- Written by Maira Herrero
Contributor: Maira Herrero,
German historian and journalist Florian Illies’ 300-page book is a humorous, fleeting look at the main cultural events in Europe just before the Great War.
Illies’ book is neither novel nor essay — it is simply an account of the key creative and cultural happenings in those twelve months of the year and their effects on society and culture, moments before the advent of the bloody massacre that would subsequently rock the very foundations of Western thought.
It’s an attractive read for anyone interested in the artistic avant-garde, the influence of psychoanalysis on later thinking — particularly at the Frankfurt School —, the great literary works and cultural milestones of the time and the shift in perspective that was spreading across Europe, coinciding with the gradual disappearance of the existing lifestyle. Western culture found itself launched to heady new heights thanks to technological, industrial and artistic progress, only to collapse tragically not long after.
The book follows two parallel threads, on the one hand the epistolary relationship between Kafka and his beloved Felice Bauer, and on the other the turbulent relationship between Alma, Mahler’s widow, and Oskar Kokoshka, as told through his well-known painting Bride of the Wind (1913-4).
During the twelve months of 1913 we see the 20th century’s greatest creators come and go: Arnold Schönberg and Igor Stravinsky and radical new musical forms; Freud and C.G. Jung’s civil struggles; the break-up of the Der Blaue Reiter (Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Albert Bloch, Robert Delaunay) and the Die Brücke groups (E. Ludwing Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, etc.); the rawness of George Grosz’s paintings, an example of art as weapon against authority; the innovative architectural styles of Peter Behrens (who just a few years earlier was responible for the turbine hall at the AEG factory), Walter Gropius, Adolf Loos and many others who placed light and symmetry at the centre of their work.
“It was as if the current art exhibition coming from Europe had fallen on us like a bomb”, reported the publication Camera Work on the exhibition running at New York’s Armory Show at the beginning of 1913. American visitors found themselves completely stunned by Marcel Duchamp’s Woman Descending Staircase (1912). In Berlin, a few months later, the legendary art gallery Sturm would host Germany’s First Autumn Salon, a collection of avant-garde works (with the notable exception of the Die Brücke painters). Gertrud Stein was the epicentre of Parisian art, her home a meeting place for established artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Braque. The collector Eduard Arnhold regularly would host regular meetings with Emil Nolde, the great Berlinese patron together with James Simon. Writers, thinkers, editors, merchants were everywhere to be seen.
Paris, Berlin, Zurich, Venice, Vienna, Munich were some of the regular haunts of the progressive class of the time. Cities were gradually transforming into large metropolises; fashion was becoming an integral part of a new kind of lifestyle.
The book thankfully includes numerous comical anecdotes and stories which, although they don’t strictly belong to the year the book focuses on, appropriately adorn the tale. One could almost call 1913: The Year Before the Storm a guide to the fascinating world of exuberant creativity, finally ending with the Suprematist manifiesto and Malevich’s Black Square (1915).
Florian Illies. 1913: The Year Before the Storm. Salamandra, 2013.
- Written by Marina Valcárcel
Author: Marina Valcárcel.
Chekhov and his wife, actress Olga Knípper.
"Give me a wife who, like the moon, will not appear every day in my sky." (Chekhov)
Throughout 2013, after Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was impossible not to hear someone saying that Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) is "the father of modern literature". So a few weeks ago I decided to sit down and re-read "The Steppe", and I found myself once again with a strange, uneasy feeling inside me, as if something had remained there, deep down, undigested.
The 150-page novel is about the journey of a child over the Ukrainian steppe set around 1880. For Chekhov, the Russian soul was something dependent on the unparalleled solitude of the steppe landscape, something he wanted to describe slowly, gradually, as if through canvases, page by page, revealing themselves - a creative process one could describe as written painting.
How many painters, illustrators or film directors have been able to convey a storm as convincingly as Chekhov?
The true protagonists in the book are not people but the vivid descriptions and the landscape. Apart from these standout elements, though, it's a generally slow read with very little action.
So if nothing much happens, how do we explain the impact it has on the contemporary reader?
It's a pertinent question, particularly in an age of immediacy, information overload and expectations of complex, highly elaborate content. In the midst of recent Oscar-winning films about relationships between a man and an operating system, or the full-on anxiety of a space mission gone wrong, what can we hope to get out of a book whose opening lines describe the flight of a bustard? Why are we so impressed by the description of time passing one morning in the countryside, as if it "stretched endlessly, as if it had stopped altogether"? The author makes us excited to see how he unravels the decline of Russian society at the end of the 19th century through the actions of an old priest. "Father Jristofor had never experienced a concern so strong as to tighten his soul like a boa."
Further answers to these questions can be found by making parallels with the world of painting.
When we study Jan Van Eyck's "Man with Red Turban", for instance, we start looking at each and every strand of mink hair on the neck, we study the eye closely, and we even discover a tiny drop of blood in it - it's a similar mental slap to the one we experience when scrutinizing Freud's "Portrait of the Young Painter".
Looking more broadly, it's also similar to the "tornado effect" caused by, say, Chekhov's (or even Thoreau's) letters, or David Forster Wallace's novels.
Perhaps it's merely the fact that all these works of art come from a place of genius. They have all left us with some sort of sting in a corner of our hypothalamus, an intense, uneasy feeling that's difficult to shake off. We're predators of emotions and we recognize our catch.
- Written by Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca
Contributor: Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca,
Art is a pleasing, entertaining, educational trick of the imagination. In and of itself, a piece of art, a creation, is nothing more than the physical outcome of life’s primal creative energy. Ultimately, creating art and living life are one and the same activity, life being the continuous creation of a world of appearances being continually produced and destroyed, playfully, exhilaratingly. Hence, for art to exist, there must be an abundance of force, a personal vital intensity that spreads out into the world creating and destroying forms and objects. That is the essence of art: the drive behind it is nothing but the same creative and destructive energy underlying all action in the world.
So how exactly does this great energy work? By taming a large number of impulses to form a harmonious, beautiful whole. This process happens in the natural world, for instance: every living creature moves according to a certain rhythm, and every living creature naturally generates its own rhythm as part of its life, so much so that we can actually define life as a spontaneous, rhythmic mechanism. This is clear from our own personal experience: we would rather engage in rhythmic than disorderly effort. In sporting practice and other physical activity, by repeating the same movements in equal time intervals we use our muscles efficiently thus saving a great deal of energy and avoiding unnecessary fatigue.
The idea of rhythm underlies life and movement within both the organic world and the inorganic world. There is rhythm wherever there are forces that are not in balance with each other: cold and heat, humidity and dryness, density and expansion, light and darkness. Everything that exists has a natural tendency to fight, and thus rhythm is generated from the counteraction of opposites: the rhythm of the seasons, the cycle of day and night, rainfall and drought, hunger and satiety. As Heraclitus said, all occurrences are in some way connected to rhythm. From this we can conclude that life, existence and evolution are all about creating balance to counteract an underlying unbalance, controlling disorder through regularity and organization, creating a world, an order, from chaos.
Similarly, art is not the boundless unfolding of sentimental longings or wild fantasies, but the successful pairing of content and form, inspiration and technique. And the more the creative force behind the artwork is contained and controlled within the limits of an artistic form, of a rhythm, the more sublime the results will be. So where does this theory take us?
When we listen to good music, we experience this very human desire for depth, infinity and essence; when we look for sublime thoughts in times of calm reflection, we risk upsetting the correct balance between form and content. The best kind of music should content itself with the ways of our world and our lives, and should love them just as they are, as simple appearances, without trying to surpass them by looking for some transcendental meaning. Music, as an interplay of melodies and rhythms, is in some sense a privileged way of thinking about the truth behind appearance, since its very artistic form allows us to understand the world — not in a profound way, but as a tragic-Dionysiacal creation-destruction way. The artist’s rhythms, songs and harmonies, those which inform his work, refer to the Earth and to life, which is nothing more than a swing alternating between birth and death.
What’s interesting is that music doesn’t have to originate from pessimism or asceticism, as Schopenhauer thought. In fact, it could even become the true countermovement of pessimism: “I would only ever believe in a god that could dance”, said Nietzsche. Which is something like asking music to be the art of lightness, of versatility, of subtlety and of pure joie de vivre. What music teaches every human being is to live every moment fully by controlling the chaos, giving life a meaning and imposing a certain order, a rhythm, a shape to its unpredictability and its temporality, giving it a universal shape and directing it towards specific goals. If this process is not followed through, then one will be overcome by chaos, by a multitude of impulses, by the unpredictable, ever-changing determinations that are all around us.
In conclusion, the music that manages to overcome chaos is the type of music which can be said to be life-affirming, that which is in synchrony with human well-being and which is capable of ordering time, rather than passively and nihilistically succumbing to a seductive aural chaos which, while superficially appealing, is harmonically and melodically disorganized. This is how Nietzsche envisioned Dionysical music — on stage, the music should be playing on it own, with no distractions, free to inspire a sense of vitality. The best form of music, therefore, should be absolute music, a representation of both the beauty seen as the form of that which has been overcome, but also as the sublime which continually breaks any form induced by an impulse of a new and profound fullness.
Diego Sánchez Meca
- Written by Marina Valcárcel
Author: Marina Valcárcel.
Paula, with her closed eyes, her low undone plait and her trunk-sized proportions, could only have come from a lime tree… She seems timeless and without origin: she might come from the Mediterranean, or perhaps she’s the sister of one of the figures constructed by the Polinesian tribe.
At the 33rd edition of the ARCO fair, this sculpture by 59-year-old Barcelona artist Jaume Plensa has powerfully stood out from the rest of the works on display. The art event has found itself this year in the middle of a war of numbers: according to the latest report published by Artprice, art sales in Spain have dropped by over 60%, leading to the Government’s decision to bring forward the planned decrease in art-related VAT just ahead of the ARCO fair, giving it some much-needed breathing space.
In the midst of all this controversy is Paula, seemingly asleep and somewhat alone and distant in her Lelong Gallery stand. She seemed to attract peace, introspection, spirituality and above all authenticity in a sea of noise, business, fluctuations, cameras and, dare I say it, a certain emptiness.
Paula is one of Plensa’s representations of girls based on real models. She is nine years old and her eyes, fully closed, are a symbol of the inner energy that she holds within and with which, in a way, she illuminates us. She seems to be thinking both about the past and the future — she is a timeless piece, giving off a feeling of fragility and power and inviting us into her inner world.
Paula’s features are both latino and oriental — ultimately, she is an idealization of human race and beauty, that is to say, a totem. Observing her, one is immediately reminded of the Easter Island statues, which became ancestral representations when eyes of coral or red volcanic rock were added to them.
The human body is the central axis of Plensa’s work, perhaps because the body, particularly the head, is where the brain and the soul reside. “We must not confuse the brain with the cerebral. The brain is the wildest place in our body. Let’s give it freedom to act”, says the artist.
His faces represent a search for spirituality, bringing us straight back to El Greco. “They are like the flame that is born from the earth”, says Plensa, as if it were the famous Renaissance painter speaking.
Paula is a tremendously beautiful, precise and poetic work. The artist’s work is often full of austerity and specificity: “I look for austerity in the message. One must create the purest possible bottle so that it may protect the message on its journey, but without overshadowing the importance of the message itself.”
In his search for austerity, or better still, purity, Plensa works with materials that we associate directly with light, with whiteness, with silence and calm. Alabaster, marble, light-attracting molten iron painted white.
Having said that, Paula is unusual among his works as she is made of wood, a warmer, more organic material. Lime, in fact.
Lime wood has a clear, relaxed colour, a sort of pale yellow, reminding us of this elegant tree with its soothing leaves. We ran our fingers across its knots, the surface of this hundred-year-old lime being extraordinarily smooth and fine. We remembered Plensa’s reflection: “... I am Mediterranean and I have eyes in my fingers. I need to touch things, feel things physically — I have attempted to represent abstract concepts such as light, poetry, sound, the inner world, in a tangible, physical form that you can touch. I enjoy interacting with my own work, which is always directed towards the human being.”
- Written by Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca
Contributor: Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca,
This article is about the theatrical release in Madrid of "The Name of the Rose".
Jokes, word play, irony and a good sense of humour have always been key elements in human relations. The various forms of comedy performances, or the jokes that find their way into our daily conversations, contribute to our moments of laughter, a mechanism with a clear relaxing and therapeutic function, helping us cope with life's worries, anxieties and struggles.
In all the above situations, laughter and wellbeing are generated by our intelligence, creating a kind of oasis in the desert of seriousness. Or to put it another way: ingenuity, irony, jokes and comedy are all tools that we subconsciously use to take a serious situation lightly, or conversely to take light situations seriously.
On the opposite side of laughter is sadness and rigidity. Laughter is carefree, light, it provides us with feelings of enjoyment and wellbeing. It is our desire to increase and intensify the moments of laughter that incite and stimulate ingenuity, irony and parody, which are nothing more than intelligent forms of criticism. The times when the enjoyment we get from laughter is at its peak are the times when ironic, parodic or humorous criticism towards people, situations or institutions allows us to see their ridiculous side. That's why laughter has such a strong destructive power, and why it represents the most effective weapon against fear and authority, respect for truth, compliance with law or veneration of the sacred.
It's not such a mystery, then, that laughter is the most dangerous tool when it is directed towards the established order. This is valid in politics, science, religion, morality or social relations. It throws down the pretensions of the absolute and the sacred, used to teach us laws, traditions, truths, principles, beliefs and norms. "Laughter kills more than anger", according to Machiavelli.
It's easy to understand, then, why no totalitarian state could ever permit laughter and entertainment. The strategy of political domination is always rooted in fear, and humour is the best weapon to dissolve fear. That's the reflection that one gets from the speech by Jorge de Burgos - the blind monk in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose - when justifying the killing of all those who had read the second book of Aristotle's Poetics, lost since Antiquity and found again by chance in the library of the old monastery. It was a highly dangerous book, because its plot, developed no less by the greatest and wisest philosopher known since then, was in fact comedy and laughter:
"When the villager laughs, it makes him feel like a master, because laughter has reversed the relationship of domination. Laughter conquers his fear, which in reality is the fear of God. We must destroy this book, which presents comedy as medicine and liberation, because it brings about the overthrow of order which can only be maintained through fear."
There are certain things which weigh down on us and inexorably direct our lives: dogmas, absolutisms, the undisputed: it is only when irony and laughter show us the ridiculous side that they stop imprisoning us with their chains - something which, however, does not come without its high cost... Today, for example, one can still be persecuted and killed for showing irreverance towards the prophet Mohammed. And we are still not permitted to joke with what for some is still sacred, serious, perfect.
- Written by Clelia
Anselm Kiefer, one of Germany’s great living artists and son of an art teacher, was born in Donaueschingen in 1945 but spent his childhood in Rastatt, later studying art in Freiburg im Breisgau. He studied under the tutelage of Joseph Beuys and showed great promise from an early age, but he also studied Law and French. His beginnings in the art world were via happenings and installations; it wasn’t in fact until the 70s when he began painting.
Kiefer’s genius is best seen in his matiérisme form of art, where he confronts the past head-on, and in particular certain subjects that are still taboo from the perspective of German Nazi history.
His famous painting “Margarethe” represents poet Paul Celan’s experiences in concentration camps, which the painter gleaned from Celan’s poems.
During the 70s, Kiefer began to emphasize the mysticism of the Jewish and German communities through works which contained specific symbols, letters, names, historical landmarks, etc., inspired in no small part by his wide-ranging literary knowledge. In his paintings one can clearly see the influence of his tutor Beuys, as well as of key philosophers such as Heidegger and Foucault. His language is characterized by historical and mythological themes, which he uses in an attempt to keep the traditions of his land alive in the present, but also to face the errors of the past and to heal the deep wounds left behind by Nazism, which explains the Hitler and Wagner references in his work, as well as the Nibelungen and Kabbalah symbolism.
He started working with thick layers of paint on wood and glass, on collages, using monochromatic colours and mixing with plaster, lead, ash, etc. In works such as The Order of the Angels (1983) he even used military equipment and scrap material.
In the 90s he travelled the world, continuing to work on such universal themes as the mind and spirit, without leaving behind his interest in history and myth. In 1993 he moved to Barjac, near Avignon, where he has since set up a studio where he can work with different materials.
Kiefer merges photography, painting, sculpture and collage in a unique way; among his best solo exhibitions are a series of works exhibited in Karlsruhe in 1969 titled Occupations, also exhibited at the Documenta event in Kassel (1977, 1982 and 1987).
He has taken part in a number of art Biennales: Venice (1980), Städtische Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf (1984) and Paris (1985). Bilbao’s Guggenheim houses a large selection of his work, but the most relevant is his retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie, consisting of 140 works ranging from 1962 to 2011. This exhibition, more than any other, allows visitors a deep-dive into the artist’s personal reality, a world both figurative and abstract at the same time.
The artist exhibited last year in A Coruña with a collection of his sculptures and paintings, together with videos about the artist’s work by Tino Calabuig and a book publication on his career.
His work is visionary: he often pays tribute to German thinkers, poets and philosophers through historical resources and theatrical techniques, aided by temporal perspective. His interpretations are magnificent and very different to those of other painters. His overarching belief is in the dialogue between Man and history, and his mission is to revitalize art while facing up to the horror lived by his people, reconciling it with the past.
His next exhibition will take place this September in UK — the Royal Academy will host a retrospective of his works, including illustrations, watercolours, sculptures, books, photographs, installations and of course paintings.
Anselm Kiefer is a masterful creator, highly articulate in art, an intellectual who is able to communicate a message in each one of his history-laden pieces, with all the ambition of the greatest Masters of art.
- Written by Clelia
John Currin was born in 1962 in Boulder, Colorado. He studied art in the United States at a number of different art schools.
His figurative style of painting unapologetically focuses on human sexuality and often on gestures and poses. He at once admires and transforms the work of the great Masters, and his approach to femininity is overtly satirical and subtly provocative.
His broad knowledge of 19th-century forms of painting — in terms of colour, composition and overall aesthetic — by French and Renaissance artists can be seen in his work, as well as his references to a wide variety of artistic movements.
The artist’s work represents a fascinating dialogue between contemporary and high culture, comfortably mixing painting with popular magazines and models while deforming the female body. These are clearly bourgeois works which play on the mix between irony and 80s sentimentality. In the female portraits in particular, the influence of Cranach and Italian mannerism is evident.
Currin’s fascination with body cult, social hypocrisy and sexual desire is present in works such as “Thanksgiving” (2003), where moral freedom is portrayed in the faces of three women feasting: a reference to modern society’s vulgarity within a scene of great beauty.
In the past he has participated in collective shows together with other great painters in New York’s Whitney Museum and also in London’s Whitechapel gallery, but his first solo exhibition was “Mid-Career Retrospective” at the MCA in Chicago, consisting of works from the 90s to the present day which subsequently made their way to London’s Serpentine Gallery.
Currin’s style has been called misogynistic and pornographic, but that’s not stopped his paintings from enjoying huge commercial success.
In “The Dogwood Thieves” (2010), displayed in the Gagosian Gallery, the bright red ribbon is a clear example of the sharpness of his vision — although Currin faithfully represents the details of life, the end image is almost unnatural, and it’s precisely these small natural/unnatural details which carve him apart from other painters of his generation. Each minute detail gives off a grotesque, absurd effect, which at the same time transmits to the viewer the artist’s great skill.
Another of his important works is “The Women of Franklin Street” (2009): the sexually explicit painting represents three loosely dressed women — the one in the middle clearly displaying a sadistic demeanour through her almost frozen facial expression — in a scene that somewhat furthers the idea of the female form as object.
Admittedly, some of his paintings seem to be mocking society’s moral values, but for all of their pornographic content, they are still technically excellent pictorial works.
Currin is often criticized for being a masculine artist whose representations of women are simply of bad taste, yet the controversy and different interpretations of his creative work only serve to heighten his appeal and interest among the public.
His paintbrush is provocative, yet it manages to skillfully make art out of the tasteless. He combines the traditional with the contemporary in his drive to show us ugly, grotesque figures, without judgement, with a mix of sensuality and common vulgarity.
“I've always liked things that pretend they're sensationalistic entertainment yet have a hidden or deeper structure — something that's absolutely mediocre but perfect, like a soft rock song that's perfectly memorable, that has this incredibly long life and persistence, that's so average but crystalline.” John Currin.