Saturday, July 21, 2012

Art and the City: Taoyo Onorato and Nico Krebs - Camera

One of the exhibits at the Art and the City exhibtion running from June 7th until September 23rd in Zurich, Switzerland is from Swiss artist duo and Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs and is called Camera.
Camera by Taiyo Onotaro and Nico Krebs
"The distinguishing features of film lie not only in the way man presents himself to the camera but in how, using the camera, he presents his surroundings to himself." Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. (1936)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Art and the City: Franziska Furter - Mojo

One of the exhibits at the Art and the City exhibtion running from June 7th until September 23rd in Zurich, Switzerland is from Swiss artist Franziska Furter and is called Mojo.

Mojo by Franziska Furter
"As individual instances of artistic production become emancipated from the context of religious ritual, opportunities for displaying the product increase." Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.(1936)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Art and the City: Charlotte Posenenske - Vierkantrohre Serie D

One of the exhibits at the Art and the City exhibtion running from June 7th until September 23rd in Zurich, Switzerland is from the late German artist Charlotte Posenenske and is called Vierkantrohre Serie D.
Vierkantrohre by Charlotte Posenenske
" being reproducible by technological means frees the work of art, for the first time in history, from its existence as a parasite upon ritual." Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. (1936)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Art and the City: Alex Haniman - Vanessa

One of the exhibits at the Art and the City exhibtion running from June 7th until September 23rd in Zurich, Switzerland is from Swiss artist Alex Haniman and is called "Vanessa".

Vanessa by Alex Haniman

"The kind of reception in a state of distraction that to an increasing extent is becoming apparent in all fields of art is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception (...) The audience is an examiner, but a distracted one." Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

Art and the City: Betinna Pousttchi - Ahead Only

One of the exhibits at the Art and the City exhibtion running from June 7th until September 23rd in Zurich, Switzerland is from Iranian/German artist Bettina Pousttchi and is entitled Ahead Only.

Ahead Only by Betinna Pousttchi

Ahead Only by Betinna Pousttchi

" [The work of art] had above all to meet one requirement: it must provoke irritation."  Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Los Carpinteros: Catedrales

One of the exhibits at the Art and the City exhibtion running from June 7th until September 23rd in Zurich, Switzerland is from the Cuban artist duo, Los Carpinteros and is entitled Catedrales.
Catedrales by Los Carpinteros

"Distraction and immersion constitute opposites (...) The person who stands in contemplation before a work of art immerses himself in it (...) The distracted mass, on the other hand, absorbs the work of art into itself." Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Art and the City: Richard Tuttle - The Pump

One of the exhibits at the Art and the City exhibtion running from June 7th until September 23rd in Zurich, Switzerland is from American artist Richard Tuttle and is entitled The Pump.

The Pump by Richard Tuttle
The Pump by Richard Tuttle

"The conventional is enjoyed without criticism, the truly new is criticized with aversion." Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ai Weiwei: White Armchairs in Zurich

Chinese artists Ai WeiWei missed the opening of his big exhibtion in the Photography Museum in Winterthur, Switzerland last year because he had been disappeared by Chinese secret police.  Now released, he still suffers from major harassment at the hands of the authorities.  This has not stopped him from being involved in the current exhibtion in Zurich called Art and the City.  As part of this urban exhibtion Ai's White Armchairs have been installed on the Paradeplatz, the financial heart of Swiss capitalism.  The chairs stand outside the headquarters of Credit Suisse and the UBS banks.  They look comfortable, but are made of very hard marble, a material popular among the rich elite in "communist" China today. The piece seems to be called White Sofa, but these are armchairs, not sofas, or have I got that wrong?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Well of Moses

Having enjoyed Claus Sluter's mourners at Dijon's Museum of Fine Arts the previous day, we decided to dedicate most of our third day in Dijon to viewing the rest of his work.  While the mourners are housed within the town's primary tourist attraction, Sluter's huge work, The Well of Moses, constructed between 1396 and 1405, stands in the city's outskirts.  At our hotel the receptionist said it was quite far and pointed to a spot beyond our map. We decided to walk.

We strolled through the old town, stopping for a coffee of course, made our way though the busy shopping streets and passed beyond the main railway station, to discover the delightful botanical gardens. We lingered here a while, before making our way through the outer suburbs until we reached a side entrance which led into the grounds of the rambling Psychiatric Hospital.

It was here, in the late 14th century, that the Valois Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, founded a Cistercian monastery, the Chartreuse or Chapterhouse of Champmol. With his older brother recently crowned King of France, the Duke was determined to make the monastery not only a religious centre, but also a centre of glittering extravagance. From his prosperous Flemish cities in the north he and his descendants attracted some of the most creative artists of the North, like Claus Sluter and his nephew Claus de Werve. Little of the late medieval monastery remains, and large sections date back to the 18th century; the French revolution brought about the dissolution of the religious centre. Today it houses the huge Psychiatric Hospital.

We passed though the enormous iron gates, built in the 18th century and stopped at the memorial to those members of the hospital staff who were murdered by the Nazis during the German occupation. Some had died in the death camps.  At last we found what we were looking for.  A friendly young woman took our entrance fee, then locked the door of her office and walked us to the Well. She unlocked the door and simply requested we ensure that the door would lock when we leave. She then left us alone with one of the greatest artistic achievements of the High Middle Ages. I couldn't believe our luck.
A drawing of what the work might have looked like 

The Well of Moses marked the exact centre of Champmol. Sluter had been commissioned to construct a fountain upon which would stand a Calvary scene.  It was Sluter's genius to combine two features in one: the base of the Calvary would depict the prophets from the Old Testament while the upper structure, the crucifixion, would form the crucial climax of the New Testament.  Of the crucifixion, almost nothing remains.  What now stood before us was the massive base, depicting the prophets Zachariah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Moses, David and Daniel. Each prophet is set within a niche, stands on a console decorated with a plant motif and is identified by name.  Above them stand weeping angels (created by Sluter's assistant and nephew, Claus de Werve).

A weeping angel between Jeremiah and Zechariah

We must imagine the huge cross that would have emerged out of this base, with a mourning mother of Christ, Mary Magdalen and Saint John.  Each prophet bears a text which contains a prophecy that was fulfilled by Christ.  Thus, the prophets symbolise the Old Testament with its prophesies pointing towards a future yet to be fulfilled, the mourning angels provide the transition from the base to the upper structure as they symbolise the suffering that is about to take place, the crucifixion represents the fulfilment of the prophecies, like that of Zechariah: "So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver." (Zechariah 11;12) and Isaiah: "He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter." (Isaiah, 53:7).

King David

Originally Jeremiah wore a pair of spectacles, fashioned by the Flemish goldsmith Hennequin de Hacht. They have long since vanished (much like many of my reading glasses). For the rest, this monumental work is in an incredibly good state. We could see clear evidence of the rich polychromy. Scientific research points to the conclusion that it is the original and analysis indicates an absence of later overpainting. The painter was a Fleming, Jean de Malouel.

Moses with his tablets

As with his mourners, Sluter's genius is apparent in the naturalism of his figures.  It is as if each is drawn from real life. The extraordinary realism is achieved through a wealth of detail - the veins upon the hands, the furrows of the brows, the creasing of the robes, the angles of the shoes, the tilt of the heads.  Knowing that these giant figures would be viewed from far below, Sluter broadened out the figures towards the top. In other words, using a deep understanding of three dimensionality, he distorted the perspective in order to gain realism. Even every angel is obviously individualised. Burckhardt was wrong when he claimed that modern man, the individual, was born in Italy during the Renaissance, he was already present here, further north, in the work of Claus Sluter, a Dutchman.  The likes of this will not be equalled again until Donatello (1386-1466) begins his work in Florence.

Daniel and Isaiah

Yet these are not simply six individuals. Just like his mourners for Philip's tomb, the figures are connected through human gesture, for instance Daniel is turned slightly towards Isaiah, who leans forward towards Daniel. The gilded wings of the angels provide a halo that connects all of the prophets. Everyone is united under the burden of their terrible knowledge.

A few steps away from the Well of Moses (and yes, we ensured the door was locked behind us), down a corridor of the hospital, out a door and around a corner we came to the portal of the church that once housed the tomb of Philip the Bold and his wife Margaret of Flanders. The tomb, designed by Claus Sluter, is now in the Museum of Fine Arts and the church is long destroyed (the church that stands today is a 19th century fantasy of what a medieval chapel should have looked like), but the original portal still remains.  And thank heaven, for it is yet another work of Claus Sluter and Claus de Werve. Molded arches crown a plain tympanum adorned by just two trefoil arches. In the centre stands the Virgin Mary. To her right, Philip the Bold and John the Baptist, to her left, Margaret of Flanders and Saint Catherine.  As with all of his work, it is the movement and naturalistic conviction of the faces and drapery that bring to us a sense of realism. These were real people who lived and died in Europe seven hundred years ago and the reality of that fact is brought to us thanks to the craftsmanship and creativity of Claus Sluter.

It was time for a break.  We picnicked in the shade by a nearby lake, then took the long way back to town by means of a meandering leafy path that followed  the river Ouche. Once back in town we enjoyed lunch at a cafe overlooking Saint Benigne Cathedral. But we weren't done yet.  Although Sluter's Calvary scene, that once stood upon The Well of Moses, has long ago been destroyed, in 1842 a fragment of Christ's legs as well as his bust and face, were rediscovered.  We paid our bill at the cafe, crossed the road to the former dormitory of the abbey that was once attached to the Cathedral, and entered what is now Dijon's Museum of Archeology.  We worked our way through prehistory and the Celts, the Gauls and Romans, the Merovingians and Carolingians, until we entered the hall containing fragments from medieval Champmol.  And there, right at the back, a well preserved fragment of a crucifixion from Claus de Werve:

Steps away, the fragment of the legs and feet of Christ, still bearing traces of red paint depicting blood:

and the fragment of Christ's bust and face:

Could this really be the Christ that formed the apex of Sluter's work, that stood for centuries high above The Well of Moses, at the centre of one of medieval Christendom's most powerful monasteries?  I don't think that can be known for sure. But although crucified, Christ's face unites suffering and peace. The face is creased in pain. Blood flows from a stab in the chest. The mouth is slightly open, the eyes closed, death is approaching. Yet the anatomical realism is precise and accurate. It bears Sluter's hallmark, I think.  Like all of his works, it says: this is a man.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Mourners of Dijon

Dijon is not just mustard and good wine. We boarded the fast train to Paris on Wednesday morning and were unpacked in our hotel in Dijon by lunchtime. We lunched at the busy Place Emile Zola, spent the afternoon wandering around the old town and visited the 13th century Notre-Dame church with its miraculous wooden Madonna (one of the oldest wooden statues in France) and its layers of grotesque gargoyles.

Notre-Dame, Dijon

We took refuge from the baking sun by drinking ice cold oranginas on the classical Place de Liberation, designed by the architect of Versailles Palace, Jules Hardouin-Mansart .

Place de Liberation, Dijon

From our cafe we admired the great Ducal Palace. Unexpectedly, there isn't much left of the medieval palace, and what presents itself to the contemporary eye is a well proportioned grand structure designed by Hardouin-Mansart. Today half of the palace is given over to the offices of the municipal government while the other half constitutes the Museum of Fine Arts, second only to the Louvre in the variety and preciousness of its collections.

Claus Sluter, tomb of Philip the Bold

In the 15th century this was the administrative centre of Western Europe's most powerful rulers, the Valois Dukes of Burgundy. Theirs was a province that rivalled any kingdom, stretching from the North Sea to southern France. The Dukes spent a great deal of their time in northern climes, like the rich cities of Flanders, but Dijon remained their capital. The palace that they had built was renowned for its splendours during the 15th century and many of its former objects populate the museums of the western world today.  We had come to Dijon to relax and to view the works of Burgundy's greatest artist, Claus Sluter.

Like many of the artists and craftsmen in the Duchy's employ, Sluter came from the Netherlands, more specifically, from the Dutch town of Haarlem.  He has left us a number of works considered to be among the greatest artistic achievements of the late middle ages, including the tomb of the first Duke, Philip the Bold.  The tomb was built in the former Cistercian monastry of Champmol and is housed in the Ducal Palace today, in the Salle de Gardes, which gets three stars in the Michelin Guide to Burgundy.  I had been meaning to visit for years. But we were not in a rush. Tired from the journey and from sightseeing in the heat, we decided to reserve the next day for our day in the palace.

Imagine our slight surprise then, next morning, to discover that the Salle des Gardes is closed until 2013 for renovation and Sluter's masterpiece has been dismantled, with the tomb proper in storage and  the alabaster statues that surround the base of the tomb have spent the last couple of years touring museums in the USA.  It could have been a depressing shock.  But all was not lost.  True, the hall and the tombs of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless were out of bounds, but luckily Sluter's alabaster statues were on display in two long glass vitrines. Who knows, maybe it was possible to get an even better view of them now.

Each piece is a little under 16 inches tall. Each is unique, portraying the great sadness of each mourner as they walk in procession around the beloved Dukes sacrophagus.  Sluter had broken with the style of the International Gothic and embraced a form of naturalism that would influence artists during the following century, such as the painters Jan van Eyck and Matthias Gruenewald. Some mourners are lost in their own grief, some are being consoled by others. A monk looks upward as if to beseech the heavens.  Others cover their faces with their cowls, but even with the face hidden Sluter has managed to imbue the body with the language of loss. Somehow each alabaster figure embodies the most intense outpouring of individual emotion. They remind us, much as we try to forget it, that death is but a monent away and the sense of intense loss that accompanies death is common to all people and all historical epochs. No wonder the great historian of 15th century Burgundy, Johan Huizinga, in his masterly The Waning of the Middle Ages, described these figures as being the most profound expression of mourning in the history of art.

Sluter began the work in the late 14th century and it was completed by his nephew after his death in 1406.  It was such a success that after the death of the second Duke, John the Fearless, his successor, Philip the Good, commissioned two artists to craft replicas of Sluter's works for the tomb of John.

Slightly disappointed that we hadn't been able to see the entire tomb, we did enjoy seeing Sluter's alabaster figures and we happily spent the next few hours wandering through the rest of the Museum of Fine Arts. We walked through winding little streets, visited a handful of old churches, stopped at numerous cafes and, by the end of the day, we had even bought a variety of Dijon mustards.