Realms of Rubble

Art exists in the city as the city exists in art. The formal definition of art, any vehicle of aesthetic pleasure that communicates a chosen message, implicitly associates artistic creations with painted or sculptured works. Such works exist within a set context; framed by walls, these artistic creations beautify  their immediate surroundings. At the core, formalized or academic art is that which can be observed, critiqued, and questioned by human spectators. However, this overly narrow definition of art limits masterpieces to domestic or selectively public museum settings. Adopting instead a wider definition of art, the spectator must observe the greater context, the city, before dissecting the object of creation. A house for art, the city is the purest form of art. Thus, in discussing an overarching definition of art, one must evaluate architecture—the rubble, ruins, remains, and reconstructions.

While our lives concentrate around the hearths that house us, the buildings in which knowledge grows, science advances, government legislates and business operates, it is easy for the modern citizen to take for granted the aesthetic beauty of such basic foundations. Often termed concrete jungles, cities are viewed as technological and human hubs and championed for their concrete advances rather than for their concrete foundations. It takes an honest observation of the architecture of antiquity to fully realize the artistic soul of the city. As Socrates infamously stated, the city completes the individual; it is a place for realization and contemplation.

Standing on top of Filopappou Hill (Hill of the Muses) in Athens silently observing the sun crest the mountain, illuminating the Acropolis with natural light, I grasped the eternal truth of Socrates declaration. Ruined and rebuilt, the city of Athens is a place for realization. It forces the spectator to realize the finite nature of his existence—life rises and falls like the cresting sun. Yet, such realizations prompt contemplation on the beauty of such a finite existence. The Acropolis stands testament to the genius of man passed. However, it is also a symbol to the progress of man present. The stoic Doric columns and imposing geometric forms are weathered, but resilient. While fragmented, the structure stands. The Acropolis’ architecture retains the poignancy of a picture, affecting emotional musings within the spectator. Rather than a lesser form of art, architecture, as evidenced by the Acropolis, asserts the supremacy of materiality—the beauty of our classical beginnings. Turning an eye on our present state of architectural ingenuity, one can only revel at the sublimity of glass, scaffolding, and brick.

Classical Takes on Modernity

Heading a passing recommendation, I entered the Albertina (Vienna, Austria). Checking my watch, I had exactly two hours before heading to the storied Kunsthistoriches Museum—a fair swatch of time for a museum I added last minute to my itinerary. However, enraptured with the array of works displayed, I could have wandered the passageways until closing. After quickly perusing the temporary exhibition, Chagall to Malevich, I arrived at Monet to Picasso, an arrangement of the museum’s permanent holdings. Displaying over 100 pictures in a roughly chronological order, the permanent exhibit presents the stylistically varying ideas of classical modernism. From French Impressionism to Pointillism to Fauvism to Expressionism, the exhibit surveyed the modern masters. Highlighting Monet, Cézanne, Vlaminck, Kirchner, Nolde, Kandinsky, and Chagall, among many others, the quality of hung works was overwhelming.

Less trafficked than the temporary exhibition, the core collection was of blockbuster quality. The range of displays prompted the spectator to reflect on the distinct methods and modes of creation. The galleries allowed the spectator to move around the works, approaching the canvas to observe slight idiosyncrasies and backing away from the material form to analyze the picture as a complete, faultless entity. Spectators seemed to dance through the rooms—reversing, circling, and sashaying towards works of particular intrigue.

Drawn to the early 20th century landscapes, I gravitated towards Emil Nolde’s Moonlit Night (1914) and Edvard Munch’s Winter Landscape (1915). Painting the soul of nature, Nolde and Munch animated natural forms, artificially adding in the kinetic energy of nature, which can only be perceived by the natural eye. In their works, individual strokes of pigment meld into cohesive forms—an honest rendering of nature materializes from the artists’ materials. Seeking to individually experience and secondarily capture for posterity the original state, both artists grounded their creations in their observable surroundings. Taking note of their present reality, these artists abstracted reality; yet, in such abstraction, Nolde and Munch captured the raw essence of nature. Grasping the undulating wildness of nature, Nolde and Munch applied vivacious colors in a viscose manner, crafting unique impressions.

Perceptive Touches

Prior to my collegiate art history studies, I held the misguided perception that all art must be aesthetically pleasing. I ardently believed that the conglomeration of colors must be evocative, that the sinuous line must remove all artifice, and that the primed canvas must hide its materiality. Art, I thought, was the perfection of humanity, the crystallization of human genius. It evidenced that man subsumed the state of nature. I clearly delineated between fine art and expressive human creation, deeming certain objects worthy of spectatorship and reverence, while others unsatisfactory, musing of humans rather than works of masters.

However, with increased exposure to modern and contemporary modes, I have come to deconstruct my subjective dichotomy. Subsequently, I have come to understand “art” as any form of human expression which appeals to the spectator’s senses, whether that be smell, touch, sight, hearing or taste. The later sense, taste, is the least applicable to the current discussion. Nevertheless, all of the aforementioned senses produce subjective opinions. Formulating unique human experiences, “art” employs known modes of experience to craft new environments of discovery.

Embracing the multifaceted portrayals of the senses, the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland presents ‘Priére de Toucher’ (The Touch of Art), the second installment of a five-pronged exhibition series that appeals to the spectator’s ream of senses. The diverse group of film, painting, sculpture, and performance art currently on display stimulates visceral reactions. Differing from a customary museum show, the Tingley’s exhibit rather than appealing to the spectator’s perception of visual beauty, directly confronts such spectator with conceptual, grotesque, and, at times, pornographic works.

One may certainly question the aesthetic appeal of such works presented; however, the communicative nature of the works displayed is undisputed. The spectator physically responds to the works, shielding his eyes, grasping his own extremities, quickening his pace, slowing to peer into or at tactically confusing creations, and even participating in interactive ball rooms and tree houses. While employing one’s eyes to comprehend such works, the spectator relies primarily on his sense of touch. Abstract representations of the physicality of existence, the handsome and grotesque creations flanking the Tingley’s walls reflect on the fungibility of flesh .

Envisioning Ink

Upon entering Belgium’s Royal Museums of Fine Arts, I briskly walked towards the Old Masters Museum. Anticipating David’s riveting ‘Death of Marat,’ Rubens’ reverential altarpieces, and Bruegel the Elder’s meticulous cityscapes, I nearly bypassed by Gao Xingjian’s “Awakenings of Consciousness.” Encompassing one rectangular room, six monumental works by Gao Xingjian create a quasi-spiritual environment. Bridging the oriental and occidental, Xingjian’s canvases contemplate the complex issues of modernity and individual identity. Acting as a gateway, Xingjian’s canvases absorb the spectator, instilling an eerie sense of calm. Oscillating between canvases, the spectator is confronted images that are comprehensible, but, upon second view, deeply wrought. Physical representations of the intangible life forces, Xingjian’s canvases awake the spectator’s consciousness, prompting reflection on one’s relative position in the greater cosmos.

Dwarfed in relation to the canvas, the spectator must stand at a distance to observe the entire picture plane. Each image has a photographic quality; the meticulous details and individual gestures merge to form cohesive images. The subtle gradations of black Indian ink can only be observed when the spectator approaches the canvas. A cunning optical illusion, Xingjian’s monolithic eye fools the human eye. While abstracted, Xingjian’s eye appears a more faithful image of reality than an image taken from reality. The loose gestural tear trailing off the canvas seems to capture the essence of sadness; it records the fleeting nature of human emotion for posterity. Further, the flecked cornea seems to allude to the canvas’ cognitive ability. Unblinking, such eye unflinchingly records reality, cataloguing the beautiful triumphs and follies of humanity. An image of us, the painted eye is greater than us. It is objective whereas we, the spectators, are subjective. It acknowledges the truth whereas we close our eyes to the harshness of reality. It exists for posterity, processing years of human progress whereas we have a finite timeframe. Mimicking Xingjian’s eye, we must open ourselves to the entirety of human experience.

Crude and Careful Caresses

Objects of desire and disgust, courtesans function as fleshy pawns. The body of a courtesan becomes a commodity, such lustrous voluptuous flesh a currency. Kowtowing to the patriarchal system and brothel hierarchies, the courtesan is subject to societal manipulation. Existing at the margins of society, the courtesan, ironically, procures clients by fronting the illusion of an acceptable woman of society. Subtle gestures—revealing her racy black boot, alluringly lifting her dress hem or sipping absinth, among others—signal her availability. Such courtesan is a composite of promiscuity and propriety. Her public image is carefully crafted, designed to simultaneously conform to and rebel against societal norms.

Artists over centuries have sought to capture via pigment the realities and fantasies implied by a courtesan’s explicit figuration. I have previously written on the dichotomies of courtesanship in 16th century Venetian courtesan portraits and 18th century Japanese hanging scrolls. Such investigations fixated on the role reversal of courtesans, charting how imaging proprietary leads to the materialization of propriety, as seen in society’s gradual acceptance of past-prostitutes or “actors.” Continuing my exploration into the subject, I visited Splendor and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910 at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Exploring the social and cultural dimensions of prostitution, the exhibit illuminated the methods and pictorial means of representing the painful and pleasurable profession. Presenting a series of well-known compositions—Manet’s Olympia, Degas’ Absinthe, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s brothel studies—the comprehensive exhibit additionally showcased lesser known, but equally striking works.

One such, Anquetin’s Femme a la voilette (1891), captures the dichotomies of courtesanship. Viewing the courtesan by third degree, the spectator observes the veiled protagonist through a glass divide. The act of viewing the canvas marks the third level of separation; the spectator observes a beautiful commodity that has been further commoditized through painting. Light refracts off the glass screen, the courtesan’s turquoise garment, and, finally, her paper-white face. Illuminated in flesh, the courtesan outwardly emotes sexual volatility and vitality; yet, her eyes lack luster. Such courtesan may escape her station, ascending the social ladder by marketing her flesh to well-curated pursuers. On the inverse, the depicted may be reserved to her marginalized reality, retreating to absinth to escape her present. As little concrete information is know about Anquetin’s work, the spectator is left to theorize on the mental state of the beautiful prositute.

Enduring Ethereal Beauty

Humans have crafted artistic creations since the origins of mankind. During the prehistoric age, cavemen scratched archaic scenes of the hunt onto earthen walls; an early example of such can be seen on the cave walls at Lascaux. As mankind progressively evolved, methods of art making increased in number and in specialization. Artists flocked to the craft, and soon art became a profession, rather than a communicative necessity. In this long lineage of artists, how does a painter acquire international fame? What makes an artist an icon, or an embodiment of his times? One must consider whether a set of criteria that explains the fame of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Pollock, Koons, to name a sampling of acclaimed artists, can even be established. Take Van Gogh, contemporary viewers revere his work, but his canvases garnered appreciation only after his untimely passing. Therefore, should it be a prerequisite for such artist to achieve acclaim in his lifetime in order to be considered a true master of his time?

Considering these questions alongside a multitude of others, curators from the Gemäldegalerie organized the comprehensive exhibition, The Botticelli Renaissance. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), a Florentine Old Master painter, has inspired generations of subsequent artists who have embraced his ethereal Venus figures and beneficent virgins. A resurgence in all things Botticelli occurred again in the 18th century upon his rediscovery by the English Pre-Raphaelite painters. His iconic female nudes have inspired modern and contemporary interpretations by artists such as: Edgar Degas, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, among countless others.

Stressing the muse-like quality of Botticelli’s women, the exhibition traces interpretations of Botticelli’s works from the contemporary present backwards to his original 15th century panels. The audio guide, which traced back in time as the viewer traversed the gallery space, greatly facilitated the viewing experience; it  clearly and constantly reinforced the thematic thread woven through the decades. Viewing a myriad of interpretations—panting, drawing, sculpture, photography, video, and costume design—the viewer grasped the scope of Botticelli’s influence of current creators. Captivating the imagination of artists and encouraging adaptions that valorized the woman body, Botticelli gained a legacy that extends much beyond the 16 or so works officially attributed to his hand. Botticelli’s own iterations of this life-size Venus bookend the exhibition; first contemporary portraits flank Venus (1490) whereas in the final room, among the 50 panels widely attributed to Botticelli, the second Venus stoically stands. The timelessness of Botticelli’s Venus resonates. Still 500 years later, her contraposto form beckons, her eyes confidently engage with each onlooker, and her windblown blond locks reinforce the illusion of ease.

Emphasizing Emotion

Contributing to the unshackling of traditional artistic constraints, Munch and Van Gogh crafted communicative works; visually assaulting the viewer up to a point of realization, these works are pathos laden. Deceptively simple, the style and technique employed by these two visionaries serve as conduits, transmitting emotion via gradations in color. While their art appears easily accessible, it is wrought with intentional contradictions, conveying the feelings and lofty ideals of their creators.

Works produced by Van Gogh and Munch are inextricably linked to human nature. Such works must be viewed in tandem with the heart and the mind. The fluid lines, playful color palettes, and cropped compositions commingle to form works that are visually and intellectually intriguing. Each canvas is at once nothing more than it materiality, yet contemporaneously an entity entirely disparate from the tangible depiction. Akin to Kandinsky’s later treatise on the spiritual aspects of art, color corresponds to respective emotions. Therefore, the undulating color fields, which characterize Munch and Van Gogh’s work, trigger emotive reactions, which begin with the material form, but morph into greater contemplations on philosophical riddles, such as the meaning of: love, fear, spirituality, and death.

Wrestling with the greater meaning of human existence, Van Gogh and Munch create works that reflect the geopolitical present as well as their deeply personal philosophies. Munch: Van Gogh, an exhibition presented at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam explores the multifaceted lives of these two stylistically radical artists. Sharing similar ideological visions and modes of creating, Munch and Van Gogh never overlapped; record of the artists interactions simply does not exist. Intensely expressive, the works of Munch and Van Gogh shown together at the Van Gogh Museum create a cohesive narrative.While Munch’s works received acclaim during his lifetime, Van Gogh undulating color fields garnered appreciation only after his passing. No longer viewed as radical, confrontational creations, the canvases can now be appreciated for their pioneering ingenuity and their primal link to humanity.