bored with Picasso

Art History seems particularly prone to the opposition of Great Principles. Like “Abstraction versus Representation” or “Essentialism versus Individualism” or “Idealism versus Realism”.

Quite an age-old philosophical debate of course – the permanence and universality of “essences” or “abstract categories” versus the fleeting profusion of individual things and humans, which are but poor, imperfect instances of ideal types and universal concepts.

In art the tension between these poles has taken on many different guises.
An Italian early renaissance painter would have aimed at universality through the painting of ideal specimens – his Northern counterpart would have rendered reality in all its teeming diversity: painting real landscapes filled with a great many of real people and bathing in real light .
And what by now has turned out to be the mainstream art of the 20th century, once declared itself revolutionary in its reneging on realist representations - blithely going for abstractions and concepts. (1)

I’m not going to choose sides here. I am too fond of the plurality of schools and currents in art, and of how they show the diversity of human thought and perception. (2)

But there is a certain kind of formulatic abstraction in art, which seems to me a gross and boring de-humanization of reality. And then I think of two figures who loom large in art history: Picasso and Raphael. Bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble, I admit. (3) Both are outstanding visual virtuoso’s . And at one time I have certainly been impressed by their work, and by the creative energy and the continuous visual reinventions of Picasso in particular.

But how utterly bored I have become with them … perhaps because of their shallowness of feeling, a shallowness disguised in formal virtuosity. Theirs is the kind of formalism that can only for a short while pose as “universality”.
To me, now, Picasso is the leering, predatory gaze at its abstracting and reductionist worst – in his work any remaining traces of individual human presences have been reduced to grotesque symbols of anonymous lust. (4) And Raphael … his madonna’s could of course hardly be accused of being lust-objects – no, theirs is a different anonymity: that of the cloyingly insipid, sentimental cliché.

And that’s my point: anonymity is not the same as universality. The universality of the human condition is not to be found in abstractions without empathy … the universality of the human experience can only be found, burning in each passing moment, in each individual man or woman, in lives marked by time. (5)

And how can an artist render that universality? By his or her attention and respect for the individual. And must the artist then merely copy and represent appearances? Why no – it’s rather a question of recreating an existence , an experience – which means incorporating more than first meets the eye, going beyond appearances to capture life. (6) Art may well be a matter of love then … yes, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder then thre must be love in the eye of the artist.

So no wonder I was moved by a current exhibition of Lucian Freud paintings (7) The way he renders the ravages of flesh – the bulkiness of a body – the interiority of a gaze. He is a realist – he is not afraid of repulsive realities – he is not afraid of mortality – he does not beautify in the conventional, idealist sense.
But he honors his models, oh yes he honors them by granting them an absolutely, radically individual existence.

Hence, how intensely do I disagree with the eminent art critic David Sylvester who found that Freud’s work lacked a sense of the human condition, because it would be wanting in “universality”: “ Freud seems to see the world at close range through his own eyes only, painting attractive or repulsive sights according to his personal whim.”

But another critic, Martin Gayford, comes brilliantly to Freud’s defense: “it is Freud’s treatment of the world as made up entirely of unique individual things that is his greatest strength. He has resisted the tendency of modernist art to subdue the complexity of the world to a style or a concept […] to Freud, everything has a degree of individuality. Consequently, everything he paints is a portrait. Every such work is a personal encounter”.

And therefore one stares and stares at Freud’s paintings – at those intensely individual people, so vulnerable in their imperfections, so utterly subjected to time, so very much there and part of a lumpy and often pasty reality, recreated in paint.

Um, a couple of foot-notes, yes :
(1) But in the very long history of (not only western) art, it is not realist representation that is the dominant tendency. Abstract and ornamental art, or symbolic art illustrating religious revelations, seem to be much more preponderant. So it would rather be the attention for individual human existence and experience which is the exception, and therefore revolutionary ....
(2) Very brief ode to diversity in art: I love Cézanne’s solidly deconstructed fragments of reality, Kandinsky’s tormented spiritual abstractions, El Lissitzky’s playful forms suspended in mid air. I adore the limpid beauty and clarity of the 16th century Venetians as well as the 17th century brooding chiaroscuros. I am moved by the quality of textures and light in 15th century Flemish painters as I am by the tactile sense of volume of their Italian colleagues.
(3) Strange bed-fellows
(4) The profusion of works done by Picasso in old age have so abundantly exploited his cubist tricks that they have become empty formulas. And then his lust for life and sex, at a younger younger age perhaps still inspiring awe because of its sheer vitality (though already repulsive in its egotist loveless-ness) – finally dissolves in numerous pathetic sketches of bouncy old satyrs lusting after meekly reclining female models . And his in-humaneness is not just an inevtable corrolary of abstraction: even in his classical/monumental phase the humans he paint lack all individual life. There’s only his blue, “pathetic” period that may offer a glimpse of possible human sympathy.
(5) But perhaps Picasso – with his utter disrespect for the individual – did offer a cruelly relevant mirror to the 20th century : a century which in Europe was brutally marked by ideologies that cared very little indeed about individual lives.
(6) In that sense a painted portrait will always outdo a photograph – the painter can put in his painting layers of feelings & attitudes & thoughts & lived life & undercurrents & hints & guesses – layers an objectively registering camera-eye could never register.
(7) A Retrospective at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague - I first came under the spell of a Lucian Freud painting over 10 years ago – “standing by the rags” – the vulnerability of flesh – the way that head rested on the arm , the tactile presence and texture of both flesh and rags …

What kind of blog-posts could an Easter-Monday yield?

1) The frivolous option

Well, I could have a go at a blatantly frivolous post – filled with grinning Easter bunnies & melting chocolate eggs. But, um, 't was rather the snow that was melting this morning, when I cycled through the wintry park, which was incongruously full of spring flowers and twittering birds. And with big blobs of wet snow falling off the tree- branches, and a wet frosty air one could get drunk on, while swoosh-ingly riding uphill.

2) The tragic option

But on the other hand. Easter! Such an opportunity for deep & doom-laden reflections! With its great tales of Suffering, Passion and Resurrection … And yes, later this day I may still very well switch off the phone, draw shut the curtains and immerse myself once again in one of Bach’s passions, these heartrending and ultimately redeeming reenactments of intensely humane passions - anguish, humiliation, treason, guilt, pain, love, sorrow , hope …

How not to feel moved by the Agony in the Garden - when this man, utterly forsaken and alone, prays to “let this cup pass from me”. How not to shudder at the torture of this “man of sorrows” , “derided, mocked and spat upon”. It is of course telling that, a few years ago, while contemplating a 15th century print of “the Mocking of Christ” (1) , I actually recognized the expressions of cruel glee on the faces of the persecutors: it were the very same expressions of sadistic delight as one could see on photos that circulated at the time, photos of the torturing at the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib.

So yes, the human condition being what it is, I can quite relate to the need for redemptive stories about a god who sends his son to partake, up to and including his very death, in agonizing human suffering.

3) The true story option

But of course I can also quite understand the need to celebrate budding flowers, fertile bunnies and tasty chocolate eggs. So for once, I might try not to give in to my penchant for ponderous posts.

And I might try to fill the page with more lively stuff, eg with an account of last Saturday’s pilgrimage, together with a friend, to Oscar Wilde’s and Marcel Proust’s graves at the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Yes, I could tell about Saturday’s photo-shoot adventures with M. in Paris! About the transportation of a tripod and a bag full of cameras in crowded metro-cars . About a raincoat (not mine!) carelessly cast aside in a downpour, only to be appropriately attired (il faut souffrir pour l'art) for a frivolous tribute to dear Oscar: a pink-glossed lipstick kiss pressed on his slightly pompous white tomb (again: not my lips!). Or about the waiting for the errant sun to break through the clouds so as to be able to take a photo of a shadow falling on Proust’s grave (quite a modest black stone), but for lack of enduring sunlight we had to resort to a black umbrella silhouette picture instead (yes, my silhouette and my umbrella this time). Or I could tell about the two cute and obliging boys with a map, who helped us to locate Sarah Bernhardt’s tomb, far less flamboyant a tomb than expected. And about M. bravely soldiering on with her dandy-esque boots, limping on the cemetery’s pathways paved with cobble stones.

4) Degenerating anyhow into needlessly ponderous ruminations

Ay, but can I just like that put M. in a story of mine ? I must confess here that I suffer from an outrageous kind of almost superstitious discreetness: thou shall not make likenesses of living people – thou shall not appropriate other people’s existences for your stories.
And surely that’s why, though an avid street photographer, I rarely take photos of people in the street: who am I to think that I could sum up what they really are about? Or, alternatively, who am I to merely take a photo of their appearance in a brief moment of existence, without bothering to capture their essence? And if I could capture other people’s souls, who am I to publicize them on my blog? So this blog as well as my Flickr-photo-pages are to remain eerily depopulated … ?

Ah, portraits …. Whether it are pictures in papers or magazines, taken by a professional photographer, or just snapshots, it’s rare that, starting from a mere portrait of someone I do not know, I feel able to fathom that person’s soul. I’ve often gazed at photos of unknown people– but however accurately they render each physical detail , however long & intensely I stare, I cannot make out who is behind that face. Maybe painters can do it, have the outer form reflect the inner workings of the soul? Like Rembrandt’s self-portraits – where every wrinkle and fold of his ravaged face cries out to our hearts.
Well, perhaps self-portraits are always more telling, expressing what the artist or the photographer wishes to express about her- or himself?

Oh and then there are the photos of people I do know personally, of people I love …. How evocative and poignant the portrait then becomes! Because the portrait then is a reminder, a token of everything we love and appreciate in that person. And because it allows us to sense the whole of the person in one intuitive, instantaneous grasp that no literary description could ever offer.

(1) the picture is not Schongauer’s “Mocking of Christ” (did not find a reproduction of that one) , but his “Carrying of the Cross” , scanned out of the Colmar-museum catalogue

oh, Vienna .......

There is no escaping from the curse of a wandering, reflective mind. Refusing to be completely engrossed in any single activity, this kind of wayward mind will always stubbornly branch out into numerous ruminative thought-streams. Though clearly not a recipe for swift practicality (1), this affliction does bring precious moments of illumination. For instance, when two or more streams of consciousness suddenly meet and echo each other - then the whirling thought-threads momentarily seem to cohere in a tapestry that connects past and present, reality and imagination - and offers a glimpse of meaning (2) .

So when I sat there waiting for the plane to Vienna, I was not just preoccupied with the logistics of travelling, but also worrying about the next day’s meetings. And chewing on the past weekend’s events. And reminiscing about another Vienna-trip, so many years earlier (by night train! which had seemed a romantic idea at the time, but had me arriving exhausted and rattled).

But most of all, sitting in that waiting area, I was still immersed in the tragic suspense of the book that has been haunting me for the past weeks : Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost” – a book in which he relates his meandering quest to find out more about the Polish branch of his Jewish family, in particular about a certain family of six, a mother and father and four daughters, who have all perished in the Holocaust.
His odyssey throughout the world, in search for witnesses, for memento’s, brings him also to Vienna. Vienna, which before the war used to be an intellectual centre of European Jewry, but now …, now... , as Mendelsohn wryly writes home on a postcard, : “Vienna is still beautiful, but no Jews – not even dead ones” (3).
And therefore, I am particularly moved, when amongst the waiting passengers I notice two Orthodox Jews and a man wearing a yarmulke.

When the plane lands it is already dark – with the neon lit airport buildings looking desolate and sinister. I wring myself into the airport shuttle bus, already cram-full with tall and heavy-set males, all speaking ominous, guttural languages (Polish? Czech? Russian?), all looking particularly ruthless & tough. When hailing a cab at the taxi-stand, I am relieved to see a female taxi driver pulling up. We drive on in silence, past eerily lit gleaming smokestack industries, and then through deserted suburbs with old and large apartment-buildings - which must have witnessed quite some spooky scenes ... in the thirties under streetfighters' & nazi-rule ... in 45, during the looting & plundering & free-for all "liberation" by the Russian Army... .

Only at the hotel the menacing air makes way for a more placid Viennese atmosphere – with its faded carpets, its once-elegant furniture, its prints of long forgotten famous men on the wall, the hotel room exudes a slightly decayed formality and feels oddly provincial. But then, what else is Vienna, but a provincial outpost still decorated as the capital of an empire?

The next morning I get up an hour too early by mistake (my mobile’s clock lives in its own time zone). I only realize this in the U-Bahn, on my way to The Important Business Meeting. At the fourth station with a clock stubbornly telling me it is only 8 and not 9 AM – I’m forced to admit that it may perhaps be my own time-keeping which is off (so that’s why I was alone at the breakfast table …). But oh, blessed be the cunning ways of my distractedness, offering my otherwise too dutiful self a clandestine hour of free roaming.

So I have time to look at the art deco gates of the city park, to wander off a grandiose street and even to sit down in a stylish Viennese Kaffee-haus with the most delicious coffee and cakes smells. It’s odd, I almost appreciate this hour of Viennese sights and smells more than I enjoyed the real Vienna tourist trip back when I was 28.
But then, perhaps Vienna is not a city for twenty year somethings … at any rate not for the doubting & searching 28 year old I was. Back then I experienced Vienna as either too cloyingly Biedermeier sweet, too Wiener Sanger Knaben, too Sound Of Music, or as too pompous & overbearing & grandiose. (4) Only now can I wistfully value its melancholy blend of frivolous fragments of past glories and of ominous reminders of Europe's great tragedies.

On the other hand, that first Vienna trip was not completely unfruitful ... – the visit, so long ago, to the vast Kunsthistorisches Museum, where I wandered about without any art historical clue, did plant the seed for my later love of Old Masters and for many an art inspired pilgrimage. And that somber, soul-searching Caravaggio painting with the young and victorious David looking wistfully at the slain head of the older Goliath… Yes that painting made me upon my return acquire a Caravaggio monography, the first of many art books to fill my book-shelves....

And so I sit reminiscing in the Kaffee-haus, soothed by the clatter of cutlery, by the sight of impeccably groomed waiters carrying off sumptuous pieces of cake to tables where patrons peruse the papers and sip their coffee. But then the hour of freedom is up and the day of role playing can no longer be delayed. ….

And now, I cannot help but wondering, what would that tormented 28-year old make of my current self? Of the years lived? The people loved? The books read? The paintings seen? The miles travelled? What would she make of the self, who later that day was sifting through business papers and data, tapping away on a laptop amongst a bunch of young, ambitious, clean shaven consultants, equally furiously tapping on keyboards. What would she make of the self who in the evening, avoiding any further business contacts, is having a pizza on her own, so as to be able to read on in the Mendelsohn book – to immerse myself again in his tragic stories.

But then again, why would I grant that 28-year old any particular rights to judge my current self? Much better to choose as a judge the boisterous & rebellious & wise 82 year old lady I will be!

No blogpost without footnotes , so here goes:
(1) people have been known to fall off their bikes while ruminating about some painting instead of watching their bike’s wheels go round
(2) no wonder I have always had this thing for polyphonic music – where independent musical lines each do their own thing, but do attain an overall harmony, sounding note-against-note (counterpoint)
(3) Upon seeing the conspicuously empty newly plotted Jewish section of the Viennse Central Cemetery, Mendelsohn muses that even “cemeteries can be bereft” . “The New Jewish Section [of the Zentralfriedhof] was largely empty because all of the Jews who, in the normal course of things, would have been buried there had, in fact, died in ways they hadn’t foreseen.”
(4) Vienna in Mendelsohn’s words: “its grandiose beauties, the epically scaled baroque and Beaux-Arts buildings whose always slightly outsized details, the inflated cornices and overwrought moldings, were once a symbol of excessive imperial self-confidence, and now can seem almost embarrassing, given that the empire for which these ornaments were designed has vanished [….] the tenacity with which it clings to discarded formalities of another era”


Introduction (aka dodging & procrastinating)

While outside the wind is howling and rain is battering the windows I’m rummaging through bunches of old postcards. Souvenirs devoutly brought home from pilgrimages to Europe’s great museums and galleries. And the mere sight of these reproductions helps to dispel my Sunday-gloom. So often, while brooding, we pass too pessimist a judgment on life and its dreariness – all but forgetting the invigorating jolt art can bring.

Representational images & aesthetics …. by what masochistic reflex have they so often been discredited or even banned? Human history is strewn with self-righteous iconoclasts, ranging from Jewish, Christian or Islamic purists over rational Positivists to trendy, secular Post-Modernists .

And after the decline of the Antique mastery of representational art, it has been a very close call indeed for Western Art. Not only had artistic skills been lost, but also there were the deep-rooted theological suspicions of all images, nay of anything remotely pleasing to the senses.
Fortunately Christianity has always had its fair share of casuist sophistry, so the icono-phobic fundamentalists could be swayed from their ascetic course by arguing that “the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material” (1) and “man may rise to the contemplation of the divine through the senses” (2). Wise words indeed! Paving the way for an extra-ordinary blossoming of religious representational art in the next 500 years or so.

Disclaimers :
- I am not a devout catholic.
- I am not a sentimental person.
- I do not burn candles in front of effigies.

What I really wanted to write about :

Well, after having disclaimed what had to be disclaimed, I can now confess that what I really wanted to write about today is my own love of madonna’s (3) …

Take those very early medieval statues. They’re so clumsy and sturdy, and yet so suffused with love and trust. The Madonna as a solid fortress, as the Seat of Wisdom – knowing of all the worries and all the slings and arrows of this outrageous world. Or the Madonna warily looking out into the world, broodingly holding the child on her lap – stern, even with a hint of premonitory sadness. Yes, the kind of figure, full of compassion and wisdom, one could pray to in dark & violent times. Sometimes these medieval statues are in torn and worm-eaten wood – almost sharing our own transience. Is it idolatry then when I gasp and even have to fight back tears whenever I meet one of those time worn statues in a dusty museum room? (4)

Over the centuries madonna’s became ever more graceful & gracious, gently swaying with tender love. From figures painted or sculpted with honest pathos they became staples of sentimentality or of vacuous, almost abstract virtuosity. (see (5) for a rant about Raphael)
But then there is a painter such as Giovanni Bellini, whose paintings are endowed with a sense of atmosphere and light that soothes and elates. And who has painted many a sweet Madonna for many a village and city church. Sentimental? Perhaps, but a brooding, contemplative sentimentality that evokes thoughtfulness and compassion. His pictures are saved from corniness by “the imprint of sadness, that none of his madonna’s altogether lacks” (6)& (7)

No-Nonsense Footnotes and links to more pictures!

(1) Abbot Suger : pioneer of breathtakingly sensual gothic art
Pseudo-Denis : famous but obscure early 6th century theologian
(3) When you
Google-query madonna , the first two hits are about madonna, the singer…. (& she dominates the first page). Sign of the times indeed (or rather indicative of the, perhaps, hum, ever so slightly outdated nature of this pre-occupation of mine ). But anyway, here’s a primer on madonna’s in art (with lovely pictures! Do click on!!! )
(4) Blurry pictures devoutly taken in Lille, Auxerre, Namur, and one Liège Postcard
(5) I am quite allergic to the madonna’s painted by that paragon of renaissance art,

However formally brilliant, his madonna’s exude not an atom of felt life, give no hint of any inner life whatsoever, let alone that they would convey any intimations of human suffering.
(6) This is in fact a phrase borrowed from the art historian Friedlaender and he wrote it about another painter (Quentin Metsys), but well , it is so particularly apt for Bellini too.
(7) From the
London National Gallery site