America!

Think of America. The beautiful. The terrible. Land of liberty, land of slavery. Stuff of dreams oof all kinds. This post is about three works of art that epitomise America (to us anyway): Plenty. Power. Paradox.

Plenty & the 19th century

Plenty came first. The century went by the number 19. The world flocked to America, to flog or be flogged. There was too much of everything. Too much liberty. Too much cruelty. Too much land. Too much blood spilled over it. And where Europe had always found itself not having enough, America became the land of inexhaustible plenty. The new people came and tamed the land, tamed the rivers, tamed the mountains, tamed the sea, tamed the seasons. And soon the land teemed with everything they needed.

No painting summarises this American story better than Thomas Hart Benton’s Achelous & Hercules. The self-appointed new masters of the land discipline their dominion. On the sidelines, slaves and new immigrants watch and work. In the background, machines are already taking over, and dark clouds gather unnoticed. Everywhere you look, there is plenty lying fallow.

 

Thomas_Hart_Benton_-_Achelous_and_Hercules_-_Smithsonian

 

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Change and its discontents

From time to time, the world trembles. Tectonic plates shift. Age-old poles melt down. Venerated truths crumble. When change is everywhere, fear is never far away.

Today’s association is about depictions of change. And by that we mean change as a threat, as upheaval, not change as redemption. We’re talking about those most tumultuous of times, the longest, and the coldest, hour of pre-dawn still-night that comes before every first, golden, red-hot light of a virgin-new day. We mean that sinking feeling when all the sinews, truths and ties that kept the world of yesteryear together fizzle and break and men are left scanning dark and naked horizons, hoping for first light yet seeing nothing but emptiness. Century-defining, gravity-defying change. Revolution. Collapse. Birth. Death. Rebirth.

Caspar David Friedrich “Moench am Meer”/”Monk by the Sea” (Europe, 1808)
Jia Ai Li “Seeker of Hope/Untitled” (China, 2008)

This post is really two pairs of associations, and an afterthought. The first pair (above) shows what change can mean to the individuals who are left struggling in the midst of it. We see two solitary figures surrounded by emptiness: Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea and Jia Ai Li’s Seeker of Hope.

It’s striking that these two painting were made centuries and continents apart, and yet they basically show the same scene: a clueless man pondering an inhospitable and bleak world that clearly has no need for him. European romanticist painters, unnerved by the havoc wreaked by their continent’s industrial revolution on society, nature and political structures, wondered where we – humans – fit in in this brave new world with its new order. They asked how man could dare to take on nature. It turns out, judging by Jia Ai Li’s paintings, that very much the same thoughts occupy the painters that depict China’s current industrial revolution.

The second pair of paintings shows a bit more context: The gargantuan standard-bearers of the new age – furnaces then and space-travel now – are juxtaposed with the unfortunate people who are being left behind, quite literally in tatters. Have the world has moved on to new shores, and the other half has been left behind.

Phillip de Loutherbourg “Coalbrookdale by Night” (Britain, 1801)
Jia Ai Li “Seeker of Hope/Untitled” (China, 2010)

The new world holds both the promise of paradise – plenty, power, the pursuit of wild dreams – and huge destructive potential – the red heat and black dust and smoke of the furnaces, the exhaust clouds of the rocket that could be carrying hellfire in the form of a nuclear warhead (a recurring theme in Jia Ai Li’s art). The old world, even as it is falling apart, projects an aura of social warmth and humaneness that the new world is utterly lacking. At the same time, everything that is old is undeniably broken or breaking, unfit to see the new day. And above it all lingers the question that must not be said out loud lest is shatters everyone’s confidence: What’s the point?

All the paintings are set at dawn, or at dusk. Because while you live through change, you never know whether it’s change for the better, or for the worse. You don’t know if the sun is coming up, or going down (and staying down).

And here’s a final afterthought: Turner’s Temeraire shows that glorious day when the new light has conquered all that is old. The small, modern steamboat is taking the huge old Temeraire to its eternal resting place. The old world is majestic but it is powerless. It can no longer resist. It no longer holds any promise. The new world is infinitely greater and needs nothing the old world has to offer. Or does it?

JWM Turner “The Fighting Temeraire” (Britain, 1839)
Retrieved from the National Gallery’s website: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/upload/img/turner-fighting-temeraire-NG524-fm.jpg

Because it turns out, as European and American history shows us, that the darker and colder the pre-dawn hours are, the greater the hubris that follows first light will be. Change is 50% destruction and 50% madness. And that’s what this art association is about.

ArtBlogLog – Episode 1: Women

NEW ON ARTSOCIA — ARTSOCIA GOES VIDEO

We felt like trying something new. Because change is good. So we made a video. We called it the ArtBlogLog. Each episode shows the best of the best from our tireless and wonderful journeys through the fantastic, mesmerizing, orgasmic, all-encompassing, mind-blowing, horizon-expanding, dazzling world of artblogs, here are our favourite pieces from artblogs around the world. To amaze you and to promote the blogs. Credits are below so you can go and visit them – they’re all well worth it. Oh yes, and we decided to start on the theme of women. Because really, there would be no art, and no point to art and life, without them.

Attribution:

1) the modern artist — amazing photo manipulations by kokoszkaa

http://themodernartist.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/amazing-photomanipulations-by-kokoszkaa/

2) eyes of odysseus — the way of shadows

http://eyesofodysseus.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/the-way-of-shadows/

3) surface and surface — bruce davidson – subway

http://surfaceandsurface.com/2012/04/15/bruce-davidson-subway/

4) we are so droee — illustrated fashion pieces

http://wearesodroee.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/illustrated-fashion-pieces/

5) avanti salon’s hair and beauty blog – inspired by: yuji watanabe

http://avantisalonboston.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/inspired-by-yuji-watanabe/

6) carlos deters photography — as yet untitled

http://carlosdetres.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/as-yet-untitled/

7) enpundit — shadow art

http://enpundit.com/shadow-art/

8) aratuntun — Photo Art……… Colours

http://aratuntun.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/photo-art-colours-2/

9) eoghan bridge — Heaven and Earth

http://eoghanbridge.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/heaven-and-earth/

10) ionist artblog — Masoumeh Ebadi Again

http://ionistartblog.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/masoumeh-ebadi-again/

11) bed glaser — the BODY in ART…INSPIRATION

http://becglaser.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/the-body-in-art-inspiration/

12) artsocia – women

www.artsocia.blogspot.com

Squares x squareS

Squares. As old as God, and yet quintessentially modern. Since square one, since Adam and Eve squared off and were scared out of Eden, we have known squares, and yet the ability to make perfect squares in great numbers didn’t come until the dawn of the machine age.  In a sense, the perfect square, simple as it is, will never exist outside of our mind, because we will never be perfect, and nor will our machines be. Making the perfect square is as impossible as squaring a circle.

And we leave you with a question: If -1 x -1 is 1, then is the devil squared an angel again, and is every angel at its root a pair of devils?

They are one of the simplest shapes in the universe. But did they exist, were they appreciated, before we made them? Could nature have squared anything, made four right angles, no more and no less? Could nature have tried to square a circle or would it have been too scared, or would it simply not have cared to try?

Squares are perfection (Malevich), cornerstones and backbones (Mondrian), rhythm (Peel), silence, absence, omnipresence, essence and even a dance. The more modern we became, the more squares we made and the more perfect they became. We fell in love with squares, square-eyed as we are nowadays.

Malevich thought all that could be painted had been painted, and that the highest perfection an artist could create, and the one thing he could add to the history of art, was the perfect mathematical shape of something like a square. In doing this, man stepped one step ahead of nature.

On the left, you can see a visualization of the most refined, complex and complex music in the world, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. James Peel’s visualization makes this complexity painfully obvious. Then Mondrian, that iconic figure, of whom Bonnie Greer said that he was once everywhere. And finally, Richter with the ultimate cathedral window, conjuring up our childhood memories of the coloured squares that came up when the TV was broken, and offered a glimpse into the void.


Kazimir Malevich

Black square

Piet Mondrian (1921)

Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue

James Peel (2005)

Goldberg Variations Series, after Bach, Variations no. 4

Gerhard Richter

Window in Cologne Cathedral

Man & God, God & Man

Since everyone’s into memes right now, here’s our art meme. Six pieces about men and their gods, gods and their men. All of them at once terrible and beautiful, all causing a stir in heart and mind. Like men, like the(ir) gods. Who’s who, who was made by whom, who was there first? This is what this association addresses.

Top left: Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel (from Wikipedia Commons)

Top centre: Hirst’s “For the Love of God” (from Wikipedia Commons, Telegraph)

Top right: Detonation of a nuclear bomb for test purposes (from Wiki Commons)

Bottom left: Richter’s “Seascape” (scan of postcard from Tate Gallery Shop)

Bottom centre: LaChapelle’s “Last Supper” (scan of flyer from MdM Salzburg)

Bottom right: Space Shuttle take-off (from Wiki Commons)

*Correction: An earlier version mistakenly claimed that da Vinci had painted the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling when in fact it was Michelangelo’s work. Thanks to artmoscow for spotting the error.

Watering the Flowers of Babel

The sky has never been no limit for mankind. We have strived to conquer it since before Babel. We have stretched, and we have struggled, and we have yearned, and we have built and built and built – we always have, and we always will – and thus we have, time and again, sowed the sweet seed of our own destruction.

This art association is about the fruits of this seed: Towers. It’s about the unconditional, selfish, savage hope that makes us build them, forcing a better future, not for our kids but, rather, for ourselves. Societies grow stale when men build towers whose shades they know their sons will shiver in.

Left: Seurat, The Eiffel Tower      Center: Burj Khalifa, Dubai
Right: Kupka, Vert et Bleu, Albertina Vienna (scan of gallery shop postcard)

We look at these towers – Seurat’s Eiffel tower, Sheikh Kalifa’s Burj and Kupka’s Vert et Bleu – and we can see how they are growing into the heavens, growing out of all proportion, growing because men have lost all sense of what’s within their grasp, and what is beyond their reach.

We look at these pieces and we feel a touch of that childish, innocent, self-sacrificing leap of faith, the leap of faith it takes to build something so absurdly big, colorful and steely. We feel the hope, the rush, the wind in our hair, the vertigo, the endless possibilities. We hold in our little hands a tiny bit of the whole, big omnipotence of the tower-builder.

We look and feel the shadow of the nagging doubts that must have haunted everyone who has built or climbed a tower, the premonition that what goes up will come down, the feeling that it’s just not quite right, not natural, almost immoral, that since Babel towers have drawn the dire ire of jealous man-child-gods and demons.

We look and feel the the hatred of little men in the face of great things. We feel the power, too, of the man who owns that phallus, and we feel jealous. We feel the sheer absurdity of the shapes and forms and endlessness of it all. We feel, maybe above all, the helplessness of man in the face of such gargantuan giants.

The ultramodern visions of the Bauhaus (right) were so modern that they contributed to a crisis of modernity, and set back the advent of the tomorrow they yearned for until later in the century. Burj Khalifa, built on desert sands, almost never got built at all. Ironically, the Eiffel tower was never meant to last, but has.

Maybe that’s the way to build a tower to withstand the whirlwinds of the world and the rages of fate: by turning one’s back to it and getting on with earthly business.

It’s almost as if the sky had a sign on it: Wet Paint. Don’t Touch. Who could resist? We seem to think that where there’s hubris, there’s hope. Maybe we’re right. The day after the day when we give up on a better future will be a sad tomorrow. Or paradise.

PS: We wanted to include Gotham City and Saruman’s Isengard, but then we thought we’d rather keep it real, seeing as there’s enough madness in reality.

The Mourning After (from Tokyo to Manchester)

Death, the great leveller, has struck the lives of four very different women – young and old, widow and orphan, patrician and pauper – and united them all in grief. All are mourning on the morning after a night of death and desolation, and what underlies this association is not only a common theme expressed in so many ways, but also the parallels in each of the paintings.

What strikes us about these four paintings is that they cover the whole range of emotions with with one reacts to the death of a love one. We see desolation and more death, elation and new life, helplessness and fear, dignity and resilience. Everywhere we see pain and loss. In each painting, something – or rather, someone – is missing and being missed. Yet each woman holds on to an object: fan, flower, flask, excepting the pauper who has nothing to hold on to. Each soul is now manifestly alone in the world. Each face emits and conveys grief, sadness and a feeling of loss, but in a totally different way.

The old woman has been crushed and withering. One imagines that she is dying herself and resigned to her fate.

The woman in white is defiant, maybe even elated. One imagines that death has liberated her and/or the deceased.

The young girl is suffering, but unlike the old woman, she will recover and grow. One imagines that death has left her struggling against life all by herself. The way in which she wraps herself tightly in a blanket suggests vulnerability, but there is obviously enough strength in her to eventually go her way alone.

The lady at the bottom, though details are barely visible, seems to be the elegant, wealthy widow. One imagines that death for her means another social obligation, that appropriate mourning is her last service to a great husband and that she is waiting for a rest after a long period of strain and pain.

 

 

 

Sources: all in the public domain; my scans from postcards bought at Manchester Art Gallery and Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo. (c) Manchester City Galleries, Yale Center for British Art, Estate of W.R. Sickert, Ishibashi Foundation.