Thursday, 13 December 2007

A Photo Affair


The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, The Netherlands, has evoked quite the debate after refusing to display a work of art last week. The museum selected a series of photographs by the Iranian artist Sooreh Hera, but decided a week before display to refuse one of the photographs in a critical series on the Iranian Muslim view on homosexuality. The museum director Wim van Krimpen was of the opinion that this particular picture was purely made to cause an uproar and decided not to make his museum a part of it. He did accept the other photos of the series to be on display. The photos show men in promiscuous positions, obviously referring to homosexuality. The faces of these men are however covered with masks. These masks show the likenesses of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his son in law Ali. Sooreh Hera wants to display, and protest against, the hypocrisy of Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s statements on the non-existence of homosexuality in Iran.

The refusal of the museum to display this one photo came after, amongst others, protests from the Islamic Democrats. This party is represented in the city council of The Hague and protested because they see these photos as very hurtful and insulting. The debate it has led to is focused on whether this is yet another instance in Dutch society where fear for Islamic fundamentalism prevailed in decision making. This is not to say that the Islamic Democrats are fundamentalists in any way but that the display of these photos could lead to repercussions in the future. In my opinion, on the one hand, the museum director has the full right to refuse this picture if, to him, it does not feel right to display it. He tried to prevent his museum from being part of one of the most heated controversies in the past few years. However, this refusal led to full media attention. On the other hand, the artist has the full right to make works as she wishes. Art will not always please everyone and when displayed in a museum it is an individual choice whether to go and see it or not. If you do not want to be confronted with certain matters, you simply do not go to the museum.

Dutch Muslims felt the need to speak up in these times in which a Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, makes one insulting (and insane) anti-Islam proposition in the parliament after another. Similarly, the artist felt the need to speak up against what she views as the intolerance of Islam for homosexuality. With his goodwill move, the museum director tried to prevent his museum from being caught up in this debate. By now, MuseumgoudA in Gouda has decided to display the full series. So if this post made you curious about what triggered this debate, you know where to go. However, to avoid disappointment, do not get your hopes up, because the photos are not that great. Any way, let us in the end value a free country like the Netherlands, which provides the opportunities for all these decisions and actions simultaneously.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Meet Ed

I'm sure everyone has come across one of these weird ads by the Royal Opera House:


"Superheroes really do wear tights"--Okay... kind of cute.

Now, I understand the need to be sexy to attract younger crowds, and the Royal Ballet is overall doing a much better job than some other major companies in terms of reaching out to a wider audience and making ballet "hip" to a certain extent, but I'm not sure about comparing Edward Watson, one of the most talented male dancers in the UK today, to a rhino, of all animals.... I wonder what Mr Watson thinks about this campaign.

A few days ago the Royal Opera House just launched a new campaign in cooperation with Youtube, though . I thought that was clever and promising. But this whole half-face close-up thing is not necessary (you can see Mr Watson's face on the Youtube site as well, the same image from the superhuman poster).

You'd think that American Ballet Theatre, usually media- and tech-savvy, would be the first to use Youtube for marketing purposes, but it turned out to be the Royal Ballet. Meanwhile, the Paris Opera Ballet has been quietly showing clips from their shows on their website for a long time now.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Who's afraid of Damien Hirst?

In the true spirit of our attempt to create an active dialogue on art, my blog entry is reactionary. I have been compelled to defend one of my favorite contemporary artists from a sneaky snub that Will issued in the title of his entry on the sale Guennol Lioness: At least it’s not another Damien Hirst.


I was lucky enough to see my first Damien Hirst a few weeks ago while walking through the ongoing Turner Prize Retrospective at the Tate Britain. There are numerous works in the show worth seeing including the Gilbert and George mural, the disorienting and consuming room of Anish Kapoor sculptures, and the Gillian Wearing video of twenty-six police men standing in silence for sixty minutes; however, I am going to limit my entry to Damien Hirst’s compelling work Mother and Child Divided (1993). Mother and Child Divided is a display of a cow and calf both cut length-wise. Each half is presented floating in a glass case of formaldehyde.


Damien Hirst is one of the most controversial artists alive today. Critics of Hirst insist that his works rely too heavily on shock value and are ultimately thin in substance, delivering one liners to its viewers. What’s funny is that Hirst is one of my favorite contemporary artists because I think his works achieve a balance between shock value and layered commentary.


Indeed, the sight of a severed cow and calf is shocking. However, since when has its ability to provoke a powerful emotional response been cited as a work’s downfall? Britain’s own Roger Fry evaluated the merits of a work on its ability to stir the emotions. While Hirst has somewhat removed the conventional formal artistic expression that Fry demanded be the source of such provocations, it is interesting to note that Hirst refers to shock value as a formal element. He says that shock is the only way to make “life and death visible.”


In this way I see Hirst connecting and balancing the initial arresting impact of his works with the deeper contemplations that should keep the sensitive viewer lingering. Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate and also a Courtauld Alum, supports this interpretation of Hirst’s work:


Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided is a work which can at first glance be read as nothing more than two brutally severed carcasses... For me, the undoubted shock, even disgust provoked by the work is part of its appeal. Art should be transgressive. Life is not all sweet. Walking between the two halves and seeing the isolation of the calf from the cow encourages deeper readings of the work. (Nicholas Serota 'Who's afraid of modern art?')


Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided is a meditation on fundamental questions of life and death. Looking at the delicate tissue and complex network of organs that sustain biological life inspire contemplations on its simultaneously miraculous and base nature. Hirst reinforces this binary between the miraculous and the base nature of biological life in his title. Mother and Child Divided is no doubt meant to prompt images of the Virgin and Child and a reverence for the mystical origins of life; that he divides the mother and child from eachother, however, also suggests that we are plagued by a kind of spiritual alienation and lead a purposeless life. The work thus forces the viewer to confront their own mortality and ask serious questions about the nature of their existence. For that Hirst should be celebrated, not scorned.

Thoughts?

- Vanessa N.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

The Devoted Fan


Dance has always been in the backwater among all the art forms. It is sad but true. I could write page after page speculating on why this is the case, but here I'm going to focus on one particular factor: there simply is not much dance to see. Because it's a performing art, you simply have to see it live, and unless you live in London, New York, Paris or some other major cities, there's not a lot going on. Fans of opera will say the same thing. But whereas opera aficionados can make do with recordings—and it's no substitute I know—dance lovers are in a much worse situation. There really aren't a lot of dance videos available, and this is the main problem in dance studies as a discipline: documentation. Only recently have dance professionals started filming dance and thinking about preserving their artistic visions for later generations. Try looking for a Martha Graham video, you'll most likely have to go to a Martha Grahm archive or maybe the New York Public Library (which has an excellent dance collection, by the way).

Among the films available, they aren't easy to find either: only specialty DVD stores stock dance DVDs, and even when they do, the selection is small. Online the choices are limited as well. Moreover, the DVDs that are widely available are mostly by major ballet companies, so it is rather disappointing that there isn't a lot of diversity among recorded materials. Because of economic reasons, which are understandable—ballet companies are barely surviving; producing a DVD is about making money—most companies play it safe. So we have countless versions of Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, The Nutcracker etc. in the market but barely anything else. And I love Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, The Nutcracker (when done right, that is), but like food, you can't eat the same thing every meal. A modern/contemporary dance video is almost impossible to find.

And therein lies the problem: unless you are the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet, or Alvin Ailey (and some other major companies), just selling tickets is a headache enough. Filming your show to produce a DVD is the last thing on your mind, or doing a big ad campaign for that matter. But if you don't get your work out there somehow, how is the public going to be exposed to dance? And if people aren't exposed to dance, who's going to come? At the same time you can't lower your ticket prices otherwise you're going to go in the red, but since seeing a dance in general costs more money than seeing a movie (not necessarily true in the case of London, by the way), no one buys the tickets but the devoted dance fan, already exposed and obsessed.

The urgent task for dance companies now is to figure out ways to increase the public's exposure to dance—and many companies are working hard on this, some successfully, some not. The most important task of all, though, is to get to know the devoted, obsessed dance fan. How did he/she become one? Is it just something that just happens or are there ways to cultivate your future audience?

If you are a devoted fan of something—be it art (which I'm sure Courtauld students are), music, theater, soccer, etc—how did you become one?

PS. Then there is Youtube, which may (or may not) change everything. I'll write more about Youtube and dance in the future.

- Paisid A.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Does Christie's Care?

The young man showing the lots during the Christie's sale of Impressionist and Modern Art, on the 28th of November 2007 in South Kensington, was quite charming. Holding up a lot upside down is no shame and it actually contributed to the informal atmosphere in the room. The lady auctioneer was the embodiment of charm. Her smooth style of auctioning, friendly voice and sharp wit were very entertaining for the attendees. Even the hallway in which the auction was held, created quite an interesting, and indeed charming, scene. Movers walked by all the time, carrying the most fascinating and random objects. The passing-by of antique chairs on their shoulders, sculpted unicorns on their carts and painted crucifixions in their hands made this auction visit feel like being in a cabinet of curiosities.

Despite all this charm, there were also some trouble spots. There was a moment of agitation when an employee who bid on behalf of a client on the phone didn’t know what her winning bid had been. Rather more serious was Christie's treatment of the works in their care. With no intention of telling Christie’s how to run their business, some things have to be noted and shared. The paintings that were sold during the afternoon were piled against the wall, with no protection in between, like a pile of books. In some of the paintings, the canvas could be seen trembling when they were picked up and handed from hands to hands. The people showing them in front of the room were not wearing any gloves. The thing with most works is that they are framed. Still, it is not a great idea to even touch the frames, especially when they are originals.

I was visiting the auction with a Courtauld colleague and ambulances could almost have been called for us when two drawings by René Magritte were auctioned, not only because of our love for drawings, these being particularly interesting ones, but mostly because they were unframed and held up like a just-received diploma on ones graduation day. However, I must admit, I was more careful posing with my diploma, than the charming young man was with these drawings. He didn’t even try to balance them on their sides in his fingers, but bluntly touched the fronts and backs. His fingerprints might show up in future scientific analysis. Let's hope they are not mistaken for Magritte’s own!

These concerns might sound very panicked and far-fetched, but touch can really damage art works in the long term. Have these people never visited a museum and seen all the “please do not touch” signs? They are there for a reason. Whether art is bought as investment of for pure enjoyment, it should be treated as carefully as possible. I would have certainly expected this attitude to be in evidence at an established auction house like Christies. As a relative novice to the world of auction houses and despite the first impression of charm all around, it made me wonder afterwards about the atmosphere in the current art market. Which attitude will prevail when all else is lost, cash or care?

Thursday, 6 December 2007

At least it's not another Damien Hirst...


How much would you pay for a 3 inch tall Mesopotamian carving of a muscle-bound lion? If you said $57.16 million (£28.17 million), you could have been the proud owner of the so-called Guennol Lioness at tonight's antiquities sale at Sotheby's NY, according to CultureGrrl. Long on loan to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the piece brought what is apparently the highest price ever for a sculpture at auction. It's refreshing to see an object of some historical importance and aesthetic merit fetching the big bucks for once, though this may be a sign that the oft-cited "bubble" in art prices is sturdier than it seems. However, the price was driven up by the rarity of excellent antiquties with repatriation claim-proof provenances and the credibility brought by its history of museum display. Word on the street is the buyer was a British man... is someone's daddy planning on making a nice donation to the Courtauld Institute Gallery? I demand an exclusive interview!

Do we have anyone that has studied Mesopotamian art in our midst? It'd be great to get some idea of why this thing matters.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Sizing up the New Kid on the Block: Foster’s Silken Hotel Aldwych

Somerset House will soon have a new neighbor across the street: the Silken Hotel Aldwych designed by Norman Foster + Partners. The structure is quickly taking shape on the western end of the Aldwych and should open within a year or so.

The building replaces the former bulky and banal English Electric Company Building (1957 - see left) but unfortunately appears to be only moderately more inspiring. Foster’s design preserves the historic façade of the Marconi House (1903) on the eastern side of the site just as the EECB did and grafts onto it a lifeless western extension terminated by a meager circular entrance tower at the corner. While the new hotel is undeniably sleeker than the monstrosity it replaces—the brutally chamfered corner entrance of the old EECB was particularly crude—it fails just as spectacularly to participate in the urban and architectural drama unfolding around it.

Let’s begin with the tower. The intersection of the Aldwych and the Strand is an urban condition straight out of an architectural fantasy world. The gentle curve of the Aldwych creates a perfectly tapered corner that practically pleads for a dramatic vertical element to celebrate the sudden expansion of public space that occurs along the otherwise regular and tunnel-like streetscape of the Strand. The building that originally accompanied the Marconi House, the Gaiety Theatre (1903-1955 - see right), did take advantage of this singular site and punctuated the corner with a Victorian neoclassical tower whose height and articulation made it stand apart from the massing of the rest of the building. Such a tower not only enriched its immediate urban context but also introduced a new beat to the rhythm of silhouetted spires articulated eastward along the Strand by the towers of St-Mary-le-Strand, St Clement Danes, the Royal Courts of Justice, and St-Dunstan-in-the-West. Thus, the tower of the Gaiety Theatre contributed to one of the most enjoyable urban sequences in London, one that recalls Wren’s evocative ideal of a glorious city dotted with towers and spires receding into the distance.

The Silken Hotel tower, on the other hand, is much too understated to play such a role. The only hint that any thought was paid to its status is the feeble glass attic story whose polygonal geometry mimics the crinkled fenestration that ever so hesitantly pokes its way out from the tower drum. Ironically, the only element of the tower that suggests any kind of sweeping movement—although lateral and not vertical—is the functional, saucer-like canopy placed above the ground floor entrance. This disconcerting lack of attention comes as a bit of a shock from an architect whose office has built a good bit of its reputation by designing dynamic and innovative towers like the Commerzbank building in Frankfurt or the Swiss Re building here in London. Although the Silken Hotel is obviously a project much different in scope and modest in size, one would have liked to see Foster adapt his talent for creating striking towers and apply it to this project as well.

The remaining façades of the Silken Hotel are just as disappointing as the tower. Blocky punched openings filled with more crinkled fenestration are grouped into vertical strips that march dutifully along the elevations running parallel to the Strand and the Aldwych. Clearly the aesthetic is a minimalist take on the typical limestone-veneered London mid-rise exemplified by the neighboring Bush and Australia Houses on the Aldwych block. Indeed, the firm’s website states that the initial building concept was “to create a seamless relationship between the existing [Marconi] building and the contemporary additions” by following the old building’s proportions and using the same exterior Portland stone revetment.

This is all well and good, but the new hotel fails to pick up on the architectural nuances that defined the old Marconi House and Gaiety Theatre: contrasting fields of solid and void, variations in articulation, and explicit expressions of functional hierarchy (see left). In the end it is impossible to tell just how successful the intended harmonization of old and new at the Silken Hotel will be since Foster's firm has not publicly released any renderings of the critical juncture points in the work. Similarly, no illustration is available of the planned “dramatic eleven-storey atrium” inside the core of the building. This is disappointing since the atrium may or may not go a long way towards redeeming the insipid exterior. If the interior is truly where Foster plans to pull out all the stops, one wishes he had been as clever as William Chambers at Somerset House just down the way and produced an austere yet enticing façade that manages to draw viewers inside so they can discover the shocking explosion of space concealed behind it. Only time will tell if Foster’s new building will contribute anything more to the city of London than a spike in its hotel tax roll.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Another famous alum...

The Old Courtauld Mafia, Part One

The New Courtauld Mafia must know those who have come before. In a three part series, I'll try to compile the names of the most prominent Courtauld Alums in Museums, the Academy, and Everything Else (Practicing artists, critics, etc.)

Part One: The Museum

Historically, the alumni of the Courtauld Institute have dominated the museum world in the UK, as well as having a strong presence abroad. The term "Courtauld Mafia" was coined by the Chairman of the Board of the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1989 to refer to the people that ran every other museum in the country save his. (That has now been remedied.) This list will be far from complete and I'm lacking many degree levels and dates. If you have any more information or names, I will add them:

Betty Churcher, MA '77, Former Director, National Gallery of Australia
Sir Timothy Clifford, Former Director, National Galleries of Scotland
Anne d'Harnoncourt, MA, Director, Philadelphia Museum of Art
John Elderfield, Ph.D. '75, Chief Curator, MoMA
Gabriele Finaldi, BA, MA, Ph.D. Director, Museo Nacional del Prado
Christoph Grunenberg, MA, Ph.D. Director, Tate Liverpool
Mark Jones, MA, Director, Victoria & Albert Museum
Tim Knox, Director, Sir John Soane's Museum
Neil MacGregor, MA '75, Director, The British Museum
Nicholas Penny, Ph.D., Director, National Gallery, London
Sir Nicholas Serota, MA '70, Director, Tate Gallery
Michael Taylor, Ph. D. , Curator of Modern Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art

It's a pretty impressive list. From the number of current directors of UK museums with a Courtauld provenance, it would seem the Courtauld's skill at training museum leaders hasn't dwindled since the "mafia" was named in '89. The only current director of a major UK museum that has slipped through the Courtauld's fingers, as far as I can tell, is Stephen Deuchar at the Tate Britan, though he does list a University of London degree, I can't determine where from. The directors are easy to track with their official bios, but curators are harder. Any names come to mind?

Need a Crossley fix?

A tip for the students who either missed the sensational Paul Crossley lecture in the "Writing Art History" series or felt inspired to follow up:

My tutor was nice enough to point me to the Crossley article that has a lot of the research and material used. Sans his (self-announced) recent Heidegger fascination and the peals of uproarious laughter, I'd wager, but, such as it is...

Crossley, P., 'Between spectacle and history: art history and the medieval exhibitions', R. Marks ed., Late Gothic England: Art and Display, Donington 2007

- Joanna M.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Emil Gilels on YouTube

Possibly the best thing on YouTube. The glorious hair only makes it better.


Penny's from Heaven


It seems appropriate, for the first post of this new blog of culture commentary by members of the Courtauld Institute of Art, to mention some significant news relating to one of the Courtauld's most prominent alumni.

Last week, reports began to leak that Dr. Nicholas Penny,
current Senior Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Art at the National Gallery in Washington, had finally been tapped to head the other National Gallery in London, where he had been passed over for the job in 2002. Since the board's former choice, Charles Saumarez Smith, has left amid controversy to head the Royal Academy—a distinct step down in the museum hierarchy—the way was clear for Penny to return to the institution he had served as Clore Curator of Renaissance Painting, and later Keeper, (Senior Curator in the American parlance), from 1990 until Saumarez Smith's arrival.

This was a great choice for the London National Gallery. Penny is a scholar of unimpeachable credentials, educated at Cambridge and the Courtauld, where he earned his doctorate. He has proven a prolific writer as well as organizer of scholarly exhibitions, and, in addition to a number of exhibition catalogues and his published Ph.D. dissertation, he co-authored the seminal Taste and the Antique with Francis Haskell, himself a former National Gallery Director. He has also proven himself as a connoisseur, discovering Raphael's lost Madonna of the Pinks in the collection of the Duke of Northumberland, later acquired by the Gallery.

Readers outside of the art world may be familiar with Nicholas Penny's name from his contributions to the London Review of Books. In addition to many enlightening book and exhibition reviews on those pages, he was involved in one of the more entertaining exchanges of academic vitriol recently with Thomas Crow, formerly head of the Getty Research Institute and now Professor of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. After a Penny review the previous month called out the Getty Research Institute, the elite research library on the Getty campus in LA, for the lack of interest its visiting scholars exhibit in original works of art, Crow wrote in for the issue of February 8th, 2007. Penny's response follows: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n03/letters.html#letter1

Penny has proven himself a tireless defender of the importance of museums and contact with works of art against people like Crow, who represent the extreme philosophical wing of art historical practice. He will no doubt prove an able leader of the London National Gallery.