Saturday, 28 November 2009

Matthew Collings’ 'What is Beauty?'

Rachel’s review on the BBC programme


Watching What is Beauty? narrated by art critic Matthew Collings this week, this indescribable word has once again been brought to the forefront of my mind. Like my series of What is Art, he defined beauty through measures, of which he gave ten: nature, simplicity, unity, transformation, the surroundings, animation, surprise, pattern, selection, and spontaneity.


Cynically I think, surely with subject headers based so heavily around the formal properties of art theory, everything thus can be defined as beautiful, which was not his aim. What I have learnt more than anything else, and accepted the bitter sweetness of it for an art student, is that through argument, any theme, concept or interpretation of art can be justified. One can be wholly unprepared for a crit and yet if your brain is alert, and your tutor is open minded, as they are required to be to lecture in Fine Art, anything is concludable. The formal properties in this case should be much more distinct as their purpose is to be constant, recognisable markers. Yet in his brief delineation of unity as a form of beauty, Collings put forth the argument that mosaics are examples of unity because each stone is an individual decision from the artist, combined to make an overall cohesion. I think this a little vague.


As discussed, I can’t say I agreed with all he concluded, but he did make a few very interesting points. One that captured my imagination reminisces concepts within An Artists’ Setting, and was under the theme of The Surroundings. As I concurred, Collings emphasised the negative space of an area of display – not the work itself, but the frequently white walls that enhance the work in our contemporary approach to art. Through humbling and decluttering the surroundings in order to reduce distraction away from the work, which Collings suggested could be connected to contemporary art’s commercial need. This compares to the density of pattern in the highly luxurious National Gallery and Rijksmuseum wallpapers. I will not state one is better than the other, but comment that Fragonard’s well-displayed The Swing (1767), located in one of the Wallace Collection’s upper rooms, enhances the painting by highlighting the turquoise of the fading, distancing sky and shrubbery, in this exuberant wallpaper.


While this aspect of the history of curatorship may have changed, Collings interestingly related it to something unchanged in his retrospect of the history of beautiful art. This is the spiritual essence in art’s display. (I should note, that I believe this is true moreover in art generally.) Whereas churches used to house art that was designed and commissioned to be incorporated in, such as frescos and altarpieces; there is religiousness in the humble whiteness. The association in the plainness engages our mind with the emotional bareness involved in spirituality; in the in-built human response that is our desire for spirituality; and the simplicity and peace we are all so highly drawn to especially in contrast to our way of life. White is our colour for cleanliness, innocence, peace and purity, and for pure light. Inarguably he claimed that beauty was excusable in such a setting (a contemporary art gallery) because the beauty is in the sacred atmosphere created. And this is why modern art can, even if you admit it often is non-descript, ugly or visually arbitrary, be defined as beautiful. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Value of Art

A friend of mine tried to argue once that my career aspirations were unworthy and so if I were to achieve them my working life would be pointless - I hope to critique art. (This knocked me down a little, though he has always been good at challenging me for the sake of improvement – of ideals, of values, morals and of sanity.) Art, he said was essentially pointless because on a global scale it helps no one and only commercially, does it please the rich. A generalisation, yet mostly true I considered. At which point in self-defence of my desires, I attempted to argue like-wise via gross-generalisation, that his job in finance only betters the big guns and widens the poverty gap, if we again look at it on a wider, less mundane day-at-the-office scale.


Often I consider the purpose of art, and how it has changed historically. I wonder if art is truly accessible and really appreciated – or if really it is just me, and people like me. I intend in all I voice that I make art seem appealing, interesting and engaging, and this will be my life-long aim. This, I believe is worthy of commitment.


I have just begun reading a brilliantly perspective book called Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic and already I am being inspired. It discusses a need for people to turn from consumerism that is wholly dissatisfying, back to social values. The author of the forward to the second edition, Vicki Robin, references the late Donella Meadows who ‘saw affluenza as the tendency to fill nonmaterial needs materially.’ To get heavy, the book itself describes affluenza as, ‘n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.’


Is art part of this disease? Does it fit into the valued pleasures of life, or the unfavourably dismissed consumerism?


I think of art as a necessary luxury, and I do admit that is an oxymoron. No, my friend, art isn’t life-changing, it does not always advertise wholesome values but its purpose is like a good holiday. Life would seem disagreeable without cushioning: the coffee breaks, the time at home spent with family, and so on. For me, art is intellectual stimulation, it may for others simply be visual stimulation – and I see this as of great importance too.


Should art be free? Should I have to pay up to £12.50 to see an exhibition on Turner and the Masters? Is this not exclusive? What does this twelve pounds fifty pay for? - A booklet exploring the exhibition? It isn’t as though they are paying Turner and his friends commission. Yes, then there is the cost of restoration of the paintings; employing the staff; for transportation of works; and so we conclude everything really does cost. Yet you wouldn’t pay £12.50 to see a film, which is essentially hundreds or thousands more painting in the stills that form the moving image.


Who really depends on art paying? A few collectors who cater for millionaires’ desire to own? Yes then, viewing art should be free. I genuinely believe that even though the need appears less great when technology allows us to view almost any noted work of art online; the need for people to view art first hand to get genuinely excited and value it earnestly, remains. Critical to making art accessible is thus to make all galleries and exhibitions free is it not?


In the article ‘How we all learned to stop sneering and embrace modern art,’ Miranda Sawyer wrote for the Observer that our contemporary approach to art, which is evident in the workings of the Frieze Art Fair, is ‘a weird hybrid of commerce and curatorship.’ Although those who work high up in the art world such as the Tate’s deputy director, Alex Beard ‘flatly refuse[s] to think of art in terms of boom or bust.’ I think there is, and there needs to be more to art than monetary worth in order for really brilliant art to be created - art for joy, rather than art for cheques. I see money as a looming threat to the art of our age.



Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, Second Edition is written by John De Graaf, David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor.

The article mentioned from 11 October 2009, can be found at: 

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Beauty is a Woman

My raw passion for all kinds of art and seeing them first hand is still relatively adolescent, and so when compared to some, my painting-count must be low. Though, there must also be a large number of England’s population that have never, or have not in a significant amount of time visited an art gallery. I remember being astonished that an ex-boyfriend has never been to an art gallery before dating me. He was seventeen at the time – I assumed like I, he would have been taken on a school trip at least – though I suppose not everyone was brought up in London! Had I had known I may not have taken him to the Tate Modern in order to start his education in art.


This aside, I believe I may have seen in the region of one thousand paintings in my life – one thousand that I’ve been old enough to meet the eye line of; to recollect being there; and that I have paused pensively in front of. I’ve been around the National Gallery in London several times, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, to Picasso’s museum in Barcelona, and earlier this week – Van Gogh’s museum in Amsterdam, amongst others. Yesterday, I believe I saw the most stunning painting I have ever seen in my life – ‘The Jewish Bride’ by Rembrandt Harmensz Van Rijn.


This is the art of beauty. It is both dainty and meticulous, like Michelangelo’s work or Willem Clasesz Heda’s still lifes; and dominant. Many people have allegorised beauty into a woman – Venus for example – and I can’t think of anything more appropriate than a very classy woman to characterise the beauty of this masterpiece. She is subtle and noticeable. She cries to be looked at yet is humble and not arrogant, because she doesn’t know she’s beautiful. This is true because for the full length of time I’ve been familiar with Rembrandt, I’ve loved Rembrandt. I’ve read books about him, watched documentaries on him, and even been to his house, which is now a museum, and I’ve never seen this painting before. Either that, or I’ve seen it from a far, or in passing and not been given time to notice this boldness that disguises itself as subtly.


This painting is pseudo-relief. It may not be the first of his to use impasto, but it’s the best use of this dramatic tool known to me. It’s virtuosic yet completely within control. Most people think of freedom as being ideal, but unquestioned freedom leads to anarchy. Within the confines of order is perfect freedom – that is if freedom itself can be half-hearted.


The thick application of the oils provides a shiny reflective surface that is lit and alive. This woman is glamourous. The painting is more than the shadow artificially created by Rembrandt; it is the shadow created by this deep protrusion of paint. The light of the painting is more than the golden highlights on his sleeve and the sheens of her pearls; it is the reflection off the paint. Like how Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors transforms into a new painting from the side, this transforms into a new abstract reincarnation – as though it openly looks forward into the future of art and the impact of Rembrandt’s experimentation.


Never have I been so passionate about one individual painting, and never have I advocated seeing paintings first hand so keenly.


‘The Jewish Bride (Isaac and Rebecca)’ c.1665 by Rembrandt Harmensz Van Rijn is part of the permanent collection of works from the Dutch Golden Era on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

An Artist's Setting

Neither architecture or nature have impinged on me much before, especially not simultaneously.


Sat in the warmth of the indoors, I am fooled by sight into believing I am outside. I feel the space and freedom I’ve been searching for in order to create art that is a fluent and effortless expression. Content at the work I have achieved, I feel at peace and thank nature and good well-considered architecture openly.


The Kröller Müller Museum resembles the work of Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright in material and form. Often attributed back to Bauhaus ideas and forms, its assemblage is inorganic – lines are humanly straight and echoed throughout by means of exposed brick, ridged ceilings, and thick industrious black vertical beams that divide the planes of floor-to-ceiling glass. By description it would sound as though it would bicker uncontrollably with its environment of woodland and parkland. However, these polished delicate veils are all that keeps you from the beauty of autumn’s falling leaves (as opposed to falling water) and that ensuringly insulates you from November’s brisk breeze. It is only when you catch the reflection of a passing visitor that your mind takes you back to the seat on which you are sat, and the concrete on which it is placed. Had I been stood on the outer side of this sheer glass sheet, drawing this same scene I believe the outcome would have been visually colder and stiffer.


Environment is everything. My geography teacher would, throughout the four years I was taught by her, return to this point – it was her fascination and she was convinced of the theory that: a badly designed block of buildings would boost a bloke’s bad behaviour. As a result she would endeavour to persuade us at every given opportunity to sway our career paths towards town planning, architecture, or interior design. She was obsessed with space.


The contemporary artist, Gijs Frieling, winner of the Dutch ‘Cobra Art Prize Amstelveen’ and exhibiting at the Cobra Art Museum currently, said: “[I hope to] create a place for [these] reflective and performative aspects [that] visitors will inevitably feel welcomed by the space and will quietly be able to experience the entire instillation.” This is my installation – a museum in a wooded national park. This blog is my reflection, and my interrupted drawing (, rudely interrupted by my reflections,) is the performative aspect. Unfortunately I wasn’t as keen on his work as I am this, and his ideals…


Touring Amsterdam by bike, I came across a small building suspended by cantilever over the canal not far from the centre of town. This exquisite bite-sized building was not dislike David Blane’s Plexiglas case that hung over the south bank of the River Thames. It emerged with the energy and boldness of a thunderbird rocket out of the Tracy Island swimming pool. Again here there was this contrast between the bustle of life on the streets: of bikes storming along at the rate of cars, and the emptiness of the canals, which besides from the unpreventable process of precipitation, are utterly still. I could not think of a more beneficial and rewarding function for this piece of architecture than an artist studio. The affect this environment has had over the way I perform as an artist, one could only assume this is what this building is designed to be. That is, of course, if form in modern architecture, always reflects function.


This makes me understand why so many artists have moved to Paris over the last 150 years because Paris had become famous for its freedom; and moreover why Van Gogh wanted to move to the South of France and Gauguin likewise to Tahiti.


This piece of architecture can be so highly praised because despite clear contrast, it only emphasises the beauty of nature. The trees, these OAPs of nature, dwarf the single story construct. From the exterior it is no statement – it humbles itself in order to give the woodland the glory. The rich colours of fallen autumn leaves lift the limited pallet of the interior. The heavy black beams, frame the beautiful masterpiece that is nature itself. As I read, Van Gogh once stated, “These canvasses will tell you what I can’t say that I’ve considered healthy and fortifying about the countryside.”


This museum, if near Amsterdam is worth a visit. Not only for its content: Christiaan Bastiaans, Auguste Rodin, Claes Oldenburg, Henry Von-Velde, Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh (to name but a few from which I have been distracted while writing this); but also its space. There is a large area covered by its foundations, of long corridors connecting a spreading mass that is like a sprawling city, or perhaps more appropriately, a dandelion redistributing its growth. I just hope it’s not too busy when you come.


The Kröller Müller museum is in Otterlo in the central Netherlands. Also mentioned was the Gijs Frieling and Paris Central exhibitions at the Cobra Art Museum in Amstelveen, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.