Tag Archives: POST IDEAS

Possessing Russia in Condensed Form

This is one of my most prized possessions: a view of Vladimir, one of Russia’s oldest cities, by Valery Kokurin. It says a lot about Russian character and outlook on life.

There are FOUR IMPORTANT THINGS it says about Russians:

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1. Turbulent skies: a symbol of troubled history that’s also the present

An outside observer may say Russian history has been turbulent, violent, and generally not user-friendly, but Russians find certain pride in the fact they’ve survived cataclysms other nations couldn’t possibly handle at all. It is impolite to remind a Russian that Russians were often bringing those calamities upon themselves.

The beauty of the skies is meant to remind the observer that the whirlwind of dramatic events in Russian history can be an inspiration: what other country could produce so many depressed literature geniuses?

2. Wait until it is too late, and then save the day/country/world.

There is a man, walking with a roll of wire (possibly, stolen) along the rail tracks at the bottom of the painting.

He is painted NOT to give scale to objects in the picture – the size of objects has only symbolic meaning here. He is there to make a point about Russian men disregarding danger until their guardian angels hand in their resignation notices.

When the sky becomes as menacing as it is shown in the painting, most nations would decide to leave town or, at least, stay indoors. Russians are proud of their resolve and patience: they will be carrying on with their normal life, enjoying the whistling of the steam cooker, up until the moment it blows into their faces. This is also one of the side-effects of fatalism, for which Russians are famous across the Globe: Russians would believe it may not actually blow up until the moment it does, and for a few seconds after.

We are not leaving this man – for there’s another message in him as well.

3. Faith is big

The churches are made much bigger in comparison to homes to symbolise Russians’ dedication to Christian faith. Moscow might be the Third Rome, with its megalomaniac ideas of being the Chosen torch-bearer for the whole world but Vladimir represents the common, ordinary Russia that simply believes in God. The belief is so strong and sincere that reading the Bible is not necessarily a part of it. There are people who believe Christ was the son of a Russian emigree to Israel, making Russians the God-Chosen Nation.

Someone fond of impressionist techniques may notice the turbulent skies do not reflect on the yellowish wall of the churches. Yes, Faith in Russia is the pillar, the unsullied beacon, the torch that may not show the right way, but it dispels the darkness of despair and prevents the skies from falling all over the place. No trouble can cast a shade on it.

“The blue skies punctured by belfries
Can hear brazen bell’s rejoicing.
Or is it getting cross?”
(Vladimir Vysotsky, a Russian poet)

4. Life is going on

The motley crew collection of small houses represents people cuddling up together. Each of them may seem insignificant, but together they make up a strong and multicoloured force. Their different colours symbolise their different lives. In the real life, the colours of buildings are not as cheerful, and not as different.

And the man, yes, the only human character in the painting, is a collective symbol of Russians carrying their cross (and stolen wire, but who’s without sin?) – despite the ominous skies, despite the early snow, despite life that’s rushing past (see the green train speeding in the opposite direction).

And, finally, it is simply a very good painting.

Can art help to forgive and forget?

People who hold grudges resemble ships carrying tons of toxic waste in their hold, with port after port rejecting them entry and unloading. They’re rusty, lonely, and ecologically dangerous.

I’ve met people who believed “art could help”. Yes and No. Art can’t help to forget a grievance; all it can do is assist with the unloading. Artists, being notoriously easy to offend, have learned to use this art magic, metaphorically similar to Dumbledore’s Memory Pensieve. 

So, when you look at an art object and mutter, “what a freaking pervert!”, chances are you look at one of the artist’s grudges.

Lars von Trier had been feeling gloomy and made the Melancholy movie to get rid of his depression. He admitted it got him cured. Critics are still debating the flick’s artistic value.

Artemisia Gentileschi (raped by her father’s friend) dedicated her art to the celebration of revenge. She is the most famous female artist of the Renaissance, and it is a pity she’s got most of her fame for being very convincing about cutting men’s heads off.

Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620, oil on canvas, the Uffizi, Florence, Italy)

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620)

Were it not for her naturalistic penchant, she might have been lost in the obscure army of Caravaggio’s followers. Grudge helped her to stay in history.

Salvador Dali‘s beloved sister and model for most of his early paintings made a grudge deposit in her brother’s bank of memories when she published a book about him, a memoir that Salvador didn’t like a bit.

So, his beloved sister from this famous painting of 1925…

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…got reinterpreted in 1954 into “Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity”:

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I mean, what a freak he was, really. But had he not painted his grudge, he might kill his sister. So, freak or no freak, art can help neurotic characters stay away from prison.

So, art can transform a depression of one into that of millions, a rape into fame, and prevent a murder, among other things, of course. 

Isn’t it magic? It is, of the black variety mostly.

Or not?

 

TAKE A MOMENT TO ENVY ME

A man fished out a bottle from the sea and found a letter inside.

“I have been marooned on an uninhabited tropical island. There is no inflation, no taxes, no city noise, no traffic or pollution. Take a moment to reflect and envy me” 

The letter in a bottle is a powerful concept of despair, hope and salvation in an improbable twist of fate. Yet, is rarely used by artists as a theme, apart from the millions of images of old bottles half-buried in sand.

Yet, there’s an artist who decided to document his suburban world existing half-way between a large city and nature, in a series of bottled pictures.

Jim Dingilian makes pictures inside bottles with candle soot as his primary media. This allows him to create dreamlike images encapsulating the life of a small suburb,

It is not great art, but it is something that makes you stop, look inside, and reflect on your personal experiences (if any) with suburban life and/or moments frozen in time. I find it strangely captivating.

Thank you, the Daily Prompt for reminding me of this artist.

Claude Monet’s reflective paintings

What is so great about Monet’s water-lily paintings? He painted dozens of them; he didn’t paint anything else in his later years, he kept painting water lilies when his eyes betrayed him; he made the Water Lilies panoramic set a gift to the state when he died.

When you are in front of any of his lilies (and I assume many of you have had the experience), do you ask yourself, “gosh, what is really great about’em?” Not a singe visitor to The Musée de l’Orangerie which houses the most giant of the series can be seen wishing the 10 euros paid for the ticket could be spent in a wiser fashion.

I don’t say one needs to know the answer to the greatness question to enjoy the paintings. Some years ago, I was coming to the National Gallery in London each time I was in town just to see the Lily Pond. Were I asked then what was so great about the painting, I might try to give an answer, but it would be tall tales spin-yarned into a baloney pullover of meaningless adjectives.

Now that I have my thoughts a little bit more organised, I can outline a hypothesis about the workings of Monet’s lily paintings.

We need to step back though, to Velazquez, an artist who had a great influence on Manet, who – in his turn – influenced Monet, although in a different way.

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Velazquez painted this Venus with a Mirror sometime around 1650. The viewer can’t really see the face of Venus. It is blurred on purpose: the beauty of a goddess, the Ideal or Ultimate Beauty, can’t be painted because no one has seen it, and even today Venus is not known to post selfies on Instagram. The Ideal Beauty is in the mind of the beholder. This blurred image activates those neural networks in the brain that house individual associations with beauty, memories, created by myths, books, movies and Playboy mass media.

Were it a particular face, the mind would react to it similarly to a meaningless portrait of an unknown celebrity of bygone times. It still would be attractive, primarily catering to people whose idea of beauty was congruent to the shape of the buttocks that are so close to the viewer one might be tempted to slap them.

Likewise, some 250+ years later, Monet was painting a refection of nature, but in a way that it couldn’t be attributed to any particular tree, sky, or flower.

His lilies – any and all of them – represent the Ideal Beauty of Nature, and for many they’ve grown to become a representation of the Ideal Beauty of Life itself. Not because they show some mind-boggling beauty of tender lily flowers blossoming against the green surface of a water reservoir – but precisely because they don’t show it.

I will use the painting that a friend of mine took in Vienna – and sent to me a few days ago.

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It is known these paintings stay in memory. Somehow. Many people are known not to like them, but they remember them, though they can’t say what were the colours, the shapes, or the lines in them.

Wassily Kandinsky wrote of them,

“Until then I knew only naturalist and, to tell the truth, almost exclusively Russian naturalist art…I believed that no one had the right to paint so imprecisely. I vaguely felt that the object (the subject) was missing in this work. But with astonishment and confusion, I observed that not only did it surprise, but it imprinted itself indelibly in the memory and that before your eyes it recomposed itself in the smallest details. All this remained muddled in me, and I could not yet foresee the natural consequences of this discovery. But what clearly came out of it is the incredible power, a power I had never known, of a palette that outstripped my wildest dreams. To me the painter seemed gifted with a fabulous power. The object used as an indispensable element in my work unconsciously lost some of its importance to me. In short, there was already a little bit of my enchanting Moscow on this canvas.”

I don’t like this style of art writing: too many adjectives. “Fabulous”, “incredible”, “gifted”, etc. Adjectives that don’t explain anything. Why was the power of Monet “incredible” or “fabulous”? Yet, Kandinsky registered the important facts:

  • the paintings stay in memory (even despite the vague sensation there’s nothing in them, at least nothing of real importance)
  • the painting fire up [neural networks storing] personal associations (like Moscow for Kandinsky)
  • the combination of colours creates a conflict that makes even those who dislike the paintings to get involved into watching them.

Indeed, his greens and violets can be found on the opposite sides of the colour wheel, and thus they create a colour conflict – we do not normally see these colours in their pure form at the same time. It makes the brain go “wow” without us registering it. There is nothing subconscious in this though, the brain starts scanning the painting to understand what the heck is going on – and the viewer does not necessarily register it either.

But there is even a bigger conflict that goes on in the mind of the viewer.

We are used to this:

A real 3D scene ==>
is represented in a 2D picture by the artist ==>
gets reconstructed into a 3D scene in the viewer’s mind.

Monet’s Lilies work differently:

A real 2D scene (the mirror of the pond) ==>
is represented in a 2D picture by the artist (which bizarrely seems 3D, because of the difference in brushstrokes) ==>
gets reconstructed into a 3D scene… BUT WE KNOW IT WAS A 2D SCENE TO START WITH!

And this is when the mind goes off thinking, remembering and associating in its own, very individual ways, some of which the mind’s owner does not register consciously.

Contemporary art is often differentiated from all the other types of art because it transfers the conflict from a painting or a sculpture into the mind of the viewer.

Instead of appreciating the drama that Michelangelo wanted people to live through their exposure to David, a contemporary artist wants to stimulate the viewer into creating his or her own drama, their own conflict, and live through their individual hell.

Monet used traditional colour conflict and innovative 2D-3D play with the mind of the viewer to CREATE A DRAMA OUTSIDE OF THE PAINTING, BUT INSIDE THE VIEWER’S MIND.

In this, he had become a true contemporary artist in his later years. He started the collective impressionistic revolution in visual arts that everyone noticed, but he then overturned visual arts single-handedly, in ways more radical than Cezanne could even imagine, and long before Picasso.

if there’s any painting that is more about individual reflection, I’d love to know about it.

IT IS A PAINTING OF A REFLECTION THAT MAKES A VIEWER REFLECT UPON THINGS IMPORTANT TO EACH VIEWER.

DEPRESSED OPTIMIST + PAINTS + BRUSHES

A few years ago, in a field near Neuchâtel, Switzerland,  I slammed on my brakes because I saw a lone tree in a yellow field. The tree, half-dead and half-alive, was hanging to dear life as Harold Lloyd to the minute hand in this iconic image. I thought about Ivan Shishkin then, and his most emotionally powerful painting.

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This is the painting, named after a popular poem at the time, “In the midst of flat dales”:

Ivan Shishkin, 1883,

Ivan Shishkin, 1883, In the midst of flat dales

It was 1883, the time of a suicidal depression for the artist. He was in his 50s. In 1880 he married one of his students, from the first female class in the Russian Art Academy. She died a year later, leaving Shishkin alone and devastated.

For most of his life, Shishkin was painting or etching forests (mostly Russian) in a way no one could. He was a documentarian, who loved painting from nature.  His typical painting would feature Tchaikovsky’s rhythm through a play of light, unbelievable depth, and authentic plants in their authentic state, given the season and time of day.

Like this “Oak Grove”, painted in 1887, when he recovered from the depression .

A sample of “typical Shishkin”: Oak Grove, 1887

Unlike most his other work, the lone oak tree he painted was done from imagination. Art historians believe the oak was painted from memories or sketches done during Shishkin’s trip to Switzerland.

I am sure it was a different oak (from mine), but they just felt the same not only because of their nationality.

Is it a landscape? Technically, yes. Philosophically, no. It is a self-portrait of a strong man in crisis, who believes he has enough vitality to survive and weather through it.

Given that Shishkin could make even an imaginary landscape look 100% authentic, it is one of the most convincing anti-depression paintings I know.

If you’ve been reading my blog before, you might be interested in answering these questions (I will answer them in a day or two, here, as an update):

  1. There is rhythm in this painting that makes the viewer’s eyes scan it vertically and horizontally. How is it created?
  2. What did the artist do to add authenticity to this imaginary landscape?
  3. How did the artist show he was lost and disoriented?

Thank you, the Daily Post, for the perseverance idea! 

Is this Modigliani guy dead or alive?

Today’s Daily Prompt is about conversations that were involuntarily overheard while the overhearer wished it had been otherwise. 

Many visitors to art exhibitions annoyingly believe their opinions, questions, or concerns are something to be loudly shared because obviously everyone else must have the same opinion, question or concern, so maxing the volume up serves the public.

Sometimes, these exchanges are, indeed, a bonus. Very often though, the effort that goes into NOT bursting with laughter prevents subsequent involvement into the art being exhibited.

Dialogue 1

Queue for tickets to The Encounter with Modigliani exhibition at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum in Moscow.

“Modigliani… Do you think he’s alive?”
“Of course he is! The show’s name is “The Encounter with Modigliani”. It would be sick to make people bump into him were he dead!”

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Dialogue 2

A large Picasso exhibition in Moscow a few years ago had a few photographs of Picasso with his contemporaries on one of the walls. Now imagine a formidable middle-aged man, looking a great deal posh and a bit artistic, with a young “model” trailing behind. The man is both exhibiting his girlfriend and attending the exhibition.

They approach the photographs, the girl leans towards them and reads out names of artists in the picture: “Pablo Picasso… Lucien Freud…” and then she happily announces, “I remember you were telling me that Lucien Freud was a son of Picasso!”

The gentleman lover, now blushing, hisses spitefully, “No!! (“you idiot” can be lip-read, but not heard) He was a grandson of Zigmund Freud!” 

As the embarrassed gentleman nudges his girlfriend towards the exit, giving her hushing signs and sounds along the way, she keeps entertaining the room with her glamorous Moscow drawl, “But daaaarlin’! Was Zigmund Freud also a painter?”

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Have you ever overheard a dialogue about art that changed your perspective?

United Kingdom does not want you

I thought I wrote about Francis Bacon, his genius in portraying evil but creating some moral good in the mind of the viewer, and was done with it.

No. Everyday evil is not letting me go.

Two months ago my elder son (21) went to the UK to study for his master’s degree. His younger brother (17) has been missing him so much he was writing poems about it. No-nonsense poetry. Now, do you often see 17 year olds writing poems about their 21-year-old brothers?

And today my younger son was refused entry in the UK to see his brother, because a minor bureaucrat made a major judgement error, assuming that the boy travels unaccompanied (even though tickets clearly showing the return date for the whole family were submitted).

It may mean we’d have problems getting a French visa for the boy in December. It may also mean our NY holiday plans will be screwed.

This makes me revisit the Bacon painting of yesterday but this time from a very personal perspective.

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It is me, screaming very polite words of amazement in a wounded high-pitched voice at the abstract face of the UK Border Agency which is so maddeningly effective in preventing unwanted men and women from entering the country.

I need to jot down my thoughts on what I would like to do to the clerk at the visa centre before I forget them. My career in the horror movies would be guaranteed. Just saying.

Also, a bank that operates salaries in my company went bust today with a loud bang. With the salaries, of course. 

We, as the owners (and I am not referring to myself as “we”, there are more owners than one) are giving our people cash out of our own savings, with the promise that they will return the money after they get compensated by the banking insurance agency. This is borderline legal, but I don’t think any of our employees would report us.

Now, I am finally in London, and my son (21) is across the big dinner table from me, writing something in a little black book.

Game theory lectures are scattered on the table.

That changes my perspective. 

Not the game theory, but seeing my son. Though, I must admit the game theory helps.

We may lose a lot or a bit in the game of life, but the game is still on. A simple but effective entertainment, as the infamous Rock, Paper, Scissors. Unless played against an old mill hand with two fingers left (who is rather predictive at this game), it may be even exciting.

It is rather a lot to happen in one day, though. I have a feeling that the angel tracking me down in his celestial blog has been rather active during the last 24 hours. If he reads me now, I’d like to say it may be enough for today, really.

I don’t know the celestial blogger’s plans (I just hope he’d give me a few happy days off), but my plan is to get back talking about art soon. The Chinese art exhibition at V&A, and Paul Klee at Tate are two big events that are worth writing about.

P.S. Sometimes, I suspect people thinking up Daily Prompts read my mind. 

P.P.S. Today’s news: the Bacon triptych I wrote about earlier was indeed bought by a princess sheikh of Qatar. Do you know a betting shop that takes bets on identities of anonymous art buyers? I guess I could win back my losses at the capsized bank.