Posts tagged “painting

In the Breughel Room in Vienna

Breughel - Hunter's in Winter (5)

There are other Breughels in this room, they appear to absorb everyone’s attention: they feature peasant feasts, children’s games and Dutch proverbs. They are Renaissance man’s equivalent of shopping mall people watching. But to me, above all, Breughel is a brilliant landscapist, with a clearly identifiable, unique hand.  It is almost as if Breughel served two patrons, one who was a People Person, and one – one a lot more like me.

Breughel - Return from pasture (2)

Breughel - St Paul on the way to damascus (5)

Breughel - The Tower of Babel (8)

Breughel - Return from pasture (3)

Americans can paint (when they put their mind to it)

Thyssen - Street in Nassau

At first, the Old Masters collection of Thyssen-Boremisza in Madrid disappoints.  It can hardly do otherwise:  the expectations set up by the famous pieces they hold — a Claude, two Bronzinos, a Velvet Breughel, a Carpaccio — are so very high.  But the collection suffers from the “late-arrival” syndrome:  by the time collection-gathering swung into full tilt, the best pieces had already been permanently taken off the market: as a result, with the exception of the handful famous pieces everyone already knows about, T-B is full of minor masters, and very minor works by the great masters, and even minorer ones only attributed to them — usually not very convincingly.  (It’s supposed to have an important post 1900-collection, but how on earth would I know anything about that?)

The museum does contain a wonderful surprise, however: a large collection of late 19th century American academic landscapes — which are very good indeed.  If it weren’t for the topics, you’d swear these were 17th century Dutch.  This is perhaps the greatest pleasure one can experience in a museum:  to discover something completely new and unheard of.

Thank you, Miss T.

PS. If, like me, you are new to this world, here are a few names for you:  William Bradford , John Frederick Kensett , Frederic Edwin Church , Albert Bierstadt , William Trost Richards.

Thyssen - Trout catchers

thyssen - morgenstern

Thyssen - tropical landscape

Thyssen - Blue Ridge

Thyssen - Nicaragua

Thyssen - Labrador

Seaside with lighhouse

The tiles at the Edirne Selimiye

The Edirne’s Selimiye is Sinan’s most beautiful, most graceful construction.  It also sports arguably the finest, best-painted, most beautiful Iznik tiles ever.


Tiles at the Muradiye in Edirne

The Muradiye complex in Edirne — like the Muradiye complex in Bursa — was built by a pious Sultan (Murad II) for a religious community he always said he intended to join himself (and did — twice, each time abdicating in order to do so).

Both complexes were built well outside city walls – suggesting another calculation behind the foundation: religious communities of single men living together are famously troublesome and the Sultan may have been shipping the dervishes out of his way. Each foundation was a vast project for its time: a large, beautifully decorated mosque (which doubled as the dervish residence). a medresa (school), a soup kitchen.

As the cities grew, both Muradiyes became located downtown; but the dramatic shrinkage of Edirne in modern times (from perhaps 250K in 1600s to 20K today) means that the Edirne Muradiye once again lies outside the city walls. One reaches it via a dusty road with a few low lying buildings, an itinerant vendor selling fresh cheese out of a donkey cart, old men playing backgammon in the shade of a weeping willow. The mosque is locked, but in the summer the hoca gives religion lessons to seven ragged gypsy children; he lets you in and leaves you alone to do all the photographing and sketching you want; and if you speak two words of Turkish, he’ll treat you to the sweets from his lunchbox.

The tiles of the Edirne Muradiye are very special. They were clearly painted by a master painter; not every one is unique – there are several repeats – but most are; no similar Iznik tiles have been found anywhere else.

A much larger Strobel

I take back what I said about Prado in connection with Mr Strobel. Here is a much larger version of it. And here you can view it in detail.  Below are a few choice tidbits.

El Prado’s well kept secret

It’s rare at my age to discover a new, never-heard-of, good, major painter; it is all the more pleasure when the said painter turns out to be one’s countryman.   Bartholomäus (in Poland we would say Bartłomiej) Strobel (1591–1647) hailed from Breslau, and worked chiefly for Ladislaus (Władysław) IV; he also did some work for the Hapsburgs, which is how one of his works found its way to El Prado, where it hangs — relegated to the inconsequence of an elevator lobby (while far inferior Rubenses and Zubarans take pride of place elsewhere):  the amazing — and gigantic (it must easily be 3m x 10m) — Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.  In keeping with the Torquemada tradition, Prado won’t let you photograph it; nor will they photograph it themselves; they do admit it is a good painting, and discuss it (in audio) on their website here (mas sólo en español) while providing you with an image the size of a largish post-stamp (!);  the best reproduction of it I have been able to find anywhere is the ridiculously inadequate above.  Unless you actually go to Prado you would never know about it; or the amazingly athletic Christ in Purgatory by Del Piombo (one of the best Venetian painters ever unduly forgotten in the shadow of Titian’s mediocrities); or the two portraits by Parmeggianino, radiant like the rest of his portraits.  You would think El Greco and Goya is all they have there and, wrongly (though for good reasons) conclude the place isn’t worth a visit.

An icon – step by step

I have commissioned an artist in Poland to paint an icon. It is a copy of a the Theotokos of Vladimir. Here is a progress report.

Above is the original — pre-10th century Greek original, Venerated at first in Vladimir (the Vladimir Cathedral was built to house it) and later in Moscow (Cathedral of the Dormition). It is now on display in the Tretyakov Gallery. And below is (almost) as famous version of it by Rublev (1408), now in the Vladimir Museum.

And below is mine.

If you have a link to a larger/better image of the Greek original, could you please post it in comments? Thanks.

Readig Soseki: a matter of a single image, a very few words

She had tied the red obi around her waist with a simplicity which suggested a young girl’s indifference as to whether or not it enhanced her charms. Carrying an old fashioned taper in her hand, she had led me to the bathhouse now this way now that, around the bend after bend along what appeared to be passageways, and down flights of stairs. In front of me all the time were that same obi and that same taper, and it seemed as though we were going along the same passage and down the same staircase again and again. Already I had the feeling of being a painted figure moving along on a canvass.”

Natsume Soseki, Kusa Makura (The three-cornered world), III, 40-41


Kusa makura is an introspective novel. The first chapter is indicative of the rest: it starts with the sentence: “Going up a mountain track, I feel to thinking” and the rest are the hero’s thoughts. This is a very attractive structure for someone like me – more interested in the internal life of men than in what actually happened (the action is always the same – she wants him, but she does not want her back, or the other way around).

The thoughts themselves are rather disappointing: they illustrate the disarming lack of training in rigorous thinking rather typical of all exclusively humanist training; and even if the total lack of familiarity with recent advances in psychology and cognitive science are forgivable (after tall the book was written in 1906), the most serious problem with all these introspections is that the novel describes the internal life of a man of around 30. Think about it:  when is the last time someone aged 30 has had anything interesting to say to you?

Yet, to me, reading Kusa Makura has been a remarkable experience — and this entirely on the strength of the passage I quote above. The hero arrives at a remote guesthouse in the mountains; it is night-time; and the maid – the sole person in the whole house as far as he can tell – is taking him to the mineral bath somewhere at the bottom of the house. This image – the red obi, the taper, the going down and down endless narrow passages and stairways in the moving globe of flickering light and the altered state of mind of having entered a painting. There is much reflection on painting in the book, but this is the only one that matters: yes, there is that state of mind one enters into when looking at paintings, a moment of endlessly suspended time.

It is almost as if the entire novel – all those pages, all those chapters – were needed only to provide the setting for that single image, like all that twisty metal which holds the one object of any worth, the jewel.  Much art is that way: the slow, repetitive, mesmerizing overture is needed to put the audience in the mood, to sensitize them, so that they may be ready to receive what you have to tell them. 

Which may well be a matter of a single image, a very few words.

Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Center Panel

This topic consists of three posts:

Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Left Panel

Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Right Panel
Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Center Panel

Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Right Panel

This topic consists of three posts:

This topic consists of three posts:

Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Left Panel

Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Right Panel
Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Center Panel

Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Left Panel

Not my favorite picture at Lisbon’s Museu de Arte Antiga, but certainly her greatest crowd-pleaser. It took a rare combo of consideration and pushiness to photograph this thing.

This topic consists of three posts:

Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Left Panel

Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Right Panel
Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Center Panel


Gianbattista Tiepolo – Flight to Egypt – Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

My favorite painting at Museu de Arte Antiga is this — as it has to be every Venetian’s: the Holy Family is seen flying to Egypt as any Ventian would: by boat.

Ca. 1765-1770, oil on wood, abou 60 cm high by 30 cm wide.

Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-1597) at Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Boucher, Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Like the title say.

Kinds of minds — that new taste is not the taste of a new age, but the taste of new men

The expression Kinds of Minds appears frequently in this blog — usually in connection with aesthetic musings — reflections on the the subject of why some people like what others do not.

It is as frequently objected to by my readers who generously — and in keeping with their very good democratic instincts — object to the idea that human beings might somehow be born unequal.

My respect to them, and my assurance that I, too, share in their belief that all humans MUST BE EQUAL BEFORE THE LAW.

In other ways, of course, we are all profoundly unequal and all of us, the most committed democrats included, recognize this fact:  we all know that some of us are born extro- and others introvert, some homo- and some hetero– ahem – vert, that some are thrill-seekers and others prefer afternoons at home with a book, etc. (And this is as it must be: if the human mind is a result of evolution and if evolution is still continuing then different kinds of minds — different genetic mutations in the structure of the brain — simply must be present in the population competing with each other — because this is the only way evolution can ever work).

In our everyday life, we all accept this as a simple fact of life without attaching any special ideological value judgment to it. Yet, somehow, when it comes to discussion of aesthetics — perhaps because to so many people it seems to lie so close to politics — many of us feel obliged to pretend that we are all equally free to like anything at all; that there is only one kind of human mind; and only one art to match it.

This ideological commitment to an obviously false theory of mind leads to a series of failures in theoretical consideration of art: theorists fail to see, for instance, that two different kinds of art may well have been designed to appeal to two different kinds of minds and that therefore they need not have anything in common at all. So, while — surely — it must be apparent that the sort of painting found at this show in Warsaw has — aesthetically speaking — practically nothing in common with the kind of painting found in this room, and that therefore any attempt to say something — anything — true about both kinds of painting simultaneously must end up in banalities (“painting is the application of pigment to a surface”) or gibberish (“painting is a way of being absorbing the universe and of being absorbed it”); yet such “theories of art” and “theories of painting” continue to be generated. 

Predictably, we are drowned in theoretical banalities and nonsense.

It also leads to a false perception of history. And thus, for instance, the great change in European visual arts which took place in the early twentieth century, and which has been ceaselessly praised by some as revolutionary and equally ceaselessly derided by others as a perverse embrace of ugliness, is commonly interpreted by theorists as either a natural progression (e.g. “cubism” somehow — by some sort of inevitable law — follows from “expressionism”); or as reflecting ideological changes in the European society (e.g. “awareness of quantum mechanics causes cubism”); while the true cause for that change in art may simply have been demographic: the economic transformation of the West has brought to the fore new demographic groups which have heretofore not had the opportunity to engage in high art and have therefore not been seen in it.

Seen in this light, new taste is not the taste of the new age but the taste of new men. 

Consider how much more sense this statement makes!

Interlude — some recent Indian miniatures for Sir C

It’s all copies, of course; but it really isn’t bad at all. Besides, the Old Masters did a lot of copying — indeed, they mostly copied. (This is why Rembrandt got sent to Madrid in the first place). One copied and copied and copied and then, eventually, one painted something original, once, for kicks.  And only then, if it worked, one tried more.

Sir G paid well over market price for these (300-400 euros) — but figured he was encouraging the men to stick with their job. Glad to report, it worked: both were still at it two years later and one even had a (part time) apprentice.

For your enjoyment, copies after:  Mughal, Kangra, and Kotah schools.  Enjoy.

Show and Tell: At the National Palace Museum again

[A show and tell]

The National Palace Museum in Taipei was built to house the art collection of the Emperors of China. This collection was carried off from Beijing by Chiang Kai Shek in 1947 when he fled from the mainland before the advancing communist armies. It was subsequently housed in a nuclear bomb shelter in deep shafts mined into the side of the mountain to prevent it being damaged in any Chinese attempted takeover of Taiwan.

Chinese art plays a special role in the China-Taiwan conflict.  Chinese definition of China is not genetic but cultural:  one is never born Chinese; one becomes Chinese by absorbing Chinese culture — one becomes cultured, or, in a Chinese expression, “cooked through”.  For millenia China was threatened by northern barbarians who sometimes conquered her.  China remained Chinese in the face of her conflict with uncultured barbarians by assiduously preserving and maintaining her culture; and, at times, by educating her barbarian conquerors into her cultural ways.  The Chinese government’s function has always been to preserve and maintain culture (since its job is to protect the people’s livelihood and culture makes for a livable state); and a Chinese government is only legitimate to the extent that it preserves and maintains culture.  Seizing the cultural treasures of China is a route to legitimacy; destroying them, as communists did during the Cultural Revolution, destroyslegitimacy.  One could say, perhaps, that if the contents of the National Palace Museum were to be destroyed, China would cease to exist.

The collection, assembled over millenia, is vast: the museum features a small permanent collection and rotating displays changed every few weeks. On a strict rotation schedule, it would take fourteen years to show the entire collection. But some works are so precious (imagine fifth century AD ink and paper paintings) that they are hardly ever put on show.

When I lived here, I visited the museum every week in order to make sure that I miss nothing. And whenever I return, I make sure to go back there again. Every time I visit I leave deeply moved by something, usually something new. On my visit today I came across three new items never before seen.

1.  A new (for me) painting by my personal hero, Wen Zhengming (Ming Dynasty, fifteenth century) — a long (11 meters) horizontal scroll called Guan Shan Ji Xue — “Mountain Passes in Gathering Snow”:

The size of the reproduction does no justice to the incredible detail of the painting (even though the scroll is only about 3 x larger than the reproduction): trees have detailed bark; empty surfaces (water and sky) are covered with an irregular, scored ink wash which suggests falling snow; in places, huts buried in show are conveyed with a combination of two thin strokes of the brush and a kind of brightening of the underlying wash; the figure of the lonely traveler in a red jacket on a black ass — which appears every foot or so as you view the scroll from right to left and eventually, about the middle of it, comes home (he is seen sitting in an open window) can barely be made out, while in the original it jumps at the eye like a raspberry in cream; above all, with the reproduction you cannot do what you can do in the museum: step about 5 feet back from the scroll and let your eye wonder over the undulating landscape: as you roll your eyes from right to left and then back again the effect is strangely musical: it is like gliding your gaze over a musical score: the peaks and valleys rise and fall rhythmically, with a slight, shimmering rubato. 

You can see the full reproduction of the scroll here.

2.  A vertical scroll which I had never seen by one of the greatest painters of the Song Dynasty (tenth century), Ma Yuan, entitled Xue Jing — Snow Landscape. Again, the reproduction (at the top of this post) fails: the painting is monumental – two and a half meters tall – and painted in fantastically powerful, confident, angular strokes, as if chiseled in ice and crystal. Yet, the mood it conveys is the opposite of hard: it uses an air perspective to suggest gentle mist in the air – a just above zero temperature and wet, melting snow. I kept returning to stand before Snow Landscape; and whenever I managed to peel myself off, reluctantly, to look at other paintings, or calligraphy, I could feel – my inner ear could hear – its tiny but insistent voice calling me back. I would return and stand before it again, glued to the glass, filled with intense longing. As Buddha would say, desire enters through the eye, but not consummation. Experience of rapture of art is a pointless stoking of suffering (i.e. unfulfilled desire) with no prospect of satisfaction; and museums are the worst place in the world for it of all: they close.  See it above (at the top of this post) or here.

3.  There was also a long fifteenth century scroll illustrating a second century BC poem about a Han Emperor’s hunting preserve (“Shangling Park”), a nice enough work, but to my mind fairly unremarkable — except perhaps for the fact that its painter had begun his career as a lacquerer, a fact clearly seen in the way he paints with sharply defined detail: in his painting even clouds and waves on the water have clear sharp edges; with – and this is the point — a very beautifully calligraphed text of the poem attached as a colophon.  The calligraphy is fanciful: the same character is written in a number of different ways – especially when text calls for repeats — and some characters appear to be the writer’s own invention (look for one that looks like Macdonald’s Golden Arch) – which works when its meaning can be guessed from the context.

You can see the whole thing, painting and colophons, here.

4.  Finally, I came upon an old friend, Xi Shan Mu Xue, “Snow at Dusk over mountains and streams”, by an anonymous Song Dynasty (tenth century) painter which I had first seen (and spend hours viewing on my knees) during the Da Guan show back in 2008. It had then occasioned the same kind of searing longing which Snow Landscape occasioned now; I knew to approach it gingerly. I was delighted to see it, but my desire remained focused on its rival and the old passion was not reawakened — I walked away without a heartbreak. I have sung the praises of this painting elsewhere; here suffice it to say: note the details of the fog in the middle of the painting – how the landscape incredibly, imperceptibly slips into and out of it.

Note how to the left, in the dense fog below the group of houses in the valley, a darker spot can be made out. What is it? Is it a stain – the painting is more than a thousand years old, its surface is uniformly darkened and may be discolored in places – or is that a clump of trees slinking in the fog? Much Chinese and Japanese ink painting employs this kind of suggestion: is there something there? Am I really making it out or is my mind playing tricks on me?


And while on the subject of Ma Yuan, it is never wrong to mention (and show) my favorite painting by him (favorite, that is, until I saw the
Snow Landscape) – The Evening Banquet. Note how unevenly the dusk falls: quickly on the ground, more slowly up above, where the sky remains luminous and gradually fading for a quarter of an hour after sunset. Down at the bottom, in the darkness of the pavilion, someone is lighting a lamp.

Incidentally: all of these reproductions are tiny; in searching for a good one, I came across this, and it is worth seeing: it is an up-to-scale reproduction (my guess is that its scale is about 1:2) of a small section of a large vertical painting like most others several meters high. This tiny fragment gives you a sense of the texture of detail in these paintings: an important part of painting appreciation – East and West – is looking at the texture, at the individual strokes of the pen, at the ripples of paint and how it interacts with the underlying texture of the fabric; stepping back to see the overall impression, then coming back up close, nose nearly nudging the painting, looking at the details.



Do you know this lady? You should. She is Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of art and music — and therefore, in a way, the female Apollo. She is also the spirit of the invisible river which enters Ganga at the Yamuna — making the site into a sacred trifluence — a Triveni Sangama — and probably was the name of an actual river:  it had once emptied into the Arabian Sea somewhere in Sindh and irrigated the Mohenjo Daro civilization.  Her course was altered suddenly about 4,000 years ago, probably by an earthquake, leaving the civilization on its shores to parch and wither away. Which makes her a very special deity:  while we are told gods routinely destroy whole civilizations, she is the only one known to have actually really done so.

You have been warned:  Saraswati can just up walk away and when she does, we — vanish without a trace.

Think about it.

This rendition, in traditional Balinese style, is by Gusti Sundarma, a Balinese artist working in acrylic.

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

That one’s aesthetic inclinations reflect one’s self-perception

High and mighty

(A spot of talk-talk while I sort out the trouble with the carousel).

Much recent work in evolutionary psychology has been dedicated to heritable aspects of aesthetics. The basic theory is perfectly sensible: a good aesthetic sense allows us to choose wholesome food, safe environment, and good sexual partners. Controlled tests bear the theory out: preferences in the appearance of people, foods and locales are consistent with health and safety (clear skin indicates good health, good hair — good nutrition, resounding voice — few parasites, etc.).  The girl above (Cecilia Gallerani, by Leonardo, once owned by family, now normally in a state museum in Kraków, today temporarily in London) ticks off all the boxes.  One would expect therefore that pleasing art would share the abstract characteristics of this portrait:  that it would be clear like her skin, shiny like her hair, balanced like her facial features, fine like her hands, calm like her mind.

Considered in this light, the aforementioned Warsaw exhibition of really ugly modern painting seems an aesthetic aberration: its images, surfaces and colors are of disease, death, and decay. My own reaction to it — revulsion — is perfectly in line with theory:  theoretically speaking, no one should like it.  Theoretically, the show is impossible.

But there is a wrinkle:  humans are more complex than the theory suggests. 

For instance, those knowledgeable in the matter (somehow, they usually happen to be women 50+) will tell you that so-so-looking, trashy-dressed girls have more admirers than well-groomed great beauties, and not because the former seem the more desirable breeding material, or because they seem safer as sexual partners — indeed, controlled tests tell us the opposite is the case — but because… they seem more accessible. 


The simple truth is that average guys (and there are a lot of them) are obliged to be realistic and cannot afford to squander their resources on chimeric pursuits for (the very few) fantastic girls whom they can never hope to score.  (Indeed, such girls attract verbal hostility, they are said to be “on a pedestal”, “high and mighty”, etc).  For this reason, sexually most productive dressing strategy is abnegation:  it does not matter whether the low-rider jeans reveal anything pretty, their purpose is to advertise readiness and, since readiness is generally taken to be counter-proportional to looks/worth, it is better if they do not actually reveal anything pretty!  Ugly low-rider easily outscores prim beauty 10:1!

In short, evolutionary aesthetics theorists have missed the obvious fact that experimentally isolated aesthetic experiments are one thing, and actual tactical choices another:  one’s actual aesthetic inclinations reflect one’s self-perception. Lodovico Sforza (the tyrant of Milan) liked Cecilia Gallerani (of above) because he could.  Most men are not in his lucky position; they must like what they can.

I am not sure whether this explains why shows like the aforementioned Warsaw show take place, but it does explain why such shows offend me.  And literally, they do:  the show’s custodians, in showing me these works and expecting me to like them, make it plain that in their eyes I am not good enough to like/aim higher.  They are saying, for the likes of you, this is sufficient. They are slighting me.

Seven not very nice reflections on an art show in Warsaw


As if to illustrate my point about discourse in modern art, last night PR2 broadcast a report on a mammoth show of modern Polish painting in Warsaw. Its curator spoke long, fast, and using a lot of impressive jargon. Among the pearls of her delivery was a – er – defintion? description? – of painting which went:

Painting is an means of reflecting on life, on materials in our life, substances which accompany our life; it is a way of ordering nature, understanding social interdependencies and personal relationships; it reflects individual consciousness; it is a reflection of self perception, a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it; one can say therefore that as a discipline, painting is communication-oriented, reality-identity-oriented; in fact one can say that painting is a tradition of constant repetition of the world.”

Now: note that – as per my 7th essay on Thai Matmee – among all the things that modern art critics tell us modern painting is, one thing painting is not is applying pigment to a surface in order to elicit aesthetic rapture.



Indeed, within the four lines of her – description? – the speaker, Mrs S (who was apparently quoting from a highly regarded book by a recently deceased leading Polish art critic, Janusz Jaremowicz) illustrated two other points which my 7th essay on Matmee has suggested about modern art discourse: 1) that it does not pick out the activity it pretends to define (painting is no more “ a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it” than eating bananas is); and that 2) it toys with jargon for the sake of toying with it (“painting is reality-identity-oriented” sounds great but means exactly nothing).


A less charitable commentator – say, Jacques Barzun – might make two further observations about Mrs S’s – expose? – : first that if the high-school pupil is not told that his teacher is outraged by nonsense, that pupil’s education will fail; and that (apparently) the best a renowned Polish modern art critic (e.g. the aforementioned Jaremowicz) can do is slavishly imitate the jargon emanating from America. Not only is Polish painting derivative (as the show illustrates), but so is Polish criticism of it.


Another commentator, perhaps one soaring over Poland like a great spy drone at several thousand meters, might comment further that the only valuable and interesting development in Polish cultural life of the moment is the movement to publish at last in the country the literary works of authors who had written in exile between1939 and 1981, men like Miłosz, Herling-Grudziński, Stempowski, Bobkowski: erudite and polished in the old way, eloquent, but above all autonomously, originally, clearly thinking men. The irony of this development is that these men, all of them born before 1920 and all of them now dead, appear to be just about the only original and interesting voices in Poland today. I am not sure what is more responsible for the devastation of Polish intellectual life: the various ethnic, class, Nazi and communist purges and brain washings over the last century; or the post-independence rush to copy wholesale the New Big Brother in all things. But a devastation it is.


Two words about the works displayed at the show: first, they are nearly every one of them depressingly derivative of their American models (it is not the case that, as the curator claims, X was responding to Y in some sort of creative dialogue; rather, the case is that X was simply knocking off American painter A while Y was knocking off American painter B; any apparent dialogue between X and Y is just that: apparent; a mere shadow of the interaction between A and B, if indeed there was any at all); and, second, that they are nearly all relentlessly ugly: they sport unbalanced compositions with scratchy, messy, unfinished surfaces in either depressingly dull or shocking colors intentionally selected to evoke associations of disease and decomposition. Where figurative elements appear, they seem to suggest physical deformity and/or mental disease.  But not all: as if to illustrate how open-minded I am, there were two paintings there I was able to like. Not enough to want to hang them in my bedroom; or to make up for the profound psychological disturbance the visit to the show has caused me; but well enough to claim the point. Clearly, I am not disliking things merely because they are modern or because they are part of the show.

This presents me with a huge intellectual dilemma:  is it really possible that the people who produce this stuff and the people who avidly collect it and show it in exhibitions actually like it? I suppose they must, because to assume otherwise would be to call them deluded (somewhat along the lines of The Emperor’s New Clothes). Such an interpretation would not necessarily be theoretically impossible (marketing studies of taste show that most consumers are not sufficiently in touch with their own perceptions to be able to say reliably what they like: this fact allows the 500 billion advertising industry to exist in the first place), but it would be… uncharitable.  The charitable view, surely, is to assume that the educated and eloquent people who speak with such conviction (even if with so little purpose) about their likes do know their minds.

But if so, then I am unable to know them; their pleasure is wholly and entirely opaque to me, impenetrable like stone, and the only possible explanation for the gulf that separates their reactions from mine is that we somehow have radically different brains.  Because, after all, I am a pretty open-minded fellow. I am neither racist nor agist; I am happy to let gays marry; and let murderers live forever on a life-sentence. My taste in food and clothing is eclectic and my cultural diet is rather more varied than most.  Yet, no amount of staring at this stuff makes it more palatable to me; on the contrary, I only grow more uncomfortable with looking. The only explanation for my response I can think of is that I am constitutionally, congenitally prevented from appreciating colors and shapes reminiscent of physical deformity, disease, decay and death.


Which is of course precisely how brain mutations are expected to work: to produce brains which calculate in entirely different, mutually incomprehensible ways. One mutation might well produce a brain capable of understanding topology or the quantum effect; another – a brain which responds with gratifying emotions to the shapes and colors represented at the show in question. Normally, all these mutations would swim together in the population perfectly and imperceptibly intermingled; but apply an asymmetric shock and some might rise to the fore.

How to (properly) read a portrait

Although Gulbenkian will tell you that

the model’s expression suggests his intellect and wisdom.  The artist manages to capture an apparently informal moment and turns the subject into a living, imposing presence.

the truth is the precise opposite and the painting suggests something completely different:  Monsieur Louis Duval d’Epinoy, the king’s secretary, unnamed by any document of any importance other than a brief mention that His Majesty Himself had once gracious agreed to be a witness at his daughter’s wedding, was simply a great guy to be around. Look at that pixish sense of humor, the ebullient delight in life, and the complete and utter lack of self-importance:  everyone simply loved to be in his company, His Majesty included.  (Wouldn’t you?) Monsieur d’Epinoy and his inconsequence (i.e. his lack of interest in social climbing) made it easy to do so. His easy going nature made him the success he was:  his success was founded on not seeking one.

Monsieur d’Epinoy was also a bit of a pot-head (he’s fingering in his snuff box with an expression suggesting he’d already had a hit — and — look at his enlarged, reddish nostril: he clearly was want to have many throughout the day).

And, why not?  When everyone loves ya, life’s a breeze, is it not?  Why not kick back and enjoy it.

We do agree with the rest of the Gulbenkian comment, though:

In its age, this work was considered to be an absolute triumph of pastel painting and the finest portrait that Maurice-Quentin de La Tour had produced.

An inadvertent lesson in aesthetics at a new Met show

Bian Lu (d. 1356) was an Uighur.  It was typical of the upheaval of the Yuan Dynasty (during which Mongols ruled China) that a non-Chinese would take it into his head to paint in the meticulous style of the former Chinese dynasty (Song) while the Chinese themselves moved in “new directions”.  These last were determined — the curator reminds us — by the new market conditions:  i.e. near-total disappearance of state sponsorship for painting.  Absent state money, Chinese artists “discovered an affinity between painting and calligraphy” — which meant, it turns out, painting smaller, sparser, and, by and large, less technically accomplished, works. (Rings a bell?)

This repro is part of the new show on art and times of Old Man Kublai; at the Met, here; with a very generous website.

Seven lessons of Evora

1.  The topic of the recent discussion being the lamentably declining interest and attendance at classical arts events, I imagined those expressing such views, and living nearby, would jump at the news of both Huelgas and Brabant Ensembles singing only 2 hours’ drive away.  Alas, no one had time to make the trip — Saturdays, apparently, are not off for the class in question.  For this there are three explanations:  a) the respondents wished to avoid me, b) were really too busy to make the trip, or — most likely — c) didn’t care.  Here’s your clue, dear friend:  the people who occupy themselves professionally with high-brow art, do not actually consume it for their pleasure.  Like a girlfriend I once had, they probably relax on Saturday afternoons with Sade and a Mary Huggins Whatshername as if the brain were a muscle, needing to rest after all this Goethe and Josquin.

2.  On the bus, four mousy-looking young women behind me and two elderly ladies in front of me talked loudly and incessantly.  My partial ignorance of the language protected me from the content, but not from speculation:  what on earth could possibly deserve such energetic discussion for two hours straight?  It was not Jacob Clement’s motets, I was sure.  And I was pretty sure it was not the budget crisis, either.  What was it then?  The young women may have been discussing nail polish; or (fancy me) sexual techniques.  But the old ladies?  Their grand-children’s teething problems?  Chatting among humans, say Evolutionary Psychologist, is like grooming among monkeys:  the content does not matter.  I had my proof.

3.  To my disappointment, the concert was given in the Cathedral.  Cathedrals are cheap places to perform, of course, and the audience may be fooled by the fool’s gold dust of spiritual association rubbing off on anything taking place in a church, but churches, dear friends, are about the worst place to perform and hear music.  The sound travels up and then back down where it clashes with the sound made a split second later, the result being a kind of congealed soup of standing hum in which nothing can be heard clearly — nothing, that is, except the labials:  mumble mumble XCELSIS mumble PACE mumle S mumble SS mumble SANCTUS (maybe). The best Renaissance choir singing in the focal point of a cross-shaped church sounds like a hot-bed of whithering, snarling snakes.

I thought this had been conclusively proven in Halle in 2004, during a famous Handel concert conducted in a church, at which the RAI reporter swore to me he’d never contract anything sung in a church again (the concert was broadcast by Euroadio).  Yet, here we are 6 years on and this stuff still goes on.  Why?  The only possible reason is that the performers know the audience don’t know.  Oh, they’ll like the interior; the atmosphere; the paintings. Who cares if they cannot hear our music?

4.  The medieval builders knew that the altar of the cross-shaped church was the worst possible place for acoustics.  This did not matter for what happened there:  incantations in Latin, which no one, thankfully, understood, sounded only more mysterious when obscured by the congealed acoustic boom; the actual music was intended to take place elsewhere:  in the choir, which, being located in the back, over the entrance, and high up — right against the ceiling in fact — delivered a different sort of sound.  And better sound it was, I am sure of it:  the builders knew what they were doing; and so did the composers and choir singers and choirs conductors.  In other words, the pros agreed music-making belonged in the back.  So, why can’t modern musicians, if they insist on singing in churches, sing from the choir?  The reason, old friend, is that they have come to believe themselves the priests of the modern age:  they want to take the center; and, what is worse, the audience expects them to.  In the past, the musicians stayed back, producing the music which helped the listeners in front of them achieve the aesthetic rapture which they then confused with whatever they had in front of them, which, in a church, happened to be God.  Today, the musicians perform out front:  no God, no aesthetic rapture, just a bunch of OK looking middle aged singers whom you simply cannot hear.  Come on.  You sing beautifully, but, if you want me to enjoy your work, back in the choir with you lot.  It was good enough for Bach.

5.  Paintings.  Wow.  The paintings.  Don’t get me wrong:  I love this country, its people, its food, its… well, everything.  But if there is one thing these people cannot do, it is — paint.  Would they please stop already?

Alright, let’s be serious:  why didn’t they stop while still painting?  Did the painters not notice that their work looked like hell?  And, more importantly, did not their sponsors?  Were the sponsors perhaps the verbal sort, who, when looking at a painting, simply cannot tell that it is crooked and ugly — cannot tell anything, in fact, but its content? (“Jesus?  Good.  Naked Chicks?  Bad”?)  A painting is a painting is a painting?  It’s a painting, and paintings are art, so, great, here we have a painting, at last, let’s hang it up?

6.  Though I have tried to shield my eyes from the sight, I could not:  the stuff burnt into the retina of my eye like a branding iron.  And while staring at it, I realized that, clearly, expressionism was not invented in 1880’s France and Germany but in 1500’s Portugal: same convoluted gracelessness, same ugly colors, same contorted, tortured expressions.  Suddenly, I was struck by the unfairness of it all.  Why should Shiele and Munch get all the money and all the praise and all the credit?  When a Frenchman does it (or a Norwegian but in Paris, or Berlin), it’s great art, I suppose, but when a Portuguese does it in Portugal, it’s provincial kitsch?

7.  At the hotel — cute as per usual, if, as per usual, substandard — at least the mattress was not the usual National Sponge — it turned out that absolutely all rooms look out on the only busy road in Evora — cobble-stoned, too, for added acoustic effect.  The guidebook hadn’t mentioned that:  it’s writer may not have noticed.  The hotel owner disagreed, when I did:  oh, it’s very quiet here.  I took a double-take.  Really?  Did she really think so? If so, had she no ears?  (I mean it: clearly, paintings in the Cathedral show us that some people have no eyes, so why should not others have no ears, either?) Or did she perhaps have ears but assume that the placebo/hypnotic power of suggestion would take care of the problem:  “No, dear sir, it’s not noisy here, it’s all in your mind”.  “Oh, it’s all right then.”  (?) Is that how’s it’s supposed to work?

And the concert?  Other than all the above, it was very beautiful.

Probably.  For all I heard.  Reminded of how beautiful they were, I rushed back home to listen to my library of Huelgas recordings.

PS.  As I waited in front of the Cathedral for the concert to begin, a cold front slowly rumbled in, sending forth across the blue sky the wispy tender tendrils of the first autumn rain.  It looked rather good:  see above.