Jana Euler: High In Amsterdam. The Sky Of Amsterdam (The Stedelijk Museum- Amsterdam)

Hi everyone!

Thanks for checking out CanvasAndCrumpets.  As you may know, I just got back from my Euro Trip and I’ve been posting about the exhibits I saw in order. I recently posted about three different exhibitions I saw in England. You can check them out here, here, and here. After a week of museuming and eating bangers and mash with my English cousins, I flew to the Netherlands.  On my flight I was seated in the middle of a large bachelor party, next to the groom-to-be-himself. If you have the chance to travel with a very drunk bachelor party you absolutely must take it because it was the best flight I’ve ever had. There was also a large party of middle-aged-women wearing shirts that said “F*** off, I’m with the birthday boy” and a rather emo looking high school student wearing a shirt that said “F*** off, I’m the birthday boy.” All of the women were screaming.

And so, I arrived in Amsterdam slightly tipsy and very excited. The city did not disappoint (as always!) At the absolute top of my list was a trip to the Stedelijk Museum. The Stedelijk is where I fell in love with Dutch art, and where I did much of my research for my senior thesis. I’m obsessed with the art, the building, the library, and the now deceased museum director Willem Sandberg. (I’m currently reading a compilation of Sandberg interviews).

On view at the Stedelijk right now is the exhibition, “Jana Euler: High in Amsterdam. The Sky of Amsterdam.” While it is difficult to read that sentence without immediately thinking of Dutch drug policy, it would be remiss to read off the German artists’ trippy canvases as mere mushroom-inspired dreamscapes. Euler’s works are explorations of different genres. She takes the concepts and strategies associates with each and plays with them, bending them inside-out. The Stedelijk describes Euler’s work as being “recognizable not by how it looks, but by its effect.” Let’s take a look at my favorite work from this show and see Euler’s process in action.

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Here is the ethereal Understanding Doubts and Logic (2017):

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For this work Euler airbrushed acrylic paint onto the surface of the canvas and then used oil paint on top. The two layers operate as separate paintings as well as aspects of a finished whole. The airbrushed layer features a multi-limbed and multi-breasted female figure resting in a garden filled with flowers. The oil layer features shoes, nail polish, and fake eyelashes. If you look closely, you’ll also see that there are tiny pictures of men sitting at a table with a bottle of wine painted in thin brushstrokes of oil paint. Stranger yet is the fact that white breastmilk from each of the figure’s many breasts pours into the bottles at the men’s tables. Oil is also used to spell the phrase “understanding doubts and logic” and to connect this phrase to a yellow sun by way of a thin yellow line.

Now, I have a lot of thoughts about this painting and what it might “mean.” So I’ll begin by saying that Jana Euler’s work is not explicitly symbolic. It does not fit into an allegorical box that matches icon with signification. Rather, it suggests a multiplicity of signification for various images across the canvas. It points to potential interpretations without maintaining that it must be read a specific way. And so, my reading should be seen as one angle of many that fit Euler’s multifaceted work.

I see Understanding Doubts and Logic as a blend of two genres: the female nude, and the sort of impressionistic cafe paintings that were popular in late 19th-century Parisian art. The airbrushed painting is the nude, as the naked figure takes up the majority of the canvas. Her head heads several inches below the top of the canvas, and her many feet end slightly before it, or have their toes chopped off by the bottom of the canvas. Because she fills the canvas, the focus of the painting is on her. The viewer’s eyes are free to travel across the surface of the painting, consuming different parts of her body at every turn. We as viewers fill the role of the voyeur in the relationship between viewer and subject in this genre. Euler is keenly aware of this dynamic and playfully mocks it by multiplying the subject’s breasts. Euler seems to be saying, “I know you’re going to look at this woman, so why don’t I give you a lot more to look at!” The artist has also multiplied the amount of feet in the painting. I find this very amusing, as it is clear to all that feet were never the focus of the viewer’s gaze.

Another way that Euler plays into this genre is through the figure’s gaze. In classic female nudes like this and this the female figure looks away from the viewer, allowing him to consume her without confrontation. Making eye contact would break the illusion that she wants to be consumed and is there for male consumption. She would be individualized. No longer staring at an anonymous doll, the viewer would feel confronted by the figure and embarrassed by his blatant ogling. And so, restricting eye contact allows the viewer to consume the figure in peace. Like the academic nudes do, Euler’s figure looks away demurely, allowing the viewer to get lost in her multitude of breasts and legs.

However, the longer we stare at the figure, the more we begin to feel that we are being made fun of. Not only has Euler multiplied the significance of the figure’s gender through the multiplication of breasts, but she has also aggressively emphasized other aspects of femininity. The long, curling eyelashes added over the airbrushed layer of paint are so ludicrously long it would be difficult for the figure to open her eyes. There are many kiss imprints haphazardly stamped on the surface of the painting. The figure’s red fingernails are half the size of her fingers themselves. Her breasts are many different colors, as if the figure is somehow able to be many ethnicities at once and therefore satisfy the male viewer’s many racial fantasies. Euler has created a woman who screams “WOMAN” so loudly that she becomes a parody of what the voyeuristic male wants– and expects– women to be.

This interpretation is supported by the second layer of the painting that I find resembles the cafe scenes in impressionistic France. Men outlined in black paint sit around a table drinking from proportionally enormous bottles of wine. I am reminded of 19th century cafe scenes because of the leisurely, gendered nature of each tableau. I find it comical that the female figure has been so artfully constructed with layers of paint and bright, vibrant colors, while the males are designated to mere outlines of form. While painterly attention to the female body is often objectifying, Euler’s self-conscious multiplication of gendered body parts is actually empowering. Thus, the contrast between the colorful female figure and the haphazard outlines of teeny male figures renders the male characters inferior. Euler further emasculates them by unknowingly serving them wine bottles filled with breastmilk. Droplets of white paint spill from each nipple into a bottle on each table. This is perhaps the most amusing aspect of this painting. Euler has taken the sexist notion that a woman’s role is as a wife and mother alone and used it to turn the power dynamic between men and women on its head. The men are infantilized by their small size, simplistic depiction, and the hysterical fact that they are drinking a woman’s breastmilk.

Here are Lara (my travel pal) and I, very amused at this:

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So what do we take away from Understanding Doubts and Logic? I quite like the interpretation I just presented, though I am not sure how the title fits in. Perhaps the female creature, whose forehead bears this phrase, is somehow all-knowing in her female genius. She can understand both the understandable and what we doubt we can comprehend. I come away from this painting feeling empowered and amused. Euler has turned gender dynamics on their head with a coy smile. Her belittling depiction of men is not a statement that women are actually superior, but a commentary on the way the reverse is so prevalent in our society.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The point of this book is that the so-called weaknesses attributed to underdogs are actually qualities that give them an advantage against their opponent. Euler has taken the “weaknesses” of women that the patriarchy attributes to the “fairer gender” and turned them into symbols of power. Breastmilk and long eyelashes signify greatness and strength.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

Two Paintings from the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool, England)

Greetings everyone!

If you’ve been following, you’ll see that I’m on quite the roll this week! I posted about the  Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth on Tuesday, and the Tate Liverpool yesterday. I’m blogging about my Euro trip in order, so this will be the last England post! I was very excited to visit the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool because the collection houses some of the world’s most famous Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian art. Rather than analyzing an overarching exhibition, I will discuss two fascinating paintings from the collection. Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1903) and The Punishment of Lust, by Giovanni Segantini (1891) reveal much about morality and gender politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1903) is one of my favorite paintings. I believe I have reblogged it on my tumblr a minimum of seven times. Seeing the work in person was an absolute dream. Here I am posing beside this beautiful painting:

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And here is a photograph of the painting in context of the room, hung below another masterpiece:

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Echo and Narcissus tells the story of the Roman myth whose characters bear the same names. Echo was a maiden infatuated with Narcissus, who in turn was too self-absorbed to notice her advances. She withered away until just her voice– an echo– remained on this earth. As punishment for his behavior, Narcissus became obsessed with his own reflection, and could not bear to part from it. Here, we see Echo looking longingly at Narcissus:

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Note her body language. Rather than pointing towards the object of her desire, Echo’s torso is flush with the canvas. Her bent knees are positioned even further away from Narcissus. And yet she turns her face to look back at him, creating a thin line of taut muscle in her throat where she twists her neck. She clutches a tree in one hand while the other is used to steady herself on a rock. The tension in her body language demonstrates her convoluted emotions; part of her body turns away from him while the other part physically reaches out towards him.

Furthermore, her posture is that of a person trying to emulate a certain persona. Her knees and feet are kept modestly pressed together, covered in a draped pink fabric. Yet she allows the fabric to fall away, revealing the breast closest to Narcissus’ line of vision. Her gaze, too, affirms her desire. It is a bit difficult to see in this photograph, but t Echo’s eyes are wide open. Zoom in on this version of the picture to see better. The angle of her pupils points her focus directly on Narcissus. Waterhouse employs the tiniest of brushstrokes to indicate her slightly-arched right eyebrow, which lends her face a combination of intensity and distress. Echo’s love for Narcissus comes at the expense of her own composure.

Now take a look at the way the artist paints Narcissus:

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We are not able to see his face as it is focused on his reflection in the water. However, we can learn a lot from his body language. Narcissus lays down on the rock in order to get as close as possible to the water. His right hand reaches towards the lake. What could he accomplish in doing so? He cannot be using it to, say, drink water or catch a fish, because he is already engaged in an activity: looking at himself. Thus, the movement of his hand is part of this activity. He is reaching out to touch his reflection, which is by nature a non-tangible entity. He is so obsessed with himself that he disregards what he knows to be the properties of water in order to be closer to his reflection. This demonstrates the severity of his curse. There is also a moral lesson for the viewer behind this pictorial choice. Waterhouse seems to be warning the viewer that self-involvement engenders irrational, foolish thinking.

If you take another look at the zoomed-out picture you’ll see that there are a few yellow flowers growing by Narcissus’ feet. These are Narcissus flowers, commonly known as daffodils. The myth describes how these flowers sprouted when Narcissus finally died at this very spot.

What do you think Waterhouse was trying to accomplish in Echo and Narcissus? Was he warning viewers about the dangers of lust and self-absorption? Or was he simply fond of Roman mythology and its possibilities for Victorian painting? In the wall plaque, the museum states that unrequited love was a favorite theme of Waterhouse’s. Keep in mind that this was 1903, and gender dynamics were quite different. Perhaps Waterhouse’s paintings fetishize the stereotypical lonely female. They certainly do the protagonist no favors in rounding out her character. Though what I like about Echo and Narcissus is that neither character comes out unscathed. Echo is foolish to contemporary viewers, perhaps, but Narcissus is as well. Waterhouse makes less commentary on their genders than on the concepts they represent.

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Speaking of morality, the painter Giovanni Segantini painted his own tale of warning about vice in The Punishment of Lust (1891). Take a look:

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And up close:

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What we are presented with here is a supernatural scene in the midst of an ominous landscape. Two curiously identical figures float in mid-air, their torsos facing in opposite directions. Their hair- a beautiful golden red- rises in the air as well. Some strands float parallel to the earth while others blow gently in an invisible wind. The arms of both figures are relaxed. The figure on the viewer’s left floats easily, her arm resting in the air as if there is a bed beneath it. The figure on the viewer’s right floats just as soundly, though her hand rests on her belly. We are not given privy to the legs of either girl, as they are encased in a silvery fabric that stretches ambiguously up each of their bodies. It is not clear where the fabric starts and ends. There is the semblance of a visible breast on the body of the figure at right. The impressionistic quality of the brushstrokes and the similar coloring of the fabric, the girls’ skin, and the landscape behind make it difficult to discern fabric from skin and snow. We are also not given access to either girl’s face. They are turned towards the sky and powdered with droplets of color that blur their features. Tiny smudges of grey suggest the shadow of closed eyelids.

What other clues do we have, besides this analysis of the figures’ bodies? We have their desolate landscape. The earth is barren, covered in a thin layer of white snow. The scraggly bushes and trees around the figures are few and far between. It is not immediately clear if they are dead or simply leafless for the winter. There is also a stretch of black mountain uncovered by white snow. The world is not a frosted wonderland of snow mountains and evergreen trees. It is a wasteland, just too cold enough for proper greenery to grow, but not cold enough to create a winter wonderland. If my memory of 8th grade earth science is correct, this could very well be the tundra.

Because the figures are situated in such a desolate wasteland (and because of the title of the painting) it is clear that the figures are enduring a supernatural punishment for their sins- specifically, lust. Is this lust for each other? The two women are intertwined. Perhaps their lustful sin is the engagement in lesbian sex. They could also be sisters, or mirror images of one self. What do you think?

On the plaque at the museum it is written: “This is based on the 12th century poem, Nirvana, by Luigi Illica, which describes the progress of neglectful mother through a Buddhist purgatory. The tree symbolizes the tree of life. The floating mothers’ souls will eventually achieve Nirvana, a Buddhist heaven represented by the mountains. The painting may be the Italian artist’s protest against women’s emancipation.”

Wow, take a second to take that all in. No matter how much visual analysis I did in front of this painting, there was a zero percent chance I was ever going to land on that interpretation. I simply am not exposed enough to Buddhist imagery to have made that leap between tree and tree of life, or floating bodies and the achievement of Nirvana. However, with all that in mind, do you have any initial reactions? I am struck by two things. First, the fact that Segantini has painted two separate mothers identically. Surely the artist had the capability to paint women who look different, so why paint them the same exact way? Perhaps their neglectfulness as mothers renders them unworthy of individualistic depiction. Secondly, the fact that the artist actively protested women’s emancipation lends the work another layer of significance (and makes my blood boil). He clearly did not think very highly of women if he was against their emancipation. So, the depiction of women as sinful, neglectful mothers is a warning to lawmakers in society. If women cannot be trusted to perform their traditional duties as mothers, how can they be allowed to take on more societal responsibilities? (This literally pains me to write). And so, with this wall plaque to help us interpret The Punishment of Lust, we come away with a deepened understanding of both the artist’s personal politics, and the significance of the painting itself.

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It is sometimes difficult to be a woman and love Victorian art (or pretty much any art before the 1970s) as it often features women in objectified, fetishized positions. Rarely do I see a painting that is actually propaganda for misogynistic politics, but I am no stranger to the fetishized nude. What does this mean for me as an art historian, student, and woman? As I often say, learning about art is important because art is a reflection of how people feel and think. If you want to better understand history and conflict, you must look at the art being made by those living within it. And so, in order to understand the history of gender politics and make positive steps towards improving conditions for women, we must understand how we got to where we are. We must look at the history of gender roles and how people felt about these roles. One of the best ways to do so is through art. Sometimes this can be upsetting, as in the case of The Punishment of Lust. Other times it can be rewarding, especially when you find a painting that seems bizarrely feminist in a time when feminism was not being discussed at all. (Read: Olympia).

Let me know if you have any thoughts, feminist, artistic, or otherwise. I’m going to go look at some works by female artists and feel powerful again.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus (Tate Liverpool- Liverpool)

Hi everyone,

Today I’d like to talk about a particularly interesting exhibit I visited in Liverpool several weeks ago. Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus sees the work of two brilliant artists exhibited together in the same space. The two artists in question are not usually associated with one another.

Tracey Emin was born in 1963 and rose to prominence as a member of the Young British Artists, alongside contemporaries Damien Hirst and Angela Bulloch. On her website it is written that “Emin’s work has an immediacy and often sexually provocative attitude that firmly locates her oeuvre within the tradition of feminist discourse.” I have been reading a book about the Young British Artists called Artrage!: The Story of the BritArt Revolution. In it, Emin’s works have stood out to me for their broad range of mediums and brutal– at times repelling– emotional honesty.

On the other hand, William Blake was born in 1757. His relief etchings and paintings, influenced by his peculiar views on the supernatural and sexuality, were largely criticized during his lifetime. The post-humous publication of his biography in the mid 19th century propelled his legacy into the foreground of artistic and philosophical thought. Today Blake is considered one of the most important artists in Britain’s history.

So why has the Tate Liverpool chosen to exhibit the works of these artists together? On its website, the museum cites “a shared concern with birth, death, and spirituality” as the reason for comparing the two artists side-by-side. It also touches on Blake’s categorization as a Romanticist. The Romanticism movement witnessed a creative shift towards the individual, his emotions, and his place in the natural world (alongside God, as well as plants and animals). According to the Tate Liverpool, the exhibit “affirms Blake’s romantic idea of artistic truth through existential pain and the possibility of spiritual rebirth through art.”

In this post, I will explore how Blake’s journey for artistic truth mirrors and enhances the emotional gravity of Emin’s famous work, My Bed (1998).

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First, take a look at Emin’s installation:

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Note the array of items strewn across the carpet– condoms, a bottle of alcohol, slippers, a newspaper, a razor, a cigarette box, dirty tissues, a belt, dirty underwear, and a stuffed animal, to name a few. Note also how the mattress has not been sanitarily fitted with a sheet, but haphazardly covered with a thin layer of sweat-drenched bedding.

Emin created My Bed after spending a weekend in her bed– this bed– guzzling alcohol after a sour break-up. She woke up one morning to the scene that us visitors now have the privilege to see as objective outsiders. She looked down upon the mess of bottles, tampons, and cigarette butts and realized that this bed, and all of the items around it, were the purest expression of her emotional state. Any other attempt to express herself at this specific moment in time wouldn’t hold a candle to the stark reality of her bedroom. And so, she exhibited the bed and all its accouterments at the Tate Gallery in 1999.

My Bed was met with a variety of responses, all of them impassioned. After all, how could one have a lukewarm impression of such a bold, shocking work? Some found it to be genius, a moving snapshot of the artist at a breaking point. Others ridiculed it, stating that a collection of objects– which anyone could piece together– could never be art. This was a perspective put forward by a visitor to the Tate Liverpool during a lecture I attended. The basis of the woman’s argument was that each individual aspect of the work, such as a single sock, was not art, so therefore the entire work could not be. The lecturer responded brilliantly. First he said, “You believe that you could have done this. And yet, think of the darkest time of your entire life. Everything you felt, deep inside. Now imagine sharing that with the entire world. Would you do that? Most people wouldn’t. But Tracey did. That is why it is so special.”

Secondly, he listed an idea and skill as the two concepts that can be utilized to make art. He pointed out that Emin undoubtedly has technical skill– it is evident in many of her other works. But an idea, too, can be art. And her idea was an emotional, painful, never-before-seen idea that causes visitors to stop and feel something. I personally really like My Bed. When I first saw it, I felt a pang inside my chest. While I have never gone on a three-day-long alcohol binge without eating, I have experienced loneliness– we all have. One’s bedroom ought to be a place of solace, but during dark times it can morph into a cave of isolation. Since it is no one’s space but your own, it is easy to retreat into it, and never expect anyone to come looking.

Here is a photograph of My Bed in the context of the room, and one of me beside it:

 

 

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With everything I’ve said about Emin in mind, let’s switch gears and take a look at a series of works by William Blake.

This first painting is a work entitled Pity (1795).

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It is worth mentioning that Blake claimed to see visions for the entirety of his life. Thus, the supernatural elements in a work like Pity take on a more series significance. This is not merely a religious depiction of an angel peering down at a sleeping woman, but a scene that Blake took to be real, to some degree.  Blake saw a very thin barrier between the living and the death, the divine and the human; a barrier that could easily be penetrated. The title of the work, “Pity” suggests that the angel above the sleeping woman is taking pity on her for some reason or another. Perhaps the figure dangling from his fingers is a man he is sending down to earth to be with the lonely woman. Or perhaps the figure has just died, and the angel is taking him up to heaven, away from the grieving woman. Either way, the fact that the angel has an opinion about the woman, and takes an active role in improving her well-being suggests that Blake viewed his own life as being influenced by supernatural beings. It reinforces Blake’s romantic interest in his own self and his place within the greater scheme of life. It also demonstrates what the Tate Liverpool describes as his desire to seek artistic truth through the depiction of his perception of the universe.

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Another work that achieves a similarly eerie effect is The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life (1805).

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Here, a wispy series of lines designates the outline of a soul. It peers down at the dead body below, longing to be with him. This drawing reflects Blake’s perception of life and death, and his characterization of the relationship between the soul and the human body. Perhaps it was his own fear of death that propelled him to make such a work; it reinforced the notion that there is some sort of existence after the body has expired. Or perhaps Blake witnessed such an occurrence in one of his visions. Either way, the drawing is another example of the artist’s exploration of his own place in a multi-dimensional world.

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I was quite fond of Blake’s 1826 painting, The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve for its emotional depiction of each member of the family.

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In this scene, Blake’s religious upbringing is evident. He depicts Eve bending over the body of her dead son Abel in sorrow, her arms contorting out of their sockets above her head. Behind her, Adam looks towards Cain with an expression of confusion and sadness. His hands are flexed upwards in a manner that today seems effeminate, but likely were composed with the intention of appearing shocked; the angle and straightness of the fingers can only be maintained with great tension and effort. Lastly, Cain flees the scene in a manner that manages to be both graceful and deeply distressed. Note his pointed right foot and the straightness of his right leg. He looks as if he is in the middle of a ballet. Blake maintained a high level of craftsmanship while simultaneously breaking traditional molds to show these biblical figures with real, human emotions. Take a look at Cain’s face below:

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Cain’s eyes dip to one direction, staring into nothingness as he panics about what he has done, rather than seeing what is directly in front of him. The sense of distress is reinforced by his furrowed eyebrows, carved from several upward brushstrokes and mirrored by upturned eyelids. An open expression of fear is frozen on his mouth. Though we cannot see Cain physically tearing his hair out, the tension in his arms– specifically a bulging vein in his left forearm– indicate the strength with which he is pulling at his hair.

The intensity of Cain’s expression, as well as those of Adam and Eve, serve to humanize a religious tale, placing it closer to the realm of reality. This signifies Blake’s own relationship with religion, or at least with the morals religion teaches. His conflation of the supernatural/divine with the real suggest that there is not such a strong boundary between the two. Furthermore, it reveals Blake’s own journey for truth through an exploration of morality.

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I have now delved deeply into My Bed and a series of Blake’s works. Before I wrote that this post would elucidate how similar the two artists are, and how their work reinforces the emotional weight of the other. Can you infer before reading further how this is so?

First and foremost, the two artists broke traditional expectations of what art is supposed to be. Emin created an installation that pushed the boundaries of modern art. She created a concept, withholding her technical skill, to showcase a moment of her life more truly and deeply than she believed a painting ever could. Furthermore, its autobiographical nature, unshielded by a frame or allegory, tested many people’s limits. Blake created religious images that challenged the norms of religious paintings by humanizing characters from the bible. He also confronted societal perceptions of life, death, the divine, and the supernatural by depicting interactions between these supposedly separate entities.

Secondly, the two artists used their own methods to explore the possibility of spiritual and artistic rebirth. Emin, though the display of My Bed, was able to look objectively at a moment in her life and realize its emotional power. In sharing this dark part of her soul, she accepted its place in her life and could potentially move past it. In doing so, she broke the rules about art and moved into a new creative headspace. Blake, with the aid of his visions and unique philosophical views, explored his place in the world through paintings that conflated seemingly disparate entities. This process legitimized his perception of the world while simultaneously shifting the paradigm of religious art.

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I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it! If you’d like to read more about Tracey Emin I suggest you take a look at ArtRage! And if you’re interested in William Blake as I am, well, accompany me to the library because we both have quite a lot of reading to do. In my background research I also found several sources that touched upon his liberal sexual politics– apparently Blake also disagreed with marriage as an institution. How does that knowledge influence your reading of his works? I’m interested to hear.

And if you have the luck to be in Liverpool before early September, swing by the Tate. You won’t regret it.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

 

The Brontë Parsonage Museum (Haworth, England)

Hi everyone!

I hope you’re well and enjoying this very sunny summer. I just got back from Europe two nights ago and I am still suffering from intense jet lag. My mornings have been starting at 4:30, which makes no one happy, except my puppy, Teddy.

My Euro-trip was everything I could have asked for and more. In fact, I was having so much fun in Berlin at the end that I extended my trip several days! I’ve also decided that I’d like to work on my German skills in Berlin for a couple months next spring.

But first things first: the museums!! I went to many on my 3.5 week adventure, and I’ll start with a rather unique one: the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Located in Haworth, about an hour and a half drive from Chester, the Brontë Parsonage Museum is housed where the Brontë sisters lived and wrote their most famous works. It was very exciting for me to see where Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights. 

I usually write about art exhibits, but I thought I’d make an exception and talk about a history museum because this particular exhibition excelled in something rather difficult- appealing to children. I believe that all museums, regardless of their focus, should be strategizing ways to involve young people with their collections.

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The first interactive aspect of the exhibition is a fill-in-the-blank poem. The words to an Emily Brontë poem have been written in large font, with several words omitted. Next to the poem are potential words, written on small rectangles, that can be mixed and matched at will. Take a look:

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I love how this project exposes children to the writing of Emily Brontë while still allowing them to think both creatively and logically. They have the opportunity to  decide how they want their sentence to look. The final poem could be silly, or it could make sense. A participatory activity holds children’s attention better than a passive one. Furthermore, the words used in Emily’s poems are a bit advanced. Participating in this activity introduces children to new vocabulary.

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Another activity that looks quite fun for young visitors features a series of circular panels with questions on them. These questions ask children what they think life was like in the 19th century. Lifting the panel reveals pictorial answers to these questions. Take a look:

 

 

 

This activity is useful because the participatory nature of panel lifting involves children actively in their own learning. The guess-and-reveal nature of the panels is also enticing to curious young learners. And lastly, the combination of words and pictures allows young readers to make connections between images and the words used to represent them.

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Lastly, I was very happy to see a large dress-up drawer in the exhibition as well. As someone who still owns a dress-up drawer, I am a very strong advocate for the importance clothing plays in learning about history. At the tender age of ten I received a bonnet and apron in colonial Williamsburg. I believe that this outfit motivated me to confront a very shocked John Adams impersonator about his political platform.

And so, a dress-up drawer filled with imitation clothing from the 19th century is a wonderful way to engage young visitors. It teaches them about gender roles and 19th century morals/values. (“Why weren’t women allowed to wear pants? How can you run in a long dress?!?!”) Different fabrics inform young visitors about the types of textiles available at a certain time. (“Why is the dress so stiff and scratchy?”)

I also believe that stepping into the shoes (literally) of another person increases one’s understanding of the past and one’s empathy  towards others. Experiencing the constricting attire of a 19th century woman is different from hearing about it. Trying (and failing) to run about in a long skirt leaves a lasting impression on a young child. They not only learn about the change in society’s expectations of women; they experience what it’s like to feel restricted. They recognize that their own experience is not the only experience that matters, and that the course of history has impacted the way real people, like themselves, live.

 

 

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It would serve other museums well to make themselves as accessible to children as The Brontë Parsonage Museum does. As I’ve written in many other posts, and for the Tufts Daily, art has the potential to foster empathy. Interactive activities allow children to make connections between art and the real world that they may or may not instinctively make. It is the role of curators and museum educators to facilitate the fostering of empathy in young viewers through the consumption of art and history. The Brontë Parsonage Museum excels at this.

If you find yourself in Northern England I urge you to take a drive to Haworth to see this brilliant museum. It is located in the The Brontë Village, which is filled with little shops and eateries. The original apothecary and pub still stand, if you find yourself in need of some whimsical soaps or a pint. Bramwell Brontë actually drank himself to death at the Blackbull Pub- use that bit of trivia to brighten everyone’s mood over some shepherd’s pie. And if you’re feeling like a hike in the moors, Wuthering Heights is only an hour’s stroll from the village!

 

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Leo Gestel, (Stedelijk Museum- Amsterdam)

Hi everyone!

As you may know, I usually write exhibition reviews on temporary exhibitions. When I was abroad in Amsterdam last spring, I wrote an average of one post per week, usually on an exhibit that would close within a few months. I always perused the permanent collection of whatever space I was in, but it never occurred to me to devote a post to any assortment of permanently-owned works.

My thesis research brought me to Amsterdam again this past January. I was on the hunt for works by the Dutch Cobra artists (you can read about my trip here). 1/3 of my trip entailed viewing works by these artists in the modern art wing of the Stedelijk Museum. As I walked through the chronological galleries, I was fascinated by the way Dutch painters encapsulated the progression of European modern art. And so, today I am going to take a closer look at one of these painters in particular: Leo Gestel.

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Leo Gestel was one of the leaders of the Dutch modernist movement. His painting style ranged over the years, though he was especially influenced by cubism and post-impressionism. Take a look at the following painting entitled Reclining Nude (1910).

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This painting was made in 1910. Some of the most famous post-impressionists- Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, and Paul Cézanne- died in 1890, 1891, and 1906, respectively. Yet their influence is unmistakable. Note the geometric treatment of each brushstroke:

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One of the defining characteristics of post-impressionism was the mathematical attention paid to the brushstroke. Seurat was famous for ordering his brushstrokes so that certain patterns of closely painted colors would trick the eye into mixing the colors together, and perceiving a different shade entirely. Such was the magnificence of a work like A Sunday on la Grande Jatte (1984). Note how different the colors of the figure’s hair look in the zoomed-in image vs. the whole painting. Up close we can see blue, green, orange, yellow and red bits of color sitting next to each other within the confines of her hair. From far away, the eye doesn’t completely blend the colors as it does with a Seurat, but there is a fair degree of optical mixing. I feel a sense of blue, green, and brown when I look at the figure’s hair from far away, which supports the notion that Gestel was interested in scientific, painterly tricks.

But if he was interested in optics, why not devote his attention entirely to this process, as Seurat had, and Gestel’s contemporary- Paul Signac- was doing? Perhaps there was something to accomplish in failing slightly. In other words, there can be great significance in the act of failure to represent, or to fall short of representation. Paul Cézanne’s landscapes often oscillate between two and three dimensionality. His Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bibemus Quarry (1897) illustrates this phenomenon. Notice the flattening effect of the rectangular brushstrokes. Try to make sense of the orange space in the middle ground; are these cliffs dividing a lower and a higher plane? They seem to be collapsing in space, allowing these two planes to fold in on each other.

I believe that the partial optical mixing that Gestel employs was inspired by a Cézanne-esque failure to fully represent a scene. The genius of Cézanne (and Gestel, in my humble opinion), is the ambiguity of space that this failure creates. Both artists’ paintings leave questions for the viewer about the significance of this ambiguity.

In Reclining Nude, Gestel places colors tightly together, but fails to mix them completely. The background is a vibrant splash of pink, green, and blue. The bedding is composed of rich gold and yellow with bits of pink and green. These colors hint at sumptuous fabrics and gaudy wallpaper. Are we supposed to infer that she is a courtesan, because she exists within a sumptuous and gaudy world? Or do these ambiguous spaces reflect her beauty? Are we meant to envision this woman as existing within an Eden of lovely colors and patterns that reflect the color of her spirit? These are the questions that ambiguity leave behind.

Also note how Gestel uses color to draw attention to her gender:

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Like the hair on her head, the hair on this figure’s body is painted with ‘unnaturalistic’ colors- purple, yellow, and green. It is already marvelous that a work in 1910 featured a woman with pubic hair. Doing so contradicted the Hellenistic ideals of beauty that characterized female nudes for thousands of years. On this figure, her gender and its natural accouterments are viewed as vibrant and colorful- just like the rest of her body.

Now, it is impossible to ignore the positioning of the figure. She lays on the bed, naked, with her entire body visible for the viewer to consume. And yet, she hides her face in her arm. And so, she remains anonymous to us. What is the purpose of this positioning? First, it is important to look back on all of the early modern nudes that Gestel would have been well aware of. Perhaps the most famous, Manet’s Olympia (1865), challenged the traditional depictions of the courtesan as a Venus figure, averting eye contact with the viewer and allowing him to take in her idealized body. Olympia was extremely controversial at the time, as her piercing gaze confronted the viewer for his voyeurism. Her unidealized form blatantly revealed her occupation as a courtesan without shielding her behind the moral legitimacy of Greek myth. She appeared as an actual prostitute in 1865 would, and she did not pretend to enjoy the encounter.

Olympia paved the way for more honest depictions of prostitution and less idealized images of the female form. So where does Leo Gestel fit into this, and how can we understand the Netherlands within this narrative?

The Netherlands, though famous for legal prostitution today, was extremely conservative in 1910. Society was divided into distinct pillars- the Liberals, Catholics, Protestants, and Social Democrats- and people kept within their pillar. Paris was the land of courtesans, Moulin Rouge, and debauchery, not Amsterdam. Keep that in mind as we analyze the significance of this figure’s nudity.

There is celebration in the colors utilized here, and in the pleasure Gestel takes in filling in the contours of the figure’s body with paint. And yet, her hidden face is anything but celebratory. She is either extremely distressed or fast asleep.The alertness in her leg tendons suggest to me that she is awake and in a state of distress. Were she asleep, her legs would relax, and her muscles would not appear so engaged. Pre-Manet nudes depicted hollow-eyed Venuses who graciously accepted voyeurism. Manet and his contemporaries put forth confrontational nudes, in charge of their own sexuality.

It is here that I am faced with a dilemma. It seems  unlikely that Gestel, especially given his interest in post-impressionism, would turn back the clock 100 years and paint an idealized, nude, Venus. And yet, the way he blatantly positions her gender forward while hiding her face seems strikingly old-fashioned.

And yet, there is no power or confrontation in this figure’s body language to suggest her agency. She hides her breasts and burrows her head in the pillow. This is clearly not a work after Manet.

So what, then, are the implications of Reclining Nude? Is she a Venus or an Olympia? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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I hope you enjoyed this sampling of Dutch modern art. The Netherlands is a truly fascinating place, and its journey from Rembrandt to van Gogh to Gestel is absolutely fascinating. I can’t wait to share more.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

 

Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest (The New Museum- NYC)

Hi everyone! 

If you’ve been on social media recently, you’ve likely seen a picture from the Pipliotti Rist retrospective at the New Museum. This exhibition has garnered tremendous attention- in part because of how incredible the exhibit is, and also due to its nature as a major spectacle. Like Yayoi Kusama’s “Give Me Love” and Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, “Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest” attracts the instagrammers and the travelers, all eager to document their artistic adventures. Though these exhibits differ in subject matter and medium, they share an infectious aspect of spectacle. Visitors were eager to snap a picture of themselves covered in colorful polka-dots in the “Give Me Love” exhibition space. Just take a look at my icon on your left! Visitors of A Subtlety were just as taken with the spectacle of the massive Sugar Sphinx. The photo-snapping of white visitors angered many, creating a controversy about the role of the viewer that you can read about here. Evidently, the rapid proliferation of ‘spectacle art,’ as I’ll call it, has led many to question the usefulness of these exhibitions. Are these shows ‘selling out?’ in an attempt to attract viewers? Or are viewers polluting exhibits with their smartphones, diminishing the quality of the museum/gallery experience for other viewers?

The reason I bring up this controversy in a review of Rist’s retrospective is that Pixel Forest confronts this controversy head-on. Not only is Pixel Forest a spectacle; it is a commentary on spectacle. Rist achieves this dual effect through a variety of means including size, use of unconventional art-making materials, and visitor participation. In this post, I will talk about how Rist uses these tools to create a spectacle for the viewer and to simultaneously ask the viewer to contemplate the usefulness of spectacle.

Additionally, I’ll talk about some of the other themes featured in Rist’s work through the years, such as voyeurship of the human body, the relationship between the human body and nature, and the deconstruction of femininity. 

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The exhibition begins on the second floor. I took the stairs rather than the elevator, so the first work I encountered was Pickelmporno (Pimple Porno), (1992). Pickelporno is a video installation projected onto the wall in one of the side niches of the second floor. Take a look at a few of the snapshots I took of this rapidly moving video piece:

You can also watch the 10 minute video here. 

It has been shot- or cut in post-production- into an irregular parallelogram, which immediately creates a sense of unbalance for the viewer. It is difficult to get our footing in relation to Pickelporno. If we want to look at the video head-on, must we turn our heads to the right to make our eyes parallel to the slanting bottom line? Rist invites us to manipulate the position of our bodies in order to consume her work. This is an example of audience participation being used to engage viewers in a work and create spectacle.

The content of Pickelporno is fascinating. The camera skims the surface of the human body, taking in the tiniest details of human skin and hair with a sharply focused lens. We see the thinnest of lines and grooves in the palm and foot of an unnamed person. Hands tug at short black hair and we follow this movement, gazing at a mass of oily strands from root to tip. The close contact with this person initiated by the camera turns the viewer- no matter how innocent he may feel!- into a voyeur. By watching Pickelporno, the viewer inhabits the space of the lens, wandering over a body and consuming every detail. Now, depending on the personality of the viewer, this could make a person feel a number of different ways. Embarrassed perhaps, or maybe guilty. Another could feel amazed by the the intricacies of the human form, or even titillated by it.

The transitive process of the viewer stepping into the role of camera man is fascinating in and of itself, but Rist doesn’t stop there. She juxtaposes these shots of hair and skin with images of leaves, oranges, sunflowers, lava, jellyfish and the moon. These motifs are examples of entities found in nature (and outer space). The presence of these objects next to the human being consumed suggests a similarity between the human form and the natural world. Seen from up close, the skin of an orange is not so different from the skin of  a person. Thus, Pickelporno achieves a commentary on both voyeurship and the place of the human within the greater earth.

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In the center of the second floor are two screens at a right angle from one another. Projected on these screens are two videos that play one after the other: Sip My Ocean (1996) and Ever is Over All (1997). Below are two screen grabs of Sip My Ocean.

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You can also watch the entire 5 minute video here. 

Sip My Ocean features similar imagery to that of Pickelporno. The camera hovers over the human form, often zooming in on parts of the body, as shown in the image of pursed lips. These images are also juxtaposed with views of nature, namely, pixelated underwater views. The luscious underwater world is a playground of colorful shapes that bend and morph into otherworldly forms. Early video technology allowed Rist to manipulate the underwater footage, creating a sublime wonderland of bright colors and pixelated shapes that are in constant flux. This spectacular, real-yet-not-real setting is the space within which a bikini-clad woman swims. She is the focus of Sip My Ocean, even though stretches of time pass in which she is absent from the screen. She appears now and then between the waves. We are shown tantalizing views of her from all angles. The camera slides up her body slowly at times, focusing on her bouncing breasts. She is caressed by the camera, by the waves, and by us. All the while a haunting recording plays. She sings, “I never dreamed that I’d love someone like you/No I don’t want to fall in love.” This repeats for about 3 minutes, when she begins to scream over the song. She shrieks these words while the underwater landscape continues to grow and dissolve, glimmers of her body flashing across the screen and twisting upside down before disappearing altogether. It is as if she is drowning. Or perhaps the camera has taken ahold of her and is yanking her through the dimensions of this underwater world.

What is the message of Sip My Ocean? My major takeaway was that the protagonist- who is Rist herself- has little control for much of the video. The camera- and transitively, us- are voyeurs of her sublime body within a sublime world. Yet she struggles to gain control and assert herself, at the expense of the beauty around her. The more she shrieks, the more she disrupts the eerie landscape beneath her. It warps more and more quickly, fragments of waves and unnatural amoebas disintigrating as the voice rises in pitch. To me, Sip My Ocean is a representation of female struggle and female power, and a confrontation of the aestheticism linked to femininity. What happens when women fight this association- and refuse to fall in love? It dissolves around them into pixels of dust.

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Here is a sequence of four screen grabs from Ever is Over All (1997).

You can also watch the whole 2-3 minute video here.

In Ever is Over All, two sets of footage play on either side of the screen. On the viewer’s left, the female protagonist wears a blue sundress and red heels. Her hair is done in a neat up-do. She grins and saunters down the street carrying a long green object with a yellow and red oval top. As she walks, she swings the object back and forth in her hands until she reaches a car window. Then she smashes the object into the window, shattering the glass. She continues down the street, still grinning wildly. At one point a female officer passes her and salutes her. 

Meanwhile, on the viewer’s right, the camera zooms up and down the stalks of flowers in a meadow. These flowers have long green stems with textured yellow and red petals. They mirror the shape and colors of the object the protagonist uses as a weapon. The flower footage adopts the meandering ‘gaze’ that characterizes the camerawork in both Sip My Ocean and Pickelporno. We are made to feel like we are consuming the flowers as we trace our eyes slowly up and down them, moving closer towards them and flipping upside down to devour them from every angle. 

Flowers have an association with femininity, which the protagonist enhances with her sundress, heeled shoes and fancy hairdo. It is uncomfortable to see this beautiful woman wreck havoc on the street while wearing such a traditionally feminine outfit, surrounded by feminine symbols. Rist wants us to feel uncomfortable. In doing so, we are forced to ask ourselves what specifically is making us feel this way. A feminine-looking woman acting in an un-feminine way is initially startling and makes us confused- why is she acting this way? Rist responds, “Why would she not? Who says she has to act one way or another?” 

I assume, then, that Ever is Over All is meant to challenge traditionally ideas of feminine behavior, and the usefulness of the notion of femininity at all. Furthermore, the protagonist uses a weapon that is colored and shaped like a flower, but has the solidity and power to destroy a car (a typically masculine object). It follows that Ever is Over All is also a testament to female strength. Her strength is doubted because of her femininity- after all, the symbol attributed to her is the flower. And yet it is precisely a flower secretly made of metal that triumphs over the traditional symbol of maleness, the car.

The presence of the female officer saluting her introduces a female figure in a traditionally male role, further unraveling the viewer’s preconceived notions of femininity. 

* * *

To the right of the screens projecting Sip My Ocean and Ever is Over All is a series of white sheets hanging from the ceiling. Projected on them is another video. This installation piece is entitled Administrating Eternity (2011). Here is a photograph of one of these projections: 

 

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If one were to pass in front of this projection, the pink and yellow sheep would become projected onto his or her skin. Thus, in walking through Administrating Emily, the viewer becomes part of the work.  Administrating Emily’s space depends on the viewers’ movements. Our bodies are additional screens, and our movements are perpetually constructing the work in new directions and manners. A man briskly walking between the sheets jostles them, making the images shake while 20 different colors illuminate his skin in quick succession. A woman standing  still before a sheet becomes a three-dimensional screen, her silhouette grey against the sheet, but the projection bright upon her back. The amorphous space of Administrating Emily is in constant flux because of variation in human behavior.

The importance of audience participation in Administrating Emily is part of what makes it such a fascinating spectacle. People enjoy the fact that their presence influences a work of art. The importance of human behavior in determining the space of the work points to the importance of the individual in the collective experience, and the relationship between man and the world. 

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The third floor is perhaps the most photographed (certainly the most instagrammed) of the exhibition. When one enters the space, this is what he sees:

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It is the titular work of the exhibition, “Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest” (2016). Here are several other pictures.

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As you can see, Pixel Forest is always changing colors. It is composed of 3000 lights, each of which is one LED pixel that has been immersed in a polyurethane sculpture. As the viewer walks around, he is surrounded by whatever color the pixels are radiating at that moment. For a few seconds, the entire room is bathed in pink. Then the pink intensifies and turns red. Red gives way to a sensual purple, a bright blue, a vivid green. The colors of the pixels change in conjunction with the video being projected onto a screen behind the forest. I understood Pixel Forest as behaving in conjunction with these videos.  

Worry Will Vanish (2014) and “Mercy Garden” (2014) alternate on the screen. You can watch an excerpt of Worry Will Vanish here. You can watch an excerpt of Mercy Garden here. Below are a series of stills from both videos: 

The two videos continue Rist’s theme of combining close up, voyeuristic images of the human body with high-res nature footage. Digital technology has removed the pixelated quality so present in Pickelporno and perfected the fluid overlay techniques begun in Sip My Ocean. In one beautiful moment, the silhouette of a tree sprouts from the neck of a man. In another, a vivid red canyon can be seen from between the petals of green leaves. 

Large pillows are provided for viewers to sit down and gaze up at the colorful footage on the walls. When I sat down, it felt as if I had just journeyed through a forest and had landed in a small clearing. In this way the entire space on the third floor mirrors a series of spaces in the natural world, and the process of moving through them. 

Without a doubt, Pixel Forest constitutes a spectacle. It fulfills the basic criteria I outlined before: size, audience participation, and the use of unconventional art-making materials. The forest is vast- it takes up one third to one half of the entire third floor, stretching from floor to ceiling. Viewers are welcomed into the space and encouraged to participate by weaving their way through the strands of light, and making their way to the clearing to sit down. The use of LED lights in an artwork is unusual for the average museum-goer who may not study contemporary art. Even if he has seen art that incorporates light, he likely has not seen it at such a great scale. The result of all this spectacle is a sensation of awe. When I walked I walked through Pixel Forest, I wondered if this was how pilgrims felt when they walked into gothic cathedrals reflecting multicolored light through stained glass windows. There is something heavenly about a space flooded with light. It evokes sacredness, the supernatural, and the celestial realm. While not a religious work, the spectacular nature of Pixel Forest filled me with an overwhelming sense of the sublime. And so, Rist’s spectacle serves more purpose than to simply shock. 

“Is spectacle useful?” the cynic may ask. Rist’s response speaks volumes: a spectacle that can aid the viewer in transcending this world. 

* * *

On the fourth floor, Rist instructs the viewer to lie down on a series of beds and look up at a video installation distending from the ceiling. Fourth Floor to Mildness (2016) is projected on two large screens. You can watch a short clip here. As you can see, the work continues Rist’s exploration of nature from different angles and perspectives. Below are several stills from the space, demonstrating the space between the beds and the screens as well as the shape of the screens. 

Fourth Floor to Mildness is a site-specific installation created for this exhibition. And so, it took the architecture of the New Museum into consideration. The two large screens fill the ceiling space in the center section of the fourth floor. The result is a sense of organic unity; it does not feel as if anything else could fit in the space, or that anything should be removed. 

The presence of the screens on the ceiling reverses the way in which we usually consume images. On the second and third floors we were asked to consume videos on the walls. There were also several videos projected onto the floor and through other unconventional means. The shift of the screen to the ceiling signals the final metamorphosis of image consumption. We are lying down, finally at complete and total rest. 

Additionally, Rist confronts the dichotomy between individual and collective consumption through the inclusion of large beds. This forces strangers to lie down together, breaking down social barriers about the normative ways in which we consume images. The smart phone is individual. The movie theatre is collective, though we sit in individual seats. Fourth Floor to Mildness is collective. If you want to consume, you must first take off your shoes- another socially inappropriate behavior- and lie down next to total strangers. 

The fourth floor is meant to be a culmination of the spectacle as a whole. It is vast, incorporates the audience in its representation and meaning, and questions social norms in a way that excites the viewer. I personally prefer Pixel Forest and its relationship to Worry Will Vanish and Mercy Garden in terms of spectacle and the usefulness of spectacle, but it is important to comprehend the exhibition as a whole. As the viewer makes his way through the different floors, he is asked to alter his body in relation to each work until he is lying flat on his back. I thought this was a fascinating curatorial choice, and was the most memorable part of Fourth Floor to Mildness for me. 

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I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the different works in “Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest.” I have often thought about the construction and usefulness of spectacle, and was happy to encounter an exhibit that I believe facilitates the understanding of both. I also hope that you come away from this post thinking about Rist’s main themes: voyeurship of the human body, the relationship between the human body and nature, and the deconstruction of femininity. These are topics that are relevant in our own lives, and issues that we can tackle both with and without art (though I prefer the former method).

One last thing I wanted to discuss is the abundance of documentation that I noticed in this exhibit. I went with a good friend and I believe we spent a good 20 minutes complaining about the people standing in Pixel Forest taking pictures of themselves. The sheer volume of people standing and snapping pictures made it extremely difficult for us to take a step in any direction. While I did manage to feel a sense of transcendence, it was not before jostling my way to the edge of the room, where there were less people with selfie sticks. We eventually spoke to a tour guide about this, and suggested there be an hour a day when cameras aren’t allowed in the New Museum. He brought up something we hadn’t thought about: Pipliotti Rist could actually be happy with the proliferation of screens in her exhibit. The whole show presented images in different shapes, on new surfaces, at unconventional angles. Administrating Emily was constructed on the idea that new bodies would forever create new screens, giving the work an amorphous, ever-changing, shape. Perhaps the millions of selfies taken per day in Pixel Forest were an extension of the work itself. Maybe the work is as big as our entire earth- or as far as a selfie bathed in pink light can travel. What do you think?

In the meantime, I very hypocritically still ask that you limit the amount of pictures you take per room to 5 (gasp) or you might find an elbow in your side.

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤ 

 

Making Modern (Museum of Fine Arts- Boston)

Good morning everyone!

I am beyond excited to share with you my journey to the MFA last week. What made it so special was that I came away from Making Modern with a linear, tangible storyline to add to the vat of cultural knowledge in my brain. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find museums extremely overwhelming. A single exhibit can house so many written panels filled with background information and analysis that it’s difficult to extract a coherent thought. I like to leave a museum feeling like I learned something specific, something that can be summed up in a sentence, and then expanded upon if requested. If you asked me what I learned from Making Modern I would tell you, “The exhibit covered a lot of ground, but my mine takeaway was that German Expressionism had a huge impact on American artists, especially those in Boston.”

Through the next few paintings, I hope to explain that specific relationship to you all.

Karl Zerbe and Max Beckmann, two distinguished German expressionist painters, fled Germany during the second world war. They arrived with many other German immigrants, though the majority of these were German-Jews. Zebra was Jewish. Beckmann was not, but his unnaturalistic art had been directly attacked by Hitler, who opposed art that inhabited an unnatural world. He considered such works “Un-German,” and gathered them together in The Degenerate Art Exhibit (1937). Hitler’s policy towards ‘Degenerate artists,’ as Zerbe, Beckmann and their peers came to be called, rapidly escalated. It eventually became necessary for Beckmann to flee with Zerbe. Zerbe would become the head of the painting and drawing department at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Job (1949), is a wonderful example of Zerbe’s intense, emotional style, right in the vein of German Expressionism.

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Job is a figure from the Bible. His kindness and goodness are praised by God Himself. Satan challenges God, stating that Job is only good because he has been blessed with prosperity. And so, God agrees to let Satan torment Job, in order to prove that Job will never curse Him. Satan puts Job through many hardships- his livestock and his family die, and then he is afflicted with full-body sores. All the while, he refuses to curse God. Even when egged on by his philosophizing friends, he will not curse God. At the end of the story, Satan is proved wrong. God returns Job’s livestock and children and blesses him with even more prosperity than before.

What makes Job so poignant is that it is not simply a biblical portrayal. It is actually a self-portrait. Zerbe paints himself through the guise of Job in order to say something about his own self. He was a German-Jew after all, and the horrors of the Holocaust were enough to make anyone question his faith. How could God allow such things to happen to His people? Would God, if He existed, stand by while such carnage occurred? I believe that Job depicts Zerbe’s personal struggle with his faith. Ultimately, faith prevails, as Job refuses to curse God and Zerbe finds hope in the Jewish faith.

The visual elements of Job support this double narrative. His outstretched hands are pleading. The palms are exaggerated with heavy, dark lines. The viewer’s eye is drawn to their deep carvings. Similar lines are etched into his weary face. Take a look at this detail of Job’s face:

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Lines on the skin are caused by age, but also by stress. Additionally, they give the appearance of one having lived through trying times. We associate wrinkles with worldliness and experience. Here, Zerbe portrays his life experiences- persecution, turmoil, escape, perhaps the death of family and friends- through the deep lines that cover his body. His wears his pain and grief on his skin.

It is tempting to draw comparisons with the bodies of Holocaust victims. Here, Job looks emaciated, his torso shrunken beneath gaunt shoulders. I am hesitant to make such a leap because Zerbe arrived in Boston in 1937. He never knew life in the camps, though I am positive that knowledge of them affected him deeply. Perhaps the gauntness of this figure is a reference to the starved bodies of his Jewish brothers and sisters, searching for hope and clinging to their faith despite adversity. This would then be the second reference Zerbe used in order to characterize himself, the story of Job being the first.

Job utilizes unnatural colors and abstract shapes. His skin contains streaks of green, red, yellow, blue, brown, orange, purple and white. These colors don’t pretend to blend. They run into each other with abandon, only interrupted by thick black lines that demonstrate Job’s shallow torso and protruding collarbone. It is difficult to make out what is behind Job’s head. I see a configuration of yellow and red rags. What immediately comes to mind is the German flag, though there are no overt depictions of stripes. Bits of patterns pop up here and there on the surface of the painting. There are a few inches of red and black chevron on either side of Job’s arms, and green squares between his legs. Such unrealistic, abstract colors and shapes are characteristic of German Expressionism. They increase the painting’s emotional tenor. Imagine for a moment what this painting would look like if a black background were painted rather than this cacophony of colors, shapes and patterns? Would it feel as jumbled? Would Job look as desperate?

* * *

Still Life with Three Skulls (1945), exemplifies Max Beckmann’s dark, symbolic strand of German Expressionism.

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As I mentioned before, Beckmann was not Jewish, but he fled Germany because of his controversial artistic practices. He was deeply affected by the carnage of the war. In Still Life with Three Skulls, Beckmann explores the ephemerality of life through the transient existence of objects. Skulls represent the briefness of human life. The millions dead in the War and the Holocaust were a reminder of the flimsy barrier between life and death. In depicting playing cards and bottles of liquor, it can be interpreted that Beckmann is criticizing mankind for gambling with life, such a frail thing that could be taken away at any moment.

The motif of the playing card can also be interpreted as luck. It is as if life is one giant game, and you never know if you will suddenly win or lose.

In the first interpretation, Beckmann takes a morally superior role. He chastises people for wasting away their lives when so many people have had theirs forcibly taken. In the second interpretation, Beckmann takes a passive, pessimistic role. He views life as a game that is out of our control. Whether we live or die depends on what dice you roll.

Of course, the wonderful thing about art history is that so much is subjective. I think both interpretations make sense. However, I’d like to apply a little historical background to see if one seems more fitting than the other.

Germany was late to the unification game. The many duchies, principalities, kingdoms and city-states that made up Prussia (and later, Germany) didn’t unite until the late 19th century. After this point, the Germans were eager to prove that they belonged on the global stage. They industrialized rapidly, and focused on building their navy in order to compete imperially with Britain. Their involvement in World War I (a Grade A disaster) led to a soul-crushing set of terms decided on at the Treaty of Versailles. Most notably, the Germans were forced to pay tremendous war reparations. These reparations were so immense that the German government was still paying Great Britain for damages in 2010. (That’s right. I said 2010). So you can imagine how massive the numbers must have seemed to the Germans back in 1919. But even more difficult for the Germans to cope with, was the statement that the Germans were solely responsible for the entire war. Germany experienced 2 million casualties during the war. This statement effectively blamed Germany for that massive loss. This was very difficult for people to wrap their heads around. First, they lost millions of their brothers and sisters. And then, they were told that it was their own fault. Added to that, the country was in crippling debt. It is not difficult to see how Hitler manipulated the vulnerable population. His rise was gradual, and his racist policies piecemeal. From then on we see the Second World War, which led to many deaths, and the Holocaust, which decimated the Jewish population in Europe. THIS is the Germany that Beckmann was part of. This was his heritage, his perspective, his everyday life.

Does that information illuminate anything about the two interpretations I proposed?

Beckmann was part of a culture that struggled with guilt, debt, and helplessness. Would such a man be morally superior towards his fellow men, or passively pessimistic towards the events of life that were out of his control? I personally believe that it’s the latter.

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Now I would like to turn to the American artists who were so affected by Zerbe and Beckmann’s presence in the United States.

Marsden Hartley painted lots of bright, unnaturalistic landscapes and nonfigurative, heavily symbolic paintings. The former style was most definitely characteristic of German Expressionism. We see lots of colorful, unrealistic nature scenes in German works of the early 20th century. However, his portraits were heavily influenced by the German presence in Boston in the 1940s. He later spent time in Berlin, where he was inspired further.

Hartley painted The Great Good Man in 1942.

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Compare this painting to Job and Still Life with Three Skulls. Do you see any similarities between the three? The first thing that I notice is the manner in which Hartley paints Abraham Lincoln’s face- he uses thick black paint to create a harsh outline. These lines are quite similar to the thick lines Zerbe used to paint Job’s wrinkles and protruding ribs. Similar thick lines surround the objects in Still Life with Three Skulls. It is quite characteristic of German Expressionism to surround people and objects with color. Perhaps it lent them permanence in an impermanent world.

There is also an emphasis in The Great Good Man on darkness. The black outlines are painted in as jet-black a hue as possible. Hartley has also applied a sort of gloss on top of the color to make it shine. Take a look at the detail below:

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Do you not feel that Hartley is reveling in this hue? It feels almost sensual, the way the color both repels with its darkness and pulls with its gleam. I wanted to buy a postcard of this painting, but the reproduction could not capture the sparkling quality of the beautiful black paint.

I find a similar reveling in darkness in Still Life with Three Skulls. In that painting, Beckmann painted gaping holes in the eyes and mouths of the three skulls. There is something tantalizing about the empty space. It should be negative space, perhaps lightly shadowed by light shining into the recesses of the bone. In a naturalistic image, one might see such an effect. But in this highly expressive painting, the negative space is painted thickly and glossily- does that make the negative space, positive space? The space inside the eye sockets and the jaw become players in the painting, taunting the viewer with their ambiguity. In The Great Good Man, Hartley, too, finds pleasure in the ambiguity caused by the color black.

* * *

Jack Levine was  Jewish painter, born and raised in Boston. He was also heavily influenced by Zerbe, Beckmann, and the other German Expressionists. This interesting painting is entitled Street Scene No. 1. (1938).

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Again, you can see figures outlined heavily with thick, black, brushstrokes. The figures are unnaturally colored in a bizarre orange-red. Their facial features have been painted with coarse, black lines. Even the proportions are exaggerated; the heads of all three figures are bulbously large. Take a look below. These are all characteristics of German Expressionism that we have explored at length.

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Furthermore, the space that these figures are situated in feels unsteady. Is the man on the viewer’s left in his own scene, or is he leaning against a building, inside which the other two men reside? Space is ambiguous. It is secondary to the depiction of the men.

We can use small visual clues to learn something about the men in this painting. Their clothing indicates that they are working class. The man on the viewer’s left wears a white t-shirt, wrinkled by thick black lines. Perhaps he works in construction, or down on the docks. Bits of pink and orange floating in murky black vaguely resemble water. He might be resting by the river during a break. The other two men wear long-sleeved white shirts and black vests with bow-ties. One holds something with writing in his hand, and has thick globs of red paint splashed on his palms. Is he a waiter, handling a menu? Then why the red globs? Perhaps he is the chef, cooking an animal that has just been caught. The other man in a vest has a little hat perched on his head that lends him a little more authority. Perhaps he is a policeman, or holds a different city job.

Levine was actually a social realist painter. Social realism is a brand of relatively lifelike figurative painting that has a social-justice slant. Many social realist works aim to make commentary on the livelihood of the working man. This information lines up nicely with the above analysis. Levine has lent these working men great dignity while simultaneously making his social-realist point. Rather than depicting them slaving away in the name of capitalism, he portrays them in a moment of calm, when they have agency over their own lives. Street Scene No. 1. paints working people as individuals, rather than a part of a machine. This reflects his political views, and in the process, renders a dignified expressionist portrait of three working men in Boston.

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Lastly, I’d like to look at this painting by Hyman Bloom, a Latvian immigrant to the United States. It is called Female Corpse, Back View (1947).

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Bloom came to the United States with his family in 1920. He would become a key member of the Boston Expressionist School. As we talked about, this school was heavily influenced by German Expressionism. We can see this influence in Female Corpse, Back View. 

First and foremost, it is important to note that Bloom was raised in an orthodox Jewish household. He, like Zebre, dealt with the emotional repercussions of being a Jewish person aware of the Holocaust, but with no personal experience living in a camp. This knowledge tormented him, and he became obsessed with the theme of death. A visit to a morgue inspired a whole series of cadaver paintings like this one. If you recall, Beckmann, too, was influenced by themes of death. Still Life with Three Skulls depicts three garish skulls, and deals with themes of passivity and pessimism surrounding death. In Female Corpse, Back View, Bloom approached death from a different perspective.

Upon visiting the morgue for the first time, Bloom wrote, “I had the conviction of immortality, of being part of something permanent and ever-changing, of metamorphosis  as the nature of being. Everything was intensely beautiful, and I had a sense of love for life that that was greater than any I had ever felt before.”

Take a moment to drink this in. It’s a very beautiful quote. I was surprised to read it at first. I expected his response, as a Jewish man in 1947, to be anger and confusion, maybe helplessness and fear. Not beauty, not immortality. But this speaks to his unquestionable faith. Perhaps the only way for him to survive, to move forward, was to find a thread of reason in life. In a world that doesn’t make sense, because millions of people are murdered for no reason, finding some logic to hold onto could be the only thing keeping someone going. For Bloom, he explained away the horrors of death by finding beauty in metamorphosis. He saw dead bodies and believed that they were transitioning into the next stage of their lives. Because of this, he painted them in vibrant, gorgeous colors. Take a look.

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This cadaver is anything but gruesome. She is red, yellow, pink, gold, purple, teal, green, white, blue, every color under the sun! These colors swirl together in an amorphous blob of joyous hues.

Her figure seems strangely bulbous, even more so than the heads of the men in Street Scene No. 1. I am very curious about this. Is this an accurate depiction of this cadaver? Did she have bony shoulders and a large torso and bottom? Or is he depicting the cadaver in some kind of colorful chrysalis, as she begins her journey into the next life? The browning white cloth, which I assume represents the shroud, cocoons her. Perhaps she will turn into a butterfly. The combination of beauty and ugliness is very Expressionistic. So is the handling of the thick brushstrokes of bright, vibrant color. Perhaps the most German Expressionist is the ambiguity. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know what form the cadaver will take next.

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I hope that you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it! Mostly, I hope that I have conveyed to you what I took away from this fascinating exhibit: The German Expressionists had a huge impact on the development of Boston Expressionist Painters. I highly recommend that you go see this exhibit at the MFA. What I covered was only a small section of a much larger exhibit. Check out the German and Boston Expressionist works, but also be sure to look at the works by Georgia O’Keefe, Stuart Davis, and Frieda Kahlo. Let me know what you think!

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤