Alejandra de Argos by Elena Cué

Jack Ma ( China, 1964), founder and chairman of Alibaba Group, one of the leading tech companies in the world with Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. He is in the process of implementing five new strategies that will drastically disrupt the ecommerce market today. His goal is to start a transition and start delegating the steering wheel of his company to focus on what is truly important to him: philanthropy. Through his Foundation, Jack has one great plan: to rethink and disrupt the current global education system so that it can face the challenges of the digital era.

 Author: Elena Cué

 

Jack Ma Elena Cue9

Jack Ma. Photo: Elena Cué

Jack Ma ( China, 1964), founder and chairman of Alibaba Group, one of the leading tech companies in the world with Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. He is in the process of implementing five new strategies that will drastically disrupt the ecommerce market today. His goal is to start a transition and start delegating the steering wheel of his company to focus on what is truly important to him: philanthropy. Through his Foundation, Jack has one great plan: to rethink and disrupt the current global education system so that it can face the challenges of the digital era.

The Jack Ma foundation you started in 2014 gives support to schools in rural areas in China. What are your future plans in that area?

There are close to 40 million students and young people living in poor rural areas in China. I think the best way to help kids is to help their teachers. Teachers in rural areas have very poor conditions. They are not respected and no one cares about them. We are trying to build a system to encourage, inspire and support them. Another way to help teachers is to train their headmasters. Most teachers give up on teaching because they do not like their headmasters. Headmasters in rural areas have never received even an hour of training, so how could they inspire teachers? That prompted us to start this program.

Unfortunately, a lot of schools in poor areas do not have enough kids. Each school has about 15 students in each grade. We try to combine them and create boarding schools with over 100 students. Teachers love to go and teach there. China, Africa and a lot of developing countries are experiencing the same problem. We are developing a huge plan. We want to improve the model we have in China and then use it in other countries. The other thing is how we can use internet and technology to train students, teachers and headmasters. I am really interested in this type of education.

Another remarcable program of your foundation is the African Netpreneur Prize that awards one million dollars and is currently open to all African technological entrepeneurs. What are your goals with that initiative?

Africa needs three e’s: eGovernment, eEducation and eEntrepreneurs. An eGovernment will be efficient and transparent. eEducation would be the foundation. Then, If they have great entrepreneurs, they will improve Africa’s economy significantly. What we do is encourage entrepreneurs and turn them into the new heroes of Africa. We inspire them to hire more people, to be more creative, to improve the economy. Just like what China has done for the past 20-30 years. I have been working on entrepreneurships in China for more than 20 years. I have personally built six companies that are all very successful today. I figured out ways to train and develop people to be entrepreneurs. I want to encourage that in Africa. My foundation gives one million dollars to ten African entrepreneurs every year. The purpose is to create successful case studies for entrepreneurs in Africa. Regardless of the country, area, age and type of business. It is not all about technology. If you run a successful barber shop or a restaurant, you can still receive an award. We want to show Africa that there are a lot of entrepreneurs and there are many ways to upgrade them.

Considering the current exponential development of technology, transhumanism and artificial intelligence, what do you think should education be focused on in this new world that is coming?

My view is that the whole education system needs to be upgraded. Today’s education system was designed several centuries ago during the industrial period. It trains people to remember and calculate things; it makes people smarter and more hardworking. Unfortunately, we are moving from an industrial period to a digital one. Over the past 30 years we have been trying to make people like machines. In the next 30 years we will be making machines like people. The current education system trains people to compete with machines. 

Is not that an impossible battle?

Yes, there is no doubt in the digital age in which we live. The only way to succeed is to start teaching our kids to be more creative, constructive, innovative. This is the way the education system should follow. We have to train our kids not to have to best scores but to be the best version of themselves because no matter how hard you work on remembering and calculating things, a machine will always be able to do it much better than you will. If we do not change the way we teach, our kids will be in big trouble in the future. In the age of information explosion, we should teach our kids to have independent thought.

Now, the human beings worry a lot about artificial intelligence and robots...

But I do not. Robots are machines, they do not have a heart. They only have a chip. A chip can never dream like a heart does. The heart has love, dreams and creativity. If human beings only use their brains, no matter how hard we work, we will not be able to compete against the machines. Heart is about EQ and brain is about IQ. If we only compete with our IQ, we will be gone. We have to compete with our EQ and LQ plus our IQ. That is the educational system that the world needs.

 

Jack Ma 6 Elena Cue

Jack Ma and Elena Cué

 

What does creating the E-commerce world giant Alibaba Group mean to you?

What we want to do is not to just make E-commerce. Alibaba facilitates all aspects of business. During the industrial era, only big companies were successful. They had the money, resources, network and technology. However, 99% of the businesses worldwide are small businesses. So we want to help small businesses compete and be prosperous. Today, Alibaba does everything to empower small businesses and young people to grow. Our dream is through technology to enable that every small dream comes true. That is why we focus on marketplaces. We build logistics, financial and cloud computing systems. These are the systems that can improve any small business and make it competitive. In the beginning nobody believed my vision but in the past 20 years all companies that have used our marketplace and systems have gone on to be successful.

How are Alibaba and Aliexpress different from Amazon?

We are not an E-commerce company. Amazon is an E-commerce company. We are helping companies become E-commerce companies, to become Amazon. People think we are the Amazon of China but it is not the case. We believe that any company can follow the Amazon model. We help them deliver, pay and receive money, reach the market and have the same technology capabilities as Amazon. That is our vision and what we think the world will look like in the next 10 to 20 years. And for that reason we have been able to create companies like Ali Cloud, one of the leading cloud companies in the world, Ant Financial, one of the world's main financial companies or Alibaba City Brain, a mayor global solution for control and monitoring of all the systems of large cities through an Artificial Intelligence brain.

Amazon buys and sells...

We do not, we provide solutions to companies. If you have an IT problem, we offer you cloud computing. If you have a delivery problem, we provide the logistics. If you are having issues reaching the market, you can use our resources.

What changes of your "Five Big New" strategies do you consider will be the most important in the future?

In the next 10 to 20 years we will be moving into the new retail. It is redefining the way retail works. Offline shops are waiting for customers to come. New retail is offline and online combined. It is no longer you going to the shop, now the shop goes to you. New retail has new manufacturing as well. In the old days, manufacturing was about ideas and engineering, making a product and selling it in the market. Because of data, in the future we will know exactly what everybody wants so we will be able to tailor-make it. In the past it was B2C (business to consumer), now it is C2B (consumer to business). 
The financial system of the past was the big banks looking for a customer who would like to invest. In the future, we will empower every small business that needs money. As long as they have a good credit rating system, they will get finances. We are redefining the financial system.

Cloud computing and internet technology is going to replace traditional technology. In the last century the competitive advantage was oil, this century it is data. Without data, it is difficult to customize and be innovative. Data is very important. These are the five elements that we think are going to change the world significantly. At first, the retail and manufacturing industries will not like it. Successful people love yesterday. But successful people only represent 20% of the population. What we want to do is make 80% of people more successful while making sure everyone is competing for the future, not for yesterday.

How can Artificial Intelligence help humanity?

Every technological revolution brings a disaster. The initial intention is always good but the consequences are not. As I said in Paris and New York, the First Technological Revolution, directly or indirectly, caused World War I. The Second Technological Revolution again, directly or indirectly, caused World War II. Now we are in the Third Technological Revolution. If human beings do not respect it, embrace it and lead it into the right direction, we may have some big problems. If there ever is a World War III, it should be a war against poverty, disease and environmental issues. Humans should use technology to solve their problems instead of using it to become more powerful and compete against each other. That is crazy and stupid.

What is the greatest contribution of the current Technological Revolution?

The first technological revolution relieved human energy. The second relieved distance. The current one relieves the brain. It will bring challenges but it will make human life better. I am 100% sure about that. The only issue is how we are going to train and develop our current and future generations to be ready for it. If you are not ready for that technology, you will be scared. And with fear comes problem. It is not the young people or poor people who are worried about the technological revolution, it is the powerful rich people and developed countries. That is very interesting. Artificial intelligence is coming. You can not stop the new technology but you can change yourself and embrace it. Technology should be used for good deeds. Tech companies have to take responsibility. Especially companies like us, Google and Amazon. We have a big responsibility to care for issues like jobs, privacy, etc. Only then will we grow together.

The Alibaba Group continues to grow dramatically. What do you think has been the key to its success? 

First, you have to have a vision. Many companies tend to lose their vision as they grow. They always think about the current or next quarter. When you lose your dreams, you become a machine and human beings are not machines. In order to keep our company growing, we always think about the future. Compared to yesterday, we are big but compared to tomorrow, we are still a baby. The second key is people. You have to find the people that believe in the future. People who are innovative and are willing to work day and night. The third key is to respect your competitors. A competitor is not an enemy. If you think of your competitor as an enemy, it will be terrible for you. You have to learn from your mistakes and change yourself. I think I am lucky because I was trained to be a teacher. As a teacher you look at every student differently. You respect and love them for who they are. I have spent most of the past 20 years training and developing people. I think of them as generals fighting on the battlefield. We must believe in the future. It is important to know how to build a team as well. It is not about hiring the best people, it is about finding the right people who have the same vision and values as you. And then it takes time.

You said that the fact that 47% of your employees are women has contributed to your company’s success. In which ways do you think they did?

We no longer have 47% as we have just acquired two big companies with mostly male employees so that percentage lowered down a bit. I am giving my plea to the team so we can get back to those figures. If we have it below 33%, then we have a problem. I did not know we had so many female colleagues in the company until an American journalist asked me about it. I did not realize it at the time. Then I looked it up and realized it was true. More than 34% of our senior managers are women. That is a lot of women leaders. AliBaba became so popular on the internet. 15 years ago I told the team that the computer is all about code. However, it is not the computer talking to another computer, it is the people behind the computers communicating with each other. The computer is only a tool. We thought about making our services, software and products more human-like, more considerate. We found out that women do a better job on that. Women care about others much more than men. Unfortunately, men care more about themselves. Women care about their husbands, children, parents. They are more considerate. You need more people that care about others in your company. Women are more loyal as well. It is very difficult for other companies to steal them as employees. If you treat them fairly, they will be very loyal. We have so many great women leaders and employees at our company. Men think about what they can get. Women think about what makes them happy. In this century there will surely be more women leaders, not only in business, but in the world itself. The world will be more balanced.

You know women very well.

We have 700 million active buyers on our website every month. More than 70% of them are women. Women not only buy for themselves but for others. They are big shoppers but not necessarily always shopping for themselves. Look at what men are buying; they either buy things for themselves or a gift to impress a woman. That is human nature.

You have included the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, which you consider essential for your life, as part of your employees’ working day. Why is it so important to you? 

Tai Chi is a philosophy about balance. It is about hard and soft, fast and slow. This is the philosophy I like. No matter how strong you look, you should be very soft on the inside. If you want to live longer, you should not do much exercise. Turtles do not move but live very long. However, if you want to live a healthier life, you should exercise more. That is how health and longevity compare. Turtles have a lot of diseases but they manage to live longer because they save energy. A lot of animals who run fast, do not live long. That is the balance. When you create products for your customers, you should also have this philosophy in mind. A lot of young people love to move fast. If slow is done properly, it ends up being fast. This is the philosophy I want to bring to the company. In the western society young people like boxing. Boxing is fast but how many years can you do boxing? By 50 you are gone. With Tai Chi, when you are young it does not make any sense. But when you reach 50-60, you get a much more balanced body. I want to make companies live longer with a philosophy behind them. If you only live for the next quarter, forget it. If you want to live 100, 200 years, you need to think about the culture that will make you live longer.

The most important thing about a company are the employees ...

In our company we believe everyone should treat work happily but treat life seriously. I always say “Do not work too hard. Please work happily.” I hate when people work very hard. How can they last? Only when you are happy, you get creative and innovative and you last long. When you find the click of happiness, a fountain of ideas comes out.

What is your involvement in the preservation of the environment?

I have been heavily involved in environmental issues for the past 10 years. I worry about the air, the water. I spoke a lot on the subject and pushed governments to do something about it. Now, the Chinese government is finally starting to worry about the environment so I’ve started to pay attention to the things that people do not see, i.e. education. When everybody starts to pay attention to the environment, then you should turn your attention to other issues. There are no accidents on a very crowded road as everyone is more careful. It is the street with no traffic where accidents happen. I am a board member of The Nature Conservancy and I also built the Paradise Foundation in China. We are learning from the US and Europe and their experience with protecting the environment. What I want to do is wake up the consciousness in society. The protection of the environment is a huge problem. If we do not take measures, there are going to be problems for all of us. It is so contagious and needs to be controlled.

What do you think is the secret to be able to fulfill our wishes?

The secret is your will. You should seriously believe this will and not because other people believe in it or society thinks it is right. You have to believe it with your heart. Then you have to find the people who believe it and you have to take action. And you need time. It is not something that happens overnight. You have a wish you truly believe. You find a group of people that truly believes in your wish. You have to be ready to take action and make mistakes every day. And then time keeps on moving, things will change. It is not a one day change. A lot of smart people with values and vision fail because of the time aspect.

What do you think about our country Spain?

I love it. The first time I was here, it was a cloudy day but the second time and this trip it has been great. The weather, the people, the culture, the food. I think Spanish food is much better than French food. It is more natural and healthier. Your culture has a bit of adventurism, romanticism, dignity. It is amazing. Spain needs to be known by more people around the world. I consider myself lucky to have been here three times. I would love to come here more often. Since my first visit to Spain, I have always tried to come more often. When they ask me which is my favorite country abroad, I always answer Spain.

 

Jack Ma 2 Elena Cue

Jack Ma. Photo: Elena Cué

China has become one of the greatest world powers. What factors do you think have been key in the remarkable development of China?

In the past 40 years, what China has done is to start learning. Learning is so important. China used to be so closed. When a country or a person is closed, he/she refuses to learn from the others. What does close-minded mean? It means you refuse to learn new things. China opened its mind. We have learned from the US, Japan, Europe. Our people are so hardworking because we have been poor for so many years. For example, today in China, in a city like Beijing or Shanghai, if you take 100 young people, 90 of them can speak at least 20 English words. But if you go to New York or Washington and take 100 American young people, how many of them can speak a foreign language? Why? Because we have learned. Learning and hard work can change everything. The other factor is that China really respects knowledge. It is improving a lot. In the early days, we took on a lot of the outsourced low-end work from the US related to road work and clothes manufacturing. We did not care, we just wanted to do it. Everyone can be successful if he/she works hard. You do not care if it is big or small, you just do it. There are a lot of reasons behind China becoming the second largest economy. This is something that the world should see and respect. We are hard-working, we learn, we are open-minded. Of course, there are still a lot of things that China needs to improve. 

For example?.

China only just connected to the world in the past 40 years. USA, Europe and Japan have been connected for the past 100 years while we have just opened up. We do not have an international language in order to communicate. There are a lot of problems. It is the duty of people like me. I travel around the world in order to learn to communicate. I go back to China and tell people and businesses there. Today a lot of problems arise because a chicken is talking to a duck (Cantonese proverb: miscommunication due to a language barrier) They are very angry so they do not talk. There should be a language that they can use to communicate. People do not respect you because you have money but because you take responsibility. China has been learning to survive, to develop economically and to take responsibility. That is the big lesson that us Chinese are learning.

Thanks to Alibaba's and Ant Financial, China is today the most advanced financial service industry in the world. Among your achievements are having being able to have 100% security on all transactions, both on the front and back end. People do not need a wallet or a credit cards any longer, this has greatly increased the financial inclusion of the population and now you are able to pay using your face thanks to facial recognition. Could you tell me more about the "3-1-0" method of Ant Financial? 

This is a very good question. I started studying interfinancial issues 15 years ago. It was very interesting. At that time at Alibaba, I found an interesting opportunity online. A person wants to sell. He finds you but you do not know how you can buy from him. He offers you his product and demands your money. But if you give him the money and do not receive the product, you will be cheated. At the same time the seller is worried about getting the money himself/herself. I found that this kind of issue lasted for long and there was no solution. So I went to the bank and asked for help in order to solve this problem. The bank did not trust this model and thought our business is too small. I was frustrated so I decided to build our own financial system to be the export of service. I act as a middleman between buyer and seller. The buyer deposits his money to me. If he/she likes the product, I release the money. If he/she does not like the product, I give him his/her money back and return the product to the seller. That was a very simple model. Everybody at the time was telling me how stupid it was. I did not care if it was stupid as long as it worked. The government did not give us a license as there was no such model to use as a reference. I went to Davos World Economic Forum and heard Clinton speaking about leadership being about responsibility. It inspired me to take action. However, if you start such a business without a license, you can go to jail. I called my team and gave them the go ahead. If somebody had to go to jail, it would have been me. But I told them to keep working regardless until we get a license. I also wanted to make sure there is no cheating, no corruption and no mistakes. Everything had to be perfect. So we started. As it was such a simple and easy model, it became really popular. Everyone started to use it. There is even a bank that is using it now. The funny thing is that banks hate it. Normal banks need 500 people while we only need 15. Regular banks charge transaction fees of around 50 dollars while we can do that with 3 cents. In order to survive, you have to think about how to be quick, efficient and cost-effective so you can compete with the banks. The ‘310 model’ is open to everyone in China today. If any company wants to borrow money from us, they can apply through a mobile or a PC. Within three minutes of filling the forms our machine tells you if you are approved or not. The money will then be in your account within one second. It is all credit score based. No one actually touches the money. That means that people do not have to drink wine with bankers in order to get a loan. There is no bribery. We do not want our employees to talk to any of our customers because the data will tell us whether they are good or not. The banks were so scared for the past 10 years. You can borrow one cent from us. You can even borrow one minute. It is a disaster for banks. How can a bank give you a loan for just one minute? How can you borrow just one dollar? We can do that. It is so powerful. The more people do it, the more we know their credit score and the more efficient we get. Society started to trust in the credit system so it pushed people to behave right. Today, if you have an Alipay account, you can go to a hotel or rent a house and you do not have to deposit anything. Even mothers now ask to check their future son-in-law’s credit rating before a marriage takes place. We call it ‘Sesame Credit rating’. We gave loans to twelve million different businesses last year. The default rate is only 1.4% or 1.5%.

Very impressive. You are a generator of good ideas.

We enjoy our work. We really care about our customers. Our values are in the following order: number one are our customers, second, our employees and third, our shareholders. I went to the New York Stock Exchange where the number one value is the shareholders. One of the analysts told me that if he had known shareholders are number three on our values list, he would have never bought shares of my company. I told him he can sell our stock right away because this is our philosophy. We know that if we take care of our customers, they will take care of our employees. If we take care of our employees, customers will be happy and subsequently shareholders will be happy as well. Everyone knows that but no one is ready to say it out loud. Well, I am. When a problem arises, I care about our customers first.

According to your experience, what is the current state of the commercial relationship between the United States and China?

USA and China have some problems and this is very natural. We have had 40 great years of business partnership. We should find positive ways to solve these problems and we need to consider both sides. Competition and cooperation should be considered together instead of turning a competitor into an enemy. We should not solve a problem by causing another one. We have to always look positively. The bottom line is there needs to be a working relationship in place. When USA and Russia have a good relationship, it means world peace. When USA and China have a good relationship, it means prosperity.

 

I am grateful to Pelayo Cortina, thanks to whom it was possible to carry out this interview.

 

- Interview with Jack Ma -                              - Alejandra de Argos -

My flight touched down in Marseille on a sunny September morning and although my ultimate destination was Barjac, I couldn't help but make a small detour to visit the Château La Coste vineyards, a magical symbiosis of architecture, sculpture and natural landscape in the south of France. The complex's curator Daniel Kennedy was waiting there to show me the collection. The Tadao Ando Art Centre is a building conceived with the artist's signature elements in mind: smooth concrete, lines that are simple, modern and in tune with the vestiges of Japanese tradition, water, the dominance of light and an architectural design in perfect harmony with its surroundings. Then there's the magnificent outdoor collection comprising projects by the likes of  Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra, Tracey Emin, Frank Ghery, Jean Nouvel and Jenny Holzer to name but a few, dotted all over the landscape.

 Author: Elena Cué

 

 La Ribotte foto Elena cue 

La Ribaute. Barjac. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Elena Cué

 

My flight touched down in Marseille on a sunny September morning and although my ultimate destination was Barjac, I couldn't help but make a small detour to visit the Château La Coste vineyards, a magical symbiosis of architecture, sculpture and natural landscape in the south of France. The complex's curator Daniel Kennedy was waiting there to show me the collection. The Tadao Ando Art Centre is a building conceived with the artist's signature elements in mind: smooth concrete, lines that are simple, modern and in tune with the vestiges of Japanese tradition, water, the dominance of light and an architectural design in perfect harmony with its surroundings. Then there's the magnificent outdoor collection comprising projects by the likes of  Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra, Tracey Emin, Frank Ghery, Jean Nouvel and Jenny Holzer to name but a few, dotted all over the landscape.

 

Chateau la Coste Foto Elena Cue  

Maman. Louise Bourgeois. Château la Coste. Photo Elena Cué

 

But that's not why I came to Provence. The whole point of my trip was La Ribaute so I quickly made tracks for Barjac, my goal. And what or who was it about this little town that had attracted me there? Well, none other than a certain Teuton, his legend and his very personal cosmology. This is a 200 acre estate containing over 60 massive barns, pavilions and greenhouses brimming with Anselm Kiefer's work all inter-connected via subterranean tunnels with caves, grottos, bridges, crypts and an amphitheatre. He has planted trees and vegetation, he has built trails, walls and fences. The La Ribaute project was begun and developed from the abstract idea of a vacuum. A vacuum that had to be filled.

 

Anselm Kiefer moved to Barjac in 1992 where he found, albeit with some reservations, the ideal space to build his own personal creative paradise. On one  of the esplanades in these 40 hectare grounds stands a crown of his iconic and enigmatic towers: "The Seven Heavenly Palaces" that reference the mystic, Hebrew narrative of our celestial ascension by means of the gradual loss of our material bodies and spiritual elevation until we reach the final palace where only are souls remain forever. These apocalyptic towers symbolise the notion of creation and destruction that so characterises the work of the artist, who tells me: "I destroy whatever I make all the time. Then I store the broken bits in containers and wait for their resurrection."

 

 Die sieben Himmelspalaste Barj ac photo by Charles Duprat 

The Seven Heavenly Palaces. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

This amazing artistic complex has hardly ever been visited, not yet being open to the public, and my tour of it was a succession of unique sensations, beginning at dusk as I made my way to the old silk factory where Anselm Kiefer and his trusty assistant Waltreaud were waiting for me. His face tanned, his eyes lively and intense, his smile inviting me to embark on our visit, we set off for the nearby buildings. We walked along paths lined with flora typical of the region and along which were placed sculptures of his characteristic lead books, symbolic of knowledge, strewn over or piled up on large blocks of stone, almost as if at any moment a sorcerer might emerge from the depths of the forest in some feat of alchemy.

 

  Barjac Foto Elena Cué 

 Anselm Kiefer. Barjac. Photo: Elena Cué

 

What first impacts me is a greenhouse topped with a World War II-like airplane made of lead with dried sunflowers spouting from it. Kiefer cultivates them here from Japanse seeds that grow to seven metres high. As if in a laboratory, he also cultivates tulips and other plants he will later use as materials for his work. These spaces devoted exclusively to one piece are the ones that resonate the most. We continue on to the next pavilions housing installations, paintings and sculptures all with the Holocaust as their theme. Kiefer's childhood was marked by a silence around what had happened: "When I was young, the Holocaust didn't exist. Nobody spoke about it in the 60's." He could feel there was something missing, something hidden and when he found out what it was, Kiefer tells me: "I was so affected by Hitler I started studying the Holocaust. I wanted to know what it was all about. What happened at that time is so horrible it's hard to imagine it." This would become a vital theme in his work. 

In 1945, in the Black Forest, in the city of Donaueschingen where the two sources of the river Danube converge, Anselm Kiefer, one of the most prominant artists of our time, was born into a devastated Germany. While his mother was giving birth in the basement of a hospital, the family home was being blown to pieces by Allied bombs. The son of a Wehrmacht official, his childhood was marked by the authoritarianism of his father and a strict Catholic education.

Growing up in the ruins of a Germany that was destroyed and anxious to erase its tragic past awakened a profound interest in Kiefer to get to know about Judaism and the event that embodied archetypal evil - the genocide committed by Nazis. That catastrophe, so infinite, so boundless in its terror, so impossible to imagine let alone depict was to become the central strand in Kiefer's aesthetic and ethics. 

Barely an hour later, I returned to the main house. In a huge, white, rectangular room of grandiose dimensions, the emptiness was only filled by one white linen sofa, some curtains hiding a bed at one end and an industrial kitchen with a large table of rustic wood at the other. I immediately joined the others for a supper that went on for five hours. Kiefer talked about the sensation he gets on seeing his paintings in retrospect, namely, a certain perception of his work as never being finished. As an aside, he mentioned how difficult it was to transport his "The Morgenthau Plan"  from La Ribaute. This installation, housed in one of the pavilions, is the metaphorical conceptualization of the proposal masterminded shortly before the end of WWII by the US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau. The plan consisted of the elimination of Germany's industries and its subsequent transformation into an agricultural country. In it, Kiefer explores that would-be rural landscape: the resurgence of flowers from the devastation before. He considered it to be pure propaganda: "You know, all they did was help Hitler with this plan. They calculated that between 10 and 15 million Germans would die of hunger. And Roosevelt didn't want this. Hitler listened to Goebbels and, as far as they were concerned, it was a godsend; they would have the perfect excuse to maintain the German state by warning its citizens about what would happen if they didn't fight on. Not long ago, I also saw something about the Marshall Plan and that was all propaganda, too. Did you know that?"

 

  Der Morgenthau Plan 0326 

The Morgenthau Plan. Barjac. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

La conversation went on so long that it got very late and I was invited to stay the night. The room, as with the rest of the building, was huge and somewhat intimidating as much for its dimensions as for the austerity of its minimalist decor. The following morning, we went to have a look at a series of the catacombs that are connected to each other like the creeping roots of a rhizome and to the pavilions above them at ground level. Before going underground, we went into the amphitheatre, which is the centrepiece of La Ribaute, as the artist was telling me: "The amphitheatre came about the same way a painting would. I had a large wall where I hung all my large paintings and I just thought, why not make a little grotto inside? So, I got hold of some containers and covered them with liquid cement and put them all together. The aim was just  to have a little alcove in that big wall. Then, we continued with another layer on top, and another, etc and it kept on working out like a drawing. I've no idea how it will end up ...". This construction, 15 metres high, consists of different installations in each of the rooms within the containers. In one of them, there are reels of film, made out of strips of lead, hanging from the ceiling and featuring photographs taken by the artist thirty years ago.

 

 

  Amphitheatre Barjac 

Amphitheatre. Barjac. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

From there, we took an underground route that was somewhat reminiscent of a stone Gruyère cheese and I was immediately stopped in my tracks. Accessed by a narrow cave, we had come face to face with a deeply disturbing room, its walls lined with lead, the floor deep in water and a single light bulb hanging from a cable attached to the ceiling. Kiefer told me this was the first ever room he had completed and asked me, out of curiosity, what I thought of the acoustics. I answered that I hadn't experienced any sound at all. I'd been stunned into silence by what I saw.  

 

 

 Lead room Barjac photo by Charles Duprat 

Lead Room. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

As we make our way through the grottos, our perceptions change continually, the artist disappears and we are transported to other times, other places. Through these subterranean passages, we are able to travel to the Palaeolithic age, to the tragedies of Ancient Greece, to the time of Christ and to Auschwitz. And so we arrive at another impactful room: "The Women of the Revolution", sixteen beds with puddles of stagnant water on their rumpled, lead sheets  giving the impression of skin or leather. This was the dividing line between the female interior and exterior that the artist uses as a metaphor for the immense inner power of women faced with the bravado of  men. The highlight of the room is on the wall opposite - a lead panel picturing Kiefer with his back to us, in a landscape that very much reminded me of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich's "Wanderer Above A Sea Of Fog". It brought to mind the Kantian concept of the sublime and the inability of our imagination to grasp something so inestimable and so totally exceptional.  

 

  Les femmes de la Révolution Barjac 

The Women Of The Revolution. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

The tour over, I returned, even more staggered by the experience than before, to the main house to interview Kiefer. We talked at length over lunch during which time I discovered Kiefer's interest in science. He spoke with great admiration of the Spanish scientist Luis Alvarez-Gaume and his light particle teleportations to distances of tens of thousands of kilometres. "It's called teleportation. It happened to me and my grandmother. We used to think the exact same thoughts at the exact same time."

 

And we remembered Kant: "Every mention of the sublime has within it more enchantment than the phantasmagoric charms of the beautiful."

 

  (Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

 

- In the grotto of the Teuton. Anselm Kiefer in Barjac -                                    - Alejandra de Argos -

“Art is the guarantee of sanity. Pain is the ransom of formalism. That's the most important thing I have to say."  These words couldn't be a truer reflection of what the artist Louise Bourgeois experienced during her lifetime. Considered one of the most influential, powerful and profound creators of the 20th and 21st centuries, Bourgeois (1911 - 2010) persevered in the exercise of her very particular artistic imagination until the day of her death at the age of 98.

Louise Bourgeois: Art From The Heart

 

Louise Bourgeois Peter Bellamy

Louise Bourgeois as the "mother of spiders". Photo © Peter Bellamy @ www.crystalbridges.com

 

“Art is the guarantee of sanity. Pain is the ransom of formalism. That's the most important thing I have to say."  These words couldn't be a truer reflection of what the artist Louise Bourgeois experienced during her lifetime. Considered one of the most influential, powerful and profound creators of the 20th and 21st centuries, Bourgeois (1911 - 2010) persevered in the exercise of her very particular artistic imagination until the day of her death at the age of 98. Heavily influenced by her lived experience, her childhood and her family environment, her work displays a creative core of the highest order covering hundreds of stylistic bases, formats, materials and narratives. Her works are neither mere plastic nor empty spectacle. They are personal accounts that extend out and relate to the whole collective of human beings, wearing her heart and innermost feelings on her sleeve, shamelessly, in order to reach that same profundity in her spectators. Her unmistakable spider sculptures, her unsettling "Cells", her poetic yet disturbing engravings constitute a vast, unique and fascinating trajectory that transcends the edges of reason and cultural boundaries to plumb the intimate depths of whoever contemplates or engages with her work. 

 

 arch of histeria 

Arch of Hysteria (1993). Museum of Modern Art, New York @ www.moma.org

 

A childhood woven around her family

Louise Joséphine Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911 into a family with close ties to the textile industry. Her parents owned a gallery and a restoration workshop with looms where they would weave their own, repair and sell tapestries. This circumstance was to leave a lasting mark on the work of Bourgeois who, throughout the rest of her life, would include fabric, cord, wool and net in a large part of her creations. While her family situation was a comfortable, nurturing and protective one, it was also somewhat unstable with her mother Joséphine contracting a severe case of Spanish flu in 1921 when Louise was just ten. A year later, the family hires an English governess by the name of Sadie Gordon Richmond who becomes a lover to Louise's adulterer father and spends inordinate lengths of time living in the family home as such. This complicated living environment would have a profound effect on Louise's character and she was to experience deep feelings of abandonment and an intense dread of the loss of her loved ones for the remainder of her life.

 

SAINT GERMAIN 1938

Saint Germain (1938). Lithograph on paper @ www.moma.org

 

At 12, Bourgeois' father asks her to collaborate in the family business by contributing her own drawings and patterns. Our budding artist combines this with both her education and the large amounts of time she spends caring for her invalid mother who would suffer repeated relapses and die in 1932 when Louise was 21. That same year, Bourgeois graduated with a first class BA (Honours) in Philosophy although her mother's death plunged her into a deep depression from which she would eventually decide to extricate herself by means of her art. She abandons her studies and seeks out the many workshops that Montparnasse and Montmartre were abuzz with at that time. In 1938, she studies with Fernand Léger, cuts all ties with the family business and opens her own art gallery. This is also the year she marries the art historian Robert Goldwater and moves with him to New York.

  

untitled the wedges

Untitled (The Wedges) (1950). Photo @ www.hyperallergic.com

 

The artist in New York. The dawn of sculpture.

Now in New York, Bourgeois wastes no time enrolling at the Art Students League and becomes interested in engraving, a technique that would remain in her repertoire til the end of her life. During this time, she researches tri-dimensionality in art and by the mid 1940's has created her first series of wood sculptures, totem poles of highly stylised yet disturbing shapes. 1945 sees the inauguration of her first ever solo exhibition, hosted by the prestigious Bertha Schaeffer Gallery in New York. These are the years when Abstract Impessionism reigned supreme and Bourgeois exhibits alongside its prime movers such as Rothko, de Kooning and Pollock. Nevertheless, her work keeps its distance from the accepted strictures of abstractionism and rather portrays a universe that is far more carnal, explicit and perplexing. Bourgeois' imagination was to remain always on the periphery of schools and tendencies, transcending them with a body of work that was intimate and beguiling. 

 

Following her father's sudden death in 1951, Bourgeois again suffers a deep depression during which she begins to develop her all-encompassing installations that spoke intimately of her memories, lived experiences and traumas. This is also when she starts to attend sessions with a psychoanalyst, coinciding with a period of self-imposed seclusion. In 1964, she comes out of isolation and organises her first solo exhibition for 11 years in which she showcases her latest work both plastic and organic and, for the first time, includes the concept of "lairs", the precursor to her subsequent and spell-binding "Cells".

 

Destruction and confrontation: facing up to life 

 

destruction father

 The destruction of the father (1974). Photo @ www.historia-arte.com

Bourgeois's artistic trajectory would appear to broaden and flourish from 1973 onwards. These early years see the first of her installations which revolve around the concept of “lairs” and which she uses as a tool to face up to her personal demons. After her husband's death, she decides to take advantage of the pain and resentment she had been harbouring to create works that bare her all, literally. This is the case with "The destruction of the father" (1974), an impactful installation that seems to show the insides of a vital organ whilst at the same time mimicking a sinister dinner party. The setting, with deliberately arranged organic shapes bathed in red light, is the essence of depredation and even "digestion". It is a direct confrontation with her memory of the relationship she had with a father who forced his family to live with his lover Sadie, the tutor much loved by Bourgeois, and even tried to marry Louise off to one of his friends, something which led to her first suicide attempt. 

 

In her book "Destruction of the father/Reconstruction of the father: writings and interviews (1923-1997)", Bourgeois describes the painful process involved in the installation's creation: "With Destruction of the father, the memories it evoked were so powerful and the job of projecting them outwards so hard that [...] I felt as if it had actually happened. It transformed me, really."

 

 

 On Confrontation (1978), the performance piece A Banquet: A Fashion Show of Body Parts (1978) and various aspects of the work of Louise Bourgeois

 

 

Lairs, cells and spiders. A return from the subconscious

The years of psychoanalysis undertaken by Bourgeois can be seen reflected in much of her output but it is only after 1986 that she starts to create specific pieces, namely "The Cells", to expose the essence of her relationship with social contracts, her lived experiences and the subconscious. These were enclosed installations, each telling its own story and communicating that experience to the minds of whoever enters in. The original one, "Articulated Lair" (1986), was to be the first in a series of some 60 works created using theatrical elements, staging, interactive spaces and, as ever, the presence of emotions. Bourgeois created these scene-settings to connect her work with certain traumatic life events, using them for liberation from them. When the spectator enters inside and experiences the artist's subconscious world, they too come to share her nightmares.

 

 cell xxvi 2003

CELL XXVI (2003). Photo @ www.champ-magazine.com

 

In the mid 1990s, Bourgeois begins to explore another of her obsessions, namely the spider as mother, predator and weaver. Reverting back to her childhood references (spiders and the sick but protective mother), and by now in her eighties, Bourgeois begins to sculpt designs in the form of spiders that are equally terrible and fragile, both victim and destructive force. For her, the spider represented "intelligence, productivity and protection." She creates monumental sculptures (for instance, the famous "Maman" of 1999, on display outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) and diminutive ones ~ beings who appear almost mythological and whose mission is to reconstruct and restore. “I come from a family of restorers.”, she once said. “The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn't get mad. She weaves and repairs it." 

 

 Mamá 1999 

Maman (1999). Photo @ www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus

 

Louise Bourgeois died in 2010 at the age of 98, never having stopped working or researching until the very last days of her life. Her oeuvre, vast and nuanced, is fundamental to our understanding of artistic evolution in the 20th and 21st centuries.  

 

EXHIBITIONS

Bourgeois saw the inauguration of her first solo exhibition in 1945. From then on, her work was exhibited in many galleries and museums throughout the USA until she finally achieved universal recognition. For decades, her exhibitions have travelled the whole world and attracted thousands of visitors. Still today, they continue to arouse enormous  interest, as much amongst specialist critics and art historians as the public.  

 

 

"Louise Bourgeois" at the Tate Modern, London (2007-2008)

 

 

In 2007, London's Tate Modern organised a comprehensive Bourgeois retrospective in collaboration with the Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris. The exhibition then moved on to various museums in the USA.

 

"HONNI soit QUI mal y pense" at La Casa Encendida, Madrid (2013)

 

 

HONNI soit QUI mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks ill of it, referring to her indifference to people's perception and judgement of her work) is the title of a drawing by Bourgeois used to name an exhibition organised by Madrid's La Casa Encendida in 2013. The show focused primarily on the artist's output during the last ten years of her life. 

Exhibition curator Danielle Tilkin (in Spanish) describes Bourgeois' work as autobiographical, intensely retrospective, wholly independent of all other schools and movements, engaged in social discourse at any given time, full of black humour, critical distance, internal conflict and reflection on the past and present, reproduction, time and the constant cycles of life.

Bourgeois' assistant Jerry Gorovoy (in English) gives his intimate, in-depth analysis.

Louise Bourgeois (in French) ~ "You have to look at yourself truthfully. Only when you look and like yourself and accept yourself does the silence dissipate and you can then enter into a dialogue. Things don't have to be black or white. Things are much more interesting if they're grey. And if they're subtle. Me, I want to invent something new. I want to invent a sculpture, a script, signs. History is of no interest to me. I'm sick to death of history and tradition."  

 

 

"Louise Bourgeois. Structures of Existence: The Cells" at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (2016)

 

 

In collaboration with the BBVA Foundation, Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum organised a large exhibition of the artist's famous "Cells" (28 installations in total) and of the build-up that lead to her developing these pieces that were so full of her own personal imaginings.

  

BOOKS

 

He disappeared in complete silence (1947)

This essential publication compiles the imaginings of a young Louise Bourgeois, both in the plastic and artistic as well as the literary sense. It was created just before her transition to sculpture, a discipline she arrived at via her idiosyncratic wooden "totem poles" and the book's illustrations reflect the research she did prior to this transition. The text, brief and  intense, derived from the artist's efforts to disseminate her work and make it better-known on an international level. Although not a success at the time, the book has since come to be considered a reference point fundamental to understanding her work, even though the book wasn't eventually completed until several decades later.  

 

Louis Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father (Writings and Interviews, 1923-1997)

“Every day, you have to abandon your past or accept it, and then, if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor.” This is just one of the many reflections appearing in this fascinating book, which brings together the thoughts and texts Bourgeois collated over seven decades. The volume also includes several interviews she gave that detail her concept of art and and give clues as to the origins of much of her work. One will also find in its pages some of her "pen-thoughts", illustrations that combine text with drawings. It is, without a doubt, essential reading in order to understand Bourgeois's vast and rich body of work.

 

Structures of existence: The Cells. Louise Bourgeois (2016)

The catalogue for the Guggenheim Bilbao's magnificent exhibition of "The Cells" is an exhaustive study of this suite of sculptures, fundamental pieces in the artist's work. The study includes the complete catalogisation of every installation, as well as keys to the creative process by which Bourgeois came to design and realize each of them. We can also find in its pages a thorough analysis of the concepts that form the basis of her work, namely space and memory, conscious and subconscious thinking, the body and architecture.

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

 

- Louise Bourgeois: biografía, obras y exposiciones -                                    - Alejandra de Argos -

2019: The Year of Rembrandt. Amsterdam kicks off Holland's 350th anniversary celebrations for the Old Master with its exhibition "All The Rembrandts of the Rijksmuseum" which will then make its way to Madrid's Prado  as "Vélazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer ~ Artistic Likenesses from the Spanish and Dutch schools". One would be forgiven for thinking the central gallery of the Rijksmuseum was less than sixty metres long because, on opening its panelled doors of leaded glass, our eyes are immediately drawn to the illuminated hand held out towards us by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. It beckons us from that distance away, making us want to step into the canvas with him as he gives the order for his company to begin their night watch through the streets of Amsterdam.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

Vermeer Rembrandt

 

2019: The Year of Rembrandt

 

Amsterdam kicks off Holland's 350th anniversary celebrations for the Old Master with its exhibition "All The Rembrandts of the Rijksmuseum" which will then make its way to Madrid's Prado  as "Vélazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer ~ Artistic Likenesses from the Spanish and Dutch schools". 

 

One would be forgiven for thinking the central gallery of the Rijksmuseum was less than sixty metres long because, on opening its panelled doors of leaded glass, our eyes are immediately drawn to the illuminated hand held out towards us by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. It beckons us from that distance away, making us want to step into the canvas with him as he gives the order for his company to begin their night watch through the streets of Amsterdam.

 

The central gallery of this neo-Gothic museum somewhat resembles the stem of a basil plant, with its lateral chapels branching off either side of the central aisle and housing the world's largest collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings. The visitor is thus forced to zig-zag between them while, at the very end, in the apse, as if an alterpiece, hangs Rembrandt's "The Night Watch", his controversial, secular, colossal painting of 1642.

 

From the very start of this visit, we are already getting a sense of something quite different from the mythological, religious and military scenes usually found in other collections of 17th century Dutch, Spanish and Italian paintings. Where are the heavens opening to reveal the glory of God, the Depositions of Christ, the Flights from Egypt or the Epiphanies? Where are Apollo and Daphne, Danae, Proserpine?  

 

Even before arriving at the Rembrandt gallery, several other pictures, oddly small in format, showcase another style of painting.  Theirs saw the establishment of a brand-new genre of painting, one that is striking not just for its relentless verism but also for its never-before-seen themes. Domestic scenes portraying an urban, bourgeois life and families inside their homes of oak furnishings, Delft tiles and kitchens bathed in light. And  their world of scenarios that are essentially feminine and intimate in nature ~ women standing alone, reading a letter or playing the harpsichord, cradling a baby, sweeping a room or putting on a pearl necklace, their faces lit by daylight from an open window. Scenes that almost seem to be happening on a lazy day off.

 

 

vermeer 9

Vermeer, Woman Reading A Letter (1663-64), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

Staggering numbers


There has been, perhaps, no other country ever where so many paintings have been produced in such a short period of time. It is estimated that between 1600 and 1700, up to 10 million paintings were produced in the Netherlands. Between 1650 and 1675, both Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) were active as well as at least half a dozen other top-notch painters such as Carel Fabritius, Gerard Dou, Gerard ter Borch, Frans Van Mieris, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch and Gabriël Metsu.

 

What made such prolific artistic production possible? What led the United Provinces to write a fundamental chapter in the history of art? An art which, incidentally, was at once so very localised yet so eternal? 

 

From a technical point of view, the theorist Karel van Mander, echoing Giorgio Vasari, confirms that Golden Age Dutch painting derived from 15th century Flemish painting, from the preciosity of Jan van Eyck's, Robert Campin's and Roger van der Weyden's paintings, still under the guise of religious scenes but also depicting the interior of contemporary homes, their fireplaces, chancellors' bibles, saints' clogs, the damask and fur of their garments and the lilies of archangels.

 

The artists' lives were, coincidentally, punctuated by highly dramatic, military and political events that did not, however, seem to have left any mark on their work. The 17th century was one of the bloodiest in history, its wars notorious for their long duration. The Netherlands, divided by Civil War into Calvinists and Catholics, fought the Spanish Crown in the same way it fought the sea which inundated its plains time and time again, filling its landscapes with windmills, dykes, canals and bridges. They were Master Naval engineers whose fleets managed to achieve dominance over most of the world's commerce. Until the 1640's, the Dutch empire extended from Brazil to Africa and from Indonesia or Japan to the east coast of North America, establishing its capital there as New Amsterdam, now known as Manhattan.      

 

In 1602, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was founded, its 160 ships sailing the oceans transporting and unloading extraordinary cargo ~ tonnes of blue and white Chinese porcelain, wood and grain from the Baltics, Persian rugs, sugar from Brazil, fruit from the West Indies, spices and pepper from Java, Sumatra and Borneo. Turkish sultans sent tulips and with them came 'tulipmania' which, in the 1620's, almost caused riots due to a price rise. A few absurd sales receipts still exist ~ luxury mansions paid out in exchange for a single bulb. It was the first speculation bubble in history.

 

Amsterdam and its port thus became the greatest trade centre in the north of Europe. A Stock Exchange was established there and is considered, after that of Antwerp in 1460, the oldest in the world. Founded in 1602 by the VOC, and the first to function like the modern stock market, its aim was to create funding for future commercial shipping. 

 

This global trade network created an elite clientele with abundant amounts of money with which to adorn their houses. The decorative arts flourished, as did the quest for luxury items and, above all, paintings which were to become the new status symbols. Gone the patronage of aristocracy and Church, it would be the bourgeoisie from now on paying the piper and calling the tune on the subject matter to be painted. And they wanted to see a reflection of their own lives, their hardships and dreams in those paintings. They wanted to feel recognised. Dutch art, artists, buyers and dealers were the catalyst for the future international art market, such as we know it today.    

 

 

 Vermeer 1 

Vermeer, The Art Of Painting (1666), detail showing a map of the United Provinces, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

 

Leapfrogs and bounds 


This is script being written and informing our progress through the galleries, providing context and background against which Vermeer in Delft  and Rembrandt in Amsterdam showcase their own particular way of painting. In the case of Vermeer, it would appear to be a natural progression from the mentality of his time. For Rembrandt, it was a giant leap forward. 

On a wall near "The Night Watch"  hang three tiny paintings that signal, from the outset, an ethereal calm in space and time. These are all three Vermeer paintings owned by the Rijksmuseum. "The Little Street" (1658) measures little more than fifty centimetres and is so lifelike it appears not to exist at all. It is as if there were a hole in the museum wall through which a real street scene in Delft can be glimpsed. Perhaps for this reason, it is said of Vermeer's art that it predates the realism of photography, the only artform to, centuries later, attempt to portray the very air surrounding figures in this way.  

 

  Veermer3JPG 

Vermeer, The Little Street (1658), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

"The Milkmaid" (1659) is dressed in Vermeer's favourite colours of yellow and ultramarine, intently pouring a fine stream of milk into a clay bowl. She looks as if she is not to be disturbed. The still life on the table with its crusty bread and specks of sunlight, the wicker basket and, most noticeably, the wall behind her bathed in light creating a shadow under the nail, the different colourations of whites marking a stain or, as in the corner, the ochre variations of damp combine to form an intense reality, small but perfectly-formed, vast and magical. The precision of tone is remarkable. An artist must, in short, have the gift of seeing everyday things in a different way to us. Creativity has to entail something like how to illuminate these ordinary things with a brighter light, with more concentrated attention, with a distinctly powerful charge. When Rembrandt paints a glass of wine, it ceases to retain its natural state of being a glass of wine and becomes, rather, part of an action. He beams theatrical light onto it, he sets it on a stage. Vermeer, on the other hand, isolates it, wanting a light just for this one glass, he grants it the virtue of being itself, unique, material and independent, in a moment of time that is motionless. Vermeer paints the time that flies between things.

 


 vermeer 8 JPG 

Vermeer, The Milkmaid (1659), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

In the years when Rembrandt and Vermeer were active, the world was engaged in a scientific revolution. New ideas were being touted about what it meant to 'see'. People had started to believe Nature was hiding a world invisible to the naked eye and that science should focus on researching it and finding out. There was a wave of empirical thought needing to back itself up with instruments able to measure Nature and allow us to see parts of the world that had been hitherto invisible. Hence, the 17th century saw the invention of the thermometer, the barometer, the telescope and the microscope. And its painters, determined to discover Nature and to paint it using an array of optical effects, went back to relying heavily on lenses and camara obscura devices. We do not know whether Vermeer used such techniques in his painting or not but what is certain is that he was familiar with the effects they produced and how light influenced how we see the world. He reproduced how it accentuates colour tonalities until they appear jewel-like, how it blurs or sharpens the outlines of figures, how it highlights where the touches of light brighten and polish whichever reflective surface the sun falls on.    

 

Vermeer painted "The Milkmaid" some 16 years after Rembrandt started work on "The Night Watch". Both paintings were a pictorial revolution but they were poles apart. To simplify Svetlana Alpers' study of 17th century Dutch painting, one might say that Vermeer represents the pinnacle of descriptive painting and its debt to observation whilst Rembrandt uses narration and historical themes as a pretext for injecting a certain wildness into his painting as the key to expression, action, gesture and the innermost recesses of the soul. His studies of light and matter are merely a means by which to paint the depths of pain, loneliness, failure, power, blindness or life just before death.   

 

 

 vermeer 4 

Rembrandt, The Prophetess Anna (Rembrandt's Mother) (1631), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

Ten years, ten days


In a documentary about the last years of Rembrandt's life, Simon Schama describes a scene. It is 1885 and a young artist visiting the Rijksmuseum stops dead before a painting, his eyes transfixed, breaking into a feverish sweat as he gazes at the adored work. "I would give ten years of my life if I could simply sit and meditate, with a dry crust of bread, for ten days looking at it." So what was it about "The Jewish Bride" that so mesmerised the young Van Gogh? Days later, he would write that Rembrandt had painted it with "a hand of fire". Schama interprets the impact on Van Gogh as that of any masterpiece ~ it takes aim directly and viscerally. Van Gogh was another painter who took brushstrokes to their most physical extreme and this final work of Rembrandt's left him spellbound.  In it, the Old Master, by now penniless and at death's door, depicts the physical incarnation of love. Its whole meaning is that of touch and caress. "The Jewish Bride" is a symphony of four hands, those of a couple. A man's hand on his wife's heart, the woman's hand touching this hand, a man's hand protectively around his wife's shoulder ... 

 

Rembrandt rushes this final painting with the rage of his materials. The sleeve he paints here is not easily explained and one would need to be standing, as Van Gogh did, right in front of it.  The sleeve is a physical crust in dozens of shades of gold, a mass of pictorial density that has a whole world of matter embedded in it: pieces of egg shell, crushed glass, mud, silica, ... The Old Master is acting on the painting the way the likes of Pollock, Freud and Kiefer would act on theirs centuries later ~ painting emotions with their materials. 

 

 rembrandt 2 

Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride (1662), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

"The Jewish Bride" features in the exhibition, as does "The Night Watch" with its outstretched hand, along with the whole astounding collection - the world's largest - of Rembrandt's canvases, drawings and etchings owned by the museum. Nevertheless, what makes this exhibit unique is something else. It is, essentially, about finding oneself in the presence, just a few feet apart, of two genius but contrasting artists. In and out of Rembrandt, on to Vermeer, retrace our steps back to Rembrandt and ..... start all over again. As Simon Schama said about them: Vermeer versus Rembrandt ~ crystallization versus emotion.

 

 

Rembrant

Rembrandt, The Night Watch (1642), Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

 

All the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum 
Rijksmuseum
1070 DN Amsterdam
Curator: Jonathan Bikker
15 February ~ 10 June 2019

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

- Rembrandt versus Vermeer -                          - Alejandra de Argos -

Leïla Slimani, born in 1981, is a French-Morrocan author and the 2016 winner of France's most prestigious award for literature, The Goncourt Prize, for her second novel, "Lullaby". In a distinctly French style, with a tone reminiscent of her compatriot Emmanuel Carrère, Slimani narrates, with both lightning rhythm and a sluggishness typical of day-to-day routine, a dizzying plot that leaves the reader in the uncomfortable position of being able to identify with these easily-relatable incidents. The reading of the novel is accelerated by the flow of her narrative in its search for what is hidden behind what we know to be fact from page one.

Contributing Author: Maira Herrero, 
MA in Philosophy

Maira

 

 

 

 

 

 LEILA SLIMANI 

 Leïla Slimani. Photo @ Heike Huslage-Koch 

Leïla Slimani, born in 1981, is a French-Morrocan author and the 2016 winner of France's most prestigious award for literature, The Goncourt Prize, for her second novel, "Lullaby". In a distinctly French style, with a tone reminiscent of her compatriot Emmanuel Carrère, Slimani narrates, with both lightning rhythm and a sluggishness typical of day-to-day routine, a dizzying plot that leaves the reader in the uncomfortable position of being able to identify with these easily-relatable incidents. The reading of the novel is accelerated by the flow of her narrative in its search for what is hidden behind what we know to be fact from page one. Fiction and non-fiction intermingle in such a way that it becomes difficult to distinguish one from the other. The characters dance around the protagonist, a strange and unfathomable woman who lets only parts of her personality show so that the reader only forms an idea of her character gradually as the book progresses. Nothing is left to chance here. The characters are all intertwined up until their phobias and weaknesses are seen or perceived by others. With painstaking precision, she describes the atmosphere in the house, where most of the action develops, as if it were a discomfited witness to the suffocating reality within it. 

Although having nothing in common with each other, the novel's "perfect nanny" Louise does bring to mind the figure of Vivian Maier, widely known as The Nanny Photographer - an enigmatic and solitary figure who spent her adolescence in France, returning to her American birthplace in the 50's, first New York and later Chicago, to work in childcare but never forgetting her true vocation - photography - and whose body of work, today internationally renowned, went undiscovered until after her death in 2009. She managed to the find a source of inspiration and gratification in the mundanity of her daily life, which she captured in thousands of photographic images that also served to alleviate whatever frustration she may have felt in an otherwise unrewarding job. The streets, with or without people, the children she took care of and her many ingenious self-portraits were captured in over 100,000 negatives, almost all of them recovered by the collector John Maloof. Some Super-8 films were also found along with audio recordings, all of which made Vivian Maier an exceptional chronicler of two American metropolises. 

This digression helps us understand how little we know about the human condition and what remains hidden behind seemingly normal gestures and acts. Slimani shows us the enigma that underlies our subconscious and how, when one least expects it, it leaps ferociously into the wrong scenarios, thereby provoking incompehensible actions and reactions. The narrative manages to confuse the reader who is trying to make sense of what is irrational, what simple appearances don't reveal, what escapes our observation, the small details that describe to perfection the atmosphere breathed inside and outside the place of events. And it's a book that is hard to recommend to those mothers obliged to leave their children in a stranger's hands for many hours without really knowing what is going on in their home. 

The novel pulls no punches when dealing with issues such as the female condition and the debate around motherhood versus career. The dilemma that exists between child-rearing and/or a professional life highlights the complexity of that choice. Parents justifying themselves and their dereliction of duty or priorities at any given time reflects the difficulty in deciding how to confront the situations we often find ourselves caught up in.  

The novel was inspired by real-life events that took place in New York City in 2012. 

 

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

- Leïla Slimani: Lullaby (Chanson Douce) -                        - Alejandra de Argos -

One of the great thinkers and intellectuals of our time, Bernard-Henri Lévy (Algeria, 1948) has successfully launched a theatrical tour around Europe with his work Looking for Europe. It premieres in Spain next Wednesday, at the Teatro Olympia in Valencia, then goes to Barcelona and Madrid. In his monologue he defends democratic and liberal values from the threat of populism. He has also just published his book The Empire and the Five Kings, (Henry Holt & Company Inc) that explores the loss of global leadership in the United States and how the five powers, the ancient Empires: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Sunni radical Islamism are weakening the values that have distinguished our western civilisation.

 Author: Elena Cué

 

levy

 Bernard Henri-Levy (Ali Mahdavi)

One of the great thinkers and intellectuals of our time, Bernard-Henri Lévy (Algeria, 1948) has successfully launched a theatrical tour around Europe with his work Looking for Europe. It premieres in Spain next Wednesday, at the Teatro Olympia in Valencia, then goes to Barcelona and Madrid. In his monologue he defends democratic and liberal values from the threat of populism. He has also just published his book The Empire and the Five Kings, (Henry Holt & Company Inc) that explores the loss of global leadership in the United States and how the five powers, the ancient Empires: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Sunni radical Islamism are weakening the values that have distinguished our western civilisation.

With this geopolitical analysis of the current global situation, what do you think will happen to Europe?

The first possibility would be for it to disappear from the world map and convert itself into a battlefield between Americans, who are losing their power, and the five new empires trying to defeat them. We may end up being a middle ground, where some will try to overthrow others. The solution would be for Europe to take advantage of this situation, to wake up and become a new superpower. But what is certain is that, in the new configuration of the world, the American umbrella no longer works. Donald Trump has said it very clearly, but Obama had already said it before.

Indeed, the debilitation began before Trump. 

Yes, Trump is the epiphenomenon, not the main phenomenon. The main phenomenon is the fact that Europe and America are disconnected, and that happened before Trump.

In reference to the five powers, who you state want to end Europe, what would be their greatest benefit to come from this downturn?

For the forgotten and unfortunate populations, for example, the women of Saudi Arabia, democratic dissidents of China, or the youth of Iran, Europe is an example, a reference and above all, a symbol of hope. Europe is the light at the end of the tunnel. The main interest of these five powers would be to put out that light, to ensure their communities stop dreaming about Europe and that Europe cease to be a symbol of hope for them. As long as Europe exists and is strong, it poses a danger, not only from a geostrategic point of view, but above all from an ideological and spiritual stance. Because for all its people, Europe represents the image of a different future, as opposed to the harsh reality of what they currently are.

It seems that Russia would benefit most from Europe’s current weakness as it would further their geostrategic objectives.

China and Russia share their roles. China has the strength and Putin the intelligence. The money comes from China or the Arabic world, while reflection and strategy come from Putin.

Last year you created the play Last exit before Brexit performed in London. What do you think will happen in Europe without Great Britain?

What we are currently witnessing is that it is not so easy to leave Europe. The Brexit supporters defended their right to control their future, yet three years later, they have not obtained any positive result but they have lost control of the situation. The United Kingdom is out of control, although they are still in time to wake up from this nightmare. 

Are you optimistic? 

Rather realistic. Without Europe, the United Kingdom is going to collapse, and without the United Kingdom, Europe will suffer serious damage to its spirit and heart. Democratic liberalism and the merger of the political and economic is an English contribution; it was their great understanding of the best system for society, which the English devised in the XVIII and XIX centuries.

You also objected to the way Cameron used the referendum. Why is that?

Because you cannot respond with a "Yes" or "No" to such complex political issues. I'm not saying that people cannot have an opinion on such matters, on the contrary, it is exactly what democracy is about. However, it was a very broad issue which implied centuries of history, memory and ties between the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. The referendum should be seen as last resort after the other democratic possibilities for political decision-making have already been exhausted. The difficult thing about democracy is that it requires deliberation and commitment. When we are about to answer with a "Yes" or "No", you have to ask, are we in a plebiscitary or a Caesar-like regime? Or are we in a regime where democracy serves as an alibi for tyrants?

In Looking for Europe, you intend to influence the next European elections by drawing attention to the threat posed by populism. How do you think Europe can fight populism?

Populism is a threat to ideas, intelligence and beauty. It is also a threat to the complexity of things and to coexistence. Democrats and Liberals have to wake up and start fighting. They are too timid. I call for an awakening, which is the meaning of this work. It is not just a cry for attention. As liberal Europeans we do not want the simple solutions populism and the independence movement offer, and for that reason we have to wake up and speak up, bringing together the true power of speech and accept our opinions. If you are pro-Europe and pro-capitalism, you say it but in a very quiet voice. For example, the war against the elites is a disgrace and a suicide for Western democratic societies. We need to say all that before it is too late.

All of this is present in your work? 

I speak of the "yellow vests" and of the outraged, of this whole movement which in my opinion, under the guise of democracy, is actually undemocratic. They are going to drag along our societies, just like at the fall of the Roman Empire or the end of classical Athens. I do not want that, which is why I have fought in places as far away as Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Kurdistan throughout my whole life. Now, I am convinced that the fire is in my house. And my house is France, Spain, Italy... That is why I have written this play, to return home and confront the war that has been declared by the populists.

Is the neoliberal ideology that caused the 2008 crisis not another equally dangerous threat against democratic and liberal values?

Yes, but it is a threat that can be controlled. Liberal capitalism has many flaws, but it has one virtue: it is constantly in the process of auto correction. It goes from crisis to crisis and it is the only economic regime in history to survive and overcome them. It is not the perfect correction, we know that there are bankers who have not understood the lessons of 2008, but capitalism is a machine that integrates the lessons of the past. It always has been. In this sense, yes, it is a threat, but a controlled one.

In 1976, you promoted the movement of the so-called new French philosophers, one of which was Alain Finkielkraut, who has just become the target of an anti-Semitic attack lead by a part of the yellow vests. The acts against Jews increased by 74% in France last year. Why do you think this is happening?

The real problem is not only that one group has insulted Finkielkraut, but that all those surrounding groups, such as the "yellow vests" in Paris and other cities, have not stood up in protest and said: "Not in our name!" Journalists in France say it is a small group. But why has the big group not condemned this aggression?

It is worrying.

We are experiencing the third great period of anti-Semitism in France and Europe. The first one was at the end of the XIX century, the second one during the 1930s and the third one is today. We know how the first two periods ended: in the worst possible way, in the form of suicide for European societies. What we can expect from this third period is that at least we have learnt the lessons from the past.

"Anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism." Do you agree with these words by President Emmanuel Macron?

I do not think that is the point. You can be a Zionist or not, you can love Netanyahu or hate him. The point is that nowadays, if you want to create and see an anti-Semitic movement grow, the only way you could do it is to be an anti-Zionist at the same time. It is a matter of political mechanics.

Why?

Because what an anti-Semite needs is to convince people that there are good reasons to hate Jews. What are they going to say today? That the Jews have a different chromosome? That they have killed Christ? No, of course, that does not work anymore. The only way anti-Semitism could work today is to say that Jews are friends of a State that is very bad and possibly fascist in dealing with another group, the Palestinians. If you manage to develop this notion, then you can create a real anti-Semitic movement in Europe. In terms of mechanics, ideology and politics, that is the only way. I am Jewish, but not Zionist. If I were a Zionist I would live in Israel and believe that this is the fate of the Jews.

What is the solution for Palestine?

Two states, one next to the other.

In your book, you also speak about the betrayal of the Kurds. They are courageously carrying out their duty fighting against the Islamic State. The Kurdish people are very grateful to you for your support with this book and your documentaries. As an opponent of nationalism, why do you defend the Kurds' pursuit to form their own nation in this case?

The difference is that they are being massacred by Erdogan, by the Iranians, and by Bashar al-Ásad. If the Barcelona separatists were faced with a dictator who killed them, I would be in favour of their independence. But they have a democracy, which is the exact opposite. For more than a century the Kurds have been annihilated by the powers that control them. In this case, independence is the only way out of death. Therefore, I am not in favour of their independence for nationalist reasons. I have never been a nationalist. I am interested in human rights and the rights of the body, meaning the right that the body is not martyred, tortured or end up assassinated.

It also shows that the Kurds profess a more moderate Islamism.

That is the second reason. It is something I mention a lot in the theatre performance. In Europe, we are desperately looking for the ideal Islam, one that is compatible with democracy, human rights, secularism, etc. An Islam that has the ability to overcome Islamic Jihadism and the terror we have of it. We had it in Bosnia and we have it in Kurdistan and in both cases we can observe the tragic paradox of Europe. This is one of the main themes of my play: when we have them, we let them fall. This is a spiritual, metaphysical, political and moral error.

The Muslim population in the West is increasing, particularly in France. You wrote the book Public Enemies with Houellebecq. Do you think it would be possible to have an Islamist government in France, as you write in your book Submission?

No, because Europe's liberal civilisation is much stronger than Houellebecq realises. It has the capability to integrate elements from other parts of the world, including Islam, but not to be devoured by Islam, that is not going to happen. I believe that the European civilisation is very strong; the only empire to survive all its crisis’ is the European Empire. "Empire", not to be understood in the sense of imperialism, but looking at Europe as a civilisation which, beginning with the Roman Republic, has continuously survived its looming death in order to revive. It is a unique case as with the other empires, when they die, they die. Europe may seem to die, but it comes back. In my work, I say that Europe, the West, is the only empire where its grave is always a cradle.

In your book The Genius of Judaism, you state that in Judaism the focus is not necessarily on believing in God, but more importantly on the study and understanding of God. Continuous questioning and reinterpreting.

That is what the Jews are asked to do. It is not so much about believing, but is about studying. Understanding, working and introducing more complexity in the world, or at least interpreting the complexity that occurs in the world and avoiding simplification.

You have mentioned that your way of thinking would not be the same without Foucault and teachers like Althusser or Derrida. From this multiplicity, how would you pinpoint your philosophical thought?

My way of thinking has roots, but the product comes from me. At my quite advanced age, I really believe this. I am not anyone's son. I was a good son, first to my parents and then to my teachers. I believe that today I think at my own risk and from a perspective that is mine. Indeed, the roots come from French structuralism, Jewish thought and Albert Camus. Those are the three great pillars.

A big feminist demonstration has taken place recently. In your book Women and Men written with Françoise Giroud it seemed that your thought was closer to the feminine while Giroud's was closer to the masculine. What do you think?

The relationships between men and women, and in particular my relationships with women were, and still are, one of the great subjects of my life. Secondly, and it may not be very politically correct, I think that for a man women are a mysterious, unknown, foreign continent. Thirdly, I support all the claims of neo-feminism, because to say that it is a distant and mysterious continent does not imply that equality has already been achieved or that there are no wrongdoings. For example, I have always thought that if I were a woman, sexual harassment would drive me crazy. Today there is an awakening in society to say 'enough is enough '. Women have the power and the right to say 'yes ' or 'no' or 'maybe '. That is a revolution.

 

Bernard Henri Levy Elena Cué

Bernard Henri-Levy during the interview.

 

 

- Interview with Bernard Henri-Levy -                              - Alejandra de Argos -

that God granted the world ten measures of beauty (yofi), nine for Jerusalem and just one for the rest of the world. The Holy City has no rivers, no sea view, no gardens. It is, rather, an ochre-hued stoney plateau set amongst valleys and dry riverbeds in the mountains of Judea. So what then is Jerusalem? Is it a concept, a wound, a state of mind? Jerusalem is two rocks and a wall. It's the custodian of the three symbolic stones of the three religions that derive from the same book: the Wailing Wall for Jews, the Holy Sepulchre for Christians and the Dome of the Rock for Muslims. One could say that its power resides in its promise of the cosmic, or its being the epicentre of stories about creation. According to Enrich Klein's 2005 account, Jerusalem has been destroyed 12 times, sieged 23 times, captured 52 times and recaptured 44 times. It is the only city in the world where history is both the past and also the future. Whatever our particular faith or whether we even have one or not, here is where its chaotic, propulsive energy is to be found.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

 

 Jerusalen  

 

 

It says in the Talmud that God granted the world ten measures of beauty (yofi), nine for Jerusalem and just one for the rest of the world. The Holy City has no rivers, no sea view, no gardens. It is, rather, an ochre-hued stoney plateau set amongst valleys and dry riverbeds in the mountains of Judea. So what then is Jerusalem? Is it a concept, a wound, a state of mind? Jerusalem is two rocks and a wall. It's the custodian of the three symbolic stones of the three religions that derive from the same book: the Wailing Wall for Jews, the Holy Sepulchre for Christians and the Dome of the Rock for Muslims. One could say that its power resides in its promise of the cosmic, or its being the epicentre of stories about creation. According to Enrich Klein's 2005 account, Jerusalem has been destroyed 12 times, sieged 23 times, captured 52 times and recaptured 44 times. It is the only city in the world where history is both the past and also the future. Whatever our particular faith or whether we even have one or not, here is where its chaotic, propulsive energy is to be found.

Throughout history, a number of places have been venerated for their holiness: the Ganges and its passage through Benares in India, the Valley Of The Kings in Egypt or the tomb of the poet Hajez in Iran. They are all realities. Nobody is denying this.  But Jerusalem poses myriad questions. Was it the Garden of Eden? Was it the cornerstone on which the Arc of the Covenant would be built? According to Hebrew legend, the temple was erected on the exact spot where the waters of the Great Flood sprang. The rock was called Ebhen Shetiyyah, the Foundation Stone, and the first solid body in Creation as God separated the Earth from the  primitive bodies of water.  It may have been here where King David watched Bethsheba as she bathed, which led to him marrying her.  David's mortal works and personal failings left God with no choice but to instruct him to not build the temple himself but leave the task to Solomon, his son with Bethsheba. In the Book of Chronicles, David confesses: “God told me: You will not build a house in my name because you are a man of war." The Wailing Wall, where Jews still pray to this day, is believed to have formed part of the temple wall.

 

 Jerusalen 1 

Jewish Cemetery, as seen from the Kidron Valley

 

Awaiting The Redemption 

The future can be guessed at by looking down on the city from the top of Kidron Valley or Josafat where the 3,000 year-old and largest Jewish cemetery in the world stretches out below. There is precious little space left among the 150,000 tombstones for new burials. For this reason, the last remaining outer rows have long been bought up, at unimaginable prices, by grand Jewish banking families now living in Manhattan. They want to be assured of their future place for the day when, according to the prophets, God will initiate the Redemption there. All are buried with their feet towards Temple Mount, in identical 120cm plots. On Judgement Day, God must find them all facing the right way.  

Kidron Valley spreads beneath the cemetery and seperates the city from the three hills to the west of Mount Scopus, seat of Hebrew University, the Mount of Olives and Mount Scandal. Inside its walls, commissioned by King Soloman the Magnificent of his arquitect Mimar Sinan, the same architect who festooned Istambul with its most beautiful mosques, the Old Town is divided into four sections: Armenian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Four separate worlds sharing the same sun and the same God. Each one of them smells different - cardamom coffee, hookah tobacco, sweet breads, dried lamb's blood. From the Damascus Gate, one can see women laying out spinach leaves on rags in the street; flags with the Star of David (Palestinian never, they're banned); young girls selling peaches and cherries from wooden carts; monks calling the faithful to prayer at the nearby Al-Aqsa mosque; young women wearing veils; nuns in blue and white habits, priests in black, Orthodox Jews in kaftans and black hats, Israeli soldiers with their UZI rifles cocked, stray dogs. And rubbish. A lot of rubbish. Shells exploding, ambulances wailing, remnants of barbed wire.


The rest of the Old Town encompasses a constellation of holy places. Stringent visiting restrictions at the two most significant non-Jewish monuments, namely the Dome of the Rock and the Holy Sepulchre, were introduced in 2017, perhaps in anticipation of the tension about to escalate around them.

 

 Jerusalen 2 

 

 

Restoration work

At the time of writing (January 2018), King Abdullah of Jordan is on a visit to the Vatican. He calls the Pope “My dear friend and brother” and gifts him a painting representing Rome, the Eternal City. The Hashemite dynasty are custodians of Jerusalem's holy Muslim sites. Also happening around this time is the culmination of seven years' restoration work on the 1,525 square metres of mosaics at the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. Out on the esplanade, Jordanian and Palestinian restorers worked away in silence, at a time when rage was making its comeback. The restored mosaics, which decorate the walls and vault of this famous octagonal building, consist of over 2 million coloured glass tiles with gold, silver and mother-of-pearl. Contained within the gilt ones, in their crystal soul, is a fine layer of real gold.   

The Dome of the Rock is the oldest Muslim building in the world. It guards the stone of Mohammed who, because of his affinity with the Jewish faith, also held Jerusalem as the Holy City. According to a tradition heavily steeped in poetry, Mohammed received here the first of his revelations from the Angel Gabriel, who told him he was to be Allah's messenger. Years later, Gabriel was to appear again, bringing the white horse, Buraq, which carried Mohammed at lightening speed to a sacred rock on  the top of Mount Moriah. This was a key place in Hebraic faith for being the stone upon which Abraham offered his son Isaac to God as a sacrifice. From there, Mohammed ascended a staircase of bright light to the Seventh Heaven where he was proclaimed superior to the Old Testament prophets. This journey to heaven is remembered in Sura 17 of the Koran entitled: "The Children of Israel". When Caliph Omar arrived in Jerusalem in 638 AD CE, six years after Mohammed's death, he built a wooden mosque that would later become Al-Aqsa. Mohammed's heirs established their capital in Damascus and decided to make Jerusalem a place  of pilgrimage as important as Mecca and Medina. They confided in Byzantine, Greek and Egyptian architects to build a stone cupola for over the sacred rock of Mount Moria; an octagon with  with twelve interior columns and four piers supporting the golden hemisphere. These were the sacred shapes and numbers of Eastern religions. The smaller Al-Aqsa mosque, at the extreme southern end of the platform, was given a silver dome and gold and silver doors. These two sanctified structures were to become magnets for the faithful.

 

 

 Jerusalen 3 

Interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

 

Renovation of the Holy Sepulchre, which was completed in March 2018, freed the edicule from its corset of iron girders, a scaffolding that had constricted it since 1934. It can now be seen exactly as it was conceived in 1810. A team, led by the Athenian Antonia Moropolou, are unanimous in describing the most exciting moment of the nine months the restoration work lasted, as the removal of the marble cladding protecting the rock bench where Christian tradition believes the body of Jesus Christ lay. Through a tiny door in the Chapel of the Angel, antechamber to the tomb, a glass panel covers the marble slab, leaving the original rock of the tomb inside exposed.   

 

 

 Jerusalen 4 

The "Day of Rage”, December 2017. Streets of Ramallah.

 

The "Day of Rage"

The front pages of newspapers across the world went with various different analyses of the same photograph. A young man hurls a stone with his sling as a battle rages on around him. These were the streets of Ramallah on the "Day of Rage", so named by Hamas in order to fire up Palestinians against Trump's decision, the previous December 6th, to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his decision to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. The young man in the photo has his face covered by the keffiyeh of a new intifada and his gesture is one of hate. He's the present-day Discobolus, a discus thrower of the Instagram era. The expansive curve of his stone throw is already turning into a spiral of violence. Neither side wants to lose their children again. 

Seventy years ago, the United Nations agreed a plan to partition Palestine, which had been under British mandate since the end of the First World War. A little over half the territory was assigned to the Jewish state, as proclaimed officially in May of 1948, and the remainder was envisioned for a future Arab state. Jerusalem would be accorded corpus separatum status, a separate entity under international jurisdiction. But the war waged between the Jewish forces and Arab countries, until the armistice of July 1949 was signed, put paid to the UN's plans. The west of the city was occupied by Israel, establishing its capital there, and the east remained under Jordanian jurisdiction, as well as the West Bank. The Green Line of ceasefire dividing the city with barbed wire and barricades lasted until Israel's victory in the Six Day War of 1967. Since then, even her closest allies have maintained their embassies at a distance of 70 km.     

Jerusalem is simultaneously glory and sin. Many are the writers who have left their mark on the palimpsest that is Jerusalem. From the 16th century travel guides, now decorating the display cases of the National Library in its Urbs Beata Hierusalem exhibition, to the words of Chateaubriand; "I stood, staring at Jerusalem, measuring the heights of its walls, memories from history all the while coming to me ..... Even if I lived to be a thousand years, never could I forget this desert that seems still to breathe the greatness of Jehovah and the terrors of death".   

 

Measures of sorrow

However, claims The Economist, that aforementioned distribution of measures of beauty (yofi) from the Talmud might at times seem erroneous. And what if it were instead measures of sorrow that God gave the world? Nine for Jerusalem and one for the rest?

There are two instances of this in the city today. Yad Vashem is one of the most impressive museums in the world. Its objects, photographs and videos underline Man's capacity for creating destruction among his counterparts. One is Jerusalem's Holocaust Museum, 180 square metres of passageways and galleries charting the history of the extermination of six million Jews during WWII. Located on the Hill Of Remembrance, Yad Vashem was founded in 1953 by an act of the Israeli parliament. Moshe Safdie's building is astounding. A triangular prism seen to penetrate one side of the mountain and come out the other. The visual sensation is unique: a base in almost darkness but a sky lightly illuminated. Physical death but also spiritual life. "And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial (Yad) and a name (Shem) that will never be cut off." Isaiah 56:5. Yad Vashem won the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord in 2007.

 

 Jerusalen 5 

Yad Vashem Museum

 

A few metres away, and as if a continuation of the message, is Hadassah Hospital housing the world's largest skin bank. It has existed since the days of the years-long Second Intifada when the casualty figures screamed nearly a hundred suicide bombers, 5,000 dead and tens of thousands wounded, many of them burns victims. Here are kept, frozen in liquid nitrogen, 170 square metres of human skin, which is enough to treat about 100 people with 50% burns to their body. Jerusalem is all divisory lines, Vias Dolorosas, border posts and walls ~ much like Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth, a 546 foot-long crack in the cement floor of the Tate Modern, its 'scar' still visible today.  

 

And its writers

Finally, Jerusalem today is also its writers. Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, books such as To The End Of The Land  and real lived experiences, too. The eulogy that David Grossman read out at the funeral for his son Uri, 21, killed in combat by friendly fire in August 2006 when his jeep got hit by a Hezbollah missile, explains one way of living with a kind of severe serenity when surrounded by a sea of enemies. "For three days, every thought began with: "He/we won't". He won't come, we won't talk, we won't laugh ... Israel will have its own reckoning ... and we will act against the gravity of grief."  

 

 Jerusalen 6 

View from inside Yad Vashem Museum

 

Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin

 

 

- Jerusalem a historical enigma -                        - Alejandra de Argos -

 

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