Posts Tagged ‘war’

The show is titled “A Fantastic Journey.” That’s inviting! The invitation goes on to inform us that the work “explores the relationships between issues of gender, race, war, globalization, colonialism and the black female body.” These are important topics but when I see a claim that someone is exploring them all at the same time, I get suspicious because it’s just too big a claim. If an artist promises to explore any two of those topics– gender & race, gender & war, race & globalization, war & colonialism, war & black female body—I will rush to see the work in the hope of gaining new insight. Let’s go over that list again and let’s slow down to imagine the implications:
gender & race
gender & war
race & globalization
war & colonialism
war & black female body
Just focusing on one of these for a minute will exhaust you, while you’re sitting at your desk.
The claim that an exhibit encompasses all of these is preposterous. Let’s not get bowled over by buzz words.
When we see art, we must try to keep our heads and to respond honestly to what we experience. When I saw the work by Wangechi Mutu at the Block Museum last week I was not reminded of any of these grave news items. The images, composed of collages mounted on Mylar, are all huge, six to eight feet high. They looked slimy. I was reminded of decay, microbes, digestion, wormy things, swarms of insects, childish fascination with excretion and general intestinal events. All this, with an overcast of trashy, wit-less pornography.

Why does this kind of thing make it to a highly respected gallery? Perhaps it’s seen as part of the aesthetic of decay that’s in vogue in what is perceived to be a hopeless, apocalyptic time. By all means, let’s look at the complexity of microbes, the beauty of worms and intestinal flora and fauna and let’s make art honoring them. But then let’s say so. Let’s not pretend we’re “exploring” things like the relationship between gender and race and all the rest.
Compare these images to images of urban decay.

Urban-DecayConsider some photographs of urban decay and observe your reaction, without pretense or deference to fashionable buzz words.
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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A friend sent me this postcard from Boston this summer:  Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), “Rape of the Sabine Women,”   1963.

It’s as unmistakably Picasso as “Guernica,” 1937.  Both paintings are from an artist who was a life-long renouncer of the insanities created by politics, war being pre-eminent among them.  He was an anarchist.

He had mastered the techniques of the Renaissance by the time he was fourteen and then set out to produce work that was distinctly anti-Renaissance.  As if to say, “sorry, folks, we took a wrong turn there; this stuff from the 15-16-17 hundreds is really enticing, but it’s all based on enslavement and torture of one group or another.”  He loved African art because, as he said, “it’s against everything.”  By “everything,” I think, he meant western civilization.

PicassoGuernicaHe painted “Guernica” as an outrage against the bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.  He used his skill at distortion to get at the ineffable suffering and horror of that day.  The viewer stands before this work, mute, despairing.

While living in Paris as a young man, Picasso frequently visited the Louvre, where he certainly saw “The Rape of the Sabine Women” by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).  At age 82 and living in his villa in the south of France, Picasso takes up this theme. As in “Guernica” we see the assault and butchery of innocents. There are four figures: a woman crushed on the ground, a child screaming for help, a soldier on horseback wielding a spear and a soldier on foot with a sword. 

Again, the distortion of the figures is extreme.  This time, it seems, Picasso isn’t asking us to feel empathy and outrage.  Instead, it seems to me, this image is comical.  The comical effect comes from the facile lines.  Compare, for example, the slashed, broken hands in “Guernica” to the hands in “Sabine Women,” where we get loopy-doopy toes and gooey-oozy fingers. Here the lines are fast, facile and glib.  “Guernica” takes a long time to look at, even in reproduction.  Here, in his “Sabine Women,” the eye loops through the composition very quickly. These easy, fast lines do not convey suffering and do not evoke empathy.  Maybe Picasso at 82 is beyond outrage.  This painting seems to be a satire.  He has given up on us and can only show us how comical and testosterone-driven our world is.

PoussinRapeSabineLouvreAnd is the Poussin painting not comical?  In its day, war was glorious. Really?  Who thought war was glorious?  Must have been the kings.  They started those wars and thought they themselves were radiating glory.  But what about the artists, what did they think?  Oh, well, the artists worked for the kings and that whole crowd that benefited from wars.  Is this not a comical situation?  Well, we only broke the spell of the “glorious” in the 20th century.  One way, probably the best way, to break a spell is to make fun of it.  Draw some loopy-doopy lines to make the point that what used to be “glorious”  is really  hopelessly, pathetically laughable. 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.




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