Stockholm has brought us tiny baby goats, Joe Bataan, Nietzsche’s death mask and more Munch paintings than I have ever seen before, an exhibit on Satyajit Ray and Tagore’s artwork, discovering how good the Swedish modernists were, the best boar sculpture, meatballs and reindeer stew and skinksmorgas, medieval alleys, turf houses and farms, the red room where intellectuals and artists once congregated that inspired August Strindberg’s novel by the same name, knowing that the king encouraged every Swedish household to grow their own tobacco, boats, wood-paneled working mens’ bars…amazing trip. I might write more later, but everything in life is going so fast and I am off to a new farm this morning.
From ferries to amazing buildings to food at Kvarnen and Pelikan, restaurants/bars in Södermalm (which is the area I by far loved the most). The red room in Berns. Boats and stick figures, also inlcuding a few pictures of Thielska Galleriet, where we saw: ‘Olof Sager-Nelson and his contemporaries. “Anywhere out of the world” along with an amazing collection of Edvard Munch and Nietzche’s death mask, a bit of Blasieholm as described by Fredrika Bremer…I love this city.
The petrified medieval centre of Stockholm, with wonderful narrow alleys that we went slinking through so as to avoid completely all tourist thoroughfares. It is hell. of. touristy. But quite beautiful when empty, so I was sorry to spoil it for others with my own tourist self.
Stockholm’s open air museum, this I did want to write more about because I loved the ancient buildings. I am fascinated by the process of ripping them from the ground they grew out of to bring them here. We shall see when I write!
Studio and collection of Carl Milles, and most of it was stunning though that crazy array of statues in front of the sea was a bit overwhelming… but I liked visiting a further island by ferry, seeing a bit more of the everyday city. Satyajit Ray and Tagore — amazing.
Julie Johnson’s book The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900 is wonderful. She writes:
The Memory Factory, refers to Vienna as a site for fabricating history. Vienna was indeed a place where intellectuals and artists ‘thought with history,’ and participated in providing their own historical narratives (P 3, quoting Schorske 1998).
I’m working on writing something on Vienna, and everything written about fin-de-siecle Vienna is about men. Men, men, more famous men. There are some mentions of the women who stand by them but mostly those who betray them. God, that Alma Mahler. There is a sprinkling of mothers. It wouldn’t be surprising if women couldn’t flourish in the arts in such a climate of misogyny as Johnson details on these pages (and that is detailed on many another page, believe you me).
But they did. A splendid few, their work is amazing. This is a book that looks both in depth at their work, its connections to a wider modernist movement and to the art of Vienna of the period, an art book. But it also looks at how these women have been removed from the canon, removed from accounts of Vienna, removed from galleries, and erased from our understanding of the past. She quotes Trouillot’s work on the erasures of the Haitian Revolution, which is one of the books I love most. That is about erasure of resistance to Empire and white supremacy. There is a whole field of work on the erasure of women I did not yet know. There is Joan W. Scott, who
believes all history writing depends upon identification — a selective delving into the past–in a process that uses fantasy to create coherence out of chaos. The repetitions or ‘echoes,’ of history are part of this process: there are inevitable distortions that occur over time and over the generations, but identification is required for these repetitions to take place. This is as true for the established canon as it is for new research on women artists. (4)
These repetitions are key in building understandings of history. The amount of work on certain artists and pieces adds to their aura and position, which can become so exaggerated that others are erased. The Memory Factory.
Such examples from the discipline of art history support the proposal of some historians that memory is by definition repetition. (4)
There opens a memory gap where women’s participation slowly becomes invisible — how else to explain the false understanding that women did not exhibit art publicly in fin-de-siecle Vienna when arguably they were more prominent then than they often are now? That astonishes me, actually. This is not a project rescuing competent artists who were never enough appreciated because of their gender, though that would be worth doing. Nor is it fighting for wider appreciation of more ‘feminine’ and interior domestic scenes as high art the way Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin’s separate spheres model is used to explain the aesthetics of Morisot and Cassatt. In Vienna, it is a project uncovering works of astonishing strength and power that were much admired and displayed and copied in their time. It’s uncovering modernist art of landscapes, nudes, still lifes, challenging portraits…nothing in short, that does not achieve excellence within the very male canon.
Their loss from descriptions of Vienna’s fin-de-siecle glory is rooted not just in misogyny, but also in Vienna’s antisemitism and all of WWII’s erasures. A fascinating example of how much was lost is that in 1977 an exhibition of women artists from the Renaissance to the 1950s was held in Vienna, that was
credited with launching new research that has led to changes in the canon, now visible in the inclusion of women artists in survey books and virtual memory systems for students of art history.
It took them 5 years and the women described it as starting from scratch. In 1910 a very similar exhibition was held and very successfully, bringing together art from around Europe as well as showcasing working artists. It was put together in only 6 months…between these two dates there was clearly an erasure, not least of the documentation of the earlier exhibition.
So it is not just in the processes of creating memory we must look, but on the processes that erase it, how women have been excluded.
Another interesting note? Over one-third of the Kunstschau exhibitors in 1908 were women, as were members of Schiele’s Neukunstgroup in 1909. (164) For Museum of Modern Art’s International Survey of Painting and Sculpture in 1984, only ten percent were women. (247)
The exclusion of women from art’s history appears to have been favourable for men’s prominence in major exhibitions.
There are some interesting concepts of identity and the way gender parallels race as well:
Kutluh Ataman, one of many contemporary artists who deal with how race is represented, has put it aptly: “I do not think identity belongs to the individual. Identity is like a jacket. People you never see will make it and you wear it. Identity is something other than you, outside of you. It’s a question of perception. You can be aware of it and manipulate it, play with it, amplify it, or mask it for infinite reasons.” (10)
For Eleanor Heartney, identity
is like a reflection in still water–it is only clearly visible until you reach out and try to grasp it in your hand.
I rather like those two, I need to think more about them.
I also realised I will throw around the words modern and Modernism occasionally, but have never been entirely sure what official (and I am sure contested) definitions of those might be as it is not especially my field. So I found it interesting that Vienna is
characterized as birthplace of modernism, but only in fields outside the history of art–in cultural studies, philosophy, science, music, psychology, architecture, and literature… By Modernism with a capital M, I refer to the doctrine articulated best by Clement Greenberg: that the best art is self-critical about its own medium and is autonomous.(10)
Thus material takes precedence over subject, so for Greenberg Manet is the 1st Modernist painter as the paint came first for him — Klimt on the other hand uses allegory, combination of abstraction and naturalistic bodies.
By “autonomy” Greenberg meant freedom from social context and politics. This is why the white cube space of the art gallery is so well suited to sowing modernist works–it removes them into an aesthetic vacuum, where the works relate to each other in a historical progression. (11)
Freedom from context and politics… that is quite fascinating as a definition as well, that wouldn’t have occurred to me though in thinking about art for arts sake and views of the life and role of the artist I see it has been there lurking in my head to some extent all the time. Aesthetically some of the most prominent women, Koller, Luksch-Makowsky, Funke and Blau are clearly part of and pushing the modernist canon, though as women they have been systematically left out of it.
The idea that women were not part of Modernism, and only became important public artists in the postmodern phase, had become a truism in the history of art by 1986. This study aims to correct that misperception. (13)
And it does, artist by artist.
She had a significant public exhibition record, was given a studio in the prater (a beautiful central park) where the World Exhibition had been held together with another (male) artist named Schindler, in 1879 it became all her own. She was singled out by Prince Regent Luitpold and he regularly visited her there.
It’s important to remember that artists in Vienna never saw themselves as breaking away politically from anything at all. As Johnson remarks later.
Unlike Berlin, where a rift between the avant-garde and the government was an expected part of life, in Vienna the approval of the emperor was a crucial endorsement.
Tina Blau won this endorsement, thus she was envied by her peers and former teacher Shaeffer (who again and again is seen to be working to denigrate his female students and bury their work away from public gaze). He even describes her in a rather nasty review as the student of Schindler, when he knew better as her actual teacher that the artists had simply shared studio space. She was innovative and brought impressionism to Vienna, had pictures rejected by the Kunstlerhaus as being too progressive, drew amazing landscapes, was very successful in Paris — yet never seen as part of movement. Johnson argues part of that was the mythologies created by the secession artists themselves around father-son relationships, and brotherhood. They couldn’t bear the idea of a mother-son relationship in art, so Blau could not be seen as an early forerunner of their movement or part of Modernism itself.
Yet Spring in the Prater — and all of her paintings — are wondrous. This was bought by the emperor.
Above all I love that her paintings show women in public space and unlike the men, she shows they could inhabit public space without being whores. A number of the artists who are women do that. I wonder if that was infuriating.
She was retiring, never wanted her work associated with gender, but did attempt in her 50s to correct misperceptions of her life and work. She taught at the Art School for Women and Girls, and one of her students was Rosa Mayreder, one of the most well-known feminists of the time, who published a wonderful review of her work. Tina Blau responded thus, in a way that breaks my heart a little but emphasises why reviewing people’s work is very important indeed even beyond the highlighting of excellence and the repetitions that ensure work is known and remembered:
…no one has written like you have, and I will read your article again when I am sad and depressed about the lack of success that I was supposed to get used to and that I did get used too: and then I would agree with you, that my way of being carries some of the blame. (37)
A street was named after her. When she died in 1916, numerous celebrations of her life were held, and in 1933 there was a retrospective exhibition.
Then in 1938 all her paintings removed from galleries as she was a Jew. The street name changed, her name was erased. And then there were those constructing the histories of art in this period, influential art critic Julius Maeier-Graefe for example:
A woman with genius? The thought gives one the shivers. Unhealable sickness, a kind of elephantiasis. (26)
She had her own signature block as part of secession group of artists — her husband was a member and she worked to all intents and purposes as one also, though without voting rights. She was on their hanging and design committees for the Raumkunst installations, her work always appearing there.
She also participated in art collectives Wiener Kunst im Hause and the Wiener Werkstatte.
She was responsible for an entire issue of their in-house magazine Ver Sacrum showing her amazing woodcuts — though somehow this is an issue not reproduced in glossy collections. She drew on Russian folktales and stories for these, along with broadsheets and a whole array of crafts. This is one of her more famous paintings, and it is arresting, below is the painting as it was integrated into the 17th secession exhibition:
For all of these women, for a time, Johnson argues Vienna was cosmopolitan and diverse and actually did offer possibilities for women working as public artists. Pictures such as this one were celebrated.
And ‘public art’? These wonderful friezes:
She moved with her husband to Hamburg, and during difficult times of inflation and war, Luksch-Makowsky trapped rabbits, gardened, harvested, made everything at home.
She too excluded from histories — Johnson points out not by the Klimt group itself, but by contemporary historians.
…when she was rediscovered in the 1980s, she was described as a “painting housewife”
Johnson writes, yet
…she was a serious artist who presented her work in no fewer than forty-six art exhibitions…
Koller was a member of Klimt’s artist association (Kunstschau group), a founding member of Egon Shiele’s New Secession. She was often to be found at the Cafe Museum with Klimt, Wagner, Moser, Hoffman et al, and noted as one of ‘the greats’ in at least one diary. Her focus was much more on interiority — named by Schorske as
a key component of the aesthetic of Vienna 1900, and links developments in interior design to the psychological discoveries of Freud and innovative interior monologues of Arthur Schnitzler.
Interesting that in the 1980s, the label of domesticity and decoration seen as opposite of modernism — of interiority? They were seen as secluded, cocooned, away from the outside world and its risks. Away from the crowds. This is a difference between art emerging from Vienna and that of other key centres — for the artists of Vienna, it was all about art in life, art as part of life.
Klimt, in his opening speech for Kunstschau 1908, declared the unity of his group and their belief that:
no area of human life was too insignificant or narrow to offer space for artistic striving, that in the words of Morris, even the most unseemly thing, when it is perfectly made, adds to the beauty of this earth, and that progress in culture is founded on permeating life with artistic intention.
where reason prevailed, unlike the crowds of the street. In Bahr’s scenario, the interior was gendered as masculine and calm while the exterior figured as feminine and unruly, dominated by the unknowing masses. This is the opposite of the Baudelairean vision of public and private, masculine and feminine domains… (134)
Again to return to the interesting division between this kind of view and its inclusion of craft and decorative detail and that of more traditionally understood ‘Modernism’ (I know I need to dig more here into how other people understand this) as opposed to this, where instead:
the decorative, the add-on, the nonessential, and the detail’ as ‘the foil for Modernism, which was seen as adventurous, daring, out in the world, and an art that is avant-garde, autonomous, essential, and self-critical’
For Koller there was no such binary really. And look at these:
The female nude was a genre that allowed the avant-garde to distinguish themselves from conservative artists in the nineteeth century. It became a vehicle for making claims to the new, which Modernist artists often did…
I love this painting, how different this slightly awkward pose, this returned gaze between model and artist — not about sex but just, ‘is this the pose you want?’ Maybe a little, ‘are you done yet?’
How better to challenge the genre? I love this one too:
The book looks at how these pictures influence Shiele, Erwin Lang, how influences of women’s art upon men are never acknowledged.
Funke was part of Matisse’s circle in Paris, lived in an apartment building there with Gertrude and Leon Stein. She enjoyed great success in Vienna, but survived the years of inflation and war by becoming a cleaning lady. Fauvist art is not perhaps my favourite, but she was a brilliant artist on the cutting edge of that tradition working there in Vienna, exhibiting there in Vienna, celebrated in Vienna. Then forgotten.
I love this one though, playfully responding to the art of male gazes and women on display.
Ries’s fortune was made when the emperor himself singled out her statue of ‘The Witch’ during an exhibition, and asked to speak to her. Critics quickly changed their opinions of a female sculptor.
The witch is uncanny and truly splendid.
Her Eve is beautiful as well.
The Prince of Lichtenstein allowed her to use a grand suite of rooms next to his picture gallery as her studio. Being Jewish, this studio was later plundered, her history erased, and her statues hacked and defaced.
Better to remember the ugliness of which fascists are capable, but Teresa Ries at her best. Her Lucifer, sculpted years before Rodin’s Thinker:
Like here in her studio with Mark Twain.
There was Olga Wisinger-Florian, an accomplished impressionist painter herself after a career as a pianist was cut short by an injury to her hand. I love this painting:
More women in public space, talking amongst themselves, not being whores. Wisinger-Florian exhibited widely both in Vienna and Europe, and worked tirelessly to promote the exhibition of women’s paintings. With Marianne Eschenberg she formed the ‘8 Women Artists’ in 1901, curating a highly successful exhibition at the Salon Pisko. They would hold annual exhibitions. She was also active in the Association of Women Writers and Artists of Vienna (VSKW) founded in 1885, formed to ‘promote professional interest and eventually to offer a pension plan for women artists in need.’ This parallel the self-help offer of men-only artists unions.
There was the Art School of Women and Girls, where Tina Blau and a number of secessionist artists taught. Its graduates formed the Radierclub Wiener Künstlerinnen, or Print Club of Women Artists in 1903, ‘to promote the arts of printmaking in Austria and “win new friends” for the graphic arts by publishing original hand-pulled prints in affordable portfolios.’
I adore their logo.
There was the Association of Women Artists (VBKÖ), founded in 1908 and recognised and supported by the State as an art association. Interestingly, many of the women, both in the exhibitions held by the VBKÖ and ‘8 Women Artists’ felt ambivalent about them, hoping they would act more as a key to opening up the men-only artist groups to women’s membership rather than remaining as separate and gendered institutions. As Johnson writes of the VBKÖ, ‘The group wanted to prove that being separate was a mistake…If the exhibition were successful, the VBKÖ would “no longer be necessary.”‘ (278)
They faced a great challenge, however, despite the success of some in exhibiting alongside men. Above all the strange layers of misogyny floating around Vienna at the time. One of the most curious that of Otto Weininger, who wrote Sex and Character as a thesis that barely passed, but became a huge publishing success in 1903. He had a strange, partly even possibly progressive argument that everyone had some masculine and feminine essence within them through gendered plasma particles coursing through the bloodstream (crikey), but that genius and intellect alone belonged to the male. So successful women ‘were actually dominated by the “M,” or masculine, substance. Something in between a man and a woman.
There were other ideas about how painting was similar to applying makeup, which attracted women to it and defined their painting technique. There is also the narcissism of themselves on display, the love of gaudy colour and fabric. One reviewer of the 1910 retrospective of women’s art described how the pictures seduced the ‘unsuspecting male’.
He credited members of the installation committee with “feminine slyness and clever calculation” in their ability to “capture the visitor…Before a critical word has formed on the lips, a conciliatory, friendly, receptive mood has been awakened in the spectator. (318)
Adolf Loos himself in his polemics against the ornamental and decorative wrote:
Whenever I abuse the object of daily use by ornamenting it, I shorten its life span . . . subject to fashion, it dies sooner. Only the whim and ambition of women can be responsible for the murder of this material. (322)
Which makes you hate him. But then, surprisingly, he also comes around with the argument that:
Ornament is something that must be overcome…But we are approaching a new and greater time. No longer by an appeal to sensuality, but rather by economic independence earned through work will the woman bring about her equal status with the man. The woman’s value or lack of value will no longer fall or rise according to the fluctuation of sensuality. Then velvet and silk, flowers and ribbons, feathers and paint will fail to have their effect. They will disappear. (80)
This conversation ended with the Nazis. Johnson writes by 1945,
approximately three generations of women artists had been — for racist or political reasons, rarely aesthetic ones — erased, driven into exile, deported to concentration camps, their works removed from museum walls and public settings. (337)
This was the destruction of both women’s artwork, and women themselves, as well as the history of women as public artists. Only in 1988 did Austria recognise it was not just a victim of the Nazis, but participated in their cleansings. Given that many of the same collaborating artists, museum personnel and critics continued operating there was little hope of recuperating and recovering women’s art removed from walls and studios, much less that of Jewish women. It seemed that it has been many of their children who have worked hardest to save what could be saved, and to bring their work to the public once again.
The highlighting and constant repetition of certain stories of art in Vienna, the functioning of the memory factory, meant the silencing of others. There is so much here both in terms of extraordinary art, but also around memory and forgetting, historiography, identity… wonderful.
[Johnson, Julie M. (2012) The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900. West Lafayette, IN: Perdue University Press.]
Artists and Empire, the Tate’s description of the point of it:
At its height the British Empire was the largest empire in history and the most influential global power. originating with a few overseas possessions and trading posts, it grew to encompass dominions, colonies and protectorates rules or administered by the United Kingdom. In 1922 the Empire covered almost a quarter of the world’s total land area; by the end of the century it had diminished to just a few overseas territories. During this contraction, ‘Empire; became a highly provocative term.Its history of war, conquest and appropriation is difficult, even painful, to address but its legacy is everywhere: not just in public monuments, but in social structures, culture and in the fault lines of contemporary global politics.
This is what the booklet says. No slavery. Empire become provocative only as it contracts? It seems unlikely that a project of Empire was not provocative at all times, especially amongst those being Empired. The blurb on the website is slightly different:
In 21st century Britain, ‘empire’ is highly provocative. Its histories of war, conquest and slavery are difficult and painful to address but its legacy is everywhere and affects us all. Artist and Empire brings together extraordinary and unexpected works to explore how artists from Britain and around the world have responded to the dramas, tragedies and experiences of the Empire.
A bit better, that. Hard for Britain to do, but something that must be done. It was a thought provoking collection. It mostly filled me with rage, sat with nausea in my stomach. I confess, though, that is knowledge and rage I myself brought in through the door. I am not sure that there was too much open critique offered of Empire here in the Tate Britain, founded by Sir Henry Tate with all of his money from sugar grown in the colonies by slaves. From comments by the elderly middle class people seeing the exhibit with me, I got little sense there was too much critique going on in their minds either. Even though they sat staring at art deriving from a history of murder, occupation, exploitation, enslavement, genocide, extinction. Fairly neutrally curated given the subject.
So there were curiously neutral descriptions of paintings like this one:
‘Portrait of Poedua 1777-85’ by John Webber. The caption on the wall went on to say that she was painted by Webber while being held captive by Captain Cook, a hostage to force her father to round up some runaway sailors.
So this guy took a women being held against her will, stripped her, wrapped her in a rather British sheet and painted her.
But I am ahead of myself. I found the first two rooms most interesting, though the last room was my favourite. But we shall start with 1. Mapping and Marking. Because I love maps. And it behooves me not to forget just how they were used to control not just territories but also how we think about them. This was a stunning example of London at the centre of the world, and its lines of communication (England’s empire in Red):
They also had Crane’s map of Empire — from before the real ‘scramble’ for Africa, so it’s not quite as pink as the later map above.
I also learned that when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (Portugal) in 1661, he got with her Bombay and Tangiers. They were painted and etched meticulously for him, fortifications and all.
A picture of bucanneers, explorers, men I once knew as heroes Cavendish, Drake and Hawkins (that guy who chose to have a slave as part of his new coat of arms given his promotion by Elizabeth I). These were not display.
2. Trophies of Empire — the art, artefacts, and natural history. I love natural history. Again, force myself to remember what so much of these beautiful paintings of flora and fauna mean — the control and exploitation of nature, the constant ‘discovery’ of what native peoples knew already even as their knowledge was being erased. This history was present here to some extent.
In light of this, this portrait of Banks becomes chilling — such a key figure in botany, part of Cook’s voyage, President of the Royal Society, here wrapped in a cloak from his travels to the South Pacific, more exotic weapons collected beside him…these too were to be found here on display.
The collection of wild animals, the founding of zoos. The beginnings of collections such as that at the Grant Museum of Zoology.
3. Imperial Heroics. This is a rather disgusting room, but what is fascinating is just how many last stands there are. Not of those peoples fighting for their homes and sovereignty, but of British soldiers being brave. Being portrayed as the victims. Being shown as the face of determined masculine civilization standing against the savage. I think this needed a bit more reframing, as these pictures tend to reinforce the dominant narrative of Empire. I liked the mocking installation of such narratives in the centre of the room, but it wasn’t really calculated to awaken the consciences of the people sharing the room with me I thought.
There was some interesting looks here at ‘historical’ paintings though, a lot of them focusing on Mysore, the war of conquest there repainted in a very different way, particularly this scene of a ‘kindly’ taking of hostages.
Robert Home has even painted himself into the canvas as an eyewitness. This was most interesting, this claim of authenticity and this stamp of one version of events over something that was clearly of a very different nature.
4. Power Dressing? The appropriations and subversions of European dress were interesting, but Europeans decking themselves out in the finery of colonised peoples? We still see that every day.
5. Face to Face — portraits, and some chilling ones. Both European looks at the ‘other’ but some very welcome looks back at Europeans. I particularly loved this view of Queen Victoria.
I particularly hated the portraits made for Queen Victoria’s collection so she could better know her Indian subjects, though they were beautifully done. One of them forms the exhibition’s marketing materials. Men brought over for an exhibition of traditional crafts, though they were in fact trained in those crafts while in a Colonial prison.
6. Out of Empire and Legacies of Empire
Art of the diaspora, critical art, quite wonderful art. ‘Trophies of Empire’ by Guyanese Donald Locke, his compatriot Aubrey Williams’ powerful work. Sonia Boyce, Avinash Chandra, Ronald Moody, Ben Enwonwu and others. A very good way to end the thing I think, it left me liking it more than I expected, expelled some of the anger building up as I wandered through the rooms.
One of my favourite things — the title of Sonia Boyce’s ‘Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great’ (1986).
I found the exhibition overall immensely thought provoking and moving — yet the presence of many of these objects in a British museum at all is a problematic thing, particularly for the objects of art and worship that were stolen, like the beautiful heads from Benin. A lot of this shit needs to be given back. Their very presence shows there is a lot more needing doing than just facing the past, so while this call for restitution had some voice here it was oddly discordant with the rest. Walking through, I did find these objects a powerful way to understand better the nature and impact of empire, even knowing their presence here in London is a troubling legacy of empire itself.
Particularly emotive given my own recent interests were the donations of several statues of beautiful African art by Sierra Leonan Krios — descendants of former slaves and Black men who fought for the British in the American Revolution, all sent by English abolitionists to colonise a piece of Africa. Their history was missing from this, I brought it with me. On one of the pieces donated, it noted the intent of the donation was probably as an attempt to show the richness of African culture to a European audience. An effort to find empathy, respect, understanding.
I found that donation encapsulates many of the complexities of empire, of museums, of just such collections as this. It did indeed face Britain’s Imperial Past, was even perhaps more critical than I might have expected given the probable pressures to refrain from critique. But it remained something of a mixed message, and in too many ways Britain still isn’t truly facing its Imperial Past.
If you sit very still and stare at downtown L.A. from the window of the Bonaventure Hotel’s cocktail lounge, this is what you will see:
The slowly revolving floor shifts the gorgeous view before your eyes. But apart from saving up for the drinks, how do you get here?
It’s public of course, but that does not make it easy to find. There are three entrances to the Bonventure, but none of them are your traditional grand salon entrance. And two of them are from those secret sky bridges of LA, the one we took joins the hotel to Hope Street past the YMCA. You enter what feels like a back door onto the fifth floor of a dark and massive tower with spiraling stairs and pillars, and street signs to direct you to where you want to go:
Not all elevators go to the top you see, neither do the escalators. In fact, I don’t think there were any escalators on this floor. You have to find the red elevator, the red one! (The vertiginous ride in the glass elevator up the outside of the building for 35 floors and all of Central LA laid out beneath you? Highly recommended.) Any other colour and you will be lost in this vast echoing space.
It has its own stores, its own running water far far down below, it even has its own track and exercise machines where you can sweat in full view.
Built by John Portman and opened in 1976, it is an iconic building. And wandering through it, I couldn’t help but think of Frederic Jameson’s comments in an essay called Postmodernism and Consumer Society. He writes that the Bonventure has no main entry because it does not wish to be part of the city, it wishes to replace it. That it puts you into such a vast space so full of stuff you can no longer get a measure of just how big it is, you lose just how much emptiness is enclosed by these enormous walls of glass. The building toys with your perspective.
He writes that this is a space that takes vengeance on those walking through it, one that forces you to lose your bearings. It transcends us as human beings, and makes it impossible for us to find ourselves within such a context.
Me? I thought it an incredible building, but it did make me feel very small, very lost, very much in desire of a nice drink. So I set off in search of the red elevator, and thought about architecture and its impacts on how we live and see ourselves in the world. And this one almost cathedral-like in how it humbles you, God replaced by wealth, retail, and facilities for showing off while working out…
Odilon Redon…I saw him for the first time (that I remember) today at the Chicago Institute of Art, and found him extraordinary. Born in France in 1840, he created these beautiful works in black and white, charcoal and lithograph, strange combinations of human and plant, animal, and insect. This is the one I found
This was called Chimera…and more, but I didn’t write it down and the light was terrible, the images blurry. Redon kept to himself, remaining almost unrecognized until the end of his life although he heavily influenced surrealism. He only became generally known after being mentioned in a cult novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature. Which sounded intriguing, but I believe I have read enough novels of decadence for the moment, it might have inspired Oscar Wilde but was influenced by Schopenhauer and he certainly isn’t one of my favourite philosophers. So. Another image from google because I love these…
Tree man. Additional information is slim, he’s one of those artists to learn more of…as is Honore Daumier. There are a couple of brilliant little satirical sketches and this truly amazing collection of miniature sculptures
They capture the spirit of the individual with a delightful intensity and quickness, it must have been even more impressive in his own day knowing the politicians and public figures so captured. My favourite:
As far as big names go, there are plenty of my favourites here, and a whole room of Toulouse-Lautrec! But today I most enjoyed the hidden, the weird, and the wonderful…no flash allowed so my apologies for quality
Who knew Delacroix had ever drawn anything like this? It’s called Marguerite’s Ghost
They had one print by Durer, who fills religious paintings with the most fantastic creatures
And this sculpture by Jean-Joseph Carrie
Frog Man. I have never seen anything like it. And this shield from an assorted saint facing the devil
But doesn’t everyone after going to see one? Especially Cirque Berzerk, it is dark, twisted, extraordinary. It turns you on like a flame. You are in hell, amongst the dead, and as I have often imagined, the dead are fascinating and deeply sexy. They rebel against the world as it is, they embrace difference, and they wear great clothes.
And I have so many ideas. And an even greater appreciation for the benefits of flexibility, so I have taken up the quest to achieve a back walk-over once more. Especially now my arm has alllmost completely healed from the bike accident.
But I know I will never approach the effortless mastery and beauty of what I saw tonight. I loved most the two men, the courtship, the push and pull, the yes I want you no I don’t as they danced and then flew…impossible grace and power evenly matched, and long aching lines of desire spun out in geometric shapes of pure muscled strength and the sensuous curves of yielding. Limbs twining together high in the air, breaking free, and the empty space between them as beautiful as their bodies linked together in defiance of gravity.
And trampolines! They had trampolines! Two of them with a large wall in between, and four brothers flipping, falling, somersaulting in bewildering and marvelously choreographed fashion from trampoline to wall to trampoline to right over the wall to trampoline. I hardly knew which to watch and my stomach clenched in the spectacular confusion of it all, sure that such glorious madness could not continue indefinitely…
And then the skeletons, in goth dress, white porcelain masks like dolls. Their bodies moved with the jerking movements of marionettes, bones animated and dancing, skulls bobbing with their steps, moving from graceful skill to skillful awkwardness, all of it requiring an incredible control over every part of the body that was breathtaking.
There were cross-dressing caberet dancers who put on a hell of a show, and all of the dancers were phenomenal. Normally I hate clowns, but the fire breathing drunk in the dirty suit and cross face and conical hat, I loved him. He went from iconic figure of shabby Victorian fantasy on stilts, to clunky shoes and an intoxicated stumble, and pulled a hat out of a rabbit. There was a woman who did the most extraordinary things while in handstand position on…stilts as well I suppose, I have no idea what to call them! The trapeze artist was gorgeous, and the woman who wrapped and unwrapped herself in two pieces of red silk high above the ground, also gorgeous. A man who balanced on barrels and boards and towers of multiple moving parts…a couple who went through the kama sutra in ways only impossibly gifted gymnasts can, and the three in hoops high in the air at the very end when the woman in red comes into her own. And there was a midget in drag with an unforgettable face and a bad temper, and whoever put the music together for this approaches genius. And those playing the music as well. And if I am forgetting anything it is only because it is late. But my eyes were wide, my lips parted, and my breath caught for the duration, there was nothing that wasn’t spectacular and I haven’t enjoyed a performance so much in ages.
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful river delta.
And now it is LA. The river flooded its (natural) banks and mocked the mighty city for the last time in 1938. The flood killed good citizens (must have been white and wealthy given the kerfuffle that followed) and led to the recall of a corrupt mayor (I have to look into that story a bit more, sounds like a good one…). Many would say that building a massive city in the middle of a flood plain is just not a good idea. But the army corps of engineers decided to take the river on, and I do believe they won.
It is now a long line of cement wells, a giant drainage ditch running from the San Fernando Valley to San Pedro. And it is still beautiful, but a different sort of beauty. There are remnants of natural beauty of course, birds still abound here, there are islands of trees and long grasses. But it is all full of garbage, and the beauty rather heartbreaking in its proximity to ugliness.
Still, it’s a nice place to sit, relax, think about what once was, with all the comfort of home.
And the graffiti, the graffiti is incredible. It’s enough to make you love concrete and wide open fucked up spaces…And I do love this place
On Sunday we headed west from Frogtown, down towards the zoo and Burbank. Above are the old pylons that carried the red cars, another memory of LA’s catastrophic environmental policies…we scrapped them all in return for freeways. Who needs good public transportation anyway? Or a river. Still, the youth have reclaimed them and turned them into something very cool and particularly their own. And while I don’t care much for clowns, these two were pretty spectacular.
And I suppose biking down a path that runs directly beside a very busy freeway isn’t the best possible thing for your lungs, but the views are pretty sweet…
We biked, and hauled our bikes under the bridges when we had too, some of the most interesting stuff is down there anyway, I love this one
And I also love the fact that someone has a sense of humor
The “heroin addicts can’t spell” definitely made me laugh, as did “what if my parents saw me?” just to the left of it. And I love stencils, especially ones that make you pause for a minute and think…I love this one:
The bridges are a riot of color underneath, a mix of art and gang graffiti and tags and stupid shit, all on top of each other. Everything is covered. Here’s a taste of it, along with a glimpse of our hot rides…
But it’s also the dark side of LA, the place where people live who have nowhere else to go. Sets me raging of course, that we live in one of the wealthiest cities in the world and yet cannot take care of our people. Ah capitalism… In fact, for all of our bridges, we don’t have enough of them to serve as shelters for the 70,000+ homeless in LA County. Though they are the shelter that exists, especially when it rains. The number of available beds does not even cover a fraction of the need. People live on the islands in the middle in blanket forts like the ones I made when I was a kid, and here…and what they leave behind them is always tragic, makes this sort of adventure smell much worse than it should, and is sometimes humorous. Often all of them at the same time.
A belt, a pair of boxers, and…er…it really pays not to look too closely at these things.
Love and hate, I love and hate this place as always. I would recommend you take a look, but definitely not alone.
And I know great art when I see it (though I also know that’s a bit time-worn as phrases go). But she truly is great. Generally speaking I don’t go much for the art of the so desperately personal, but her work is incredibly moving and provocative and it hits you in your stomach where you carry your most visceral of emotions…for decades it has circled and circled around themes of the body, love, family, sex, a traumatic childhood of male patronage and infidelity…it repeats shapes in different forms that skate a continuous line between masculine and feminine, beauty and horror, being and becoming…it comprises an astonishing number of mediums that are all exquisitely carried out: sculpture in wood and plaster and latex and stone, collages with fabric and bits and pieces of everything including orange peels, sewn figures with gaping holes, installations, paintings and drawings, the written word.
They are a strange mix of the tender and the repulsive, sometimes beautiful, always provoking, and so many with a strange edge of terror and violence that trickles down your spine. We both love spirals, and she says of them that they are attempts to control chaos and also freedom, and asks whether you find yourself in the vortex or on the periphery? She says she hates men obsessing over their penis…that it is not the appendage she dislikes, but what it is attached to. I love wit, and her art has both wit and raw emotion in an uneasy balance that gives it power.
No pictures can do the pieces justice at all, for her more than most people I think. But my favourites were the personages and the installations, particularly the red rooms. The personages look like this (This picture from the New York Times)
There were others that were blocks stacked one upon the other…I found them eerie and beautiful and they made me think.
The red rooms, on the other, scared the hell out of me. Here is what the parent’s room looks like, hard to know where the terror comes from I know, even when you’re standing in front of it. Perhaps that is why I like it so much
They are surrounded by a sort of a spiral made by doors, I won’t even begin on the symbolism of that! You can only peek into it, and the parent’s room you can really only see through the mirror, and it is red…and it should be peaceful with a couple of toys on the chest at the foot of the bed, but there is a looming shadow over the pillows and I don’t know, but it was terrifying. The way The Shining was terrifying. The children’s room was overtly terrifying with entwined sculptures of limbs cut off at the elbow, you stare at it through a window in one of the doors, children have no privacy.
I liked the spider as well…nothing represents horror better than a giant spider with long spindly legs ending in rather dangerous looking points, and yet they are oddly protective, maternal…
Go see it if you’re in LA.
There has been a police helicopter circling near my house for two hours now. I hate them. If I were an artist I’d be obsessed with helicopters…such brilliant technology that we use primarily to hunt and to kill.
Creation awes me, the act of it. And what we have the capacity to create. And both the time span and scope of humankind’s run on earth. I love how things are so much the same and yet so very different…we all love, but the ideal of love is different. We all fear, but the form of our fears is different. We all speak, but language is so different, and I wonder how much we are shaped by these things, how much of them we shape, how the shaping happens.
I went to the British Museum the last day in London, I’ve been there before but every time I go I see new things that I fall in love with, that remain in my memory. Though I know they are stolen. And this visit I found several panels like this, that I know I have seen before but never loved
Figures drawn from stone, once alive, and now disappearing. And they linger as they go, they would have been already gone if they had not been stolen. And to me their true beauty lies in this return, this state halfway between sculpture and stone…they remind me of Michelangelo’s slaves escaping from the marble, unfinished. But the slaves are an emergence and these represent a death and I find both hauntingly beautiful. And they fascinate me with the confusion between rock and flesh.
The British Museum is overwhelming of course, after a short time the mind stops taking in things really, overburdened with beauty in glass cases. There was also a stunning display of American prints and etchings from Hopper to Pollock…I love black and white drawings and etchings as well and their collection is fantastic. Go see it if you can.
The other things that stood out this trip? Hawks. I love them in their beauty and purity and unconscious cruelty, they are ultimate predators and represent freedom in a way that few other animals can…and I found this
from ancient Egypt, and this:
from ancient assyria, and this
er…from China perhaps? China I think, or possibly Tibet. And each haunting in its own way, showing something deep rooted to be found across such space and time, something profound. I’ve been trying to write it but my words erase its profundity so I shall just leave it for the now.
Still, I have never been to the British museum when the sun was shining, and that itself was beautiful, the architecture is cold and neo-classical, but the light made it beautiful.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.