During my London trip I managed to get a slot to see the Da Vinci drawings in the Queen’s Gallery.
Marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, this exhibition showed more than 200 of the Renaissance master’s greatest drawings in the Royal Collection. There was but one word to describe them: they were magical.
Loving works on paper as I do, I literally did not know where to look first: there were the most delicate flowers and plants, drawn with the precision of a botanist, yet filled with life in a unique way. It was a known fact that if Leonardo had to put a few flowers in the corner of a painting, he made dozens of studies before deciding which to use. Look at those acorns below, they seem to glow on the page.
Then there were maps which must have made the adventure-loving amongst his peers long to go off and explore.
The drawings in the Royal Collection used to be bound up in a book that was acquired by Charles II. The pages have now been separated so that the drawings can be shown in their full beauty. They provide an extraordinary insight into the workings of Leonardo’s mind and reflect the full range of his interests, including painting, sculpture, architecture, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany.
See below his scheme on how to breach a fortress’s walls.
Like most artists, I’m addicted to art supplies. Let me loose in an art shop, and I can spend hours amongst the multitude of paints on offer, trying hard not to bankrupt myself.
Nowadays paint is mostly made in labs, using different chemical substances, but artists in the past made their own supplies, using whatever materials they could find—including ‘the impossibly esoteric, the dangerously toxic, the prohibitively expensive, and the perilously fugitive,’ according to writer Simon Schama (article in the New Yorker, September 3, 2018). It’s a process I find extremely interesting, although I’m quite happy to squeeze ready-made paint out of a tube myself.
Imagine then my delight when I came upon an article on the ForbesPigmentCollection, a technicolor array of more than 2,500 samples, housed at the Harvard Arts Museums. The collection was started by EdwardWaldoForbes in the early 1920s, after he purchased a damaged Renaissance painting of the Virgin and child. Hoping to restore the painting to its original brilliance, Forbes realized that he needed to understand the materials he was working with. Forbes was the director of Harvard’s Fogg Museum from 1909 to 1944, and he firmly believed in the interdependence of art and science.
Arranged according to the exploded color wheel, the thousands of shades on display in the Collection — some poisonous, others impossibly rare — are a library of more than just color. Scientists and art historians tap into the collection in order to verify the origins of questionable paintings up for auction, or work to identify the key compounds of ancient colors in order to better preserve cultural masterpieces for generations to come.
The stories behind the pigments are endless, but some particularly stand out. Here are some of the best:
DragonBlood: The legendary pigment was purportedly gathered from dragon wounds in the Middle Ages; more accurately, its color comes from tree resin. Conservation scientists at the Collection are working to unlock the mystery of this centuries-old pigment.
MummyBrown: Made from the ground up remains of actual Egyptian mummies, mixed with white pitch and myrrh, it was used from the sixteenth century until late in the nineteenth when supplies ran out. At the time the mummies were imported into Europe in large numbers to be used for medicinal purposes (Ugh…)
TyrianPurple: An ancient Phoenician dye that requires 10,000 mollusks to produce a single gram of pigment, is said to have been discovered by Hercules’s dog as he snuffled along the beach. It is a secretion produced by several species of predatory sea snails in the family Muricidae, rock snails originally known by the name Murex. Being extremely expensive to produce, it became very popular during the Byzantine Empire (Ancient Greek: πορφύρα, porphúra,) where its production was tightly controlled and its use restricted to the dyeing of imperial silks. Thus a child born to a reigning emperor was said to be porphyrogenitos, “born in the purple”.
In the reds range, Crimson is produced from the dried bodies of the kermes insect, which were gathered commercially in Mediterranean countries, where they live on the kermes oak, and sold throughout Europe; while Carmine is made from the dried bodies of the female cochineal, and was probably brought to Europe during the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniard Hernán Cortés.
IndianYellow: It was noted for its intense luminance, was widely used in cloth dyeing and was especially well known from its use in Rajput-Mughal miniature paintings from the 16th to the 19th century. Indian yellow pigment was originally manufactured in rural India from the urine of cattle fed only on mango leaves and water. The urine would be collected and dried, producing foul-smelling hard dirty yellow balls of the raw pigment, called “purree”. The process was allegedly declared inhumane and outlawed in 1908, as the cows were extremely undernourished, partly because the leaves contain the toxin urushiol which is also found in poison ivy.
LapisLazuli is a deep blue metamorphic rock used as a semi-precious stone that has been prized since antiquity for its intense color. As early as the 7th millennium BCE, lapis lazuli was mined in northeast Afghanistan. At the end of the Middle Ages, it began to be exported to Europe, where it was ground into powder and made into ultramarine, the finest and most expensive of all blue pigments. Its rarity and brilliant hue, as well as the difficulty and expense of the extraction process made it more expensive than gold. It was used by some of the most important artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, including Masaccio, Perugino, Titian and Vermeer, and was often reserved for the clothing of the central figures of their paintings, especially the Virgin Mary.
Artists often took risks to create their works, using poisonous pigments like EmeraldGreen (a toxic copper-acetoarsenite) to get the color just right; or WhiteLead, a pure white pigment obtained by corroding metallic lead with acetic acid in the presence of carbon dioxide. This was done in pots with a little vinegar added, which were stacked up and covered with a mixture of decaying dung and spent tanner’s bark.
The Forbes Collection is constantly updated as many artists donate new samples. It could be described as a conservator’s crystal ball: offering glimpses into the aging process for various pigments, binders, and any other materials that might make their way into a work of art. Experts also might use the collection to evaluate the legitimacy of a painting’s attribution to an artist. By analyzing the chemical makeup of the pigments used in a painting and comparing them to the known standards of the Forbes collection, analysts can determine whether the colors used would have been available to a specific artist during their lifetime, or if a pigment would be available in the region from which the painting is believed to have originated.
One example is the verification of a painting by Jackson Pollock that went on the market a few years ago. Curators were ready to assert the painting was genuine, until this lab ran tests of the pigments that were used, using pigments in the collection as a standard, and discovered that the red that was used was not available in art-making materials until 20 years after Jackson Pollock had died.
Among the collection’s newest acquisitions are samples of Vantablack, a material developed by Surrey NanoSystems in the United Kingdom which is one of the darkest substances known, absorbing up to 99.96% of visible light. It was intended for military purposes and astronomy equipment, but there is an amusing story attached to it, because the company exclusively licensed it to artist Anish Kapoor’s studio for artistic use. This caused outrage among some other artists, including Stuart Semple. In retaliation, Semple banned Kapoor from buying PinkestPink, a strongest shade of pink that he had developed. However, in 2016 Kapoor got his hands on some Pinkest Pink and posted an Instagram post of his middle finger dipped in it. Semple then created another shade of paint made from crushed glass as a retort to Kapoor, and later barred Kapoor from buying other products of his, including his extremely strong shades of green and yellow paint as well as a paint sold as Black 2.0, which is nearly indistinguishable to Vantablack VBx, despite being acrylic. If one wanted to buy any of these paints, they would have to sign a contract stating that they were not Anish Kapoor and didn’t intend to give the paint to Kapoor. Vanity? Performance art? You choose.
Some of you might remember a post about Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (here for those who’ve missed it). This artist fascinates me both because of her work, which dislays a very original vision of life, and her history, about which I will say more later. I was therefore interested to come upon an article which described her relationship with another artist, Joseph Cornell, a man almost as strange as herself. Cornell, a reclusive who made the most exquisite collages and boxes, has also been an old favorite of mine, but I had no idea these two were connected in any way.
Yayoi Kusama was born in Tokyo in 1929, the daughter of a horrendously abusive mother who used to tear up her paintings. She suffered from hallucinations since she was a child and, although these developed into the mental illness that led to her spending her life in an asylum, drawing upon these experiences also served as a basis for her art.
Nurturing a fierce determination to move to New York, Kusama wrote to Georgia O’Keefe and, having received a reply, showed up in the city with no money and little English. In the beginning she was beset by loneliness and poverty, but eventually she became involved in an artistic community which included Georgia O’Keefe, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Eva Hesse. She became an advocate of free love in 1960 New York, leading nude happenings for which she was reviled as a national disgrace in her homeland.
She became renowned as painter, pop artist, cultural activist, and experimented in various mediums including sculpture, painting, collage, film, performance, happenings, fashion design, and publishing.
She gained recognition for her sexually charged public performances in Central Park protesting the Vietnam War, her large-scale infinity net paintings, psychedelic mirror room installations, and the ‘Narcissus Garden’ which was shown at the 1966 Venice Biennale.
Despite presiding over orgies, Kusama had a fear of sex, perhaps because she had suffered from her father’s philandering, and remained abstinent throughout her life. So it was that when she met Joseph Cornell, an odd-duck loner 26 years her senior, who lived with his domineering mother in Flushing, Queens, the two struck up an intense, albeit platonic relationship.
In the basement of his mother’s house, Cornell spent his days dreaming and making delicately detailed glass-covered boxes. These are small imagined worlds made up of found objects where a ping pong ball becomes the moon, or wooden animals and cutout birds are suspended over a landscape of newspaper clippings and little stamps. He often used star maps, small machine parts, pebbles and corks, along with text from old newspapers and magazines, to create collages. Into these he channeled all his longings and dreams of romance, vanished European cities, and travel to faraway places.
Cornell hated selling these precious objects, frequently changing galleries and dealers so that no one could gain too much control over his work. But he loved to give them away, especially to women. A deeply romantic man, he adored women but was crippled by physical reserve, accentuated by the behavior and influence of his jealous and possessive mother.
Cornell became besotted by Kusama, flooding her mailbox with letters and personalized collages, and calling her on the phone constantly.
They became close, often spending time at Cornell’s mother’s home in Queens, passing the day sketching each other in the nude. Of course his mother deeply disapproved of this, and apparently once poured a bucket of water over them as they sat kissing beneath the backyard quince tree.
After some time Kusama took a step back, feeling the situation had got claustrophobic, but the two isolated, driven, visionary misfits remained close until his death in 1972.
Kusama was deeply affected by Cornell’s death. She returned to Japan, and in 1977 checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she eventually took up permanent residence. She has been living at the hospital ever since, going to work in her studio only a short distance away. Cornell’s influence did not end with his death, however, since he had given her boxes of magazine cuttings and other materials which she subsequently used to make a series of luminous collages. These feature elements of his style including surrealist cutouts, layered with her signature pattern of polka dots and infinity nets.
As I mentioned before, Kusama was also involved in publishing a number of works; and while I’m not about to pick up a book entitled ‘Love suicide at Sakuragazuka’, I remain entranced by her unique, delightful weirdness.
There is plenty of art on show in Athens these days. As well as the Documenta project, which is spread all over town, from May 26 to 28 there was also Art Athina, a three-day fair open to the public.
Fifty eight galleries, mostly from Greece but quite a few from abroad (Paris, Istambul, Vienna, Zurich, and even as far away as Dubai, Australia and Mexico) offered modern art for sale in a wide range of prices.
The fair was held at the Tae Kwon Do Stadium in Faliro, on the coast not far from the center of Athens, a venue built especially for the 2004 Athens Olympics. It is a modern and spacious structure benefiting from a wonderful location next to a marina full of yachts. Nowadays it is used for various purposes, such as concerts, and even provided shelter to refugees at the worst of the crisis.
Inside, the galleries had set up their booths, and it was fun wandering around looking at the art on offer.
Sadly, I was extremely dismayed, if not disgusted, by the state of the building’s interior. I decided not to post any photos, thinking it too depressing. But I was aghast at the unpainted, stained walls, the dirty floor, the missing or broken fixtures… I don’t understand how some funds could not be raised to at least freshen it up a little.
The whole issue of the Olympic venues is shameful. Most have been left to rot – and when I think of what Greek taxpayers forked out for them (they were grossly overpriced) it makes me grind my teeth. What’s more, the labyrinthine governmental system means that any attempt at exploiting them is resisted. Apparently the National Shooting Federation wanted to take on the Olympic Shooting complex and keep it functioning and upkept, but their offer was refused. The racetrack and equestrian centre have become totally decrepit, despite racing being a potentially profitable business. Etc, etc. – and we are talking about state-of-the-art, modern installations that could benefit Greek athletes who usually have to train in less than ideal conditions. It beggars belief.
I can only console myself with the thought that, thanks to the Olympics, we have at least got a new, very functional airport, a good subway and a much improved road system. These had been planned for over twenty years (!) but had never materialized and would not have been finished but for the games. Part of the problem being that, wherever you dig, you find antiquities, and work has to stop until the Archaeological Society decrees what is to be done. A couple of museums were filled with what was found on these sites – but that is another story!
If you are interested in more detail about Art Athina, pop over to the ArtinAthens blog, there is a very interesting article here.
In a surprising move, Adam Szymczyk, Documenta’s Artistic Director, transplanted half this year’s exhibition to Athens, where it is sprawled over 40 venues, showing 160-odd artists, with the working title ‘Learning from Athens’. Documenta is an exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. It was founded by artist, teacher and curator Arnold Bode in 1955, in an attempt to bring Germany up to speed with modern art.
Here in Athens, the heart of the exhibition resides in the large available spaces—the Athens School of Fine Arts, Benaki Museum Pireos Street Annexe, the former Athens Conservatoire, and the EMST Contemporary Art Museum which, due to government mismanagement, has only just opened after years of delays. But the rest of it is spread around the many small galleries about town.
The program also includes a radio station that broadcasts 28 commissioned sound pieces in multiple formats, art films screened on Greek television, a vibrant education program, and a jam-packed schedule of live performances.
It was difficult to know what to tackle first, so we decided to start with the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), which is a converted beer factory, and thus an interesting space in itself.
The building does not disappoint – it has been beautifully converted, provides an amazing background to showcase art, and has stunning views on the Acropolis, Mount Lycabettus, and the Philopappos hill.
The art itself, however, and although it did include some stunning pieces, left me somewhat underwhelmed. There were a number of very plain sketches which would have been better placed on Instagram, and installations which, while being creative and sometimes original, inevitably brought to mind the question: This is clever/imaginative/fun, but is it art?
Austrian artist Lois Weinberger had packed old objects ‘excavated’ from under the Weinberger family’s old farmhouse floorboards – animal skulls, broken crockery, bits of torn paper, scraps of wood – into cardboard boxed with plexiglass tops. There was even a line of old shoes.
Strangely, the labels for the whole exhibition were located on the floor – they were just work titles on paper and handwritten artist’ names on small, rectangular blocks of marble that looked like paperweight (apparently a number have already disappeared – perhaps purloined as souvenirs).
Another installation comprised a few desks strewn haphazardly in an empty space, as if an office had been abandoned in a hurry. On them were objects described on a list: i.e. ‘a piece of A4 paper.’
Art is very subjective and encompasses a wide range of creativity, yet there are still some some things I don’t get – but perhaps there is nothing to get. Just sayin’. The most creative part here, it seems to me, has been getting people to believe this is worthy of a place in Documenta.
Moving on, among the video installations was one I found engrossing, from the collaboration of artists Nashashib and Skaer – a group of women and children in a house and courtyard, complete with dogs and chickens – which revisited Gaugin’s images of Tahitian women. Another, called ’15 hours’, by Chinese filmmaker WangBing, showed the repetitive work in a Chinese sweatshop – and there was an unbearable one, by Iranian director ForoughFerrokhzad. Called ‘The House is Black’, it documented life in a leper colony. I could only watch a tiny bit – in fact, I’ve noticed that visitors seldom have the patience to watch the whole of a video installation, which, in some instances, is probable a shame.
One aspect of the exhibition I liked was the variety of artists represented, from all over the world. Many from Eastern Europe, and some from unusual destinations – artists from as far away as Mongolia, or belonging to the Sami people from the Arctic regions of Norway. On the other hand, who wants to see a series of portraits of Hitler, even if they do have socio-political connotations? (paintings by McDermott & McGough from their series ‘Hitler and the Homosexuals’.)
At the end of our tour, we came upon two impressive installations, especially since our first glimpse of them was from above.
A circle of masks made of woven vines by KhvaySamnang.
And I loved QuipuWomb (Story Of The Red Thread) by CeciliaVicuña. The ancient art of Quipu is a pre-Colombian form of writing involving intricate knotting patterns. Here, untreated wool was sourced from a local Greek provider and dyed red.
Art is rampant all over town, and one of the positive effects of Documenta is that it has attracted a lot of visitors from abroad. Documenta has been called a ‘culturalpeaceoffering‘ from Germany to Greece by some, a ‘Trojanhorse’ by others. It so vast and diverse that it is intimidating: one has to make up one’s own mind in the end. The dialogue continues.
Documenta is on for 100 days, so I will certainly be seeing more of it. For anyone interested in more detail, however, or for those of you living in Greece, I recommend browsing Art Scene Athens, a blog I have often referred to before. There are several detailed posts on the subject, a lot more erudite and objective than my own biased view!
It’s a month to inspire people to paint with watercolor (watercolour, aquarelle) while raising awareness for the importance of art and creativity in the world. Anyone can join the celebration, from master watercolorists to artists just starting out with watercolor!
Best of all, this first year of the celebration will be about raising awareness for children in need of art supplies and art education around the globe. Art is an important aspect of child development and paves the way for a successful future. What would the world be without art?
How could I resist? I’m joining the 31-day challenge – a watercolor each day. Some might be just doodles, some only dabs (abstract dabs?), but it will be fun. It will be motivation to pick up a brush each day, to try new things; and an opportunity to meet other artists. I will be posting on Instagram(athensletters). Below is my first contribution:
The little girl standing next to me was counting faces.
‘There’s one,’ she pointed. ‘And another!’
The sculpture before us was made of sheets of plywood glued together in layers. Three twisted pillars that reminded me of rock formations – or stalagmites (see photo on left). But as we circled it slowly, human profiles revealed themselves: some impassive, some stern, some faintly smiling. The little girl got excited, and so did I. If you look at the photo above, and the close-up below, you will see what I mean. This was one of the most deceptively simple, yet, upon inspection, incredibly complex pieces of art I’ve ever seen.
When asked if some of the faces somehow ‘appear’ when he’s creating the piece, Tony Cragg is firm. Everything is meticulously planned. He takes pencil to paper and sketches out every facet of a new idea before converting it to 3D. Sometimes this proves impossible – his imagination has run away with him. Some ideas never evolve beyond the drawing stage, but if the drawings themselves are lovely, the completed sculptures are breathtaking.
On September 8, a cosmopolitan and mostly young crowd gathered at the Benaki Museum for the opening of Tony Cragg’s sculpture exhibition. Cragg, 66, born in Liverpool, winner of the prestigious Turner Prize in 1988, has never shown his work in Greece before. He appeared happy to explain his thought processes as he stood in the auditorium, looking relaxed in an open-necked shirt. The audience enjoyed his engaging narrative which was accompanied by a slide show, and afterwards plied him with questions and requests to sign their catalogues.
Wandering amongst the works after the talk, my overwhelming urge was to touch them. Their curved, smooth surfaces cried out to be stroked. Cragg uses natural materials such as wood, polished stone and bronze as well as mirror-finish steel and even plastic.
The sculptures are very different. Some are squat and grounded.
Some seem to be leaning into the wind, their surface eroded into the outlines of human profiles. Others soar upwards. Yet they all emit the same energy, their shapes shifting depending on where you’re standing.
As I was leaving, I stopped to admire a few of the bigger bronze sculptures dotted about the museum’s wonderful courtyard.
The exhibition was curated by Xenia Geroulanou of the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, who has represented the artist for 20 years; the Benaki Museum; and the artist himself, who loaned all the works from his own foundation.