Saper vedere: Knowing how to see

One of the most exciting aspects about art is the pleasure we get from learning about what we are looking at. “Allegory of Passion” painted by Agnolo Bronzino  (circa 1545) contains a cornucopia of symbolic characters whose meaning is no longer familiar to us. Understanding who they are and what they mean, enriches our brain, heart and soul, adding a little spark of fun to the banality of our daily lives.

Let’s set the scene: In 1525, a German genius, Albrecht Dürer, describes in a book the perfect human proportions: a head fits seven and a half times in a body. The Italians, as always”over the top”, prefer an idealised version of proportion: a human head fits twelve times in a body. Abandoning any possibility of verisimilitude and liberating form and movement, they invent Mannerism. Think of Michelangelo‘s (Renaissance’s temperamental Leather Queen) ever twirling sculptures, the fabulous elongations of Parmigianino, or Pontorno‘s impossible contortions.

But, let’s add a little gravitas to our discourse and quote from those who took the time to enlighten us: “…The Antique male nude is like a Greek temple, the flat frame of the chest being carried on the column of the legs; whereas the Renaissance nude is related to the architectural system that produced the central-domed church; so that instead of the sculptural interest depending on a simple, frontal plane, a number of axes radiate from one center.”

 Sir Kenneth Clark – “The Nude, A study in Ideal form” – Princeton University Press, 1953 

Aha ! “a number of axes radiate from one center.” Let’s keep that in mind as we look at this particularly busy and convoluted flesh-a-thon: “An Allegory of Passion” also known less romantically as “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid”.  In it we see this really white chick who’s nipple is being squeezed by this weird looking kid with a funny looking butt. She is surrounded by these scary looking guys who don’t look all too happy. Ok, but if you were to take a pencil and place it at the nipple squeeze, then, clockwise start drawing bigger and bigger coils, you would see that the position of every arm, leg, face and eyes radiate from that central action. To understand who these characters are and what they are doing, we need help from a fundamental luminary of art history: Erwin Panofsky.

“Iconographically the picture does show the pleasures of love ‘on the one hand’ and its dangers and tortures ‘on the other’, in such a way, however, that the pleasures are revealed as futile and fallacious advantages, whereas the dangers and tortures are shown to be great and real evils…

In the main group, Cupid is shown in bracing Venus who holds an arrow and an apple. The apple is tendered to the eager boy and the arrow concealed, perhaps implying the idea ‘sweet but dangerous’…. This impression is sharpened by the fact that Cupid is shown as a quasi-sexless being, although the myrtle plant appearing behind him is the classical symbol of love, and the two doves at his feet signify ‘amorous caresses’.  …The picture shows an image of ‘Luxury’… This is corroborated by the fact that Cupid kneels on a pillow,  a common symbol of idleness and lechery…

On the left of this exquisitely lascivious group appears the head of an elderly woman madly tearing her hair. She is the symbol of ‘Jealousy’…. On the right is a Putto throwing roses who on his left foot wears an anklet adorned with two little bells, to him the terms ‘Pleasure’ and ‘Jest’ may be applied. However his promised pleasures are signalled as futile and treacherous by the ominous presence of two masks, one of a young woman, the other of an elderly and malevolent man. Masks that symbolise worldliness, insincerity and falsehood…

Emerging from behind the playful Putto is a girl in a green dress; ‘Deceit’. The dress cannot fully conceal a scaled, fish-like body, panther’s claws and the tail of a dragon. The entire group is unveiled by ‘Time’ and ‘Truth’. Time characterized by his wings and hourglass, and the female figure on the left who helps to draw the curtain from the whole spectacle is none other than ‘Truth’ ‘ Veritas filia Temporis’ “

Erwin Panofsky – “Studies in Iconology” – Oxford University Press, 1939

I told you, riveting stuff  : )

 

All images ©The National Gallery, London

In Praise of: Keith Haring

As I am about to marry the man with whom I have been living for the past 23 years, my heart cries in memory one of the most loving, generous and talented human beings that I was fortunate to have known: Keith Haring

I first met Keith in 1982 when he was living with Juan Dubose in their small railroad flat on Broome Street. I tagged along to a party at their place with my cousins Luca and Mahen Bonetti (THE it couple of ’80’s) and Maripol; taste maker extraordinaire, Fiorucci stylist, Grace Jones transformer, schlepping along with her a tiny, noisy, insufferable and ferociously ambitious fake blonde from a fly-over state who wanted to make it in the music business: Miss Ciccone. The atmosphere was one of immediate ease, relaxed and sexy. Booze and Quaaludes were plentiful, Juan was deejaying a gentle form of hip hop, the girls were loud, the boys magnificent.

Over the years, many more days and evenings were spent together. Either in SoHo with his New York dealer “the Iranian Stallion” Tony Shafrazi, or at night, late at night, surrounded by a posse of brutally sexy Puerto Ricans, at Paradise Garage, Danceteria, or at my absolute favorite; Area 

To see Keith work was simply thrilling. Always surrounded by a BoomBox or wearing a Walkman, a form of dance would ensue. He would begin on the upper left of the paper, canvas or wall he was undertaking, and, with nervous but perfectly controlled rhythmic movements he would reach the lower right of the piece. Never breaking away or taking a distance from it. Never erasing or starting over, a joyfully eruptive flow of perfectly proportioned forms would fill the space. Many public murals, often painted surrounded by friends and passers-by, remain visible in New York and across the world.

“Haring frequently said that “art is for everybody,” and he meant it. You could see that belief in his crowded Pop Shop, where he sold Haring art that anyone could afford, on buttons, posters, T-shirts, and more… Anyone, any age, anywhere can understand a Haring. His pared-down, instantly recognizable iconography—from crawling babies to men bedding men—is vibrant with a profound sense of social engagement. Yet it also represents a moving personal and collective journey, especially when it comes to issues of self-acceptance, which were such a big part of the gay movement in the late 70s and early 80s. Perhaps this explains the work’s surprising, haunting beauty. Idealism shines out of every one of Haring’s bold, sure lines—even in one of his last finished paintings, titled ‘Unfinished Painting’, which has a vast passage of emptiness, as if to signify all the great work that his death meant he’d never have the chance to do.”  

Ingrid Sischy, Vanity Fair, October 13, 2008

Keith kept a diary for most of his life, and, sensing his battle with death coming to an end, he wrote:

 “No matter how long you work, it’s always going to end sometime. And there’s always going to be things left undone. And it wouldn’t matter if you lived until you were seventy-five. There would still be new ideas. There would still be things that you wished you would have accomplished. You could work for several lifetimes….Part of the reason that I’m not having trouble facing the reality of death is that it’s not a limitation, in a way. It could have happened any time, and it is going to happen sometime. If you live your life according to that, death is irrelevant. Everything I’m doing right now is exactly what I want to do.”5

“All of the things that you make are a kind of quest for immortality. Because you’re making these things that you know have a different kind of life. They don’t depend on breathing, so they’ll last longer than any of us will. Which is sort of an interesting idea, that it’s sort of extending your life to some degree.”6

"Unfinished Painting", 1989 ©Keith Haring Foundation
“Unfinished Painting”, 1989 ©Keith Haring Foundation

On February 16, 1990, surrounded by sweet unflinching Gil Vasquez, his last love and heir, Keith died from complications of AIDS related illness in his New York bedroom recently redecorated like his favourite suite at The Ritz Hotel in Paris, he was 31.

 

All images ©The Keith Haring Foundation

In Praise of: “A Subtlety, or the Marvellous Sugar Baby” 2014

“An Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant” 

Fathom a gigantic (35 x 75 feet) sculpture of a strange Deity made from 5 tons of melted white sugar. She rests surrounded by thirteen little black boys. Each 60 inch tall sculptures of small Blackamoors made from sugar and molasses are enlarged versions of ceramic blackamoors still made in China today. These small figures melting slowly as the exhibition progressed.

At first one is overtaken by a sense of awe at the enormous undertaking and sheer size of the space. Quickly as we grasp the context it evokes, our initial feeling is replaced by wonder, empathy, and a deep sense of unease.

Kara Walker‘s storytelling is made of attractive, energetic, undulant and playful imagery that carries, on closer inspection, a violent and powerful message.

Regal, this beautiful slightly menacing Mama Sphinx bearing generous breasts and an Aunt Jemima knotted kerchief, looks down at us. She sits proudly, her body the shape of a Lioness resting serenely on her paws. As we walk along her monumental body, we discover her impudent and magnificent “Ti Bounda“.

Offered as it where, to our embarrassed or attracted view, large and perfectly proportioned heart shaped round buttocks ensconce protuberant labia. Symbol of the absolute vulnerability and ultimate humiliation of slavery: rape.

Slavery functions on the premise of the complete annihilation of self, you have no name, no family, no identity other than the one of the Master to whom you belong.

This horrific “droit de cuissage” had obvious consequences. It created new beings with undefined identities. They were neither black, nor white, neither Master nor slave. Born ostracised, they later became the ruling Bourgeoisie. Sprung from violence, the new Establishment, perhaps to atone from the seed of the original sin, created a fresh layer of humiliation and self hate within its own structure: skin tone, the lighter the better.

The triumph from these bleak realities is the result of the most admirable and powerful human ressource: resilience. Through a project such as this, Kara Walker inspires, educates and enriches our culture. Cultural history and knowledge gives perspective, culture is identity, identity is power.

 

A Subtlety was made possible by the munificent generosity of CreativeTime

Art Rant: Ai Weiwei’s intellectual shenanigans

(Art Rant: because sometimes you just gotta vent!)

Ai Weiwei has the jovial face of a Chinese Santa. Albeit a slightly creepy one. Then again aren’t all Santa’s a bit creepy ? Ai Weiwei’s trade is to denounce. Denounce the way the Chinese government treats dissidents, denounce the way ancient Chinese art is used for political propaganda, denounce his own country’s unyielding rules to the point of becoming a martyr of his own game and getting arrested. That in turn becomes more material to make very effective grand installations, successfully exhibited in important art venues around the world.

True, giving the finger to the (painted) face of one of 20th century’s biggest murderers, or photographing a nymphette (wearing Birkenstocks no less) showing her white undies on Tiananmen square must feel quite good. Denouncing the abuses of a totalitarian regime, even by using shrewd visual effects, is not exactly new and it hardly constitutes the premise of sustainable art. But we, Western society bombarded by narcissistic vacuousness eagerly and greedily want it to matter.

ai-weiwei-study-of-perspective-tiananmen-1995

Shameless self promotion is not exactly new either, recent examples abound; Tracy Emin (oh sister, please !) Damian Hirst, (don’t get me started!) Jeff Koons (whom I happen to adore). Are we to assume erroneously that because Ai Wewei is Chinese he would be a little more crude and insensible ?

But wasn’t Marcel Duchamp, the chic looking, pipe smoking chess player of Cadaquès, the ultimate provocateur ? Wasn’t he the one who got this whole mess started with his exquisitely funny LHOOQ, and Rrose Sélavy. To say nothing of his pissoir or bicycle wheel, thus throwing a series of extraordinarily stupefying bombs in the face of early 20th century convention. The French humorous contrarian was onto something. Something that has sustained the test of time and free our minds to question.

Why, pray tell, do we put Ai Weiwei’s eruptions into the “art” department ? Because, merci Monsieur Duchamp, we have now been trained to understand that when you take a common/usual element, fact or event and bring it out of its habitual context, we accept that it can be considered in a different manner, a new interpretation process is awakened. Dear Marcel started it more than 100 years ago, so the concept has had time to become accepted as natural in our minds. This way art performs its own transubstantiation. (had to use that word!)

So, where does one draw the line? apparently nowhere as Mr. Weiwei seems to tell us in his use of little Ilan’s tragic death. To denounce Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis, Mr. Weiwei has himself photographed face down on a beach just as the little boy from Syria was horrifyingly found.

I suppose after the tepid and lovely bourgeois pleasing renditions of Chinese dragons at Le Bon Marché in Paris, (Aah, the mellifluous lure of LVMH millions!) he needed to get back in the media circus with something more in tune with his idea of self relevance.

And so, again, he has won, in shamelessly raping an atrocious personal and public tragedy for his own promotional purposes, Ai Weiwei is back in the news and Google algorithms everywhere percolate his name to the top of the list…

In Praise of: “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972

Today I am starting a series that will show up regularly on ArtWise: “In Praise of” is a short tribute to a particular work of an artist, contemporary or historical, that constitute the wide pantheon of sustained enthusiasms of my ever curious mind. Basically, they “Rock my World” and make it ever so enchanting!

Hockney peter by pool

 “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972

David Hockney takes time to work on his canvases, so indeed this particularly beautiful California view, which shows Peter Schlesinger at the edge of the pool and John St Clair swimming, was painted in his London studio. His technique of using various photographs, taken indifferently of time or place and then re-organising them, is a form of masterful manipulation of the eye.

Playing with our perception and distorting perspectives has always been a key element of Hockney’s work. We can see that in his very early work, his photography compositions of the ’80’s or his magnificent late large canvases of English landscapes.

Having been in love with the California sun and the boys glowing under it since his childhood, in 1964 as soon as success came about, David left his native dreary England for Los Angeles where he would live, love and work, off and on, for a large part of his life.

“Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972, is a dreamy composition imagined by Hockney. Peter Schlesinger, young Art student at UCLA, then David’s lover, stands above the pool, considering, looking, without looking at another human being gently swimming silently underwater. A sense of foreboding in this idyllic surrounding impregnates the painting: Peter was becoming more distant and moved out while David was painting it. This magnificent canvas filled with yearning reminds me of a short poem by Constantine P. Cavafy, (poems from which David would make a series of illustrations):

“I was always struck by beauty, moved by it’s perfection, it was always there, other, and I, here, flawed.”