Saturday, November 27, 2010

Picasso Visits Zurich, Again

The Picassos with Swiss artist Gottard Schuh outside the Hotel Baur au Lac
Last weekend I visited the current exhibition at the Zurich Kunsthaus, entitled simply, Picasso. It will surely prove to be unique for the 21st century, for it was co-curated by none other than Pablo Picasso. That’s right, the Pablo Picasso. No, I’m not crazy and yes, I know he is long dead.

In 1932 the Kunsthaus became the first ever museum to host a Picasso retrospective. Museums were supposed to exhibit the works of established dead artists, not of living artists like Picasso, who was 50 at the time, and clearly much alive. The Kunsthaus, very much at the cutting edge, went one step further and asked Picasso to curate the exhibition himself. He selected over 200 paintings; so many, that the Kunsthaus had to temporarily remove its permanent collection.

Picasso arrived in Zurich with his wife, the former Russian dancer from Sergei Diaghlev’s Ballet Russes, Olga Khokhlova, and their son Paolo and they checked in at the very plush Baur au Lac, then, as now, one of the world’s greatest hotels. They had, to all intents and purposes, the appearance of a good bourgeois family: Olga enjoyed the shopping on the Bahnhofstrasse; ten year old Paolo was bored; they went sailing on the lake and enjoyed the beautiful September sunshine; they enjoyed a meal of boiled ham in the beautiful Belvoir restaurant. But Picasso was a regular attendee at the balls and fancy dress parties of Europe’s old aristocracy, a fixture in the Parisian café society of Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel, a man who slept with nearly every woman who took his fancy and, furthermore, a persistent frequenter of brothels. He had recently fallen in love and had began a secret affair to sleep with his 17 year old model Marie-Therese Walter. But being a good catholic, Picasso refused to contemplate a divorce.

Head of Sleeping Woman
Sometimes an exhibition makes history, instead of simply recording it. This one certainly did. Some of the paintings were still belonging to Picasso and were for sale, but in the oppressive economic climate of the time this aspect of the project was, unsurprisingly, a disappointment; only one painting was sold – to the Kunsthaus itself. Regarding the other works, the Kunstmusem had acquiesed in Picasso’s choices and managed to borrow from the various collectors those works that were in private hands, arranging transportation and security, insurance and the safe return of all works to the owners. Two catalogues were published including a number of interpretive essays and a series of reading by a number of experts was arranged. The press was well informed ahead of time and the opening was well attended and widely reported across the continent. The left-wing press complained of wasting funds on decadent art in a time of public economic hardship. The local psychoanalyst and self-styled oracle Carl Gustav Jung, visiting the exhibition proclaimed the works to be an indication of schizophrenia and condemned all of modern art. (He had previously condemned James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.) Despite Jung’s judgement, or maybe because of it, the number of visitors to the exhibition broke all records. The Kunsthaus had taken a risk, had done something that no museum had ever done before, and though it wasn’t immediately apparent, it had created a new trend. In New York and Paris, London and Amsterdam, museums began to exhibit the works of major contemporary artists, accompanied with a grand opening, press releases, catalogues, and readings. Zurich’s Kunsthaus had shown the way.

Visitors at the exhibition Picasso
And so we return to today. The current exhibition commemorates the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Kunsthaus by reviving a part of Picasso’s original 1932 exhibition. Nearly one third of the original works, chosen by Picasso himself, have returned to Zurich. In this way, Picasso, though long dead, is still co-curator of his own exhibition, together with the main curator, the Kunsthaus’ very much living Tobia Bezolla. This makes it a unique opportunity to appreciate the work sof the 20th century’s greatest artistic genius, chosen by himself.

Girl in a Chemise
It is a breathtaking experience, and a reminder of simply what a magnificent painter Picasso was. How could the man, with his philandering and posing, have produced so many works of such extreme beauty? There are no landscapes, no animals and few trees; a couple of flowers in vases, lots of guitars and, again and again, the human figure, in particular, the female figure, puny and sad, gigantic and proud, mutilated and abstract. Even his earliest works, from the late 19th century, possess hints of the genius within. By 1904 his genius had already become apparent. I stood before Girl in a Chemise, and realised how useless words are – the painting, with its flattened surfaces, says everything there is to say. The correct initial response to these works has to be silence. A new, radical chapter in the history of art had started. Within a short while the experiment with cubism commenced, an abrupt intervention in art history. Thereafter Picasso is completely free and there follows primitiveness, collage, monumental figurative portraits, the colourful and entirely flattened guitars and mandolins and fruit vases, the phallocentric portraits and, by 1932, his almost abstract surrealist works. Those who today obsess about innovation and creativity in the business world should pay a visit to the Kunsthaus to witness what innovation and creativity mean. The Picasso exhibition continues until January 2011.

Woman with Yellow Belt

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Watch out Ireland - Here comes aid

The Irish economy has well and truely crashed and the situation looks dire.  That much is clear.  Now the news is that aid is arriving, thanks to the good graces of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  If that sounds like good news to you, well think again.  A research paper published by academics from the University of Cambridge and Yale University this summer concludes that IMF aid in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe resulted in an increase in tuberculosis, including increases in mortality form tuberculosis.  The higher the IMF loans, the higher the increase in death from tuberculosis.  Countries that took bigger loans experienced a proportionally higher rate of TB than countries that took smaller loans. When the "aid" stopped, the TB levels returned to their pre-IMF level. This should not surprise us; IMF aid usually comes in a package which invariably includes a process euphemistically called "restructuring", whereby public spending in areas like education, welfare benefits and public heath are cut.  IMF loans aim to save capitalism, not lives. An incompetent Irish prime minister (he is the former minister of finance - can we expect a man who is part of the problem to provide a solution?) can now throw up his hands and cry that Europe and the IMF are forcing him to make the further cuts that will be coming.  If the researchers from Cambridge and Yale are correct, we will see the number of cases of death from TB rise.  You can read their report here. If the full report is a bit much, you can read this article from Scientific American.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

..Und Mied den Wind

This afternoon I took my eight year old daughter to see the ballet ..und mied den Wind at the Zurich Opera House. We had the cheapest tickets in the house, and I must ask, why do they sell such seats?  They might be cheap, but they cost money and for that we surely deserved to see something. From my chair I had a view of the pillar and a tiny corner of the stage upon which no dancer set foot. Luckily we were able to move into the next row, and with Aoife kneeling on my lap we could both more or less see most of the action, but I must admit, it wasn't comfortable.  Nevertheless, it was a very good performance - another triumph for the Zurich Ballet Director Heinz Spoerli who, now aged 70, has reigned here for 15 years. This is his all but final year in the job. Spoerli has great respect for the music of Bach, and  his choreography for this work is set to a number of Bach's suites played by a single cellist.  In fact the cellist began today on stage with the dancers, before moving to the pit at a certain point. The entire piece, as the name implies, is fairly elemental. Bach's  music is stripped down and is haunting, while the stage is minimally adorned - just a huge silver ring hangs above the dancers, gradually ascending and disappearing, to be replaced by a ring of fire. The music and the brilliance of the dancers is the story and suffices. I noted all the elements - wind, metal, fire, I think I heard water at some point, and I definitely saw allusions to the most important element of all.... human love. As the fire died so too Bach's music fell silent and the dancers ceased their movement. With a fidgety eight year old on my lap, it was a long hour and a half, but worth it.  Aoife said she enjoyed it, and she loved the Coupe Denmark afterwards.  I found this video clip of a performance from ten years ago - same piece, same place.  Courtesy Xbox 360 Videos

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Not Seeing Caravaggio in Malta

It's 3:00 p.m. Thursday afternoon in Zurich, Switzerland.  I finish teaching, grab my weekend bag and stroll outside to the bus stop. A bus, then a tram, then a train, then a plane, and I land in Malta in time for a late dinner. The next day, at the Theory of Knowledge conference I'm attending, the bright, blue sky and beach are tempting, but most of all the Baroque town of Valleta, built by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century, beckons, and especially this painting, by Caravaggio, his great masterpiece, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist:

Caravaggio: The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

 Our conference carries on through the weekend, and there will be no time to view the painting. But we, the conference participants, hatch a plan - on Saturday morning we will move our morning session to the St. John's Co-Cathedral of Vallata where this Caravaggio masterpiece hangs in the place where it was originally hung in 1608.  And our morning session will centre on the painting, and the role of interpretation in art. To what extent does interpretation add or detract from our knowledge of a work of art? That is the essential question we will address. We, the members of the conference, are unified in our excitement, and I cannot but help already reflect upon Caravaggio's work, even before I see it in flesh and blood.

An invisible line travels from the top left hand corner to the bottom right and dissects the work into two triangles.  All the action takes place in the left triangle. John the Baptist lies on the ground, probaly dead, blood flowing from his neck, his head almost severed. Salome reaches out with her plate to take his head. The jailer points to the plate: "Cut it off and throw it there". The old lady clutches her head in horror as the executioner, body gleaming and radiating light grabs St. John by the hair and moves in for the cut.  The group forms a beautiful arc that is mirrored in the shade of the outer arch and the inner stone arch above them.

The right triangle is mainly empty space, punctuated by the rope that once bound the prisoner and a square window, through which two boys look on in horrified fascination. Their eyes are fastened on the knive that the executioner holds behind his back. If one draws another invisible line from the top right hand corner of the picture to the bottom left, the point in which the two diagonal lines meet is the knife - the exact centre of the picture.  Like the boys within the framed window, our eyes too are drawn to this weapon.

What makes the painting so real for our time, is the casual brutality. It is something that we fear, but are drawn to. Few of us have ever heard a gunshot, or seen a corpse. Yet our news, our entertainment, the newspapers that we read and books that we enjoy are filled with senesless violence and play to our voyeuristic instincts.  We fear this violence, we shudder at the thought of it, yet, like the two boys, we cannot but help to be drawn to it.

The painting, I've heard,  is supposed to be huge. The figures are lifesize. It is the only painting that bears a Caravaggio signature. He has signed his name in the blood that flows from John the Baptist, perhaps in atonement for the violence, indeed murder, that he himself had perpetrated. How can anyone visit Malta and commit the crime of not viewing this painting?

And then, this morning, as we are about to embark on our journey, the word comes from on high, from the organisers of the conference - we are not allowed to travel with our group to the painting, as the conference organisers are not insured for such an excursion. When we, educators all, protest, the Chief Bureaucrat announces "This is not up for negotiation".  And so the day passes. We discuss the difficulty of the correspondence theory of truth within the sciences, and the necessity to deal with uncertainty in historical studies, and the role of intentionality within the arts.  But I cannot shed the feeling that we are the victims of a casual form of brutality, that which is inflicted thoughtlessly, matter of factly, by a bureaucrat.  As one colleague remarks - "I now understand Bureau-Crat, that is, Rule by Bureau."

Tonight was a beautiful warm November evening in Malta. I had dinner in Vallata, on the lovely square outside the Co-Cathedral which is home to The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.  It is closed to vsitors until Monday morning.  I fly back to Zurich tomorrow, that is Sunday, afternoon.  What did I say? It is some sort of crime, to visit Malta and not view Caravaggio's masterpiece.

Soon after completing this painting Caravaggio was once more involved in an incident of terrible violence.  He fled Malta, never to return.  A hunted man, he died soon after.  Some day, I will have to return to Malta to see The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Death of Marat (Sebastião)

'Marat (Sebastião)' by Vik Muniz
 In an earlier post I wrote about my search in Paris for the room where the revolutionary, Marat, was murdered in his bath.  The event was immortalised by David's famous painting (below).

The Death of Marat by David

Now, New York based Brazilian artist Vik Muniz has realised a fascinating project called "Pictures of Garbage" which involved the study of the hundreds of garbage pickers who earn a meager living by sorting through the rubbish in the world's biggest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, near Rio de Jainero, Brazil. Muniz became fascinated by the leader of the garbage pickers, Tião Santos, a man he described as a thinker, a sort of philosopher, always on the look out for works of philosphy that have been dumped.  When Muniz met Santos, the latter was reading Machiavelli's The Prince. Muniz told The Wall Street Journal that "the work's creation was essentially accidental. He was talking with Mr. Santos at the landfill when he spotted two pickers carrying a discarded bathtub. Mr. Muniz thought of Marat and pulled up an image of the painting on his phone. The scene was recreated for a photograph on the spot: the white headpiece Mr. Santos wears is his shirt and the "pen" in his hand is a vulture's feather."

Muniz had the image blown up to gigantic proportions and projected on the floor of his studio, overlayed with a grid.  He then asked the garbage pickers to fill the various grids surrounding the bath with garbage.  Ironically, the garbage pickers, described by Muniz in a interview on the BBC World Service as people who are "at the opposite end of consumer society" and who "really perceive what we throw away as a source of income", could not bring themselves to choose objects based on aesthetic criteria; instead, they choose items that would bring a high price when resold for recycling. They viewed the garbage as money, and they filled the art work with what in their eyes was treasure, high-value thrash.

It is somehow a beautiful symmetry, that this modern rendition of Marat, the bloodthirsty friend of the poor, in his modern carnation has become surrounded by rubbish chosen by the world's most destitute citizens. And what a commentary on how we live our lives - the philosopher of the garbage heap, surrounded by the deitrus of our throwaway society, where unwanted people, as much as unwanted objects, can be discarded.

'Marat (Sebastião)'was sold  in London for 50,000 dollars. Muniz had brought Santos from the garbage heap to London for the auction.  Most of the money has been returned to the garbage pickers of  Jardim Gramacho to be used to buy a truck to help them with their recycling business. A documentary about Muniz's project called Waste Land has just been released and has already won awards at the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival and a human rights award from Amnesty International.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Elections in Burma: Free these Prisoners

The thugs who run Burma have called for elections tomorrow, November 7th. With 2,200 members of the opposition in jail, and thousands more in exile, these election are a sham. The winner of the last, legal elections, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house arrest.  Burma has one of the worst human rights records in the world, by whatever measure you choose to use. Amnesty International has called on the Burmese military junta to release all political prisoners.  In this slide show you can see various members of my school community demonstrate our solidarity with the people of Burma.  Each person stands with his or her hand raised in a Buddhist gesture of strength.  Each person has the name of a Burmese political prisoner inscribed on their hand. Go to Amnesty International for information on what you can do. To misquote Edmund Burke: the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Model Nazi: Arthur Greisler and the Occupation of Western Poland by Catherine Epstein

This is a book that needed to be written. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, over sixty years after a crowd of 15,000 turned out to witness his execution, this is the first full biography of Arthur Greiser to appear in English. It is, I would suggest, a resounding success. Read the rest of my review on the History Today website.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The story of western colonization is well known, but too often is told by the colonizers alone. The colonized remain silent, the passive, frequently unnamed, victims of decisions taken in London, Paris or The Hague. For many western historical novelists, the former colonies simply form an exotic backdrop to the action, the natives provide little more than picturesque colour.   All the more reason then to be grateful for the works of the late Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer.  It might seem an undertaking  to read all 1,500 pages, of his Buru Quartet, but this magnificent novel is divided into four volumes (most quartets are!), so you can simply start with the first one, This Earth of Mankind.

I don’t know of any other work that so clearly dissects the phenomenon of imperialism, reveals the haughty ignorance of the colonizer and the despair of the colonized, and exposes how colonialism poisoned the relationship between the so-called developed and lesser-developed countries. This epic work tells the story of the education, political awakening and gradual maturing of Minke, a young Indonesian writer living under Dutch rule in the Dutch East Indies. It also tells the parallel story of the birth of a concept – the idea of the nation state that would become Indonesia. The story of Minke is loosely based on the life of Tirto Aldi Suryo, one of the pioneers of Indonesian national awakening.

The novel is starred with colourful characters who influence, for good or bad, Minke. But let me share with you some of Pramoedya’s own words. These examples come from the second volume of the novel: Child of All Nations.

A French friend of Minke, disillusioned with European civilisation and its imperial project, tells him that

pity is the feeling of well intentioned people who are unable to act.  Pity is only a luxury, or a weakness.  It is those who are able to carry out their good intentions who deserve praise.

A Chinese socialist revolutionary tells Minke.

Science and modern learning will pursue everyone everywhere.  Mankind is forever being pursued because modern science and learning constantly provide the inspiration and desire to control nature and man together.  There is no power that brings to a halt this passion to control, except greater science and learning, in the hands of more virtuous people

Nyai, his Javanese mother-in-law, who has endured bitter injustice at the hands of the Dutch authorities, warns Minke:

Don’t worship Europe in its totality.  There is good as well as evil everywhere.  There are angels and devils everywhere.  There are devils with the faces of angels, and angels with the faces of devils everywhere.  And there is one thing that stays the same, Child, that is eternal.  The colonist is always a devil

Ouch! A Dutch journalist advises Minke, (and try swapping the words “the modern age” with “globalisation”):

What people call the modern age is really the age of the triumph of capital.  Everybody alive in the modern age is ordered about by big capital: even the education you received was adjusted to capital’s needs, not your own.  So too the newspapers.  Everything is arranged by it, including morality, law, truth and knowledge.

This is a big novel of political ideas.  And ideas, of course, are dangerous.  The Dutch imprisoned Pramoedya during the struggle for Indonesian independence.  Later, the brutal dictatorship of General Suharto locked him away in a concentration camp (Buru) for fourteen years and kept him under house arrest for a further twelve. For years he was banned from traveling abroad and all of his work was banned, though widely read outside of his country.  But the people who fear his ideas, and try to kill them, are barbarians.  In fact he described this himself, again in the words of Nyai to Minke:

People greedy for money and property never read stories; they are barbarians.  They have no concern for the fate of other people, let alone people who exist only in a story.

With the fall of the military dictatorship in the early 1990s Pramoedya Ananta Toer found himself to be a world-wide celebrated author, the recipient of honourary doctorates, national medals and some of the world’s leading and most prestigious literary awards, though the call from the Nobel Committee never arrived.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer died in 2006 aged 81. If you haven’t read his Buru Quartet yet, you should start now.

For more on the Dutch in Indonesia see my earlier post.