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. 

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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. 

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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 ❤ 

 

Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design (The Jewish Museum- NYC)

Hi everyone! I hope you all had delicious Thanksgiving weekends. I ate a full plate of stuffing at 3 o’clock this morning so that’s where I’m currently at. But I’ve also had a really fun weekend of museum-hopping. It’s been a very busy semester (thesis! teaching a class! curating collective!) so I haven’t been able to go to many museums this fall. Having a couple days off gave me time to re-immerse myself in the art world. One of my favorite exhibits that I saw was the Pierre Chareau exhibit at the Jewish Museum.

Pierre Chareau was a prominent French interior and furniture designer in the years between the world wars. His elite and influential patrons commissioned him to design their homes because they were drawn to his innovative designs. He mixed high-end and low-end materials to create striking spaces. His approach to space was marked by an attention to openness; he was forever searching for ways in which material could, paradoxically, make a room feel lighter and wider.

Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design is fabulous not just for its fascinating subject. The curation of the exhibit embodies Chareau’s principles of design, and allows the viewer to experience interior design, rather than stare at it. Esther da Costa Meyer, professor of architectural history at Princeton University, worked closely with architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro to curate this exhibit. Chareau’s innovative designs set the bar high for curators to display his work, and this curatorial team rises to the occasion.

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The first category that the exhibit encounters is furniture. Several different tableaus feature innovative pieces. This one in particular stood out to me. The table can be swung back underneath the semicircular shelf when it is not in use. I found this to be very efficient. However, the form here does more than follow function. The sleek blend of the bookshelf mirrors the slight curve to the bench, and the roundness of the table. Curving lines make the efficiency of this arrangement feel incidental- I noticed the rich wood and sleek design before I processed its innovativeness.

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White screens separate the tableaus from one another. Projected on these white screens are moving silhouettes of people living and working in Chareau’s spaces. They sit on his chairs and rise from them, hanging their coats on his coat racks and bending over his desks. Here are some stills from these projections:

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And here is a contextual view of my father admiring a tableau of furniture with the shadows of moving bodies projected on nearby screens. (Note the yellowish triangular formation on top of the stacking desk- that’s made from alabaster)

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What I really appreciate about these projections is that they allow the viewer to imagine the furniture in use. While paintings (after the medieval period) serve mainly as decoration, furniture exists to be used. Sometimes I have difficulty enjoying a furniture exhibit if the works are simply placed on a platform and admired. I want to get a sense of what it felt like for someone to sit in a chair- did it make them sit up straight? Did they recline? How did the upholstery feel under their arms? The artist takes all these sensations into consideration in his design, and if we don’t consider them, then how can we truly understand their art? Of course, we can’t sit down on Louis XIV’s bed, but we can sit on a  replica. We can watch the human body relax or stiffen in a digital recreation. Here, we watch shadows of real people interact with the furniture in front of us. It allows us to transitively absorb the sensations of interacting with this furniture, and experience it more fully.

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The second section of the exhibit I’d like to examine is Chareau’s personal art collection. I think that looking at an artist’s inspirations can really inform one’s understanding of the artist’s work. After all, the images that I choose to surround myself with inevitably find their way into my thoughts, my art, and my writing. Chareau had quite the art collection- here are some standouts!

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Many of these works feature a strong emphasis on line. The Mondrian in the top left corner plays with color blocking and straight lines. The works beside it introduce bent and curving lines, and the relationship between the two. The work on the far right seems to be composed almost entirely of lines- all of differing widths and lengths.

I particularly like this work, Max Ernst’s The Interior of Sight (1922). It isn’t hard to imagine this uncanny still life inside one of Chareau’s interiors. Its self-conscious perspective is both a celebration and mockery of traditional means of representing space.

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I really enjoyed how the Jewish Museum embodied Chareau’s notion of expanding space through materiality. In the following picture, you can see how a glass display of Chareau’s collaborations with other artists and designers extends through two gallery rooms. The wall separating the two rooms abruptly ends about six inches above the display table. Look closely- you can see through to the other room, where a person in red and two people in black are looking at the display case from the other room. The cut-out in the wall creates a dynamic flow between the spaces, and creates a feeling of airiness.

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I’ll now turn to the section of Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design that is devoted to interior design. The first thing the viewer sees when he walks into this area is a large white cube within the gallery space. The cube has cut-outs a few inches below eye-level in which photographs of Chareau’s interiors are displayed.

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One circumnavigates the giant cube, following the trail of photographs. This was one of my favorites:

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The interior is the dining room of the Grand Hôtel de Tours in 1927. Notice how the ceiling is never flush with the walls. There are multiple platforms extending from the ceiling, connecting to pillars and making contact with each other. I enjoy how this treatment of wall and ceiling adds visual interest to the space without making it feel cramped. Perhaps the cut-out in the wall on the viewer’s right compensates for the thick pillar and busy ceiling design. 

After walking around the large cube, one walks through a slight opening on one of its sides into a virtual reality wonderland. There are four stools and four virtual reality glasses situated at the four cardinal points. When you sit down and puts on these glasses, you are immediately transported to one of Chareau’s interiors. Here I am immersed in one of these rooms.

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I explored every single one, tilting my head up to see the ceiling, and down to see the chair that I was sitting on. All around me, steel and wood mixed to create a visually arresting space. In one of my favorite interiors, a steel bookcase took up the entirety of a two-story wall. A diagonal steel ladder allowed its inhabitants to reach all of the shelves while perching precariously in mid-air. The ground floor was wooden, and featured innovative furniture like the table and bookshelf set examined in the first section. The incorporation of virtual reality into this exhibition allowed me to imagine myself moving through one of Chareau’s spaces, while the photographs showed me real snapshots of what these spaces looked like almost a hundred years ago. The exhibit works so well because it includes both forms of representation.

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In the last room, there is a screen that moves forward and backwards, projecting a changing image. Maison de Verre (The Glass House), is the subject of this projection. The house was designed by Chareau in 1932 and built in Paris. It is wedged between other buildings and actually cannot be seen from the street. It is an architectural marvel. Made from glass, steel, and glass brick, Maison de Verre makes no effort to cover up its structural elements; they are an essential part of the decorative scheme. As the viewer watches the screen move, the projection drifts through the house, from the outside to the inside, following the steel beams as they protrude through different rooms and stretch down to different levels. Here are some stills of the projection in motion:

Every once in a while the screen and the projection pause. A section of the building is colored in red. Then, a separate projection shows up on the side of the room, showing a close-up view of someone interacting with that highlighted part of the building.

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The exhibit is constantly contextualizing itself, allowing the visitor to feel every single space that is introduced, either by becoming a body within the space, or watching another body move within it.

That was my main takeaway from Pierre Chareua: Modern Architecture and Design. I was utterly fascinated by Chareau’s shifting, open spaces, and his juxtaposition of steel, wood, and more precious materials. Yet the way the exhibit was designed truly took my breath away. I just finished reading “Eleven Museums, Eleven Museum Directors,” by Michael Shapiro, and one of the major themes discussed in the book is the role of the museum. Many of these American directors agree that their main concern is serving the public. How can they make the museum accessible to people? How does the museum fit within the fabric of the city? The Jewish Museum is constantly asking these questions, and coming up with new and exciting answers. Here, the curatorial team took a selection of photographs and a collection of furniture that visitors are obviously not allowed to sit on, but managed to make the exhibit extremely immersive.  I came away with a much deeper appreciation for and understanding of Pierre Chareau’s work.

The Jewish Museum is at the forefront of innovative and thrilling exhibition design. Please make your way over to the Jewish Museum to see this incredible show. You have until March 26th!

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?

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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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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 ❤

 

Updates from Yours Truly

Hi everyone! Contrary to popular belief, I have not disappeared off the face of the planet. This past summer I was interning at Sotheby’s in the 19th Century Paintings Department. I was so busy there that I had no time during the week to explore museums and galleries. On the weekends, I spent a lot of time doing research for my senior thesis and preparing for the class I am teaching freshmen this fall. It was an air-tight schedule, supplemented by lots of trips to the Met Library but very little sunlight…

But I am so SO happy to be back at Tufts. This is going to be my most art-filled semester yet. Take a look at this beautiful schedule:

  • Seminar: Art & the Nazis
  • I’m writing a senior thesis about the Dutch CoBrA artists
  • Intro to World Art (slightly embarrassing that I am a senior taking this class while writing a thesis but c’est la vie)
  • Studio Art: Printmaking Without a Press
  • My friend Rachel and I are co-teaching a class for freshmen called “A World At War: Art and Conflict of the World Wars, 1900-1950”
  • International Social Dance
  • Singing lessons

Typing that actually gave me visceral joy.

The other good news is that I’ll be much more free this semester to post on Canvas and Crumpets. After averaging one post a week in Amsterdam, I was very sad about my writing hiatus this summer. I intend to make up for lost time asap! Keep your eye out for a review of “Making Modern” at the Boston MFA, coming very soon…

 

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

The Demise of Abraham Reiss (National Holocaust Museum- Amsterdam)

Well, it finally happened. My four months in Amsterdam came to a close (with a few tears, and a whole lot of gruyere). I may be back in the Big Apple, but I’m not ready to let go of my blissful semester abroad just yet- partially because I am in denial and partially because I still have a few posts queue’d up! My last couple weeks in Amsterdam were spent scurrying from museum to gallery to museum and back again, as I feverishly attempted to cross everything off my bucket list.

One museum I am extremely glad I visited was the National Holocaust Museum. Amsterdam has several institutions dedicated to the Jewish experience in the Netherlands. I visited the  Jewish Historical Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue, the Holocaust Memorial, the Dutch Resistance Museum, and the Ann Frank House all before the National Holocaust Museum opened in May. Despite the abundance of Jewish institutions in Amsterdam, the National Holocaust Museum feels extremely prudent, and fulfills an important niche in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter. It uses both history and art to weave together an emotional history of the Holocaust in the Netherlands.

The exhibit currently on display is The Demise of Abraham Reiss, by Jeroen Krabbé. In this exhibition, Holocaust survivor Krabbé imagines the life of his Grandfather in a series of nine multi-media works. Krabbé’s grandfather, Abraham, unfortunately did not survive the Holocaust, and was brutally murdered in Sobibor. This series of works is accompanied by a documentary in which Krabbé himself discusses his artistic choices. I will reference his ideas as well as my own in the following analysis.

The first work is entitled, Spanderswoud, 1904. It depicts Abraham at his prime, a successful diamond cleaver and lover of leisure. Here, he is perched in the grass in the woods, where he likely arrived on his Raleigh bike.

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Notice how the the landscape is heavily decorated with both paint and sand. Not a spot of grass or tree is left unpainted. And yet, Abraham himself is sketched in charcoal. It seems as if the slightest brush of a hand could wipe away the marks that represent him. He looks out at us, the viewers, with an unreadable expression. His body, though at rest, seems oddly stiff, as if he is posing for a photograph he did not want taken. Note the one white tree at the viewer’s right. This tree will become important later.

* * *

The second work, Ostend, 1929, depicts a seaside scene. Here, Abraham strolls down the beach while on holiday in Ostend.

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He does not know that it is his last holiday there. At this time, he can afford expensive suits and vacations, but his investments in American Stock are about to bankrupt him. Krabbé illustrates this sense of foreboding through several visual techniques. Note the way Abraham’s shadow is swallowed up by the surf. Murky blue and green water grab hold of Abraham’s yellow shadow and disfigure it, blending it into the foamy sand. Abraham saunters on, blissfully unaware of what is right next to him. Krabbé also indicates the coming troubles with the rainclouds at the top left. Here is a detail of the storm:

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Note how Krabbé uses overlapping vertical and horizontal lines- a technique called cross-hatching- to create a sense of gusting winds. These cross-hatching lines descend into the water, blurring the line between sea and sky. The water, too, looks hazardous, gradually surging towards the coastline.

Abraham’s black and white form is once more drawn with charcoal, while the rest of the painting is covered in thick brushstrokes and dotted with grains of sand. This isolates him, especially in relation to his family, who are clumped together in the middle of the painting. They are difficult to discern because Krabbé has barely colored them in. They remain white on a beige beach. Perhaps Krabbé meant to foreshadow Abraham’s isolation from his family. Or, the proximity of the wife and daughters to the impending storm symbolizes the catastrophic effect of the stock market crash on the Reiss family. Just how catastrophic this was, is revealed in the coming pictures.

Krabbé also notes that he included a stairway at the top right of the beach. He calls this stairway an ‘escape.’ The addition of an ‘escape’ is poignant because the viewer is aware that Abraham was unable to utilize it.

* * *

The third work, April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3, was painted from an actual photograph of Abraham, his wife, and his two daughters.

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After the stock market crash in 1929, Abraham lost all of the money he made in the diamond business. His family was forced to move from their luxurious home to a smaller one on Jekkerstraat. This would prove to be fatal for the Reiss family, because they did not have the money to go into hiding once the Nazis started deporting Jews. Abraham’s wife suffered from diabetes, and actually died the day after this photograph was taken. She may not have died in a death camp, but Abraham often said that it was the Nazis who killed her. She died after reading a newspaper headline that stated all Jews were to wear an identifying yellow star. Abraham kept this newspaper, and intended to use it as evidence after the War that the Nazis had killed his wife.

In Krabbé’s painting, imagery plays a vital role. Once more, Abraham is a charcoal ghost, while his family members and the room itself are thickly painted. The room is half a room and half a forest. On the viewer’s left, the room is filled with trees. Do these trees look familiar? Refer back to the first painting, Spanderswoud, 1904, and note how the singular white tree in that painting has multiplied in this work. Furthermore, hints of red have covered its white bark. Then, on the right side of the room, we see decorative wallpaper surrounding a door. The black door leads to a room so red it is quite literally on fire. Everywhere the Reiss family turns, their life is transforming: into fire, into forest, into death.

Perhaps the most haunting details are the whispers of silver sand across the surface of the painting. Take a look:

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The breezes of grey dust cover Abraham, his wife, and only one of the daughters. One daughter- the mother of Krabbé, who survived the Holocaust- is left untouched. We can see, then, that these ‘whispers,’ as Krabbé calls them, signify the inevitability of death descending upon them.

* * *

This is Westerbork, 20 June 1943, the fourth work in Krabbé’s series. It depicts Abraham when he arrives in the Dutch labor camp.

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His charcoal form stands out in the center of this yellow canvas. He still wears his woolen coat and hat, and clutches his bag with one gloved hand. Here, sand, field and sky are one. Swirling yellow sand covers the canvas both figuratively and literally, as sand is a material used in all nine works. The effect is claustrophobic, just as the camp would have been to its inmates. A row of soldiers lines the right side of the canvas. In the far back on the viewer’s left there are tiny figures toiling in the field. They, too, are unpainted, concocted from charcoal and negative space. Their identities are slipping away, much like their representation on canvas.

This was a very heart-wrenching painting to look at. I find the way Abraham clutches his bag to be especially upsetting. The contents of his bag are the last items he brought from home. He probably carries old photographs and family heirlooms. Upon deportation, Jews were told to bring with them only a small bag. Of course, all their possessions would be taken from them, but instructing them to bring a bag created an illusion of safety. If they were allowed to bring their possessions, how bad could their destination be? This psychological deceit I find particularly nauseating. For this reason, I find Westerbork, 20 June 1943 to be one of the most poignant, most emotionally stirring paintings in the series.

* * *

Westerbork, 6 July 1943 takes place several days after the previous work. In this painting, we see Abraham being sent by rail to the next, unknown location. This location would be Sobibor.

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The ‘whispers’ we saw in April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3 are even more prevalent here. Krabbé has coated the surface of the painting with a tremendous amount of black, grey, and white flecks. As you can see in the following detail, these specks disfigure the faces of the travelers, rendering them identity-less. The man in this detail looks like a mass of yellow paint with black splattered all over. One cannot discern his eyes from the whispers of death. As the whispers become more prominent, and the identities of the figures less distinguishable, one is left with a sense of foreboding.

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Meanwhile, Abraham continues to look at the viewer. There is too much glare on his glasses for us to properly make eye contact with him. And yet, the way he turns to face the viewer at this moment that everyone else piles into the crowded train suggests that he does see us. This moment, this pause, is filled with grace and dignity. One cannot help but admire the way Abraham regards the viewer with quiet confidence, despite the uncertainty of his situation.

* * *

6,7,8 July 1943 depicts the inside of the train during the journey from Westerbork to Sobibor.

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I am uncertain if this is meant to be three versions of Abraham in the three positions he assumed during the journey. The charcoal coloring of all three figures suggests that this is the case. All three figures have balding heads and collared coats with trousers. In this work, the boxcar walls are red and black. If you look closely, you may see the familiar tree motif etched into the red with black paint.And then, in the center, there is a giant X scratched onto the canvas, symbolizing, perhaps, the end. The whispers are black now, floating heavily over all three versions of Abraham. He has closed his eyes, bowed his head, and in one iteration, laid on the floor, but never has he lost his dignity. He stands solemnly, his shoulders relaxed. Even in despair, the Abraham that Krabbé has depicted is noble.

* * *

The following work is entitled, Sobibor, 9 July 1943. It depicts Abraham’s arrival at the Polish death camp.

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This is the first time that we see Abraham’s back, rather than his face. He exits the train car and walks toward the lineup. I find it odd that this work, and the previous, depict the train car to be empty despite the testimonials that these cars were filled way past capacity. I believe that this was done to highlight Abraham’s personal emotional journey, rather than to create a realistic image of what the transportation would have been like. Isolating Abraham serves to place focus on him and his relationship to his surroundings, which are filled with symbolic imagery.

In this work, the landscape begins to turn charcoal like Abraham’s figure. The trees in the background- yes, the tree motif we have seen throughout the series- are drawn entirely in charcoal. These are the famous birch trees that populated many of the forests surrounding extermination camps. They are known for having white bark and peculiar black markings all up and down their trunks that resemble eyes. This gives a deeper meaning to the expression, “the forest has eyes.” In this case, the forest did have eyes, eyes that witnessed what was about to happen to Abraham and his fellow Jews.

It is in this painting that the themes of the series come together. The trees and whispers of death that have followed Abraham throughout his life- throughout this series of paintings- end in Sobidor, where they surround him. Abraham’s charcoal existence begins to make sense. It is Krabbé’s way of representing what the Holocaust did for individuals: it tore away their identities until they were nothing more than blank white canvases. Sobidor stripped Abraham of his identity. His past life became a memory, and then a myth. In the first several works we see, it is as if we are looking back on his life after he has died, and his identity is threatening to wash away completely. Krabbé has captured him with charcoal, forcing his memory back onto the canvas and into the minds of viewers. In depicting his grandfather’s story, Krabbé returns to him his identity.

* * *

In the last two works, the metaphor is completed. Much of the canvas turns to charcoal while the color of the paint desaturates until it is only black and white. This is Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11 am. 

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In this work, Krabbé depicts the de-humanizing act of undressing that the Jews were forced to endure in front of the Nazi guards. I think the sorrow in Abraham’s face speaks for itself.

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The forest is watching too. Note how the forest is almost as powerful a protagonist as Abraham himself.

* * *

And finally, Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11:30 am. 

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The field is empty. All of the Jews from the train, including Abraham, are inside the gas chamber of Sobibor. The smoke that steams out of the chimney is black and dotted with white specks- these are the origins of the whispers that chased Abraham through the previous eight paintings, the remnants of his body and soul wiping away his identity:

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Krabbé explains that geese were used to cover the noise of people dying in the chambers, so that new arrivals would not panic and flee. They are painted in red. Perhaps this is because they are the only figures left alive on the canvas.

* * *

It is not easy to read posts like this. I recognize that, and don’t blame you if you skimmed through this or only made it halfway through. It was even harder to write, and more difficult yet to see at the National Holocaust Museum. But exhibits like this are important. In exhibiting this series, Krabbé returned to his grandfather his dignity and his identity. The more we say his name- Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss- the more we triumph over the evil that stripped him of his personhood in the first place. Keep Abraham Reiss and Jeroen Krabbé in your minds and hearts.

The Demise of Abraham Reiss is a poignant example of why I love art so much. It has the capacity to make people learn things and feel things that they could not have had they simply read a history textbook. I hope that these images and my words helped you with both. As always, feel free to let me know if you disagree with something I said, or have something to add.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

 

Link to my review on the Greenbox Museum’s Website!

Hi everyone!

It’s been quite a busy day. After posting about Mediamatic I explored Amsterdam Noord. In fact, I just got back from the Eye Film Museum and Cinema. What an incredible place!

Just wanted to share some quick and exciting news. In April I wrote a piece on the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia. I was happy to see my review listed on their website under ‘press.’ Take a look. And while you’re at it, explore the Greenbox website. It’s a fantastic resource if you’re interested in Saudi Arabian art, and aren’t sure where to begin.

Many thanks to the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudia Arabia!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Soot-O-Mat (Mediamatic- Amsterdam)

Hey all!

Hope your May is treating you well. I’ve been cramming like crazy for my final exams and papers and wishing I had more time to explore during my last few weeks here in Amsterdam. I also just found out that my thesis prospectus was accepted (!!!) I am going to be researching the Dutch Cobra artists, so I am trying to get my hands on as many primary sources as possible while I still have the entire Stedelijk library at my disposal.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had time for fun this past month! A couple weeks ago I went to one of the coolest spots in Amsterdam, Mediamatic. Mediamatic is an unconventional exhibition space that combines technology and biology with visual art.  When I went, I took a look at the current exhibitions, but Mediamatic is also known for its greenhouse, and for hosting lectures, tutorials, and workshops. Today I am going to talk about Soot-O-Mat, created by Dr. Špela Petriča.

Here is a photograph of Soot-O-Mat:

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At first glance, it looks like a series of copper wires attached to lamp shades and whirring boxes, all balanced on a rolling cart.

But now, take a closer look at the lampshade, specifically what is on the base of it.

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That tiny little speck is actually the muscle of a mussel, isolated from the rest of the creature. It is still pulsing, slowly but steadily. Attached to the muscle is a thin strand, which is in turn connected to the mechanism beside the lampshade. As the muscle pulses, the mechanism makes an imprint along the length of the cylinder. Note how most of the imprint curves around the lampshade in a smooth line, yet tiny spikes interrupt the lines every few centimeters. These spikes represent the pulse of the muscle.

After a time, a pattern forms on the lampshade. Take a look:

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Soot-O-Mat epitomizes the mission of Mediamatic: to combine the biological and the technological to create art. But that is not all this work does. I would like to propose my own interpretation of this work, one that is deeply subjective, and may not be in line with your own thoughts. Keep your own interpretations in mind while you follow my train of thought.

When I look at Soot-O-Mat, I am highly aware of the concept of size, for several reasons. Firstly, it seems odd that such a tiny object, a mussel’s muscle, provides the energy to power so much machinery. Secondly, it seems strange that the effect of so much equipment would be so minor- a little blip on a line, a dip in a curve.

Perhaps the strangest sensation that I am filled with, however, is meaninglessness. We are given an aesthetic object, a lampshade, decorated with a mildly interesting pattern. Yet we are also forced to view the mechanism as well. The viewer sees the machinery, its size and complexity, and the energy source: a living thing. Or if one wants to be technical, a body part that used to be part of a living thing. When confronted with this complex system, the final product looks trite. What’s the point of killing a living thing, isolating its muscle and strapping it to a mass of wires if the result is going to be an unwieldy, easily replaceable lampshade?

That question, I believe, is what Dr. Špela Petrič was trying to  get viewers to ask. Soot-O-Mat points out the strangeness of using animals to create consumer goods. A leather jacket doesn’t look like a cow. A billiard ball or piano key made from ivory doesn’t look like the tusk of an elephant. When using shampoo and conditioner, we are completely displaced from the animals that the product may have been tested on. But what if you could see the cow being slaughtered, the elephant shot, or the guinea pig coated in pink liquid? Would you still want to buy those products? In showcasing the process of making, in addition to the final, purchasable object, Dr. Špela Petrič forces the viewer to see the abuse of an animal for human consumption. Perhaps not all viewers would have the same response, but I was left wondering why this was even necessary, when there are so many other ways to make a lampshade look pretty, that don’t utilize a living thing.

Soot-O-Mat is not a PSA about crustacean abuse. In this interpretation, it stands for something greater, for questioning the use of animals in all kinds of aesthetic objects. Are we not an advanced enough species, Dr. Špela Petrič seems to ask, that we can’t make beautiful things without costing lives?

With all that in mind, another part of me wonders if this work could also be a celebration of the power yielded by the smallest of things. A mussel is already tiny. A muscle of a mussel is even tinier. If I saw it on the beach i wouldn’t notice it, and would walk right by as I picked up shells for my growing shell-necklace collection. Soot-O-Mat illustrates the great power of life by juxtaposing a small yet powerful creature with an unwieldy manmade contraption. The fact that such a small thing can even influence the motion of heavy metals is astounding. When viewed together, one cannot help but be in awe of life.

Let me know what you think about Soot-O-Mat! Should biological and technological art be analyzed according to the same standards as paintings and sculptures? Is there a non-vegan interpretation of this work? (I’m not vegan, but I began to feel like one the longer I thought about Soot-O-Mat…) I’m curious about other people’s thoughts, as this was a very unique post for me.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤