Visual arts

Why I like art...(well, a lot of it)

The Fall of Icarus by Bill Hammond
I like the way art in general encourages us to explore the possibilities of how we might see the same thing in many ways, depending on the fall of light, the attention we give it or the things that have influenced us.

Repeating life in art becomes a means of holding onto the image. It enables us to access frozen moments that we have forgotten as they pass into memory, fragments we store, misremember and recall when we’re least expecting them.

Abstractionism enables artists and their audiences to get away from linear perspective and a consistent viewpoint and see multiple views of a single object. The artist is doing what the viewer does in his or her mind's eye. They’re constructing the unknown, and the imagined, from the known.

Fish by Constantin by Brancusi
With sculpture, I often get the sense that all the smoothing and rounding and hollowing of great, abstract sculptural forms, even their facelessness, has a point. There is a sense of great gravity and rest. The sculptures slow time down to a full stop, and us with it. Critically, the artist needs to let the material do the talking and respect its nature. 

Whilst in painting, an exaggerated use of colour or form often conveys an emotional response to a subject rather than a faithful representation of it that in some way is so much more impactful. 

It's  a tough one to choose just ten artworks that mean something to me. I'll give it a go though. These are not my top ten 'favourites' (which seems too whimsical an exercise), or what I consider to be the top ten 'seminal' or 'greatest' works in the world, but rather those that mean a lot to me and I wouldn't want to live without.

                                                                   Top ten:
The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch
- Fish by Constantin Brancusi

- Guernica by Pablo Picasso

- The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch

- The Fall of Icarus by Bill Hammond

- Tangata whenua by Baye Riddell

- Sfera con Sfera ("Sphere Within Sphere") by Arnaldo Pomodoro

- The Cloud Gate sculpture (also known as "The Bean" by Anish Kapoor

- Primavera by Sandro Botticelli 

- A painting I can't remember the name of by Ben Nicholson ;-)

- Composition VI by Wassily Kandinsky

Why I love photography...

I love Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the "decisive moment" – of capturing the “whole essence of some situation” that is “unrolling” before your eyes with a single photograph. It’s the neatness of it – the concision of saying so much with just one image. And the very greatest photos will always reveal more and more to you as you live with them over time.

Cartier-Bresson talks of how he, “prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life - to preserve life in the act of living."

For him a, "slice of ordinary life is picked almost at random, and acquires a new meaning by its recontextualization through the strategy of dépaysement".

"Dépaysement" means to "decountrify oneself" and is defined as the experience of re-seeing. "One leaves one's own culture to face something unfamiliar, and upon returning home it has become strange – and can be seen with fresh eyes."

This chimes with theory of many of the surrealists at the time. However, for Cartier-Bresson this find expression in the capacity of the photographer to uncover facets of everyday life  that go unnoticed until the photographer reveals them. He hunted in the street for juxtapositions whose ironic contrasts would surprise people and make them see the world with new eyes.

This approach has been taken forward by many famous photographers, some of whom talk eloquently, movingly, about what they do. Steve McCurry, most famous for his shot of the Afghan refugee on the cover of National Geographic, commented:

"Most of my images are grounded in people. I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face. I try to convey what it is like to be that person, a person caught in a broader landscape that you could call the human condition.” 

It’s another tough one to choose my top ten, but I’ll give it a go...I won’t even attempt to stack rank them though!

Ansel Adams
Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Edward Weston
Dorothea Lange
Henri Cartier-Bresson
Bill Brandt
Galen Rowell
Art Wolf
Ami Vitale
Yousuf Karsh

Why I like Bill Hammond...

Hello's post was supposed to be about my top ten classical composers and works. I'm very close to finalising my list, but not quite there, so I'll delve a little deeper into one of my favourite artists from an earlier post.

Bill Hammond took as his motif Buller’s birds for a substantial period of his career. The Victorian ornithologist Walter Buller documented New Zealand’s birdlife in a beautifully illustrated book. He viewed native birds as being on the verge of extinction and saw no irony in encouraging the large scale destruction of the birds on which his own success was based. Like many Victorians of his time, he continued to collect specimens for his own research.

Hammond looks at the idea that man sought to civilize a wilderness, when in fact he was destroying it. So, in some paintings you see a string quartet playing against a vast backdrop of turmoil.

Birds in all cultures across time feature in creation myths, sagas, parables, liturgies and fairy tales. They have come to represent among many things, the realm of the spirit world. They are harbingers of both fortune and evil, and in dream mythology they represent the personality of the dreamer.

Hammond's hybrid bird, horse, human and serpent figures change and morph before our eyes. Egyptian-looking, always in profile, theoretically capable of flight but never flying, they are meticulously and disturbingly recorded. They stand in a denuded, but beautiful, landscape.

His version of Horus, Lord of the skies in Assyrian/Egyptian legend, is in fact the extinct giant New Zealand eagle. Narrative stone bas-reliefs from Nimrud, in particular Protective Spirit in Sacred Tree 875-860 BC, depicting a winged eagle-headed magical figure, inform these paintings along with burial sites, rock drawings, moa in pre-historic New Zealand (prey for the giant eagle), and the shape of the landscape in and around Banks Peninsula.

Hammond’s paintings show a collapse of foreground and background that provides a sense of infinite space in the art of traditional Chinese painting and Ukiyo-e. Often reminiscent of Italian Renaissance painting and tapestries, Hammond’s compositions combine a graphic ability with delicate decorative qualities. Daubed backgrounds overrun with trails of dribbling paint, patinas of embellishment, reminiscent of the intricate textiles of the Middle East and Asia.

I love the vast sweep of events unfolding in his paintings and the sense of foreboding. There's many stories waiting to be told of mythic proportions about these works and for that reason you will never tire of them. That has to be a defining characteristic of the very greatest works of art.

Why I like Brancusi...

Today would have beenConstantin Brancusi’s 135thbirthday (19th February 2011).

Brancusi (1876-1957) was one of the founding figures of modern sculpture and one of the most original artists of the twentieth-century and one of my favourite artists. His groundbreaking carvings introduced abstraction and primitivism into sculpture for the first time, and were as important as Picasso’s paintings to the development of modern art.

Brancusi’s serenely simplified sculptures are widely acknowledged as icons of modernism. His choice of materials including marble and limestone, bronze and wood, and his individual expression through carving, established him as a leading avant-garde artist. He was a close friend of both Amedeo Modigliani and Marcel Duchamp, and his work has inspired sculptors from Barbara Hepworth to Carl Andre and Donald Judd.
Brancusi was born in Romania in 1876. 
His parents were poor peasants who earned a meager living through back-breaking labor, and from the age of seven he herded the family's flock of sheep. He showed talent for carving objects out of wood and often ran away from home to escape the bullying of his father and older brothers. At the age of nine, Brancusi left small village and went to work in bigger and larger town.
At 18 his grocery store employer was so impressed by Brancusi's talent for carving, he financed his education in Craiova. Brancusi went on to study in Bucharest. His masterfully rendered écorché (statue of a man with skin removed to reveal the muscles underneath) was exhibited at the Romanian Athenaeum in 1903. Though just an anatomical study, it foreshadowed the sculptor's later efforts to reveal essence rather than merely copy outward appearance.

In 1904 Brancusi moved to Paris (legend has it, on foot). He washed dishes, enrolled at art school, and got himself a job - briefly - as studio assistant to Auguste Rodin. Shortly after that Brancusi made a stone carving he called The Kiss.

Of course, there was a precedent. A decade before, Rodin had made a stone sculpture, now very well known and loved, called
 The Kiss. Its pair of over-lifesized figures grapple mightily on a Promethean rock, bodies surging with Michelangelo muscle. And what is Brancusi's reply? An object about a foot high, in which two little cuboid figures are pressed together in a childlike hug, face flat to face, arms wrapped round each other's backs.

It is a critique of Rodin, certainly. It eliminates all trace of Rodin's muscliness. It stands opposed to Rodin's production methods. Rodin had done the modelling of his sculpture in plaster, then had assistants copy it in marble. Brancusi's sculpture is ostentatiously a piece of true carving. The square block of stone it was made from is still visible, hardly transformed at all, in the shapes of its compacted huggers.
More than a critique, Brancusi's simple, sweet  lovers are a joking riposte to Rodin's inflated and theatrical clinch. Beside the Rodin, the Brancusi looks absurd and crude. And beside the Brancusi, the Rodin looks absurd,  grandiose and explicit. Which is sublime, and which ridiculous, is a matter of taste. The two embody quite irreconcilable ideas of sculptural seriousness.
And Brancusi's is a very serious, beautiful, transfixing and uplifting art - and at the same time it is a comic art. It works with all the tricks of comedy: bathos, caricature, the pun, the anticlimax.
Bathos - the comic comedown - is a favourite Brancusi effect. He insisted, crossly, that his work was never abstract. "They are imbeciles who call my work abstract." The subject is vital - a human head, a torso, a bird, a fish, a turtle. But there is always a gap between Brancusi's subjects and the objects that depict them.
These objects are so emphatically objects: pieces of raw stone, wood and metal, shaped into basic geometrical solids, cubes, ovoids, hemispheres, cylinders and half-cylinders. Brancusi's sculpture holds a tension between the handmade and the unhandmade. His figures involve a sense of distance, a jump, a jolt, between the animate organic subject, human or animal, and the inanimate geometric or mechanical entity to which it is reduced. 
Brancusi's art is a kind of impressionism: in the mimic, not the Monet, sense of the word. It knows its creatures from the inside. It empathises. The rising yearning appetite of Young Bird - you feel it straining greedily out of the nest - is captured perfectly in a shape that might be mistaken for a fingertip and fingernail.
The barely awakened consciousness of The Newborn is created from a minimally transformed white marble egg. What he represents is not the look of things, as much as a bodily sensation, a state of mind, a gesture, a movement, a sound. 
The Cock
 is nothing much like a cock to look at. Its zigzag edge rising to a pointed tip suggests, but can't really be read as, the cock's comb. What it summons up is the cocky stance of a cock, and the jagged piercing cry of a cockcrow. Which way is it pointing? The sharp point at its apex; do we take that as the creature's raised head, or the tip of its stuck-up tail feathers? Or both? 

Bird in Space
 is the supreme example of an ambiguous object. What does this swelling vertical boomerang evoke? The flying wing of a bird? The upright stance of a bird? The trajectory of a bird's flight? Soaring, or touching down? Windswept motion? All of these things at once. And it's a piece like Bird in Space, so breathtaking, so piercing in its sudden shimmering presence. Bird in Space. The whole point of this sculpture is that it almost isn't. It teeters on the brink of being just a shaft of upright stone. It soars.
Brancusi's art offers an answer to Bergson's theory. Bergson saw matter as "dulling the outward life of the soul, petrifying its movements, and thwarting its gracefulness". But in Brancusi the inanimate achieves a transcending gracefulness. His works propose that highly purified material forms are nearer to pure spirit than a living body is. But to Brancusi's credit, that is not the whole of the story. He doesn't just seek to transcend.
The sculptor's great monument is his Endless Column, in Tirgu Jiu, Romania. Nearly 100 feet high, it rises like a vertical string of beads, a tower of identical lozenges, of alternating hips and waists, in a shallow zigzag, in and out, upwards, indefinitely. It just goes up and up - and at some height it must simply end. As it does after 15 whole lozenges, and at a hip, not a waist, opening out, not closing...
You can take this end as a mere material limit to a form that continues spiritually, invisibly, all the way to heaven. But stick to the visible facts, and it's an abrupt and arbitrary halt. The whole point of Endless Column is that it's an anticlimax. Comedy has the last word. We rise. And we just stop.
Happy 135th Birthday, Constantin Brancusi!