Friday, October 30, 2009

Francis Bacon's 100th birthday

This week - 28 October to be precise - was the 100th birthday of the British painter Francis Bacon. He was a driven man whose uncompromising, energetic and powerful pictures matched his famously tragic and extreme lifestyle. Bacon was the most important painter in Britain during the 1960s and 70s. His big, powerful canvases demand the viewer's attention and never leave you untouched or ambivalent. At a time when abstraction was all the rage, Bacon - a more-or-less self-taught artist - pushed the figurative to its boundaries and with it the human form. Almost all of Bacon's works focus on one or two people and he had a fascination for the human mouth and the body in motion. The gaping mouths of the Pope pictures he painted during the 1950s spectacularly reflect his oral fixation. Based on Velasquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), these are some of the best known Bacons. His predilection for the body in motion was fostered by Muybridge's 1887 book The Human Figure in Motion. David Sylvester's book Interviews with Francis Bacon is still one of the best books on twentieth century painting. One thing is for sure about Bacon's paintings, you won't find many on corporate boardroom walls! And that is a good thing.

Happy Birthday Francis Bacon!

Check out the Tate's recent Bacon show here:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Austrian musical haikus

It is one hundred years since the Austrian composer Anton Webern composed his String Quartet Opus 5. Webern has a reputation of being the writer of some of the most intensely concentrated music ever written. The French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez has compared Webern's music to Japanese haiku poems. The String Quartet was the first milestone in this remarkable development. Webern's complete works fit onto three CDs. The second movement of his Opus 5 is just thirteen bars long. The whole five-movement quartet takes five minutes to play. When you reach this level of concentration, every note counts. Nothing is superfluous. There is no "padding".

It is remarkable to realize that this music is already one hundred years old. It seems much more recent. Webern was so far ahead of his time. His Opus 5 predates Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1913) and were written around the same time as Gustav Mahler was writing his last works.

Webern died tragically in 1945. He created a body of work that remains unsurpassed in its concentration, intensity and musical beauty. The nuts he left are not easy to crack, but take the time to explore his music, and the rewards are fulsome.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Callum Morton's Valhalla

Callum Morton’s walk-through sculpture work Valhalla is installed outside the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne until 24 October. It was originally commissioned for the 2007 Venice Biennale and the current installation is its first in Australia.

The piece is a three-quarter scale model inspired by a house designed by Morton’s architect father. The outside of the two-story building is derelict, grey and vandalised, the windows are boarded up. But when you go up the steps and enter you find yourself in the shiny, tiled interior of a lift-foyer of the type that occurs in contemporary office and apartment blocks around the world. It is spotlessly clean. The cleaner’s bucket and mop sit in a corner.

Located on a busy thoroughfare in central Melbourne, the exhibition attracts its fair share of tourists, lunchtime strollers and visitors to the nearby National Gallery of Victoria.

It is a work that moves the artistic experience into the heart of the viewer. The three-quarter scale is disconcerting as you stand in front of the three faceless and soulless elevator openings wondering if they are going to open. Morton’s work is superficially simple and uncomplicated. You soon realise that the drama takes place in your own reaction to the space, not in the space and the building itself. As you stand there, uncomfortably close to the ceiling you notice the confused reactions of your anonymous companions. The grungy exterior of the building has led you to expect some sort of hard-hitting commentary on this or that aspect of contemporary life. But the piece is anything but didactic. The rumbling noises emanating from the bowels of the building are portentous. But the terror never materialises. Except in our inner-most fears.

Click here for more information

Monday, October 5, 2009

Safeguarding the Tango

UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural, educational and scientific arm, has been protecting the world's cultural and natural heritage since 1972. But it was not until 2003 that it developed a legal framework for preserving endangered intangible heritage such as dance, oral traditions, music, rituals and traditional performing arts.

The Director-General of UNESCO, Ko├»chiro Matsuura, speaking recently in Abu Dhabi, said that he was "surprised, upon my arrival in UNESCO (in 1999), to note the relatively low priority given to living heritage compared to the strong focus on the tangible part of the world’s cultures”. In response, UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003 and 114 countries have now signed up.

At its meeting in Abu Dhabi last week UNESCO's intergovernmental committee made the first additions to the List of Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding and to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Representative List now has 166 listings. Among the recent inclusions are the tango, India’s Ramman religious festival and France’s Aubusson tapestries.

Under the Convention signatory states undertake to 'take the necessary measures to ensure the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage present in its territory.' These steps can include education programs, documentation and requesting international assistance. Intangible heritage listed as "endangered" may also be eligible for financial assistance from UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage Fund. Elements currently on the endangered list include the Qiang New Year festival in China and the Cantu in paghjella: a 'secular and liturgical oral tradition of Corsica'. The Qian New Year festival was added after 'the 2008 Sichuan earthquake destroyed many of the Qiang villages and devastated the region put the New Year festival at grave risk.' In the Corsican case UNESCO notes that a 'sharp decline in intergenerational transmission caused by emigration of the younger generation and the consequent impoverishment of its repertoire' has placed paghjella at risk and warns that 'unless action is taken, paghjella will cease to exist in its current form, surviving only as a tourist product devoid of the community links that give it real meaning.'

For more information go here: UNESCO

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Klimt's returned. Now for Vermeer.

Another spectacular restitution claim against a major art museum emerged today in Vienna. The family of Jaromir Czernin is claiming the circa 1666 painting The Art of Painting by Jan Vermeer was sold under duress in 1940 and is now illegally in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The work would normally be considered priceless.

Up to 1940 the painting was in the possession of Jaromir Czernin. He was the brother-in-law of Kurt Schuschnigg, the ill-fated Chancellor of Austria as Nazi Germany annexed its smaller neighbour in 1938. Czernin and his wife were subjected to various forms of harassment by the Nazis and his family now claims he sold the painting to Adolf Hitler under duress. Earlier assessments of the case found that the sale to Hitler was legal and that the post-war transfer of the painting - the biggest ever completed by Vermeer - from Hitler's estate to the Republic of Austria was correct.

The case follows on the heels of the famous restitution of a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt painted in 1907. This painting was returned to the niece of its pre-war owner after a ten-year international legal battle. It was eventually sold in 2006 for US$135 million.

The new Vermeer case also promises to grab headlines and will be an interesting opportunity to see how far restitution practice has progressed after the messy and protracted stonewalling of the Austrian government over ten years in the Klimt case.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Obama Bounce

Public opinion polls indicate that US President Barack Obama is enjoying much greater levels of public support among major European allies than his predecessor did. According to the Transatlantic Trends 2009 survey, just over three quarters (77 percent) of respondents in the European Union and Turkey "supported U.S. President Barack Obama’s handling of international affairs". In the last year of the George W Bush presidency the same measure was down to nineteen percent. The authors of the Transatlantic Trends Survey describe the President's appeal to Europeans as an "Obama spell".

But the news is not all good for President Obama: he is considerably more popular in Europe than he is in his own country and amongst the people who elected him. The people of Central and Eastern Europe are also less enthusiastic about the new President than are their West European counterparts.

When it comes to the big issues there were some other interesting trends. Americans are much less inclined to trade economic performance for environmental sustainability than are the Europeans, 73 percent of whom would be prepared to sacrifice some economic growth to help deal with climate change. Americans also feel more adversely affected by the current recession.

The Obama bounce has brought European enthusiasm for the United States back to around the average levels seen over the period since the end of World War II. Now all Obama needs to do is get his compatriots (and voters) to see things the way the Europeans do! French lessons for New Yorkers, perhaps?

Further details on the survey results are available from Transatlantic Trends.