love and harmony that men can achieve if they stop fighting and include women into their circle. One can see some violent vibes in Matisse’s Satyr, of course, but it was painted a year before the Dance, so let’s not exclude the possibility that the man in this painting leans down to wake up and invite the sleeping nymph to a dance.

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Matisse steals figures, alters them, and mirrors them, but his message is new and polar to that of Pollaiuolo.

Fortunately, the Dance is given its own – huge – space at the exhibition, but art appreciation is invariably spoiled by people queuing to have their photo taken in front of it:

IMG_20190618_204748 Matisse was a visionary, but he failed to foresee Facebook or Instagram. Were this painting a photograph or even a more realistic painting, it would be banned on both platforms, by the way.

What Leftist Art Critics Hate about Art

Summer Exhibition at the RA in London has always been looked at with contempt by progressive high brow art critics. A mix of realist academicians, amateurs, and no-names concocted with the obvious goal of making a sale – what an insult to the politically erect minds of the politically correct!

Last year, the show was curated by Grayson Perry and got 5 starts all over (you can’t say a bad word about Grayson Perry, a darling of the left and right). But this year, the Guardian critic Jonathan Jones, rolled his review back to a single star with the title “…A moronic monument to British mediocrity”. 

This is not true. 

There is plenty of great works by artists both known and new, a lot of mediocre works by very talented artists, and some cheap graphics series from big names because big names love fat wads of cash in small notes they get for large editions. Yet, the experience of visiting the show is not like you have to sift a ton of sand to get a speck of gold. It is more like taking large nuggets out of the sieve without really shaking it.

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This is what selling an edition of 100 looks like. And who can blame the artist or the buyer?

Yes, a large group exhibition like this one mirrors the society more often than not. It shows that people who are well educated, earn above-average money and pay above-average taxes want something on their walls that cheers them up, gives them energy and optimism to keep them going. Is it bad taste to go for a landscape instead of a feminist parody of Lichtenstein with the girl\artist wondering about her right to decide what do to with her body? Keep in mind the landscape was done well and sincerely, while the Lichtenstein homage was made with the too-obvious reason of pressing all the right buttons of the leftist brain.

The dilemma of a progressive art critic when covering shows like RA’s Summer is, in fact, about money. If you praise a realistic landscape (priced at £2K for a customer with income around £200K) you can’t possibly justify the sale of a minimalist white square at the neighboring Pace Gallery (hovering above £500K and targeted at an uber rich collector, who ultimately pays for the champagne at exclusive previews). As a progressive, you can applaud realism only when it is politically provocative because it is impossible to address a political issue while staying abstract. The Times can give the show 4 stars out of 5, but not the Guardian.

So, if you are in London, Summer Exhibition at the RA is half a day well spent. Steer clear of the politically motivated stuff (It is the only thing that is mediocre about the show) and approach ladders with caution. This year the show is fixated on the images of ladders and stairs. Perhaps, it is a temporary effect of the unending climb/descent somehow associated with Brexit.

P.S. The top image is a large-scale collage of “street art” and council estate photos. Let’s say, this image speaks volumes to the heart of a Muscovite (me) who’d lived ten years in very similar conditions. 

Sean Scully, Extraterrestrial

This summer, in the Regent’s park in London, the annual Frieze sculpture show has a piece by Sean Scully. It is titled “Shadow Stack, 2018” and made of Corten steel.

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Shadow Stack, 2018 by Sean Scully

The short curatorial note describes it as follows: “Shadow Stack continues Scully’s preoccupation with the horizon. A three-dimensional extension of his Landline paintings, the oxidation of the steel echoes their stripe motif, giving the surfaces a textual painterly quality”.

I believe it was written by someone from Blain|Southern gallery that represents Scully.

I don’t think I could never be employed by a respected gallery of the Blain|Southern caliber. First, I tend to say “rust resembling paint” when I see rust resembling paint. Second, I don’t believe that a “preoccupation” with something by any one person is of interest to anybody.

The end result of any artist’s phobias, preoccupations, and insecurities can be interesting if it goes beyond addressing people with the same “diagnoses”. Otherwise, it is simply a clinical illustration of a patient’s “condition”.

Take Yayoi Kusama who fears penises and vents out this fear in her art. Her fear of male genitalia is her idiosyncratic psychological problem that is of interest to her therapist, but her chair made of the objects of her terror has a much broader appeal, because it reminds people of rape, abuse and sexual violence – all the more relevant today in the context of the #MeToo movement.

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When creative motivation is reduced by a critic to “preoccupation” I get an acute pang of “myötähäpeä” (personal embarrassment one feels on account of and for another who is making a fool of him or herself). I don’t think Scully is preoccupied solely with the horizon. His thinking is broader.

There is one point though on which I agree with the critic from Blain|Southern. I agree that Scully’s sculpture is a three-dimensional extension. The question is, an extension of what?

If you read my previous text about Scully’s paintings, you will see the point I make is that Scully is painting a world of a different set of dimensions. His paintings are flat projections of a different, multi-dimensional universe onto ours.

His sculpture does the same, except that this time it is a 3D protrusion of Scully’s multi-dimensional universe into our world.

Here is my logic.

This piece is not made organically in this world, that is, not created by nature. It can be seen as either an edifice that was man-made and placed on the grass above ground OR it can be perceived as something that came up from below hence originating in a different, supernatural, world.

While the first notion is, in fact, the ‘reality’, it doesn’t offer any significant meaning to the viewer, while the second supposition transforms the viewer into an observer of something phenomenal and unique: a universe where natural shapes and forms are very foreign to our daily references yet remain aesthetically pleasant at the same time.

The absence of a pedestal, with the bottom slab half-submerged/half-emerged from the ground (depending on how you wish to read it) offers another argument in favour of theory #2.

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The slabs tick away a vertical rhythm that makes the mind believe there is an upward push. There is also a sense of ‘unevenness’, of ‘disorder’ that enhances the artist’s search for rhythm. As the slabs shift against each other, they manifest the internal energy and a bit of chaos inside the structure. We welcome chaos because without it there is no life, and we celebrate order because it is essential to life preservation. This sculpture has them both.

I can’t think of a better place for this sculpture than a park. This otherworldly projection is foreign but somehow quite fitting to the earthly landscape.

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The magic Scully creates is in the absence of weight. When we look at a tree, we don’t think of the pressure that the trunk is experiencing at its lower part. No compassion outpours towards the wood cells at eye level that are locked up in the heavy trunk. Yet, we feel the weight and pressure in, say, a building such as the one in the following image:

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If we reflect on it, we can imagine the subliminal effect this has on the ground floor employees working there and we can even feel sorry for them.

We feel the changing weight in the sculpture of Chung Hung in the photograph below:  it is much heavier at the bottom than at the top:

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Chung Hung metal sculpture made with Corten, at Vanier Park. Source

Even a simple concrete tower radiates weight that lands on earth from above:

But weight is not the first association that comes to mind when we look at Scully’s tower:

As the mind tucks away the weight aspect, we pay more attention to the play of shadows, the shifts of slabs, the growth of this otherworldly edifice and, ironically, we feel a sense of lightness – a contradiction I believe the artist wanted us to experience .

In essence, Scully opens up a hole in the fabric of our reality, and something interesting comes out, which he leaves up to each viewer to imagine, for his or her self.

What do you experience when you look it it?

Sean Scully: the artist of a higher dimension

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If you were in an exhibition of Sean Scully’s work and walked up to a random viewer and asked him or her to describe what hey see when they look at one of his paintings, most often the answer would be “patterns of color and geometric shapes”.

Although a cursory glance might lend some truth to that observation, the same answer could be said of quite a lot of wallpaper – and it doesn’t help to understand why some people are enchanted and captivated by his work.

Similarly, it is often difficult to venture beyond the formal description of an abstract work of art intellectually or emotionally, in a same way that’s impossible to appreciate the beauty of E=mc² unless you’ve covered quite a lot of basic physics –or the brilliance of a famous chess move unless you are familiar with the rules of the game.

What we will do now, is prepare our minds for Sean Scully and, together, we will be able to decipher the magic and power of this artist.


Imagine any spring (like the old fashioned ones for beds). In order for it to release its energy it has to be compressed first. Similarly, to think big, to let one’s imagination explode, it is necessary for the ‘thinker’ to reduce “the big picture” and think small before freeing their mind and letting it go loose. Our brain uses the same mechanism when we look at a scaled model of a sculpture or a building (or anything monumental) to better understand the workings of a complex machine.

When math students are first introduced to the abstraction of a multi-dimensional space it is difficult for them to really comprehend what it means. We are so used to three dimensions that even the next step up, a four-dimensional space, is a concept that is often impossible to grasp – the way to understand the basic idea of a 4d space, however paradoxical it may seem, is to reduce the number of dimensions; most often that does the trick.

Imagine a two dimensional space such as the image below – yes, view image on your screen as a sheet of paper. As you can see, it is inhabited by dots.

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The dots can’t jump off the page, as they are not aware of the third dimension. They are not even aware of our existence.  Look at the square and imagine a dot has locked itself in its house, certain no one can see it. It is true that other dots only see the walls. But we see the furtive dot perfectly well.

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And, if we want to punish the dot, we can hit it on the head, erase it, cut it in half, and the dot would never even know from whence came the flogging arm.

In effect, we are the dots’ ‘gods’.

And, if we try to imagine what a dot in this universe we have just created is capable of seeing it would be something such as the image below:

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A red dot, a blue house, a green house, a blue dot, a red house.

The way the dot sees its flat world is vastly different from the way we see it from above.

By applying the principle we just used with the dots, it is possible to imagine what four-dimensional beings may feel about us. They simply wouldn’t see the same picture. We don’t know what exactly they would see. They would see some pattern that we can’t even fathom.

Or can we?

It is possible the picture they would see would have different colors, high and low temperatures, order and chaos, busy life and inanimate stillness. However, similarly to our situation with the world of our dots, they would see much more than we can comprehend, albeit in a completely, maybe even undecipherable, way.

And this is exactly the way to approach Sean Scully’s work.

His patterns have the rhythmic order of a world governed by physics’ laws but the chaos of the paint inside the stripes makes life possible.

Scully’s order is beautiful because it is calming, predictable and quieting. Scully’s chaos is excitingly unpredictable because of the different energies it radiates. Somewhere within this, life is born and, at the same time, inanimate death is lurking somewhere near.

Inside his paintings exist elements, patterns, synergies, and rhythm – -everything we know about this world and exploring them raises the observer to another dimension.

It does not have to be an intellectual exercise (you don’t have to know physics to get a kick out of flying a hand glider), just approach them in a different way, as we approached the dots, and permit yourself (and his is the important part…allowing oneself), to revel in the sheer fun of being up there with the omnipotent gods, enjoying the patterns of this 3D universe.

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And while standing in front of some of his pieces note your own shadow walking thought the space of the picture, with the effect much like the one achieved by Gerhard Richter in his grey mirror paintings. 

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I inside a Sean Scully painting

Holocaust Selfie

Migrants flood European cities, rape white women, rob taxpayers by living off benefits, and enforce their Sharia laws on the enlightened average Westerner.

Now, if this were true, as some right-wing media claims it to be, would you have at least a modicum of sympathy for anti-immigration rallies and the average Western strongman punching some sense into the unenlightened average refugee?

Don’t stand up indignantly just yet. Social experiments on the rise of fascism have proven that getting a “yes” to my question takes a few days of work in an average US classroom.

Recently, a group of refugees waiting to be transported to Finland from Russia were beaten up by local men for groping Russian girls at a disco. It was hailed nationwide as the right (Russian) way of dealing with the refugee problem.

I am sure a sizeable proportion of Calais residents would cheer up Frenchmen doing the same to the Jungle camp residents.

What comes next?

Vigilante militia and patrols, of course. Easily identifiable by their uniforms and shoulder bands. Strong men would patrol the streets without being slowed down by police regulations. That will order things up.

And next, obviously, a system of identification needs to be set up. Syrians would be required to wear, say, a yellow star. Afgans would be assigned a green one. North Africans… I don’t know, pink? And, of course, how could I forget, before their papers are properly checked, to prevent terrorists entering the EU, they all would have to be detained in some special places, let’s say, temporary migration camps. A simple electical fence, barbed wired, will protect them from justifiably hostile local populations.

If you think a reinvention of the Holocaust is impossible, think again. There’s a generation of people now who are barely aware of the dreadful events taking place more than 70 years ago. Collective human memory is, perhaps, as selective as the individual mind and tends to bury painful moments under the thick blanket of cute cats, X-Factor winners, and loan payment dates.

Alexander Mikhalkovich, a Latvian artist, who describes himself as a web-terrorist, set it his purpose to make people remember the Holocaust.

He inserts Holocaust photographs in web-services such as Foursquare or Google at the exact geo locations where the events depicted took place so that whenever a visitor checks in, they are getting a scene of mass execution or something similar innoculously inserted in the user-generated galleries of splendid views and relaxed passtimes.

This is his statement and some of his work:

I believe that the Latvians have begun to forget about the Holocaust. It is difficult to know about it if you are not interested in this topic specifically. People are often in places where terrible things happened recently, but they do not know it. Finding some terrible photo evidence, I wanted to remind people about the Holocaust in Latvia. I decided to bypass the security systems on popular photo hosting services on maps, such as Google Earth, Panoramio and Foursquare and dilute our usual photoblog of travel photos with examples of Nazi atrocities. On these giants, there is an automated system for testing the photos before making them available to the public. With the help of special programs I changed the GPS data about the location of my smartphone. So I make minor visual changes in the picture, trying to make it invisible to the verification system of copyright. Amazingly, the little Stamp tool – and Google Image (service to search for identical pictures) can no longer find the picture. But the trick of such a giant like Google is not so easy. My photos were uploaded to Google Earth, moderated during two days and as a result were not put in the public domain Perhaps at some stage of the inspection, the robot had suspicions and he sent the photos to the moderation man Because of this, I had to concentrate on Foursquare, because my elaborated algorithm perfectly bypassed secunty of the service. Now I feel like Abba Kovner, a member of the Jewish Avengers; a terrorist group after the war who dreamed of taking revenge on Germany by poisoning the Dresden water supply. I’m a terrorist, but in the name of Memory. I’m invading your world of sunsets, selfies, kittens and happy meals; reminding you of what lies beneath the beach you are lounging on.

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Once, Foursquare commented on a photo of a group of Jewish girls lining up to be executed, “You’ve got gorgeous hair today!”.

This is the kind of digital art that should make the headlines.

 

Nude or Naked? Art or Kitsch?

Pigeonholing female nude and naked in a practical way that may revitilise your next gallery visit. 

The debate about nude and naked has been raging on since Kenneth Clark said 60 years ago that “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.”

Try to feed this line to a feminist today.

Fifteen years after Clark, John Berger summarised the distinction between nude and naked: being naked is just being yourself, but being nude in the artistic context is being without cloths for the purpose of being looked at.

John Berger believed that Western art had been predominantly about female [self] objectification, in the sense that while women had always been presented as goods for male consumption, they were taking an active part in this process themselves. It’s difficult to argue with this: popularity of Instagram selfies like the ones below is a living proof that not much has changed since the Ways of Seeing was first shown on BBC.

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It is perfectly ok. Girls are doing their best to look attractive to boys. Boys appreciate it by following their accounts, writing sleazy comments, and fantasizing in ways I don’t want to talk about. Instagram owners whistle all the way to the bank.

All I am saying is that consumer preferences still centre on the flirtingly erotic presentation of the female body, but a modern-day classic reclining nude painting would be deemed a horrible kitsch fit for the likes of Donald Trump or seedy strip clubs.

So, the question is: what kind of paintings of nude or naked bodies are not kitsch or a mindless repetitions of past masterpieces? Which of them have value?

As a collector and art history enthusiast, I needed a simple classification system for nude paintings that would show me their “ideological” value whenever I come across one. I say “ideological” because my decision to buy something is based first on whether a painting says something new about portraying a nude or naked body and then on whether it is, in my subjective view, a good painting in its own right, in terms of composition, colour, et cetera. If you read this blog, you know I often go so analytical about deconstructing paintings that it raises suspicions if I wanted to be a autopsist as a kid and my parents wouldn’t let me.

My system is simple. It is a matrix made by two questions:

  • Is the model aware of a male observer?
  • Does the model care about the male observer?

NOTE: ALL DIAGRAMS ARE CLICKABLE AND SOME NEED TO BE ENLARGED TO BE READ

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The definition of “nude” and “naked” becomes pretty much simple:

Chart2

And art history of the female nude can be briefly summarised:

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To give you a few examples (yes, now you have to click on it):

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You can see that some paintings like Picasso’s D’Avignon ladies or Rembrandt’s bathing nude can’t be easily pigeonholed to a single box, but represent a transition from one box to the next. These “transitional works”  represent valueable moments  when artists were searching for new ideas in portraying the unclothed human body.

Today, “progressive” thinkers view most of nude art of the past as chauvinistic garbage (with Renoir being one of the most hated artists). the art world gravitates towards the right side of my table. Indeed, the three “naked” boxes represent the contemporary territory.

What’s disturbing is that all the attempts to fill in these boxes with art have produced very few masterpieces, with loads of ideologically “right” but ugly artworks. Of course, when I say “ugly” I mean something disgusting for me personally. There are people who find Carroll Durham or Sara Lucas beautiful, but I find comfort in knowing many smart men and women who side up with me.

Sara Lucas, for instance, is mostly working in the “is aware – doesn’t care” box with her cigarette butts:

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Well, it is definitely more provocative than Matisse’s Dance, but is it more inspiring? Not for me, but the art world seems to have appreciated her effort.

She also tries to work in the bottom box (“model knows she’s not watched and doesn’t care”) by doing toilet selfies, but as her intention to appear uncaring reveals her pathetic desire to be seen and liked, I can’t say the attempt is a success.

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As an art history guy, I love the nude left side of my chart.

The top left box, the most “basic” one, is, in fact, a vast territory in its own right. There are segments of “authentic shyness”, “fake modesty”, “shameful resolve”, “indignant sale”, and a host of others.

Some of the segments are filled to the brim with art and some still stand pretty empty.

And the transitions between boxes remain almost unexplored.

Which is one of the reasons why I bought this nude last weekend:

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If – as I believe – she covers her face in shame, she falls in the traditional top right box with all the Titians, Manet, Ingres, and countless others.

But.

She refuses to collaborate with the artist to model fake modesty of a girl who pretends to be ashamed being caught naked. She is ashamed, but she’s not putting on a show of it. She also doesn’t want to watch back the male observer of the painting. She doesn’t want to meet his eyes, she doesn’t want to be the object of his desire. She surrenders her rather voluminous breasts (take them if you please) but not herself, as a person.

This, in my view, is a very interesting turn in the old debate about women taking an active part in their own objectification.

The Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders in art can be seen as a curious reference here.

Almost all artists would represent Susanna as shyly trying to cover her body while facing up to the two men:

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Susanne and the Elders by Ottavio Mario Leoni

In the vast majority of this type of paintings Susanna is presented in a seductive pose to make the male observer want her. Artists believed that an aroused observer would feel the same kind of feelings like the elders and, knowing the two ended up dead for their attempt to extort sexual consent from the woman, would learn a moral lesson. Maybe artists pretended to believe it, of course, as an excuse to paint a seductive nude woman (sex sells).

Artemisia Gentileschi was the only artist (perhaps because she was a woman, with a relevant personal background) who turned Susanna’s face away from the bastards with her body language signalling that she doesn’t want to listen to their sex extortion proposals, and she doesn’t want to see them, just like my face-covering girl.

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You see, a true depiction of shame is very unique in this genre.

Now, the painterly qualities of my nude.

Look at the shadows and tones, because the work is done with almost the same colour. She is lit, as if by a flash that went off above her. The hand movement is blurred as if she barely had time to raise her arm. The frontal flash of light stands very well as a symbol of the rush of attention of the male observer whose eyes take in the body as a whole, not seeing, skipping the details (like the bellybutton or nipples) at first.

Oh, the artist behind my nude is Victor Dynnikov. Click on his tag at the bottom if you want to see more of his work.

Print out my nude/naked table and take it with you next time you go to a gallery. It can be fun putting paintings into boxes. If you are a couple, talking about art may never be the same again!