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.

Domestic Reverberations of War and Peace

Black and white gestures act as simulacra for raw human emotions. Such languid, bold strokes trace characterizing features, abstracting the human frame, but not beyond human recognition. In isolation, each trace can be viewed as an exemplum of geometric form—an end in itself. However, when viewed as a succession of traces, a cohesive creation emerges. Distilling the human form the artist represents the oppositions of self and society, the fundamental divide between pain and pleasure, and the fulcrum of chaos and disorder through a series of simplified gesture.

Yet, the creator cannot be lauded, only the creation discussed. A series of poignant portraits on temporary construction planks in central London, particularly Bloomsbury and Covent Garden, are attributed to an unknown artist. Hiding in anonymity, this creator crafts social commentaries, which are quickly erased. Painted over by broad strokes of white paint or covered by flanking panels, these creations are fleeting. Placed in public spaces, such works are accessible and widely viewed. Passersby remark on the effortless beauty of such creations, snap a picture to post on Pintrest, Instagram, or Facebook, and proceed with their daily tasks. Certainly, the crystallization of form is evocative, meriting instant documentation; however, the aesthetically pleasing form is only a gateway into deeper philosophical discussions.

Utilizing a mere sixteen strokes, this anonymous artist denotes the omnipresent duality: war and peace. Painted on panel, the hue of the plank mirrors that of flesh. The well-defined right side emotes the persona of a resilient, unflinching sitter. Self-assured, order trumps over disorder. Juxtaposed with the right, the depicted’s left angle lacks instilled order. A wandering tear-like trace pierces the eyebrow, swerves over the circumference of the cheek, juts out around the mouth, and falters upon intersecting with the cheekbone. Whereas the right profile denotes a peaceful, ordered, pleasurable life, the left signals a life marked by war, disorder, and pain.

Such divide is both external and internal. The tear gesture acts as stigmata, clearly signaling physical disfiguration of the depicted. Yet, the intangible internal war can only be alluded to via pigment. The flatness of the board reinforces the physicality of the work, further emphasizing the limits of the pictured allusion. However, it is the clarity in contrast—the simplicity in the gestural shifts—that resonates with the spectator. The sexless sitter is universalized. Visually reinforcing the duality of singular individuals, the image incorporates both triumphant and triumphed posture within a singular frame. The depicted is a mirror image of us, the spectators, as well as an abstract image of what cannot be defined—a concrete recording of our intangible emotions.

Figuring the duality of individual personas, the image can additionally be interpreted as a depiction of the divisions in capitalist society. Participants in society seek to act morally in both word and deed. Yet, monetary temptations exist along side entrenched racial, class, and cultural hierarchies. Society is thus left with two divisions: foremost, those who front right-side faces—confident, self-assured, fulfilled—and secondarily, those who don left-side faces—financially depressed, doubting, unfulfilled. The coexistence of opposing factions is referenced in this image.

Following the trace of the street portrait, the peaceful harmonious right profile fluidly intersects with the saddened fraught left. The duality of the system enforces its ultimate singularity. As the choice blackened strokes communicate, war begets peace, pain produces beauty, and disorder effects order.

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.

Tactile Textures

India’s cultural tradition is tactile. Handmade textiles constitute the country’s national identity; both individual and the state existence are structured around the manufacture of fabric. Sumptuous fabrics adorn the corporeal form, effectively linking the individual wearer to past courtly splendor and ancestral traditions. A staple of daily costume, textile additionally provides vital sources of revenue via trade. The export of textile has persisted for centuries due to constant western demand. Surviving the advent of Springer sewing machines and mass-production techniques, textile production in India has evolved to incorporate methods of modern design while retaining many of its traditional processes.

Coinciding with the Victoria and Albert’s India Festival, The Fabric of India presents over 200 objects—fabric swatches, garments, rugs, historical costume, and modern fashion pieces. In keeping with the Victoria and Albert’s focus on wearable arts, the exhibit pairs works from its permanent collection with loans from international museums and fashion houses. The exhibition covers a large swath of time with the earliest textile dating from the 3rd century. Multimedia features detail the complicated processes and procedures of dying, weaving and embroidering textile. Such features greatly facilitate the viewing process as many visitors approach the exhibition with limited prior knowledge on the manufacture of fabric.

The exhibit follows a quasi-chronological timeline. However, most rooms are clustered in accordance to theme rather than context of creation. As the viewer traverses through the exhibition, the rooms build in complexity, linking earlier themes to create a cohesive narrative. Commencing with the materiality of textiles, the exhibition clearly outlines the myriad of techniques and dyes utilized in different regions. Swatches of cloth and samples of pigment provide a visual groundwork; given this introduction, the viewer proceeds with a greater understanding of the materiality of the objects they are visually decoding. Separate rooms explore the religious, aristocratic, profit, political, and modern roles of Indian textile. The exhibition is bookended with elaborate high fashion costumes by contemporary Indian designer Manish Arora. These extravagant works depict the relevance of Indian textile in the modern era. By adapting ancient techniques of making, these garments weave tradition into the age of modernity, stressing the sublime nature of the handmade over the machine manufactured.

A harmonious soundtrack greatly complemented the viewing experience. The melodious sounds reverberated off the regal red and turmeric yellow walls, enveloping the viewer. Well-paired to each theme, the soundtrack facilitated contemplation. Inducing a trance-like state, the soundtrack obliterated the idea of time; it instead inspired the viewer to be wholly engaged. The soundtrack had the rare effect of silencing the museumgoers—the human voice rarely muttered throughout the exhibition. One was truly able to contemplate the omnipresent, yet profoundly complex, concepts of color and form. As the works under analysis were textiles and wearable garments, little thought needed to be expended on deriving purpose; instead, the viewer was prompted to trace the evolution of style through identifying intentional iterations in color and composition.

While there is much to be applauded in the Victoria and Albert’s Fabric of India exhibition, the exhibition presented an incomplete, Eurocentric picture of India’s history of textile production. The exhibition intentionally chose to shirk directly addressing the issue of British colonialism in India. The problematic notions of white colonial settlement and the subsequent consequences, which arose from the British East India Company’s foyer in the region, were deleted from the discussion. While one multimedia work featured Gandhi wearing his traditional khadi cloth while imploring the British Government to grant India independence, the topic of colonialism was quickly jumped over to present contemporary works of Indian fashion houses. While, I must cede, the inclusion of modern saris and high fashion ensembles spoke well to the promising future of Indian textiles, I left frustrated by the gapping hole in the exhibition.

Objects of art are artifacts of history. Each work is a product of its geo-political context; in the case of Indian artworks, textiles evidence the oppression and capitalization of colonialism. Hence, a discussion on the beautiful and the painful—the consequences of freedom and colonialism—could have been aptly structured around the Victoria and Albert’s display of textiles. In The Fabric of India, the Victoria and Albert had an opportunity catalyze such open discourse on colonialism. Utilizing beautiful objects to more fully unpack these complex and socially stratifying issues would have proved fruitful.