Tag Archives: Art History

Contempotary Art (8) Chris Marker

Chris Marker (b. Neuilly-sur-Seine, France 1921) – actual  name: Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve – multimedia artist, photographer, film director, writer. Lives in Paris and does not grant interviews. When asked for a picture of himself, he usually offers a photograph of a cat instead (so far as the gossip says). His cat is named Guillaume-en-egypte. (See more details in my previous post here: http://wp.me/p8s8b-66)

Creator of: La Jetée (1962), A Grin Without a Cat (1977), Sans Soleil (1983) and AK (1985) a documentary on Akiro Kurosawa. From the recent projects: in 2005 Marker created a multimedia piece for The Museum of Modern Art in New York titled Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men (influenced by T.S. Elliot’s poem); in 2008: Immemory – an interactive video produced  by Centre Pompidou, created out of fascination by digital technology. 

Marker is as enigmatic, brilliant and witty in his collages above as he would be behind his directorial camera viewfinder. One simply cannot get enough of this artist’s vision – it escapes one’s full comprehension and intuitive potential. It’s a one-man world-view, a singularity which resists any thorough penetration. A beauty and power of human uncanniness captured into a compelling, enthrilling  visual extravaganza. Just keep exploring…

Site about Marker’s view of the world:  Chris Marker

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Troubled Art – Chaim Soutine

He was that kind of a difficult snotty kid, who appeared from nowhere as if fully formed, then, like a meteor glowing with dark, perpetual fire he flashed through life fulfilled with struggles, suffering, torment and passions. He left one of the most compelling collections of paintings in the Modern Art; despite of the quite ferocious competition from Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani and many others…

Chaim Soutine was a painter of his own obsessions. Only. Buying his place in the art world at a high price of the family rejection, exile, extreme poverty, illness and the life-long emotional disturbance he remained an outsider in Paris of Modernists; moody, clumsy Jewish oddball from funny-sounding village (Smilovitchy) in Belarus.

He painted like a man possessed, staining canvasses with his own guts and each time risking that he won’t survive his own probe. He handled paint like one handles a chunk of meat – he penetrated it deeply as if with a knife in order to spread it thickly across the canvas in violent patterns. An ultimate, genius painting animal – no real training, no theory or concepts behind, no alternations or preparations – only the creative act, urgent, necessary, exhausting and virtuoso at the same time.

He was often called ‘the painter of death’ due to his eccentric fancies for smelly carcasses and hanged turkeys; yet – I cannot agree with that. For Soutine’s perpetual greed and hunger for life is much more stronger than his apparent melancholic flirting with the extinction forces… His forests and fields, dead birds and fish seemed to be endowed with life simply because they  breathe with Soutine’s own fever, intensity, complexity and beauty of the character. His admired master – Rembrandt has taught him that – that reality is there to be respected; the materiality, sensuality of things is at the foundation of a spiritual strength. That’s why Soutine was probably the only major painter in Fauvists and Cubists’ Paris having painting only from life and with no interest at all in participating in the revolution going on in art at that moment.

I have a strange fondness for that dirty Jewish kid, I envy his purest, unadulterated ‘gut feeling’ of paint and creative experience; and when I was looking for his grave at Montparnasse Cemetery (it took me a bit – the grave itself is a very simple, horizontal tombstone in a small, Jewish part of the place) I had in mind the words of a distinguished Polish art historian (Waldemar Lysiak) – that Chaim Soutine was forever a banished child – the one thrown out of a nest, who has never fully managed to exorcise his childhood and to grant the world his absolution… And he painted, again an again, the most poignant images of little children (just like the one featured above) – alone on a road, with ominous, stormy world towering over them… Little exiles, at home in no place; so sad yet so truthful – and with no sentiment or self-pity at all…

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Giotto and Dante – Whilt (2)

Well, on this Giotto’s portrait (left) the author of “Divine Comedy” looks … truly divine. This proud profile of a good-looking, wealthy young man compromises strangely the feminine delicacy with a will and mind power of a genius poet, who was about to – like no one else before or after him – lead his mesmerized readers through the magical circles of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradiso – these three ultimate universes, each human being is likely to experience on different stages of his/her life.

There was only two years gap between them – the painter and the poet, they shared their beloved Florentine sky, yet Giotto (1267-1337) was lucky not to finish as he had started – shepherding his father’s flocks, while Dante (1265-1321) went through all the adventures of a young patrician – contracted marriage, madly-divine ‘courtly’ love (not for the wife) and an ill-fated involvement in a political conflict – all most probably before these two met and the fresco portrait was painted in Bargello Chapel in Florence.  And this may be the only image of him having been painted on his land of birth – the story afterwards goes, as most of us know, sadly for the poet – he was banished from Florence for the lifetime – the fate he considered as a form of death, though he had opportunities to redeem himself from it (he refused to pay fines as a sort of ‘bribe’ for his return, for he believed to be innocent in the first place). Traveling around Europe and painting in words – in a language not heard before (his Italian is considered as the most perfect/standard form till now) –  scenes of both – angelic beauty and tenderness and these of darkness so deep and real, that only maybe Bosh’s imagination could have rivaled in horror – he must have thought sometimes about that unfinished portrait of him, left behind in the paradise lost.

And Giotto? He remained in Florence leaving it only to execute the prestigious commissions, like that from Padua which became his opus magnum. Between 1303 and 1310 he decorated (in frescos) Scrovegni Chapel there (called also Arena Chapel, since it localization is believed to be on the site of the Roman arena). What was and is still so fascinating about the works there, is not that easy to spot for the modern eyes. One has to keep in mind the exact historic and cultural context in mind – that was an era of iconic representations where humans portrayed looked like being ashamed of their own flesh, their terrestrial roots. Balancing somewhere between the pale perfectness of angels and gods and the heroic mysticism of saints, they hardly ever touched the ground with their feet (think about Byzantine models)… Then, let’s look at the Lamentation from the Cappella degni Scrovegni (below): the place is real, we can hear the sand and rocks being replaced by the figures, and – what really matters – the emotions are real – and how powerfully real! –  we’ve got the black rainbow of pain, anguish, disbelief, grief… even angels above abandon themselves in expressing their deep sorrow… How Dante would put it? (Canto III, Inferno):

Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, accents of anger, words of suffering, and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands-all went to make tumult that will whirl forever through that turbid, timeless air, like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.

There was something really exciting going on in peoples’ minds and hearts just at the dawn of 14th century (nota bene – Dante is believed to write the first books of  Divine Comedy just around 1303-1310, that would match perfectly, time-wise, Giotto’s efforts in the chapel…) They were recognizing their humanity in its purely emotional, individualistic expression, not being particularly shy or frightened of exploring the more dark, gothic, sinister sides of their identity. There is something glorious about Giotto’s figures – despite their fully dimensional and convincing fleshiness and humanness, they also exist in another dimension – there is an incredible concentration/intensity in their eyes, mimics – you can experience something similar watching couples with so-called chemistry between them. Giotto’s gods, saints and ‘ordinary’ mortals have that chemistry – not necessary sexual but, I would say – existential/spiritual energy and tension – like a string between souls fully stretched, the magic of an existence after it has been struck by a bolt of a discovery, that there are other worlds, entire universes of beings and things so similar, yet so different, so familiar yet so alien, so painful yet so sublime…

Let’s finish with Dante for, unsurprisingly, his voice signs in words what Giotto was trying to convey in images:

But then my mind was struck by light that flashed and, with this light, received what it had asked. Here  force failed my high fantasy; but my desire and will were moved already – like a wheel revolving uniformly – by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. (Paradiso, Conclusion)
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A new history of art…

I would like to recommend Paul Johnson’s “Art – a new history” to anyone who enjoys well-written thought-provoking books, treating elevated or even daunting subjects (and world art history belongs to one of them) from an adorably challenging, personal perspective.

Johnson’s essay-like reflections are likely to make your brows rise highly, when – for example – he slides unashamedly through ‘big’ names and ‘important’ art movements paying attention to only few chosen ones and ridiculing or ignoring the rest; sometimes you cannot help smiling when this critic’s wit and an unique world (should write art-) view makes you think twice if he is not, by a chance or his genius, right in his bold or challenging hypotheses.

Generally, it’s a refreshing, pleasant lecture; one of those few titles when a brick-like considerable volume just melts down under your excited perusal. And there is no worry that yet another author fascinated with an artist A or a style B will try to establish some new hagiographies or just to repeat the old ones, as dozens of polite, academic records on art history do. Only universal category here for art to be one is its ”fineness” and without a wishy-washy talk about the beauty lying in ”the eyes of a beholder” (this is quite modern view, based on a belief in the omnipresent relativity and subjectivity of everything) – there is a magnificence, grace and mystery in the finest examples of artworks as old as tens of thousands of years or just new-born, that appeal with a big force and immediately to any ‘ordinary’ individual. For Paul Johnson nothing less than these awesome and very rare productions of human spirit and hand can be called ‘fine art’ and be worthy of a deeper consideration.

I find his concept of “Fashion Art” especially stirring. This kind of art (but ‘fine’ only with few exceptions) is focused on the social conformity and novelty for the sake of novelty; it – just like fashion – keeps on changing wanting to be popular and ‘stylish’, all at the expense of its real content and quality/aesthetics. The author understands most of the contemporary art (beginning from Cubism) to be the “Fashion Art”. Disputable? Anyway, it’s hard to ignore the attractiveness of this view.

Obviously I wouldn’t suggest reading Johnson’s on his own in order to obtain an acceptable knowledge on a theme – as clever and as his ‘art history’ appears is just too biased, too idiosyncratic to serve as a compendium, nor it was meant to be.


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