Category Archives: Art

Van Gogh Goes Hipster: What Messages Photoshopped Art Sends Us

Mona Lisa used to be a makeover darling for many an artist. I was caught off guard by postcards of La Gioconda in sunglasses, with punk make-up on a stand opposite the Louvres in Paris. They looked weird because a stone-throw away was the real Gioconda. However, the image and all surrounding mysteries were so well-known that have become a commonplace, a household name, so some kind of rebellion against such omnipresence was almost welcome, also giving a fresh perspective.

Recently I’ve rediscovered Pinterest, and there I came across a few images that suggest that Vincent Van Gogh, the troubled Impressionist painter known for his haunting Sunflowers and self-mutilation, is the new Mona Lisa. In one photo he’s partying with Frida Kahlo and the famous Girl with the Pearl Earring. In another, La Gioconda consoles him. And in others he’s paired with the mentioned Vermeer’s model. Admittedly, they make a good couple: one cannot help remembering paparazzi images of Johnny Depp and Kate Moss.

Mona Lisa and Vincent
Vincent Van Gogh partying with Vermeer’s Girl and Frida Cahlo

What I always wonder about, thinking of these images, is their purpose. With Mona Lisa it was quite obvious: she was SO famous one couldn’t help trying to bring her down. Different, especially satirical takes on La Gioconda were the acts of rebellion against classical art, the Old Masters, as well as against the popular fascination thereof. It was so easy to love and copy the classics without ever asking what makes them good, important, etc. So, the funny images of Mona Lisa served the purpose of shaking the pedestal beneath the Old Masters. In this, they continued the tradition of revolts against classical art that started in the 19th century.

Mona Lisa takes to the streets with Vincent

Hence, the hipster images of Van Gogh seemingly run in the same vein. Except for one thing: it’s not the modernity that alters the portrait of the artist. We see something different: an artist’s head leaves the body and takes to the modern-day streets. Whereas we instantly recognise Mona Lisa, whatever the makeover, the gingerhaired dude is likely to be familiar only to those who know his art. To others, he’s a guy-next-door, evidently a regular at all the city bars, sporting the fashionable five-o-clock beard and wearing an ethereal girlfriend on his arm.

I’m prompted to see these images as an attempt of contemporary artists to show how difficult it’s become to embed oneself in history. Perhaps, they don’t regard their work as such, but their opinion doesn’t change the fact: if you do something publicly, you want it to be noticed. And there’s a lot to be noticed and contemplated. For instance, why precisely it is Van Gogh who’s become the new Raphael and his art is both famous and yet common. Monet’s Waterlilies are too simple yet pretentious for today’s interiors, Degas is too complex, Picasso and Dali are too famous, and Vincent’s contemporary, the ravishing Gauguin, is probably too daring for the otherwise tolerant society.

Or, why it is Van Gogh who’s been chosen by the new generation of “creative people” who’ve got the misfortune of living in the shadow of both the classics and the better known contemporaries, when self-mutilation suddenly becomes a publicity act to illustrate the artist’s impotence. Not to mention his mental state, the work of Van Gogh lacked the languid tenderness of Monet or Gauguin’s exotic vitality. Van Gogh is halfway between these two emotions, and again this may be what makes him so popular today. Artists and the public want to enjoy the steady bourgeois life but the thirst for change and the ennui (as a by-product of that very steadiness) push them far and wide. They settle on Van Gogh as a troubled soul with peculiar landscape paintings, starry skies, potato-eaters, sunflowers and irises, who’s quite exotic and simple and thus doesn’t challenge the status quo. So contemporary art doesn’t challenge the capitalist status quo. There seems to be a truce between capitalism and art today: art can criticise capitalism as long as it doesn’t attempt to erode its basis. Van Gogh serves better purpose here, as he’s never left the capitalist, bourgeois setting, unlike Gauguin.

Finally, as a society we’re still fascinated with the troubled genii who didn’t live to see the fame that befell their work. And this is again where Van Gogh fits so well. This fame and success thing belongs to the same class of unattainable values, as, say, money. It is argued that money is everywhere, yet why so few people get comfortably well-off? There are many reasons, from poor thinking to some objective factors, like the time and place of living, yet ultimately they all serve the purpose to explain why you’ve not got money now AND give you hope that one day you may be a rich man, too. Today artists are subjected to such fierce competition that you’ve got to be inspired by someone who remained faithful to his path and eventually received his delayed gratification. Van Gogh is an excellent example: not too notorious, not too political, a typical shy genius.

So when Vincent takes to the streets in those images there are several messages we receive. This may be a homage the contemporary art and indeed life itself pay the bygone times by bringing them into the 21st century. I mean, do you see similar takes on the work of David, Ingres, Degas, Gauguin? Nothing instantly springs to mind, which means that incorporating Van Gogh into modern-day discourse is a sign that he belongs here and now.

This may be an attempt of contemporary art to trace itself back to some period in Art History with which it’d like to be associated. Regardless of artistic value of Van Gogh’s work (which I don’t dispute), the reason contemporary artists may wish to be close to Van Gogh is a peculiar combination of avant-garde and mainstream in his work, which is neither too challenging, nor boring.

Finally, contemporary life itself wants to find a historical setting to which it belongs — or, alternatively, to destroy the value of any historical tradition. Lost in between capitalism and socialism, today’s “young adults” are very much like the troubled Vincent. They need to know that there’s hope, that the past has preserved the images of people both similar and familiar to them. Van Gogh lived at the time when the notion of art was only beginning to undergo revision. I guess he’d be completely lost today when your local graffiti, a dead shark and Leonardo are all considered “art”. So his hipster images are a link between the fin-de-siecle and the first half of the 21st century. And it’s kind of good, except for the sinister side. Van Gogh serves to justify the artistic impotence, the second-hand artistic practice and spending life in a fleeting hope for fame and success. Nobody cares for his mental state nor views on art. His distorted face is placed in all sorts of settings, from bars to film posters, to make him as common as Mona Lisa has become. This devaluation works very cleverly, equalling a great artist to his unfortunate paragons and further distorting the notion of art, which in the end isn’t about Beauty but about Labour of Love for Beauty.

A Roman Bath Morning

Encircled by four-legged friends, it’s so tempting to stay in bed longer. But you still have to get up. Now, just about every visitor to this hall in the Louvre stops at this bath to admire it. I and a few tourists from Australia decided that we would happily accommodate this one at our houses. And so, the question: if indeed this bath were yours and you knew it was waiting for you, would it make you more eager to get up in the morning?

A Roman Hall at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Reiner Maria Rilke – Verkundigung

Sandro Botticelli – Annunciation

Die Worte des Engels

Du bist nicht näher an Gott als wir;

wir sind ihm alle weit.

Aber wunderbar sind dir

die Hände benedeit.

So reifen sie bei keiner Frau,

so schimmernd aus dem Saum:

ich bin der Tag, ich bin der Tau,

du aber bist der Baum.

Ich bin jetzt matt, mein Weg war weit,

vergieb mir, ich vergaß,

was Er, der groß in Goldgeschmeid

wie in der Sonne saß,

dir künden ließ, du Sinnende,

(verwirrt hat mich der Raum).

Sieh: ich bin das Beginnende,

du aber bist der Baum.

Ich spannte meine Schwingen aus

und wurde seltsam weit;

jetzt überfließt dein kleines Haus

von meinem großen Kleid.

Und dennoch bist du so allein

wie nie und schaust mich kaum;

das macht: ich bin ein Hauch im Hain,

du aber bist der Baum.

Die Engel alle bangen so,

lassen einander los:

noch nie war das Verlangen so,

so ungewiß und groß.

Vielleicht, daß Etwas bald geschieht,

das du im Traum begreifst.

Gegrüßt sei, meine Seele sieht:

du bist bereit und reifst.

Du bist ein großes, hohes Tor,

und aufgehn wirst du bald.

Du, meines Liedes liebstes Ohr,

jetzt fühle ich: mein Wort verlor

sich in dir wie im Wald.

So kam ich und vollendete

dir tausendeinen Traum.

Gott sah mich an; er blendete…

Du aber bist der Baum.

2018 Xmas: Getting Into the Festive Mood


As the festive season is on its way, the Xmas label returns to the blog. In previous years I used to strive to post daily during December. Back then few people seriously tried to earn money with their websites, so December was an off-season time. Nowadays it is completely the opposite, methinks, so my daily blogging is unlikely to surprise anyone. And still, content is king, so I’ll do my best to bring you just that.

Maya Plisetskaya, 1925-2015

Maya Plisetskaya hasn’t lived a few months until her 90th birthday – just like my grandma a year ago. Here in these photos the prima ballerina’s grace and humour are commemorated by Richard Avedon. She dedicated her entire life to music and ballet and is survived by dozens of grateful students who drew inspiration from her brilliant, if sometimes difficult, character. She is mourned by her husband, composer Rodion Schedrin, and thousands of fans throughout the world. Yet we shall continue finding inspiration in the life and work of this truly unique, inimitable woman. Ave, Maya!

In Defense of Noah’s Arch

I recently had to comment in a discussion on one of socnets about the plausibility of the story of Noah’s Arch. The argument was that the story was never questioned, then the person took interest in science, and before long the story of the most ancient sea journey amidst the deluge became a myth.

Regular readers know that I’m not a religious person, however I do have faith. It’s neither Christian, nor some other, but a set of what I hold to be true of the world where I live. However, being a historian I realise that these “myths” are not the mere old woman’s tales but the examples of how our ancestors made sense of this world. They may appear exaggerated to us today but at the very core they are not at all contradictory to the event as it was. 
 
In case with Noah’s Arch the problem is that, rather than acknowledging the limited worldview of our predecessors we let our own erudition run wild. We come to imagine an arch the size of the Titanic, and a pair of every species grows to the size of an average zoo. The purpose of saving Noah was to rebuild the mankind; naturally, Noah would have to eat and to grow crops, and he needed animals to do so – domestic animals, that is. In his time these would most likely be sheep, and it was absolutely possible to take a couple of “baahs” on board. 
I mentioned the story of St. Ursula that I wrote about previously. It’s one of the best-known Christian myths that sprang from the misreading of an abbreviation and inspired a popular theme in medieval painting. Yes, today we know there had not been 11,000 virgin martyrs, and the iconography appears a good subject for mockery. Instead, why cannot we appreciate the art of composition, the colours, the studies of a dress?
 
On to my socnet argument. 
 
“The Noah story as I knew it had it that he was allowed to take a pair of every species. Given the time we are talking about, it would not be a zoo, so generally he would be able to take some creatures in a boat with him. Scientists, historians, archaeologists have long established that the story of Noah’s Arc is one of many reverberations of the story of the Great Flood, references to which we can find not only in the Bible but also in American Indian myths, and in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first ever epic song. As much as I am not religious myself, I’m an historian, and the biggest problem we have with these “fables” is that they are taken at face value and taught in the same vein, then later we discover our critical faculties and begin to refute the story altogether. We need to realise that it is through fables, parables and extensive iconography that our ancestors made sense of this world. It would be a shame if, by discarding these stories as old woman’s tales, we also threw away the ability for rich, imaginative thinking. We should believe the story of Noah’s Arc, as it is depicted in the Bible, no more than we believe today the story of St. Ursula and 11000 virgin martyrs, but it doesn’t mean nothing similar had ever happened. I felt I had to say this because in Russia in the late 1990s an academic “school” appeared that claimed that all history, as we know it, especially starting from our era, was a creation of a limited number of European scholars from 17th c. onwards. If we say that those myths are just myths, we merely give strength to this theory that would happily refute Darwin with all his apes, if it could”.

Exhibitions Expected At the State Hermitage Museum In 2013

Perhaps there is no better way to eventually visit a city than to start learning about upcoming events. So, in a hope to finally visit St. Petersburg I’d like to post here provisional list of exhibitions I found interesting that are currently listed on the State Hermitage Museum’s website. As the museum authorities note, the titles and dates of the exhibitions may change, but we shall hope my choice will remain more or less the same.

Paul Cezanne, Card Players. From the Courtauld Institute collection, as part of the series “Masterpieces of world museums at the Hermitage
When: Feb 27 – May 26, 2013.

The Legacy of German Expressionism. From the George Economou collection
When: May 13, 2013 – Jan 20, 2014.

The Corporate Unity. The Dutch group portrait of the Golden Age from the collection of the Museum of History of Amsterdam
When: June 8 – Sept 1, 2013.

The White City. The Bauhaus architecture in Tel-Aviv
When: June 12 – Sept 15, 2013.

El Lisitsky and Ilya Kabakov
When: July 17 – Sept 15, 2013.

Wilhelm II and Anna Pavlovna. The royal luxury of the Dutch court
When: Sept 25, 2013 – Jan 12, 2014.

Fluxus. Jurgis Maciunas. Russia Atlases
When: Oct 5 – Nov 3, 2013.

Britannia silver from Queen Victoria’s time
Oct 23, 2013 – Jan 19, 2014.

Contemporary Japanese Art
Nov 9, 2013 – Feb 9, 2014

Salvador Dali and his Spanish contemporaries
Nov 23, 2013 – Feb 16, 2014

More events.

And if you are based in Australia or plan to travel there before May 2013, bear in mind that you can visit a unique exhibition of ancient artifacts from the Hermitage collection that date back to the time of Alexander the Great. “Alexander the Great: 2000 Years of Treasures” is exhibited at the Museum of Australia in Sydney until May 10, 2013. The exhibition is sponsored by The Daily Telegraph, JCDecaux, Etihad Airways, and National Geographic Channel among others.

Alexander the Great’s exhibition displays (courtesy of The Hermitage)

An Interview With the Secretary of Salvador Dali, Enrique Sabater

Until May 10, 2012 an exhibition of rarely seen artwork of Salvador Dali was exhibited in Paris. All objects on display belonged to one-time secretary of the great artist, Enrique Sabater. The video from PressTVGlobalNews is a fair introduction to the kind of artwork that went on display. And below is my translation (from French) of an interview with Mr Sabater, conducted by Nathalie d’Allincourt for L’Objet d’Art edition (April 2012).

 

In the privacy of Salvador Dali 

Nathalie d’Allincourt

A personal secterary to Salvador Dali, the Catalan Enrique Sabater lived for over ten years next to the master and his muse, Gala. After the Musee de Cadaques l’Espace Dali exhibited an anthology of 120 works that the master had given him and often dedicated: drawings, watercolours, photographs, objects…

The photos that underpin the exhibition were made throughout the years passed close to Dali. Were they intended to be art or merely a matter-of-fact? 
I adore photography that I have practised since childhood. Near Mr Dali there was no restriction, I could photograph at any moment. In 2004 I presented the scores of my photographs at the exhibition in Barcelona marking Dali’s centenary. Almost always these photos show the artist in an intimate atmosphere.

People are aware of the theatrical aspect of Dali’s personality. Was he really different in private life? 
He had two personas. When we were all three together with Gala (we had a breakfast together every morning), it was one person, absolutely normal. He was very intelligent, passionate about science and had many scientists as his friends. But when he appeared in public, he acted in a very theatrical manner, to the point of changing his voice.

How did you live all those years next to Dali? 
Every year we spent summer in Catalonia, at the house of Portlligat. Mr Dali worked in the morning and in the afternoon, after a short siesta. After 6pm he often received visits from young artists who came to show him their work. After that there were 15 days in Paris, at the hotel Meurice, then in New York where we stayed for 4 or 5 months at the hotel Saint Regis. In New York every Sunday Andy Warhol came to have a dinner with three of us. We always stayed at the same hotels, in the same rooms. Twice a year we spent a few years at the Ritz in Barcelona for familial reasons. Likewise, we visited Madrid and stayed at the Palace Hotel, to see the Prince Juan Carlos, the future king.

Did Dali visit other museums or artists of his generation? 
The master knew all the museums and collections, but he did not feel the necessity to put himself vis-a-vis the work of other artists. The only museum that we did visit was the Centre Pompidou because we collaborated with them a lot. Since our stays in Paris were short, we particularly loved visiting certain streets, like Rue Jacob. Throughout his life Dali upheld the connection with Picasso. It is often considered that the two had been enemies for political reasons: Picasso was a Communist, of course, but Dali was not at all a Fascist! They maintained the distance without ever breaking the connection: the word was sent by trumpet. Each one in their own way was acutely aware of what they had to say to another, and so they did. In April 1973 Dali was immediately informed about Picasso’s death, and we left for Mougins. Picasso treasured his trumpets, which his son Claude inherited from him.

You hold the academic sword of Dali in your possession…
Yes, he gave it to me the next day after receiving it, and this is the first time I am showing it to the public. On the sword a polished space was prepared for a gravure, a dedication created by Dali for the paper letters of Gala. The object was not leave Paris without being engraved! I am also showing a preparatory drawing.

You met Dali in 1968 during an interview and you never left until 1981. What was it that made you leave him? 
In 1972, Dali and Gala charged me with commecialisation of the master’s work. But in 1981 Gala went mad. Dali, ennerved, could no longer make enough to satisfy the enormous want of money this woman had had. Behind my back Gala began to deal with real gangsters, and the market got flooded with forged lihographs. I ended up infoming the Spanish government. A New-Yorkean solicitor of Dali came to try and explain to Gala that she needed to stop. I left, despite the master’s insisting on me staying.

Are you going to write the memoirs of this exciting time?
They have already been written, it only remains to publish them…

Translated from French by Julia Shuvalova

Russian Winter in Arts: Isaac Levitan – A Boulevard at Evening (1883)

Isaac Levitan – A Boulevard at the Evening (1883)

Even today Moscow boulevards will look exactly the same. However, the painting was made at the same period when Vladimir Gilyarovsky, a famous intrepid journalist, was exploring the dark corners of Moscow. The stories from 1880s make the bulk of his well-known book, Moscow and Muscovites, and according to Gilyarovsky, this was the time like no other. For instance, we may assume that the evening depicted by Levitan was supposed to change into a moonless night, and so, according to the Duma calendar, the lights were put on. If the Moon was expected, the lights remained turned off, despite other possible weather mishaps, like fog or heavy rain, or snow. Very similar to other big cities, Moscow had a very peculiar and unique underground life where criminals and prostitutes ruled the world. Many boulevards, therefore, were not the place to have a walk in the evening, and even Gilyarovsky who was well-known among outcasts had to wear brass knuckles, when he had to return home late.

As you read Moscow and Muscovites, you begin to wonder: how on Earth had the city endured the theft and murders, and why the criminals seemed to have been virtually untouchable? Surely, people who often were barely dressed and nearly always drunk could not driven to seek safety by a mere impulse to self-preservation. The answer is entirely political. Following the assassination of Alexander II in March 1881, the new Emperor and Government brought in strict measures against all suspected “revolutionaries”. Strangely or not, prostitutes and those who rented out spaces in communal flats were considered the most “politically reliable” and were thus protected by the police. They were even notified of upcoming raids.

By the way, just like me, Vladimir Gilyarovsky is a Sagittarius, and quite a typical one: intrepid, on the lookout for truth, smart, open to people, with a keen interest in crime. My Grandma studied Criminal Law, and I very nearly followed into her footsteps. Thankfully, I realised there was a no less meaningful and adrenaline-filled way of enjoying mystery, people, truth, and travel, and that was the field of historical research.

Leonardo’s Self-Portrait on Display at Turin

leonardos-self-portrait
Image: ArtDaily.org

Leonardo’s self-portrait is still making waves. While Caravaggio is visiting Moscow, those who wish to travel to Italy may consider going to Turin. The exhibition marking the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy explores the development and impact of Leonardo’s gift. “Leonardo. The Genuis. The Myth” runs at the Palace of Venaria from November 17, 2011 until January 29, 2012.

The contemporary section of exhibition that explores the fates of Leonardo in modern art opens with Marcel Duchamp’s parody on Mona Lisa and continues with the interpretation of Last Supper by Andy Warhol. Leonardo’s studies in physiognomy also inspired Lavater, and influenced Goya, Daumier, and Grosz.

On display is also Leonardo’s most famous self-portrait, with a long wavy beard.