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Sketchbook #2

IMG_9686

I had lunch with Bill Stephens and Bill Santelli at the Stephens studio this week and we thumbed through a book of reproductions of Richard Diebenkorn drawings, from an archive of numbered sketchbooks discovered after his death. This was a self-portrait from the second one in the series.

Paris polarities

Snow Effect, Gustave Caillebotte, Musee d'Orsay

Snow Effect, Gustave Caillebotte, Musee d’Orsay

She’s got a pleasant elevation . . . she’s drifting this way and that
not touching the ground at all, and she’s
up above the yard . . .                               –Talking Heads

 

It was a delight to find a brief, astute essay from Donald Kuspit on the French painter, Gustave Caillebotte, in the current issue of American Art Quarterly. He writes about Caillebotte’s ambiguous position as a painter during the Second Empire in France. Kuspit improvises like a virtuoso on his central topic: Caillebotte’s “revolutionary” use of perspective to juxtapose indoor and outdoor space as a way of visualizing the individual’s plight during the modernization of France under the heavy-handed reign of its latest emperor. He embraced the revolutionary natural light of the Impressionists without losing a structured perspective antithetical to their work in order to create a sense of indoor intimacy even in his outdoor images. The viewer often floats slightly above his scenes, looking down, levitating just off the ground, like Icarus at the start of his escape from the maze, not quite ready to fly.

Kuspit plays with these themes and weaves them in subtle and elusive ways, but his central point is that Caillebotte was creating a vision of Paris in which the intimate and personal—the quiet calibrations of a disappearing way of life—were contending with the required conformities of a modernizing society. When outdoors, people in his paintings seem to inhabit a protective and portable zone of intimacy—it may be only as big as the shadow of an umbrella—caged by a grid of architectural uniformity stretching endlessly into the distance. It’s a polarity out of Anton Chekhov: the emerging and crass middle class, grasping its new money, encircles and infiltrates the withering aristocracy—here the new architecture of Paris serves the role of invasive captor. Yet Caillebotte was both an independently wealthy member of the haute bourgeoisie and a defender of a human scale of life confined by the economic growth. Members of his own circle usually provide the focal point of his paintings—and they are those who are profiting from that growth and change. He identifies with them, while Chekhov stays at one remove from his grasping, climbing arrivistes. Like Manet, this painter found his place on the threshold between past and future, and his work emerged from an allegiance to both.

That is what makes Caillebotte rewarding when subjected to intellectual scrutiny like Kuspit’s, the impression he gives of a divided fidelity, a delicate balance. As Kuspit summarizes it:

The emotional and spatial differences that inform Caillebotte’s paintings climax, as it were, in the much-noted difference between his handling: the “flat,” “dry,” “academic” surface and linear clarity of his indoor paintings has led some art historians to label him a conventional realist, while the “animated,” “wet,” “anti-academic” surface of his outdoor paintings have led other art historians to label him an Impressionist . . . sometimes this doubleness happened in the same picture . . .

Yet I’m uneasy with Kuspit’s thesis when he implies that Caillebotte’s use of perspective is somehow a rebellion against a tide of conformity turning Paris into a modern, alienating city. His perspective is “oddly impulsive and unpredictable . . . insulting and offensive, intruding on the bourgeois Paris of Napoleon III, just as Impressionism intruded upon academic realism, the preferred mode of the official Salon and the bourgeois patrons of art.” Kuspit is so adroit with his theme he can get you to nod through this, though I find little in these paintings that insults or offends my sense of reality. Kuspit is more persuasive when he synthesizes the dichotomies into the sense of hope that actually dwells in these paintings: all that modernization was actually making life better. The world has become oppressive in some ways, under the dictatorial reign of the Second Empire, but overall things were getting better.

There is a disjointed look to Caillebotte’s paintings—the parts don’t neatly relate. His men and women inhabit different emotional spaces, just as his closed and open spaces have a different emotional tone, as do his bright outdoor light and dimmer indoor light. They’re all implicitly estranged, yet unavoidably together in the new Paris, suggesting that they can be made new, or at least made better, as the remaking of Paris made it a better place to live.

Caillebotte’s use of perspective conveys almost a sense of weightlessness and his paintings rarely feel oppressive or critical as much as bemused and almost opportunistically clever in exploiting what’s there all around him: he sees all that impersonal architecture as a natural way to create pictorial structure. His scenes mostly bring me a sense of relief and make me feel the possibility of private freedom in a public world that is anything but liberating. But perhaps that’s Kuspit’s point. The academics would have objected to the instability of this playful use of levitated perspective which frees the viewer. This idiosyncrasy of his as a painter might have been seen as an affront—individual quirks are effectively a departure from the norm.

He writes, “I am suggesting that Caillebotte was neither an academic realist nor an anti-academic Impressionist, but a critical realist. He conflated both modes to convey the tension between conformity and nonconformity—bourgeois art and avant-garde art . . . ”

It’s ironic how, with the passage of time, the revolutionary movement of Impressionism became the ultimate “bourgeois” art, offering some of the most crowd-pleasing and popular images ever painted, anchoring lucrative tent-pole museum exhibitions for many years now. There’s a good reason for this: Impressionism is true to human experience. Impressionism conveys the way the world actually looks to the quick, moving eye—the living eye. The significance of this art for viewers now has little to do with its position in art history, but with lasting qualities of human nature. Impressionism was a discovery more than an innovation. It imitates how we actually see the world when we are busy making our way through it. And this is something that holds true both then and now, again irrespective of art history—what is most spiritually valuable in art is what transcends its historical situation. (By contrast what makes some paintings so expensive, as opposed to genuinely worthy, can be the role they play in relation to the official history of painting.) Caillebotte’s work will outlast any interest in its relation to art history, because what his best paintings convey is nearly inexpressible, and remains now precisely what it was when he painted them.

My sense is that he wasn’t consciously rankling against the formal restrictions of both academic painting and the new impersonal world rising up around him, but he saw and painted images that answered to an instinctive personal need, like Cezanne’s, to anchor his contemporary images with qualities of work already in the museums. In other words, to anchor what was new around him with what remains always true in art, regardless of when it’s created. For both artists, this meant a reliance on geometrical structure, though I’ve always thought it’s far less obvious in Cezanne, despite the fact that his theories on this provided the seeds for Cubism. The architecture of the world around him gave Caillabotte a way to construct complex images with geometric unity. This was all instinctive, an imperative to stay away from the Impressionist haze in which objects melt into a pleasant miasma of light. (Kuspit says all of this from a different angle.) Yet this wasn’t so much a way of creating sociological commentary on modern life but his response to what is for an artist an almost physical need to create soundly structured pictures. If the sociological implications follow, for a critic improvising ideas around these images, fine. The images themselves arose from inarticulate imperatives. (Images that don’t arise that way hold little power.)

Paris streetSo what does Caillabotte actually convey? In his most famous painting, Paris Street, Rainy Day, he does everything Kuspit describes: it’s almost a diptych, with the painting on the right intimate and personal, the pedestrians walking to join the viewer, maybe for conversation. The painting on the left is a maze of looming and receding planes, the rising apartment walls uniformly styled, the same dull, repetitive shapes everywhere, like wallpaper. Yet on the left, paradoxically, the light invitingly melts across the cobbles of a drenched street. You can almost smell the ozone. The impersonal labyrinth of the city glows with light and the joy of that fresh air. Everything seems possible in that vast, open and glowing space. You want to lose yourself in it. The cozier imaginary “room” that contains the approaching walkers seems to become more and more intimate as you feel them coming toward you, and also more and more cramped. The canyons to the left pull your eye away into an indefinite distance while the cluster of individuals on the right feel like a bubble of companionship moving freely through the city. The lamp post running down the center of the painting hinges the diptych, and the two halves do feel almost like alternate visions of French urban life, one collective and the other personal, but they also fuse into one, with the gentleman’s top hat working like the hole in a phonograph record: everything circles around this eccentric axis formed by the individual who moves through the world to take it all in. Everything is unified, and the interlocked images give you a sense of elation and renewal, exactly the feeling of walking out onto fragrant wet pavement in the summer after a thunderstorm. You see it all as if you are hovering a foot off the ground, floating, a little high, both literally and figuratively. The painting seems to say there’s a regimented order everywhere here, but look at how much room there is to move.

This is the track Kuspit is following. Yet, as with all art criticism, this is a way of talking around the actual work this painting, or any other painting, is doing. It’s a way of mastering the image with words, and words operate in a fragmented way a visual image is able to bypass completely. Most art criticism describes what a critic thinks about the painting, or about painting in general, and serves as a commentary that essentially circles the image, jabbering away, while the great painting long ago did its work, silently, requiring little or no intellectual clarification. Tom Wolfe, in The Painted Word, lamented how, as he saw it, art turned a corner toward words and ideas in the 20th century and away from the true work of a visual medium, which was exclusively visual. What, exactly, can be conveyed visually, but not through spoken language, remains essentially beyond the reach of language—and thought. When analytical thought addresses a visual medium, it avoids the truth that there essentially is no language to describe what’s at work in a painting. You can describe in some degree how it works, but not what it delivers. And painting which offers little grist for deconstruction—Impressionism for example—is then denigrated as work devoted to “sensation,” or “emotion,” or, of course, mere “impressions” and “appearances” implying that the real labor of art is much deeper, rising up from ideas, and social or political commitment, and so on, all in terms that offer a feast for the intellect. Art can effectively illustrate or embody ideas, but the ability to yoke visual images to intellectual content isn’t what makes painting unique among all the arts.

Kuspit, our greatest art critic alongside Danto, works brilliantly toward his conclusions about Caillabotte and they are accurate, if you study the paintings and are willing to pigeonhole an individual within his own “ism”: he was neither an inconsistent Impressionist nor an academic realist, but a “critical realist” someone who conveyed the socially repressive regime of Napoleon III, as well as the ways in which this dictator was actually making life better—at the price of conformity. Go along to get along, and everything will be fine. We’re led to think this is the guiding idea at the heart of this painter’s work, what makes him superior to mere Impressionism. As a way of deconstructing Caillabotte, his argument is airtight. All along, he is intellectualizing the work, so that it becomes grist for thought, ignoring the way in which pictures work subconsciously, directly, conveying far more than analytical thought can objectify. He certainly isn’t alone. It’s what nearly all art criticism, as a discipline, does. It’s what’s happening here, as I write these words. Behind all of this is a turning way from the power of painting to convey the essentially intangible isness of a human life’s passage through time, and those moments when time intersects with what’s eternal—something far more encompassing than any particular ideas the work of art can be intended to express. It does all this in a strictly visual way, without the need for reasoning. Visual art is not an intellectual activity; but to admit this leaves a critic with little to do. Along with most critics, Kuspit is quietly leading the reader to exactly the opposite conclusion and using Caillabotte to lure us down the path, implicitly denigrating Impressionism as a straw man, in contrast with Caillabotte’s sophistication.

He says that Caillabotte’s unique sense of perspective and pictorial structure elevates his work above Impressionism: Caillabotte creates an “intelligible” picture while the Impressionists weren’t intellectuals. My italics here:

His repeated use of perspective makes the point clearly: perspective is an intellectual device—a rational way of structuring and stabilizing space and reflectively constructing an intelligible picture—and the Impressionists slowly but surely eliminated it, perhaps unwittingly but inevitably undermined it, for “impressions” are not seen in perspective, nor do they exist in perspective, nor are they intellectual phenomena.

Caillabotte is not only being intellectualized here, he himself is now seen as an intellectual using paint to communicate his ideas about society. Not only that, he’s a postmodernist to boot: his perspective destabilizes everything so that “it may inhabit a place, as it were, but it is not bound to any place, for it relentlessly moves off the bridge into the streets in the background, and, implicitly, into the infinity beyond them.” There is no true perspective, no place to anchor oneself in an entirely alienating world . . . it is all relative.

All of this is grounded convincingly in what Kuspit has observed in the work–his argument is fully supported and sound. Given the terms of his argument, he’s absolutely right. And yet none of it addresses what seems most valuable and least expressible in the paintings themselves. That’s the rub.

Of all Caillabotte’s paintings, my favorite is entitled Snow Effect. Here the perspective is probably as elevated as he ever got it, an extreme version of what Kuspit describes: the viewer could be on a rooftop, several stories up, looking down at a residential neighborhood, floating slightly above it all. Or, as David Byrne put it, the viewer could be in the process of “rising up above the earth.” It appears everyone else is fast asleep in the heart of winter. It could be Christmas morning, but I’m guessing any old morning in December or January, a dark dawn, all the fires having gone out overnight—not a wisp of smoke rising from the chimneys and stove pipes. The rigorous, regulated patterns of the public streets he usually paints give way to a personable jumble of Second Empire architecture, mansard roofs and shallow dormers. A human scale has been restored to everything in view, all the housing seen from his upper window or balcony. A dark pipe rises up above a chimney in exactly the center of the canvas—like the small hand of a clock pointing toward twelve, and it anchors everything around it, like the lamp in Paris Street, Rainy Day, and here it likewise emphasizes the scene’s asymmetry. The streets zigzag through the homes seemingly in random patterns and everything huddles together, as if for warmth, no lights glowing yet in any windows, but a few people are probably stirring without having yet lit a stove. The artist looks out at a pleasingly disordered world, his familiar and beloved neighborhood, in which every building has its own character and personality, like its inhabitants, and so his block is dark, cold, forbidding and yet silently lovely. You want to go out with him and wander, if only to hear your own solitary, snow-muffled footsteps as you crunch aimlessly through the snow. And then you come home to find all those snowy roofs banking sunlight up through your windows onto your ceiling, a perfect light for finishing a painting. It’s a cold, dark winter day, but when you see it in this work, you feel utterly at home in the truth of the ordinary human experience it conveys—the great beauty of an imperfect world perfectly shown. You love your life a little more for having seen it.

Paris polarities

Snow Effect, Gustave Caillebotte, Musee d'Orsay

Snow Effect, Gustave Caillebotte, Musee d’Orsay

She’s got a pleasant elevation . . . she’s drifting this way and that
not touching the ground at all, and she’s
up above the yard . . .                               –Talking Heads

 

It was a delight to find a brief, astute essay from Donald Kuspit on the French painter, Gustave Caillebotte, in the current issue of American Art Quarterly. He writes about Caillebotte’s ambiguous position as a painter during the Second Empire in France. Kuspit improvises like a virtuoso on his central topic: Caillebotte’s “revolutionary” use of perspective to juxtapose indoor and outdoor space as a way of visualizing the individual’s plight during the modernization of France under the heavy-handed reign of its latest emperor. He embraced the revolutionary natural light of the Impressionists without losing a structured perspective antithetical to their work in order to create a sense of indoor intimacy even in his outdoor images. The viewer often floats slightly above his scenes, looking down, levitating just off the ground, like Icarus at the start of his escape from the maze, not quite ready to fly.

Kuspit plays with these themes and weaves them in subtle and elusive ways, but his central point is that Caillebotte was creating a vision of Paris in which the intimate and personal—the quiet calibrations of a disappearing way of life—were contending with the required conformities of a modernizing society. When outdoors, people in his paintings seem to inhabit a protective and portable zone of intimacy—it may be only as big as the shadow of an umbrella—caged by a grid of architectural uniformity stretching endlessly into the distance. It’s a polarity out of Anton Chekhov: the emerging and crass middle class, grasping its new money, encircles and infiltrates the withering aristocracy—here the new architecture of Paris serves the role of invasive captor. Yet Caillebotte was both an independently wealthy member of the haute bourgeoisie and a defender of a human scale of life confined by the economic growth. Members of his own circle usually provide the focal point of his paintings—and they are those who are profiting from that growth and change. He identifies with them, while Chekhov stays at one remove from his grasping, climbing arrivistes. Like Manet, this painter found his place on the threshold between past and future, and his work emerged from an allegiance to both.

That is what makes Caillebotte rewarding when subjected to intellectual scrutiny like Kuspit’s, the impression he gives of a divided fidelity, a delicate balance. As Kuspit summarizes it:

The emotional and spatial differences that inform Caillebotte’s paintings climax, as it were, in the much-noted difference between his handling: the “flat,” “dry,” “academic” surface and linear clarity of his indoor paintings has led some art historians to label him a conventional realist, while the “animated,” “wet,” “anti-academic” surface of his outdoor paintings have led other art historians to label him an Impressionist . . . sometimes this doubleness happened in the same picture . . .

Yet I’m uneasy with Kuspit’s thesis when he implies that Caillebotte’s use of perspective is somehow a rebellion against a tide of conformity turning Paris into a modern, alienating city. His perspective is “oddly impulsive and unpredictable . . . insulting and offensive, intruding on the bourgeois Paris of Napoleon III, just as Impressionism intruded upon academic realism, the preferred mode of the official Salon and the bourgeois patrons of art.” Kuspit is so adroit with his theme he can get you to nod through this, though I find little in these paintings that insults or offends my sense of reality. Kuspit is more persuasive when he synthesizes the dichotomies into the sense of hope that actually dwells in these paintings: all that modernization was actually making life better. The world has become oppressive in some ways, under the dictatorial reign of the Second Empire, but overall things were getting better.

There is a disjointed look to Caillebotte’s paintings—the parts don’t neatly relate. His men and women inhabit different emotional spaces, just as his closed and open spaces have a different emotional tone, as do his bright outdoor light and dimmer indoor light. They’re all implicitly estranged, yet unavoidably together in the new Paris, suggesting that they can be made new, or at least made better, as the remaking of Paris made it a better place to live.

Caillebotte’s use of perspective conveys almost a sense of weightlessness and his paintings rarely feel oppressive or critical as much as bemused and almost opportunistically clever in exploiting what’s there all around him: he sees all that impersonal architecture as a natural way to create pictorial structure. His scenes mostly bring me a sense of relief and make me feel the possibility of private freedom in a public world that is anything but liberating. But perhaps that’s Kuspit’s point. The academics would have objected to the instability of this playful use of levitated perspective which frees the viewer. This idiosyncrasy of his as a painter might have been seen as an affront—individual quirks are effectively a departure from the norm.

He writes, “I am suggesting that Caillebotte was neither an academic realist nor an anti-academic Impressionist, but a critical realist. He conflated both modes to convey the tension between conformity and nonconformity—bourgeois art and avant-garde art . . . ”

It’s ironic how, with the passage of time, the revolutionary movement of Impressionism became the ultimate “bourgeois” art, offering some of the most crowd-pleasing and popular images ever painted, anchoring lucrative tent-pole museum exhibitions for many years now. There’s a good reason for this: Impressionism is true to human experience. Impressionism conveys the way the world actually looks to the quick, moving eye—the living eye. The significance of this art for viewers now has little to do with its position in art history, but with lasting qualities of human nature. Impressionism was a discovery more than an innovation. It imitates how we actually see the world when we are busy making our way through it. And this is something that holds true both then and now, again irrespective of art history—what is most spiritually valuable in art is what transcends its historical situation. (By contrast what makes some paintings so expensive, as opposed to genuinely worthy, can be the role they play in relation to the official history of painting.) Caillebotte’s work will outlast any interest in its relation to art history, because what his best paintings convey is nearly inexpressible, and remains now precisely what it was when he painted them.

My sense is that he wasn’t consciously rankling against the formal restrictions of both academic painting and the new impersonal world rising up around him, but he saw and painted images that answered to an instinctive personal need, like Cezanne’s, to anchor his contemporary images with qualities of work already in the museums. In other words, to anchor what was new around him with what remains always true in art, regardless of when it’s created. For both artists, this meant a reliance on geometrical structure, though I’ve always thought it’s far less obvious in Cezanne, despite the fact that his theories on this provided the seeds for Cubism. The architecture of the world around him gave Caillabotte a way to construct complex images with geometric unity. This was all instinctive, an imperative to stay away from the Impressionist haze in which objects melt into a pleasant miasma of light. (Kuspit says all of this from a different angle.) Yet this wasn’t so much a way of creating sociological commentary on modern life but his response to what is for an artist an almost physical need to create soundly structured pictures. If the sociological implications follow, for a critic improvising ideas around these images, fine. The images themselves arose from inarticulate imperatives. (Images that don’t arise that way hold little power.)

Paris streetSo what does Caillabotte actually convey? In his most famous painting, Paris Street, Rainy Day, he does everything Kuspit describes: it’s almost a diptych, with the painting on the right intimate and personal, the pedestrians walking to join the viewer, maybe for conversation. The painting on the left is a maze of looming and receding planes, the rising apartment walls uniformly styled, the same dull, repetitive shapes everywhere, like wallpaper. Yet on the left, paradoxically, the light invitingly melts across the cobbles of a drenched street. You can almost smell the ozone. The impersonal labyrinth of the city glows with light and the joy of that fresh air. Everything seems possible in that vast, open and glowing space. You want to lose yourself in it. The cozier imaginary “room” that contains the approaching walkers seems to become more and more intimate as you feel them coming toward you, and also more and more cramped. The canyons to the left pull your eye away into an indefinite distance while the cluster of individuals on the right feel like a bubble of companionship moving freely through the city. The lamp post running down the center of the painting hinges the diptych, and the two halves do feel almost like alternate visions of French urban life, one collective and the other personal, but they also fuse into one, with the gentleman’s top hat working like the hole in a phonograph record: everything circles around this eccentric axis formed by the individual who moves through the world to take it all in. Everything is unified, and the interlocked images give you a sense of elation and renewal, exactly the feeling of walking out onto fragrant wet pavement in the summer after a thunderstorm. You see it all as if you are hovering a foot off the ground, floating, a little high, both literally and figuratively. The painting seems to say there’s a regimented order everywhere here, but look at how much room there is to move.

This is the track Kuspit is following. Yet, as with all art criticism, this is a way of talking around the actual work this painting, or any other painting, is doing. It’s a way of mastering the image with words, and words operate in a fragmented way a visual image is able to bypass completely. Most art criticism describes what a critic thinks about the painting, or about painting in general, and serves as a commentary that essentially circles the image, jabbering away, while the great painting long ago did its work, silently, requiring little or no intellectual clarification. Tom Wolfe, in The Painted Word, lamented how, as he saw it, art turned a corner toward words and ideas in the 20th century and away from the true work of a visual medium, which was exclusively visual. What, exactly, can be conveyed visually, but not through spoken language, remains essentially beyond the reach of language—and thought. When analytical thought addresses a visual medium, it avoids the truth that there essentially is no language to describe what’s at work in a painting. You can describe in some degree how it works, but not what it delivers. And painting which offers little grist for deconstruction—Impressionism for example—is then denigrated as work devoted to “sensation,” or “emotion,” or, of course, mere “impressions” and “appearances” implying that the real labor of art is much deeper, rising up from ideas, and social or political commitment, and so on, all in terms that offer a feast for the intellect. Art can effectively illustrate or embody ideas, but the ability to yoke visual images to intellectual content isn’t what makes painting unique among all the arts.

Kuspit, our greatest art critic alongside Danto, works brilliantly toward his conclusions about Caillabotte and they are accurate, if you study the paintings and are willing to pigeonhole an individual within his own “ism”: he was neither an inconsistent Impressionist nor an academic realist, but a “critical realist” someone who conveyed the socially repressive regime of Napoleon III, as well as the ways in which this dictator was actually making life better—at the price of conformity. Go along to get along, and everything will be fine. We’re led to think this is the guiding idea at the heart of this painter’s work, what makes him superior to mere Impressionism. As a way of deconstructing Caillabotte, his argument is airtight. All along, he is intellectualizing the work, so that it becomes grist for thought, ignoring the way in which pictures work subconsciously, directly, conveying far more than analytical thought can objectify. He certainly isn’t alone. It’s what nearly all art criticism, as a discipline, does. It’s what’s happening here, as I write these words. Behind all of this is a turning way from the power of painting to convey the essentially intangible isness of a human life’s passage through time, and those moments when time intersects with what’s eternal—something far more encompassing than any particular ideas the work of art can be intended to express. It does all this in a strictly visual way, without the need for reasoning. Visual art is not an intellectual activity; but to admit this leaves a critic with little to do. Along with most critics, Kuspit is quietly leading the reader to exactly the opposite conclusion and using Caillabotte to lure us down the path, implicitly denigrating Impressionism as a straw man, in contrast with Caillabotte’s sophistication.

He says that Caillabotte’s unique sense of perspective and pictorial structure elevates his work above Impressionism: Caillabotte creates an “intelligible” picture while the Impressionists weren’t intellectuals. My italics here:

His repeated use of perspective makes the point clearly: perspective is an intellectual device—a rational way of structuring and stabilizing space and reflectively constructing an intelligible picture—and the Impressionists slowly but surely eliminated it, perhaps unwittingly but inevitably undermined it, for “impressions” are not seen in perspective, nor do they exist in perspective, nor are they intellectual phenomena.

Caillabotte is not only being intellectualized here, he himself is now seen as an intellectual using paint to communicate his ideas about society. Not only that, he’s a postmodernist to boot: his perspective destabilizes everything so that “it may inhabit a place, as it were, but it is not bound to any place, for it relentlessly moves off the bridge into the streets in the background, and, implicitly, into the infinity beyond them.” There is no true perspective, no place to anchor oneself in an entirely alienating world . . . it is all relative.

All of this is grounded convincingly in what Kuspit has observed in the work–his argument is fully supported and sound. Given the terms of his argument, he’s absolutely right. And yet none of it addresses what seems most valuable and least expressible in the paintings themselves. That’s the rub.

Of all Caillabotte’s paintings, my favorite is entitled Snow Effect. Here the perspective is probably as elevated as he ever got it, an extreme version of what Kuspit describes: the viewer could be on a rooftop, several stories up, looking down at a residential neighborhood, floating slightly above it all. Or, as David Byrne put it, the viewer could be in the process of “rising up above the earth.” It appears everyone else is fast asleep in the heart of winter. It could be Christmas morning, but I’m guessing any old morning in December or January, a dark dawn, all the fires having gone out overnight—not a wisp of smoke rising from the chimneys and stove pipes. The rigorous, regulated patterns of the public streets he usually paints give way to a personable jumble of Second Empire architecture, mansard roofs and shallow dormers. A human scale has been restored to everything in view, all the housing seen from his upper window or balcony. A dark pipe rises up above a chimney in exactly the center of the canvas—like the small hand of a clock pointing toward twelve, and it anchors everything around it, like the lamp in Paris Street, Rainy Day, and here it likewise emphasizes the scene’s asymmetry. The streets zigzag through the homes seemingly in random patterns and everything huddles together, as if for warmth, no lights glowing yet in any windows, but a few people are probably stirring without having yet lit a stove. The artist looks out at a pleasingly disordered world, his familiar and beloved neighborhood, in which every building has its own character and personality, like its inhabitants, and so his block is dark, cold, forbidding and yet silently lovely. You want to go out with him and wander, if only to hear your own solitary, snow-muffled footsteps as you crunch aimlessly through the snow. And then you come home to find all those snowy roofs banking sunlight up through your windows onto your ceiling, a perfect light for finishing a painting. It’s a cold, dark winter day, but when you see it in this work, you feel utterly at home in the truth of the ordinary human experience it conveys—the great beauty of an imperfect world perfectly shown. You love your life a little more for having seen it.

Matt Klos

IMG_9559

Fort Howard, Rear View, Matt Klos

From the current show at Oxford Gallery. A couple more weeks are left to see what’s on view.

 

 

Matt Klos

IMG_9559

Fort Howard, Rear View, Matt Klos

From the current show at Oxford Gallery. A couple more weeks are left to see what’s on view.

 

 

Pen and Ink… Just Inking Around

Watercolor & Ink Demo

“Inking” – as in drawing with ink.

Hi!  I’ve been studying up on working with ink in preparation for my upcoming demonstration for the Society Of Southern Oregon Artists.  And, its coming up this Monday!  Note to me…that’s SOON!

SOSA Inking Demo

But I’ve been preparing.  And, besides, how hard can it be to stand in front of a room full of people and talk while painting?

Exactly; for some of us it might be easy.  Not so for me.  So I’m arming myself with knowledge!

Dip Pens

I decided I ought to know more about my materials and dip pens in particular.  “Old school” time – and its really fun!

The reasons I’m working with dip pens and nibs follow:

  • I had several laying around my studio.  Yes, several stylus (styli?) and nibs just laying around in my studio waiting to be appreciated and used.
  • I like how dip pens and nibs are sensitive to the touch and expressiveness of the artist.
  • I had ink, Higgins “Magic Ink” in black.  I also have some acrylic inks but am not using them for this demo.
  • So, you can draw the conclusion —  I didn’t have to purchase new supplies!  I like using supplies I have around the studio and house.
Working With Ink: Mapping Nibs

My Collection of Mapping Nibs; Comic Nib for Comparison.  Please note, the nibs are not in any particular order.

Something Special About His Nibs

One of the most exciting things I found out about my supplies is that I have some “vintage” nibs.  Did you know that there are such things?   These nibs were my father’s – artist John Stermer.  I cleaned them up and they work great!  As a matter of fact, several looked almost brand new.

Working with Ink: Dip Pen Nibs

My Collection of Comic or Regular Nibs Plus one Calligraphy Nib.  Note, the nibs don’t necessarily align with the list of nib types.

Dip Pen Tips – For Using

I thought I’d share some tips for working with dip pens.

  • Keep your nibs clean; they work better.  The ink flows and it is ever so wonderful!
  • The nibs are designed to be held a slant, about 45 degrees.  They don’t work quite so well on the vertical.
  • Draw moving the pen toward you; the nibs glide.
  • You can wear out a nib going back and forth.  They work better when you draw in one direction – toward you.
  • You can dilute some inks as much as you like.  Even a little bit of water can enhance flow.
  • The nibs work better on smoother paper.  I have tried using dip pens on rough watercolor paper and the ink does not flow as well. Its all a matter of taste, though.  Whatever works for the artist.
  • When you’re done with your pen, remove the nib.  Store dry.

About the Ink

I use Higgins Black Magic Ink.  It is waterproof and fade proof.  That means, for example, after the ink dries, you ought to be able to paint over it with wet watercolor with out lifting.  However, I did manage to get a smear this morning.  I have no idea why; something must have been not quite right.  Generally speaking, though, it does work as advertised.

There are other inks that are not waterproof.  They can be great, but I haven’t been experimenting with them.  They are beyond the scope of my  upcoming demonstration.

Materials: Ink, watercolor, paper, dip pen and brushes

Supplies:  Ink, watercolor, paper, dip pen with nib attached, watercolor brush and ink brush.

My Process

Back to the demonstration.  My process for incorporating graphite, ink and watercolor is as follows:

  • Graphite:
    • Draw with graphite first.  This is the most important phase.  I have to resist the urge to move on to ink and watercolor too soon.
    • Its easier to make drawing corrections to graphite drawings.  And, if there is a problem with the drawing, so goes the painting.
  • Ink:
    • I re-draw my subject with ink, though I don’t need to re-draw every line.
    • I emphasize major lines or nodes (junction points).
    • I like to use ink to map out direction or movement in the drawing.
    • I cross hatch to ensure I understand the value (light/dark) pattern of the subject.  Sometimes this is a fast phase; sometimes I want the ink to be the focus so I am more deliberate.
  • Watercolor:
    • Poetry in color!  This is splishy-splashy fun time.  It can be the hardest phase too!
    • I concentrate and work on using the paint to enhance the image.
    • The trick is to use enough to capture a feeling; not so much watercolor as to kill the poetry.

Single Best Tip

The best tip I can offer:  if you have a dip pen in your studio, give it a try!  You might have loads of fun!

Ink study

Study, Watercolor & Ink

Assorted Links:

On cleaning and care of the nibs.

  • Care and Feeding of the Calligraphy Dip Pen.  Even though the author talks mainly about calligraphy (italic) pen nibs, the same principles apply to point dip pen nibs.  I found a suggestion to clean ink pen nibs with ammonia based glass cleaners in this article.  This is for pen nibs that have caked on ink.  Ammonia window (glass) cleaners work wonders!  Brought my nibs back to clean as new!
  • Guide to Nibs and Nib Holders .  Provides a good over-view of the types of nibs and holders.

 

 

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Rediscovery

Study for Conversation of Saul, Tom Insalaco, oil on canvas

Study for Conversion of Saul, Tom Insalaco, oil on canvas

On Saturday, home for a week from Toronto, where I visited the Lawren Harris show at AGO, it struck me that I don’t need to drive three hours to see great art. If I make a point of getting out of my cave for a few hours, I can see dozens of great paintings, some astonishingly brilliant, with only a ten minute drive from my door. I remember when my parents moved to Pittsford, just outside Rochester, decades ago, and I was girding myself for my freshman year at the University of Rochester. Within weeks of our arrival, I visited our local museum, the Memorial Art Gallery, and was dumbfounded to realize that I lived only a few miles from a Rembrandt portrait. We’d moved here from the Northwest, and I’d been painting for three or four years at that point, and I’d never been to an art museum of any sort, and it was as if I’d stepped onto another planet, standing before that oil painting of a young man. Over the years–I moved away six years later and didn’t return to Rochester until another decade had passed–the collection at MAG has gotten deeper and richer. So on Saturday it was my middle stop between two other neighboring galleries, Makers Gallery and the home for my own work, Oxford Gallery, which has had an assortment of paintings and sculpture from gallery artists hanging throughout the summer. (The show ends in a couple weeks.) I got a glimpse of a full spectrum–a new, entrepreneurial space where local, exceptional emerging artists show their work, and then a museum that offers rare work from the most recent to centuries-old, and finally one of the area’s most established commercial galleries, still enduring with sporadic sales despite our endless economic stasis. It was gratifying, encouraging and energizing to see such great work in all of these distinctly different places.

At Maker’s, I got an early pre-reception glimpse–the show had just gone up–of work being given an encore from previous exhibits. It was all good, but I was especially impressed by some images on wood panels from Bill Stephens where he has taken paintings he’d put aside in the past and partially sanded them to reveal what amount to newly discovered and purely imaginary scenes. They evoke other worlds, mountains and seas from a crepuscular dream. They could be mythical landscapes viewed through isinglass. I’d seen Andrea Durfee’s landscapes at an earlier show there, but this time around I recognized more clearly how effective they are: geometrically vectorized scenes in which the lines define luxuriantly colored cells constructed into images that work as both representation and abstraction. To put it more directly: she can turn the human form into hills and hills into faceted gems.

Every time I visit MAG, I have the same feeling: a sense of startled gratitude for the intelligence behind its collection and the exhibits it pulls together, sometimes within severe constraints. When you walk into the exhibition space right now, you’ll find yourself spending half an hour in what would otherwise have been a foyer, but has been turned into an eclectic survey of portraiture. It offers an incredible range of work, from a portrait of John Ashbery by Elaine de Kooning to Kehinde Wiley to Sir Joshua Reynolds and a dazzling, effortlessly executed–did he ever make a false move?–oil from John Singer Sargent. What most impressed me about this show, aside from how the curators had leveraged the small, available space, was the way it worked for nearly anyone who spent time with it. Those with a deep knowledge of art would find gratifying surprises: a representational work from Elaine de Kooning, and not only that but an immediately recognizable likelness of a major American poet who happened to have been born here in Rochester. Yet a class of secondary students would be just as charmed by the work, and the carefully, accessibly worded descriptions of each painting. I’ll be posting examples of work I saw at MAG on Saturday, both from this show and from the permanent collection, all of which made me intensely grateful for having such easy access to such exhilarating work.

My final stop was also my longest, since whenever I visit Oxford, I end up having a cup of coffee and a two-hour conversation with Jim Hall on a dozen topics, in which I basically try to prompt him to amaze me with his knowledge of European and American history, Western art, philosophy, gardening, or politics. As we talked I kept focusing, as I’d done at both Makers and MAG, on work I’d seen before, but hadn’t fully recognized. I had a clear sightline to a small oil from Tom Insalaco, a preparatory study for his Conversion of Saul, a large painting indebted to Caravaggio that I’d seen in an earlier show. Somehow I’d overlooked this little study before, brightly lit, set in the desert, with two horses, one rearing up in protest and the other toppled to the ground, with a figure who looks both Bedouin and African. It’s a remarkable, dynamic image, a controlled exploration of how much can be done with a palette restricted to bluish/gray and gold, along with the stallion handler’s white thawb. In this little image, Tom has embedded multiple ironies. For one, there is no Saul. For another, as a whole, the image seems more a commentary on the Arab Spring than an exegesis of a Biblical parable. One horse has been toppled and another is rearing up, nearly out of control, and the ostensible handler is more bystander than active agent, exerting little control over what’s happening. In the distance, a structure that seems nearly swallowed up by a sandstorm. Insalaco’s work almost always has that fertile ambiguity, laden with multiple, sorrowful ironies about contemporary life, even when his subject is supposedly thousands of years old.

More to come from my visits on Saturday.

 

SOSA August 2016 Meeting

SOSA August 2016 Meeting : sosa logo southern oregon society of artistsSOSA August 2016 Meeting

The Southern Oregon Society of Artists (SOSA) holds its regular meeting at the Medford Public Library on August 22nd at 6:30 pm.  Margaret Stermer-Cox will be demonstrating. All artists are welcome.

Margaret Stermer-Cox to Demonstrate Watercolors

Margaret Stermer-Cox is a highly trained and recognized watercolor artist. Monday evening will give us a window into her approach of joining ink with layers of watercolor. Her favorite subject is her imagination…taking life images and rearranging them in a new way.
With purpose and color, her success can be traced to her extreme drawing skills.  Trained at the arm of her New Mexico artist father, she’s a signature, juried and associate member of several watercolor societies as well as a respected juror and show curator.

Monday we will watch her add a line, a drip, a dot…and a little bit of mystery.

André Leipold

andre

It’s not that we have a vision necessarily, but we try to poke holes in the scenery – a scenery which is built up by the politicians, by the media. They are playing theatre, too, with our lives and with our destinies. We are making a counter-theatre to go against theirs. So, by poking holes in the scenery, we are trying to get a look at the truth, to see what’s under the surface. It’s about building bridges in the real reality.

André Leipold is an artist and Privy Counselor at the Center for Political Beauty (Zentrum Für Politische Schönheit) in Berlin, Germany. As self-described “aggressive humanists,” members of Political Beauty utilize shock-inducing tactics in order to draw attention to political wrong-doings. Past works include “The Dead Are Coming” – a nod to Sophocles’s “Antigone.” As a part of this work, the organization exhumed the bodies of several refugees who died in their attempt to reach safety and gave them a proper burial in Germany. In their most recent artwork, “Eating Refugees,” the Center for Political Beauty asked refugees to volunteer to be eaten by Libyan tigers in order to draw a connection between the Colosseum games of Ancient Rome and the current realities that refugees are facing: freedom or death (more on these works throughout this interview). As a result of these artistic choices, their work has been characterized as extremely controversial, pushing the boundaries of what is socially, and perhaps morally, acceptable in order to inspire others to create change.

In addition to his work at Political Beauty, Leipold is a singer, music producer, and performer.


Sarah J Halford: As an organization, what is the Center for Political Beauty? And what do you do there?

André Leipold: We are a combination of humanists and artists, and we try to create facts inside of reality. We work with the tools from the theatre but with tools from other art forms too, and we try to work as an interface between reality and wishing. It’s about breaking metaphysical and physical borders.

When we first started to think about making this kind of political artivism, or activism…actually, that’s not our word for it. We always said that we are making theatre. We are a theatre in a more ancient way; we started by breaking borders of categories inside the university, and over the years it became more literal, by breaking physical borders.

I am the so-called “Privy Councilor.” We try to find fictional words for our task fields, because they’re not really comparable. Inside a theatre, I would be something between an author and a dramaturg, but those definitions don’t really fit our stuff. So, it depends on where we are inside the production schedule. In the beginning, I’m conceptualizing with Phillip [Ruch, Chief Negotiator of the Center for Political Beauty], I’m framing, I try to find out which words should be dominant inside of the action, I try to bring some poetry inside of an action where we are working with and against politicians. For some people, it sounds like a political movement, but in some ways we try to create the imagination of a political movement, and in that, I try to bring some poetry in it, too. But, under the assumption of, or imagination of, a political movement.

SJH: I noticed that all of Political Beauty’s works are officially categorized as “artworks” rather than campaigns or actions. Is there a reason for that?

AL: The reason is, more or less, not to fall into a category. The best space of opportunity to do that is within the theatre. Theatre, by the ancient definition is already an interface. It is already a spot where you can find out where artivisim or activism is. So, the artistic space is the best location for us so that we don’t run into that dangerous field of categories. Theatre is the most abstract, but in a way fitting for the work we do.

SJH: Within that abstraction there seem to be sprinkles of a lot of things – art, traditional activism, legislative work —

AL: We are humanists and we are artists. Usually an artist likes to show his picture in a museum and says that he doesn’t want to explain the work so much. We say, “No, we are connected with political visions.” We have to explain because there’s a concrete aim that we are looking for, and we’re taking our artistic competence to do so.

So, it’s not really “free” art then. The freedom of art is what we are diminishing for ourselves, because we are giving it a label and a concrete aim. So, for years now, it’s been about refugee politics, but not only about the refugees, it’s about borders, it’s about European politics. Connecting art with political vision is what you would maybe call “artivism,” but for me it’s more about bringing all of your own artistic competence in a pool and accepting that it’s not free. It has an aim. A goal.

SJH: Activism typically has aims and goals, as well. Are you sacrificing the ability to make “free” art for the sake of adding an activist element to the work?

AL: Yes, but…I don’t really like the words “activism” or “artivism” so much, because that concept is already inside of the old definition of theatre. So, for me, I don’t need this new category.

SJH: Tell me – what’s special about the ancient definition of theatre, then?

AL: The old definition of Greek theatre is to build a platform for the old society, which was always more than some actor’s play. It was always a space where society can find itself and talk with itself, and look at itself in the mirror. Building mirrors is what we do, too.

Above: a short video from the artwork “Eating Refugees” by the Center for Political Beauty.
TL;DW: The Center for Political Beauty demanded that the German government change an antiquated law that would prevent refugees from flying from Turkey to Germany. If the law was not overturned, they said, it would be equivalent to the German government sentencing the refugees to an almost certain death, by drowning or by other dangerous circumstances on their way to safety. To illustrate the draconian nature of this law – drawing a connection to the government of ancient Rome, which played with the lives of their citizens in the Colosseum’s gladiator games – Political Beauty set up an arena with four tigers and asked refugees to volunteer to be eaten by them.
Editor’s Note: In the end, no refugees were eaten, though some did volunteer. The artwork ended with a “letter” from the tigers, translated from German, seen below:
Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 12.58.13 PM

SJH: I’m curious about the term “assault team,” that you use to describe yourselves, where you say that you practice “aggressive humanism.” Can you tell me a little bit about why you’ve chosen “assault team” and why aggression is important in your work?

AL: Traditional humanistic work is very polite, usually, and what we are saying is that we need other ways to communicate humanism within Germany and the European society. In our latest work with the tigers [“Eating Refugees”], the animal rights groups reacted very strongly to it, which is good – they should, and they have to – but we are looking at empowering the humanistic side, too. Aggressive humanism means throwing out politeness for the sake of the work. When you look at organizations like Amnesty International or others, there is a ritualism and very weak visions, very weak pictures too, and it’s not because they have no money – they have a lot of money – but there are too many people inside of the pre-production. There are too many voices.

And so, aggressive also means being sharp, being not so much tied to an organization that also has a say in the matter. As a musician, when I’m writing a song, I don’t write the song with 50 people, I write it with 2 or maybe 3 people, and even with the addition of those voices, it’s already beginning to dull. To not have to explain so much in a time of pre-production, where it’s very important to bring your thoughts completely on the table and not thinking so much about morals or manners.

SJH: Tell me, then, about one of your favorite artworks that you thought was successful.

AL: For me, it was the “First Fall of the European Wall. it was a very magical moment for me. On this Saturday afternoon, we took out the white crosses and sent them on a vacation to the woods in Melilla [Morocco]. It was a very strong feeling for me. It was magical because there was a moment when I felt like we were truly an interface between a strong vision and reality. We built up something like a moral pressure chamber, which opened up a blind spot. To feel that, for me, it was very magical stuff. The words that we were creating were then used by the media and politicians. Some months later, we discovered that newspapers were very much inspired by it. To feel that you are someone who delivers inspiration to the right hands…it’s a very good feeling. 

andre 2
“First Fall of the European Wall” by the Center for Political Beauty.
Political Beauty took the white crosses, which commemorated the victims of the Berlin Wall, out of the government quarters just before the anniversary of the fall. Above, the empty frames of the crosses can be seen, with three paper-made replacements.The organization transferred some of the crosses to a fence on the European border and gave others to refugees at a camp in Melilla, Morocco in order to illustrate for the government – and preemptively commemorate for the world – that they would be “the next refugees to die at Europe’s external wall.”

SJH: So, it created a magical feeling within you – did you see any indications that it was going well outside of yourself? Did you notice the people respond in a certain way?

AL: I didn’t notice it outside of myself, so much. For me, it was magical to see that it was possible to have some kind of influence in spheres where you typically don’t have a connection with as an artist or citizen. To see that there were some politicians and journalists who really understood what we wanted to make, who said to us later that it was very inspiring for them, this was magical. What I mean by magic is that it’s possible to communicate with people in another form, in another way than by words. Through pictures and imaginations, to experience that they are not only seeing the hidden pictures in an artwork but also that they understand them, too. And I don’t mean only seeing the picture of the stolen crosses, but seeing and understanding the imagination that we wanted to create. They started to work on this imagination too, which was also magical because we didn’t plan it. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

SJH: So the feeling is really important.

AL: For me, yes. To feel what is going on. What is going on is not what you are reading in the newspaper, it’s not what the politicians tell you, it’s not what the theatre tells you, really what is going on – you just have to feel it, I guess. This is a strong motivation for me: to find a way of communication under the stream of data and irrelevant polls, tweets, views, and to find that there are hopes, wishes, dreams that we all share already. In that sphere of collective unconscious, that is where I want to build bridges. It’s more important for me than some other stuff, because the result you see months later is that part of the inspiration that we created has settled somewhere, and is beginning to be a fact. This is very strong. So, there’s a fear of media and of politics, and a fear of responsibility; this is where I want to bring pressure and inspiration. First, you need pressure to shake it. Then, you need inspiration to hold it.

SJH: Do all of your artworks turn out that way? First, the pressure, the shock value, and then the inspiration to make change?

AL: We always try to make it like a mobile washing machine, so that even if you are connected with the issue and you’re following the politics of it, that you don’t know anymore what’s right or what’s wrong. It depends on yourself and your own deeper feeling to decide on what’s right or what’s wrong now.

SJH: Have you ever seen that “deeper feeling” work within the public or political parties to the point that it created tangible change?

AL: The Vice Chief Editor of Die Zeit, which is a big weekly newspaper here, told us that after the action at the European border [“First Fall of the European Wall” – description above] the entire editorial staff had discussions for weeks, not about the action, but about the subject of this action.

It’s not that we have a vision necessarily, but we try to poke holes in the scenery – a scenery which is built up by the politicians, by the media. They are playing theatre, too, with our lives and with our destinies. We are making a counter-theatre to go against theirs. So, by poking holes in the scenery, we are trying to get a look at the truth, to see what’s under the surface. It’s about building bridges in the real reality.

SJH: So, it’s as if you create the controversy, and you make some people angry, perhaps, but it serves to direct people’s attention to the issue at hand. Is that where the “bridge” is built?

AL: Yes. It’s stressing people. And when you are under stress, or under pressure, you don’t think so much about about the words that you’re saying, but it creates a good moment for truth.

SJH: What kind of audiences are you making these artworks for?

AL: We address different publics, and have different moods for different publics; the audience is very diverse, I would say. There are activists who imagine us to be working more in the movement, and then there are artists, people from the theatre, who understand our work in a more artistic way. Then, there’s the media, the universities, and they are all interpreting us in different ways, with different words. And making stress means bringing all of those different views together in one pot, mixing it, and seeing what comes out.

SJH: You’re okay with some people interpreting Political Beauty as an activist group and for others to see you as a group of artists?

AL: Well, we are all of these things and more.

SJH: Interesting. So then, if the organization itself is left up to interpretation, then how do you determine the “real reality” that you’re trying to create?

AL: All I can say is that it depends on the situation, what the moment calls for. Real reality is not my truth, it is not your truth, it is a combination of all of the truths.

andre 5
From “Memorial: To the Unknown Immigrants”, part of the artwork “The Dead are Coming”, by the Center for Political Beauty.
A description of the moment above from Political Beauty: “Right after the idea for the cemetery had been announced, these determined members of our civil society set out to build it. They tore down the fence guarding the Parliament’s front lawn and dug hundreds of graves in an act of spontaneity.

SJH: Some organizations, especially in the political world, tend to turn away from people who are fully entrenched in their “truth” in order to reach those who are more on the fence, but it seems like Political Beauty actually wants the people who have their minds made up. They stir the pot.

AL: Yes, they stir the pot. And we want them to be empowered – not only for the normal citizen but for the politician. They have opinions but they don’t really feel empowered to talk about their visions for the future. They are very much inside a framing network that they have to be empowered to break out of that, too. So, I think it’s empowerment for individuals, for individual units.

SJH: So, what is your relationship to the media? Do you invite them to your performances or do they come on their own?

AL: We invite the media, but I don’t think it’s so important for the Center for Political Beauty to get to know them. For me, it’s important to know them for the sake of my other work. We are all artists for ourselves, too, and for that it’s much more important for the individual experience than for the Center because they come to what we do anyway.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 5.58.13 PM
“Rescue Platforms on the Mediterranean” from the artwork “The Bridge” by the Center for Political Beauty.
Description from Political Beauty: “Every year, thousands of refugees drown in the killing fields at Europe’s external borders. According to Jean Ziegler, the death toll is at 36,000- more casualties per year than the total number of people who died at the Iron Curtain during the entire duration of the Cold War. In order to fight this silent dying efficiently, we will install 1,000 rescue platforms: 1,000 navigation lights as an international commitment to humanity and a monumental symbol of the 21st century. So far, every civilisation has left a mark of magnanimity and generosity on history.”
Editor’s note: the plan for the installation of the 1,000 platforms never came to fruition.

SJH: Can you tell me about a time when Political Beauty put out a piece where you felt like it just didn’t work?

AL: Sure. It happens more in the small actions than in the big actions. We had a small action in Austria last year called “The Bridge”. We wanted to be very positive and sunny, giving people inspiration, but it wasn’t very complex. It was just the imagination of this bridge between Europe and Austria, and the imagination of platforms in the sea to help prevent refugees from drowning. But it wasn’t about pressure, it was just more about – we’ve got so much money and why not spend this money and give people an imagination for this now. What we experienced was that people called it “nice” and it had some good results, but the media wasn’t really interested in it because it wasn’t hard enough. It wasn’t smart enough. There were no corpses, there was no stealing of crosses, there was nothing that they could write about. So we thought, okay, we have to find aggressive elements because otherwise they won’t hear us. They won’t look at us. We need that attention in order to lead them toward inspiration.

SJH: So, without that pressure and that aggression, nothing can be done?

AL: Nothing’s happening. No.

SJH: Those platforms in the middle of the sea, are they currently being used by refugees who may be forced to swim?

AL: There’s just one, but I don’t know if it’s being used. Maybe some rich guy’s wife uses this platform to lay in the sun, who knows?

SJH: Some organizations that use aggressive tactics to get media and audience attention have trouble with over-saturation. People come to expect shocking things from them, so after a while it becomes less interesting to them. How do you, at the Center for Political Beauty, prevent that from happening?

AL: We talk about it, of course. Yeah, this is a problem, sure. People know already what we do, they know what to expect from us, so it’s very hard to go a step further. Being even more aggressive or more drastic isn’t always the right way. So our answer to it is to work more, to strategize more, using the resources that we have now.

SJH: Earlier, you said that working with other organizations in the pre-production stage can dull the work, but what about the tasks surrounding the artwork? Do you collaborate with other organizations to do things like distributing petitions or working directly with politicians – the more administrative tasks that take place at a different time than the performance?

AL: No, it’s not something that we organize. Maybe our work inspires others to do these kinds of tasks.

SJH: Do you keep track of whether or not that happens?

AL: Not at this time, not formally, no.

From “The Dead are Coming” by the Center for Political Beauty

SJH: And what about working directly with refugees? Have you ever collaborated with them on your works or sat down with them to ask what immediate problems they have that they’d like to address?

AL: We spoke to them as we developed [The Dead are Coming], to ask the families permission to exhume their loved ones’ bodies and give them a proper burial here in Germany. But we have not asked them to help us develop the work. They have to deal with serious, life-threatening situations on a daily basis; they have no time to worry about art and we don’t ask them to do so.

SJH: But they’re aware of Political Beauty’s work?

AL: Sure.

SJH: Have you spoken to any of them who feel like the work is effective in helping them?

AL: So, they often know of our work, but really, they are dealing with too much in their daily reality. They allow us to do it, but they don’t think it will help them, necessarily.

SJH: Political Beauty gets a lot of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum because of the measures that you go to. The right says that the work is immoral, that it goes too far, so it’s disgraceful – the left says that the work uses refugees as props for the sake of art, so it’s disgraceful. But Political Beauty has seemed to embrace that criticism; you even have direct quotes on your website from your critics. Do you ever feel ethically questionable about the work?

AL: We do embrace the critics. It all serves to build the pressure, to empower people to start talking. Rarely does society enjoy confrontation, but the stress from confrontation is what can inspire people to act.

www.PoliticalBeauty.com

André Leipold

andre

It’s not that we have a vision necessarily, but we try to poke holes in the scenery – a scenery which is built up by the politicians, by the media. They are playing theatre, too, with our lives and with our destinies. We are making a counter-theatre to go against theirs. So, by poking holes in the scenery, we are trying to get a look at the truth, to see what’s under the surface. It’s about building bridges in the real reality.

André Leipold is an artist and Privy Counselor at the Center for Political Beauty (Zentrum Für Politische Schönheit) in Berlin, Germany. As self-described “aggressive humanists,” members of Political Beauty utilize shock-inducing tactics in order to draw attention to political wrong-doings. Past works include “The Dead Are Coming” – a nod to Sophocles’s “Antigone.” As a part of this work, the organization exhumed the bodies of several refugees who died in their attempt to reach safety and gave them a proper burial in Germany. In their most recent artwork, “Eating Refugees,” the Center for Political Beauty asked refugees to volunteer to be eaten by Libyan tigers in order to draw a connection between the Colosseum games of Ancient Rome and the current realities that refugees are facing: freedom or death (more on these works throughout this interview). As a result of these artistic choices, their work has been characterized as extremely controversial, pushing the boundaries of what is socially, and perhaps morally, acceptable in order to inspire others to create change.

In addition to his work at Political Beauty, Leipold is a singer, music producer, and performer.


Sarah J Halford: As an organization, what is the Center for Political Beauty? And what do you do there?

André Leipold: We are a combination of humanists and artists, and we try to create facts inside of reality. We work with the tools from the theatre but with tools from other art forms too, and we try to work as an interface between reality and wishing. It’s about breaking metaphysical and physical borders.

When we first started to think about making this kind of political artivism, or activism…actually, that’s not our word for it. We always said that we are making theatre. We are a theatre in a more ancient way; we started by breaking borders of categories inside the university, and over the years it became more literal, by breaking physical borders.

I am the so-called “Privy Councilor.” We try to find fictional words for our task fields, because they’re not really comparable. Inside a theatre, I would be something between an author and a dramaturg, but those definitions don’t really fit our stuff. So, it depends on where we are inside the production schedule. In the beginning, I’m conceptualizing with Phillip [Ruch, Chief Negotiator of the Center for Political Beauty], I’m framing, I try to find out which words should be dominant inside of the action, I try to bring some poetry inside of an action where we are working with and against politicians. For some people, it sounds like a political movement, but in some ways we try to create the imagination of a political movement, and in that, I try to bring some poetry in it, too. But, under the assumption of, or imagination of, a political movement.

SJH: I noticed that all of Political Beauty’s works are officially categorized as “artworks” rather than campaigns or actions. Is there a reason for that?

AL: The reason is, more or less, not to fall into a category. The best space of opportunity to do that is within the theatre. Theatre, by the ancient definition is already an interface. It is already a spot where you can find out where artivisim or activism is. So, the artistic space is the best location for us so that we don’t run into that dangerous field of categories. Theatre is the most abstract, but in a way fitting for the work we do.

SJH: Within that abstraction there seem to be sprinkles of a lot of things – art, traditional activism, legislative work —

AL: We are humanists and we are artists. Usually an artist likes to show his picture in a museum and says that he doesn’t want to explain the work so much. We say, “No, we are connected with political visions.” We have to explain because there’s a concrete aim that we are looking for, and we’re taking our artistic competence to do so.

So, it’s not really “free” art then. The freedom of art is what we are diminishing for ourselves, because we are giving it a label and a concrete aim. So, for years now, it’s been about refugee politics, but not only about the refugees, it’s about borders, it’s about European politics. Connecting art with political vision is what you would maybe call “artivism,” but for me it’s more about bringing all of your own artistic competence in a pool and accepting that it’s not free. It has an aim. A goal.

SJH: Activism typically has aims and goals, as well. Are you sacrificing the ability to make “free” art for the sake of adding an activist element to the work?

AL: Yes, but…I don’t really like the words “activism” or “artivism” so much, because that concept is already inside of the old definition of theatre. So, for me, I don’t need this new category.

SJH: Tell me – what’s special about the ancient definition of theatre, then?

AL: The old definition of Greek theatre is to build a platform for the old society, which was always more than some actor’s play. It was always a space where society can find itself and talk with itself, and look at itself in the mirror. Building mirrors is what we do, too.

Above: a short video from the artwork “Eating Refugees” by the Center for Political Beauty.
TL;DW: The Center for Political Beauty demanded that the German government change an antiquated law that would prevent refugees from flying from Turkey to Germany. If the law was not overturned, they said, it would be equivalent to the German government sentencing the refugees to an almost certain death, by drowning or by other dangerous circumstances on their way to safety. To illustrate the draconian nature of this law – drawing a connection to the government of ancient Rome, which played with the lives of their citizens in the Colosseum’s gladiator games – Political Beauty set up an arena with four tigers and asked refugees to volunteer to be eaten by them.
Editor’s Note: In the end, no refugees were eaten, though some did volunteer. The artwork ended with a “letter” from the tigers, translated from German, seen below:
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SJH: I’m curious about the term “assault team,” that you use to describe yourselves, where you say that you practice “aggressive humanism.” Can you tell me a little bit about why you’ve chosen “assault team” and why aggression is important in your work?

AL: Traditional humanistic work is very polite, usually, and what we are saying is that we need other ways to communicate humanism within Germany and the European society. In our latest work with the tigers [“Eating Refugees”], the animal rights groups reacted very strongly to it, which is good – they should, and they have to – but we are looking at empowering the humanistic side, too. Aggressive humanism means throwing out politeness for the sake of the work. When you look at organizations like Amnesty International or others, there is a ritualism and very weak visions, very weak pictures too, and it’s not because they have no money – they have a lot of money – but there are too many people inside of the pre-production. There are too many voices.

And so, aggressive also means being sharp, being not so much tied to an organization that also has a say in the matter. As a musician, when I’m writing a song, I don’t write the song with 50 people, I write it with 2 or maybe 3 people, and even with the addition of those voices, it’s already beginning to dull. To not have to explain so much in a time of pre-production, where it’s very important to bring your thoughts completely on the table and not thinking so much about morals or manners.

SJH: Tell me, then, about one of your favorite artworks that you thought was successful.

AL: For me, it was the “First Fall of the European Wall. it was a very magical moment for me. On this Saturday afternoon, we took out the white crosses and sent them on a vacation to the woods in Melilla [Morocco]. It was a very strong feeling for me. It was magical because there was a moment when I felt like we were truly an interface between a strong vision and reality. We built up something like a moral pressure chamber, which opened up a blind spot. To feel that, for me, it was very magical stuff. The words that we were creating were then used by the media and politicians. Some months later, we discovered that newspapers were very much inspired by it. To feel that you are someone who delivers inspiration to the right hands…it’s a very good feeling. 

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“First Fall of the European Wall” by the Center for Political Beauty.
Political Beauty took the white crosses, which commemorated the victims of the Berlin Wall, out of the government quarters just before the anniversary of the fall. Above, the empty frames of the crosses can be seen, with three paper-made replacements.The organization transferred some of the crosses to a fence on the European border and gave others to refugees at a camp in Melilla, Morocco in order to illustrate for the government – and preemptively commemorate for the world – that they would be “the next refugees to die at Europe’s external wall.”

SJH: So, it created a magical feeling within you – did you see any indications that it was going well outside of yourself? Did you notice the people respond in a certain way?

AL: I didn’t notice it outside of myself, so much. For me, it was magical to see that it was possible to have some kind of influence in spheres where you typically don’t have a connection with as an artist or citizen. To see that there were some politicians and journalists who really understood what we wanted to make, who said to us later that it was very inspiring for them, this was magical. What I mean by magic is that it’s possible to communicate with people in another form, in another way than by words. Through pictures and imaginations, to experience that they are not only seeing the hidden pictures in an artwork but also that they understand them, too. And I don’t mean only seeing the picture of the stolen crosses, but seeing and understanding the imagination that we wanted to create. They started to work on this imagination too, which was also magical because we didn’t plan it. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

SJH: So the feeling is really important.

AL: For me, yes. To feel what is going on. What is going on is not what you are reading in the newspaper, it’s not what the politicians tell you, it’s not what the theatre tells you, really what is going on – you just have to feel it, I guess. This is a strong motivation for me: to find a way of communication under the stream of data and irrelevant polls, tweets, views, and to find that there are hopes, wishes, dreams that we all share already. In that sphere of collective unconscious, that is where I want to build bridges. It’s more important for me than some other stuff, because the result you see months later is that part of the inspiration that we created has settled somewhere, and is beginning to be a fact. This is very strong. So, there’s a fear of media and of politics, and a fear of responsibility; this is where I want to bring pressure and inspiration. First, you need pressure to shake it. Then, you need inspiration to hold it.

SJH: Do all of your artworks turn out that way? First, the pressure, the shock value, and then the inspiration to make change?

AL: We always try to make it like a mobile washing machine, so that even if you are connected with the issue and you’re following the politics of it, that you don’t know anymore what’s right or what’s wrong. It depends on yourself and your own deeper feeling to decide on what’s right or what’s wrong now.

SJH: Have you ever seen that “deeper feeling” work within the public or political parties to the point that it created tangible change?

AL: The Vice Chief Editor of Die Zeit, which is a big weekly newspaper here, told us that after the action at the European border [“First Fall of the European Wall” – description above] the entire editorial staff had discussions for weeks, not about the action, but about the subject of this action.

It’s not that we have a vision necessarily, but we try to poke holes in the scenery – a scenery which is built up by the politicians, by the media. They are playing theatre, too, with our lives and with our destinies. We are making a counter-theatre to go against theirs. So, by poking holes in the scenery, we are trying to get a look at the truth, to see what’s under the surface. It’s about building bridges in the real reality.

SJH: So, it’s as if you create the controversy, and you make some people angry, perhaps, but it serves to direct people’s attention to the issue at hand. Is that where the “bridge” is built?

AL: Yes. It’s stressing people. And when you are under stress, or under pressure, you don’t think so much about about the words that you’re saying, but it creates a good moment for truth.

SJH: What kind of audiences are you making these artworks for?

AL: We address different publics, and have different moods for different publics; the audience is very diverse, I would say. There are activists who imagine us to be working more in the movement, and then there are artists, people from the theatre, who understand our work in a more artistic way. Then, there’s the media, the universities, and they are all interpreting us in different ways, with different words. And making stress means bringing all of those different views together in one pot, mixing it, and seeing what comes out.

SJH: You’re okay with some people interpreting Political Beauty as an activist group and for others to see you as a group of artists?

AL: Well, we are all of these things and more.

SJH: Interesting. So then, if the organization itself is left up to interpretation, then how do you determine the “real reality” that you’re trying to create?

AL: All I can say is that it depends on the situation, what the moment calls for. Real reality is not my truth, it is not your truth, it is a combination of all of the truths.

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From “Memorial: To the Unknown Immigrants”, part of the artwork “The Dead are Coming”, by the Center for Political Beauty.
A description of the moment above from Political Beauty: “Right after the idea for the cemetery had been announced, these determined members of our civil society set out to build it. They tore down the fence guarding the Parliament’s front lawn and dug hundreds of graves in an act of spontaneity.

SJH: Some organizations, especially in the political world, tend to turn away from people who are fully entrenched in their “truth” in order to reach those who are more on the fence, but it seems like Political Beauty actually wants the people who have their minds made up. They stir the pot.

AL: Yes, they stir the pot. And we want them to be empowered – not only for the normal citizen but for the politician. They have opinions but they don’t really feel empowered to talk about their visions for the future. They are very much inside a framing network that they have to be empowered to break out of that, too. So, I think it’s empowerment for individuals, for individual units.

SJH: So, what is your relationship to the media? Do you invite them to your performances or do they come on their own?

AL: We invite the media, but I don’t think it’s so important for the Center for Political Beauty to get to know them. For me, it’s important to know them for the sake of my other work. We are all artists for ourselves, too, and for that it’s much more important for the individual experience than for the Center because they come to what we do anyway.

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“Rescue Platforms on the Mediterranean” from the artwork “The Bridge” by the Center for Political Beauty.
Description from Political Beauty: “Every year, thousands of refugees drown in the killing fields at Europe’s external borders. According to Jean Ziegler, the death toll is at 36,000- more casualties per year than the total number of people who died at the Iron Curtain during the entire duration of the Cold War. In order to fight this silent dying efficiently, we will install 1,000 rescue platforms: 1,000 navigation lights as an international commitment to humanity and a monumental symbol of the 21st century. So far, every civilisation has left a mark of magnanimity and generosity on history.”
Editor’s note: the plan for the installation of the 1,000 platforms never came to fruition.

SJH: Can you tell me about a time when Political Beauty put out a piece where you felt like it just didn’t work?

AL: Sure. It happens more in the small actions than in the big actions. We had a small action in Austria last year called “The Bridge”. We wanted to be very positive and sunny, giving people inspiration, but it wasn’t very complex. It was just the imagination of this bridge between Europe and Austria, and the imagination of platforms in the sea to help prevent refugees from drowning. But it wasn’t about pressure, it was just more about – we’ve got so much money and why not spend this money and give people an imagination for this now. What we experienced was that people called it “nice” and it had some good results, but the media wasn’t really interested in it because it wasn’t hard enough. It wasn’t smart enough. There were no corpses, there was no stealing of crosses, there was nothing that they could write about. So we thought, okay, we have to find aggressive elements because otherwise they won’t hear us. They won’t look at us. We need that attention in order to lead them toward inspiration.

SJH: So, without that pressure and that aggression, nothing can be done?

AL: Nothing’s happening. No.

SJH: Those platforms in the middle of the sea, are they currently being used by refugees who may be forced to swim?

AL: There’s just one, but I don’t know if it’s being used. Maybe some rich guy’s wife uses this platform to lay in the sun, who knows?

SJH: Some organizations that use aggressive tactics to get media and audience attention have trouble with over-saturation. People come to expect shocking things from them, so after a while it becomes less interesting to them. How do you, at the Center for Political Beauty, prevent that from happening?

AL: We talk about it, of course. Yeah, this is a problem, sure. People know already what we do, they know what to expect from us, so it’s very hard to go a step further. Being even more aggressive or more drastic isn’t always the right way. So our answer to it is to work more, to strategize more, using the resources that we have now.

SJH: Earlier, you said that working with other organizations in the pre-production stage can dull the work, but what about the tasks surrounding the artwork? Do you collaborate with other organizations to do things like distributing petitions or working directly with politicians – the more administrative tasks that take place at a different time than the performance?

AL: No, it’s not something that we organize. Maybe our work inspires others to do these kinds of tasks.

SJH: Do you keep track of whether or not that happens?

AL: Not at this time, not formally, no.

From “The Dead are Coming” by the Center for Political Beauty

SJH: And what about working directly with refugees? Have you ever collaborated with them on your works or sat down with them to ask what immediate problems they have that they’d like to address?

AL: We spoke to them as we developed [The Dead are Coming], to ask the families permission to exhume their loved ones’ bodies and give them a proper burial here in Germany. But we have not asked them to help us develop the work. They have to deal with serious, life-threatening situations on a daily basis; they have no time to worry about art and we don’t ask them to do so.

SJH: But they’re aware of Political Beauty’s work?

AL: Sure.

SJH: Have you spoken to any of them who feel like the work is effective in helping them?

AL: So, they often know of our work, but really, they are dealing with too much in their daily reality. They allow us to do it, but they don’t think it will help them, necessarily.

SJH: Political Beauty gets a lot of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum because of the measures that you go to. The right says that the work is immoral, that it goes too far, so it’s disgraceful – the left says that the work uses refugees as props for the sake of art, so it’s disgraceful. But Political Beauty has seemed to embrace that criticism; you even have direct quotes on your website from your critics. Do you ever feel ethically questionable about the work?

AL: We do embrace the critics. It all serves to build the pressure, to empower people to start talking. Rarely does society enjoy confrontation, but the stress from confrontation is what can inspire people to act.

www.PoliticalBeauty.com