Tag Archives: art

What is she looking at?

“Cape Cod Morning”, Edward Hopper (1950)

From time to time I fear that I’ve lost the ability to be taken aback by art.

Perhaps it’s a facet of ageing – I feel that I’ve seen or heard a lot of it before – or maybe its a curse of the online age, where all art is in a piece of modifed aluminum in my pocket. Either way, the “wow” factor strikes me less and less these days.

All the more so when it comes to visual art. It’s a long time since I’ve stood before an artwork and felt a deep connection or resonance. Until recently, the last time I felt this way was standing before Picasso’s “Still Life With A Mandolin“, in Dublin a few years ago. 

And then something happened. A few weeks back my wife and I, with friends, attended the Portland Book Festival, which was partly held at the Portland Art Museum. The Festival entrance fee allowed for access to the Art Museum and its “Modern American Realism” exhibition.

All of which brought me to my revelation. Turning a corner on the second floor of the Museum, to step into the exhibition’s room, I was confronted by an imposing image of a woman, standing in a window, staring at something out of frame.

The picture, at over a meter high, transfixed me. I’d never seen this painting before. Who was this person? What had happened to her (why was she in the dark shade, in contrast to the bright of the wall and the grass outside)? Was she looking at something specific (which I assumed until I spent longer looking at her face) or staring into space?

Moreover, was I wrong in reading a sense of dread into the image? Did it simply capture a mundane moment on a mundane morning, and nothing more?

The picture was Edward Hopper’s “Cape Cod Morning“, painted with oil on canvas in 1950. I know little of biographical background to the image, which was unlikely to have been painted in New England, but instead in Hopper’s small downtown Manhattan studio. But it was a notable work created in a period of inactivity for the artist, I’ve read.

The genesis of the image doesn’t matter, of course. Brian Eno has written that “what makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you.” So it was with “Cape Cod Morning” – the image stuck in my mind for the rest of the day, and in the days and weeks since I’ve viewed it online again and again.

I’m still trying to figure out what – if anything – she’s looking at.

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Venice – five ways

Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone – but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear…

La Serenissima was already sinking when Byron wrote his famous verses about the city more than 200 years ago. Nowadays the city is subsiding into the surrounding lagoon at the rate of 2mm a year.

Not that it matters to most of us. The waves could be lapping at the altar of St Mark’s Basilica and it would still be crowded with visitors. I suspect that even in the depths of winter, amid fog, rain and blasts from the bora, the sidestreets around the Piazza San Marco and the market stalls of the Rialto are still full of sightseers.

But that’s no reason not to go, and so I found myself standing on the Viale Giardini Pubblici last week, as the April sun sank behind the Salute and the last light of day fell across the Grand Canal and onto the Riva degli Schiavoni.

The great landmarks of Venice – San Marco, the Canal, the Salute – are well known and well populated. But there’s another Venice to the one trodden by cruise-ship groups and tired families, of course. Here’s five ways to experience Venice that mix up the well-known with the less visited.

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Early evening libations in Harry’s Bar

This simple decor of this small room, where Giuseppe Cipriani opened a bar in a former rope warehouse 85 years ago, belies its reputation as one of the world’s most famous watering holes. The home of the carpaccio, the bellini and the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, it serves a fine Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail with a ‘doppio’ measure – Papa would hardly approve of anything less.

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A stroll around Peggy Guggenheim’s pad

After stints in London and Paris the bohemian art collector Guggenheim settled in Venice in 1949, setting up residence in a 18th century palazzo on the Grand Canal, which housed her collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Futurist and Abstract Expressionist paintings. Her house now serves as a gallery for the paintings. The view above is from her living room, through a window nestled between a couple of Kandinskys.

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burano

Crossing the lagoon to lunch in Burano

“A wide brackish waste surrounds it, exuding dankness…it is a muted scene…but in the middle of it there bursts a sudden splurge of rather childish colour…this is Burano”. So wrote Jan Morris of this small island, home in its heyday to fishermen and lacemakers. Forty-five minutes across the lagoon from Venice, it’s a million miles away in spirit. Small, house-proud, well-swept and very well-painted, Burano is a reminder that the people of the Venetian lagoon were – before the yachts, celebs and royalty – ordinary seafarers and merchants.

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Browsing the gondolas at Libreria Acqua Alta

This bookstore has a novel (sorry) way of keeping its stock dry from flooding – sticking the titles into gondolas. That’s not the only gimmick in this chaotically-shelved shop – a series of steps in the backyard are made of old encyclopedias, while canoes and other odd vessels can be found crammed with paperbacks.

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On the waterfront at the Viale Giardini Pubblici

We rented an apartment for our stay in the quiet Castello district, near to the Giardini Pubblici, the gardens created by Napolean Bonaparte when he took control of the city in the early 19th century. The quayside fronting the Giardini is remarkably quiet, used mainly by local strollers and joggers, yet affords beautiful views west along the Grand Canal, taking in the Salute, the Campanile di San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. ‘States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die’…anyone for an aperitif at the Danieli?

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Skipping the masterpieces in the Uffizi

In 20 or 30 years I might suddenly feel bad about it –
Stuck in traffic somewhere, or in a supermarket queue,
Assuming that cars and foodmarts haven’t gone the way of the Medicis by then.

But what person could stand in a gallery – even in the Uffizi – when they could sit
Above the Arno and the moving city on this April morning.

I can see it, stuck at the wrong party beside the wrong person,
Who’s just asked the wrong question.
“How could you visit the city and not see the Venus?”

And I’ll respond then – as I respond now –
“I saw Venus come out of the river, a badger with a fish in her mouth,
And Florence alive above her” .

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The breath and beat and bloom of Picasso

'Still Life with a Mandolin' Pablo Picasso

‘Still Life with a Mandolin’
Pablo Picasso

Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.

What makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you.

Brian Eno’s observation occurred to me as I walked around the National Gallery of Ireland recently.

I was there to view an exhibition of paintings and photography by the Irish artist Sean Scully. As I walked around the five rooms, all concrete and space and shuffling, I felt distracted – by other visitors, noise, the whisperings of the security guards. With the exception of one or two pieces I felt at odds with the exhibits.

Pablo Picasso, 1916 Pic: Amedeo Modigliani (detail from photograph)

Pablo Picasso, 1916
Pic: Amedeo Modigliani (detail from photograph)

Any connection I felt was faint, dipping in and out.

Bored, and somewhat annoyed, I left. As I did so, and with time to kill, I noticed the Gallery’s display of works from its permanent collection. Figuring I’d have a quick glance at the Gallery’s heavy-hitter, The Taking of Christ, I stepped in.

The Caravaggio was there, along with a wealth of other paintings from the 15th to the 20th centuries. It made for a pleasant, if not soul-grabbing, 20 minutes.

Then, as I was preparing to leave, there it was. Near the final room and amid a clutch of 20th century works, hung Still Life with a Mandolin. Perspective bending and saturated with Mediterranean colour the painting seizes attention. Minutes passed as I attempted to trace my way around Pablo Picasso’s work – over the bowl of fruit, across the wine bottle, up through the silhouette of the trees outside.

It left an impression as vivid at the light of Juan-Les-Pins –  even though it’s a night still-life.

Picasso created the work at Juan-Les-Pins in the summer of 1924, a year after Cubism had been declared dead. Not so, he painted.

But a biography of the work is inessential. As Eno indicated, the value of standing before Still Life with a Mandolin lies outside the painting, in the emotions I/you feel.

Life, light, summer, music, wine, fruit – all the good, true and important things are here, breath and beat and bloom.

The painting’s on display until the end of the year. Have a look – it may trigger something.

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On turning 37

John Updike Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

John Updike
Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

After a decade’s work Gertrude Stein completed The Making of Americans, comparing the finished novel to Ulysses. It went unpublished, in any form, for 13 years.

While working as the head chef at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo Georges Auguste Escoffier met Cesar Ritz. The pair later formed a business partnership which commercialised gastronomy for the ordinary man – and led to the birth of the modern restaurant.

John Updike published his first collection of Henry Bech stories, writing that he modelled the character on Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger and himself.

After spells in Berkeley, Belfast and Wicklow Seamus Heaney moved to Sandymount, Dublin, shortly after the publication of his ‘Troubles collection’, North. He would live there for the rest of his life, but rarely write about the area.

Lou Gehrig died of ALS at his home in New York. Two years earlier he had delivered his “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” address at Yankee Stadium.

Joni Mitchell Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell
Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell released Shadows and Light, a live recording featuring jazz musicians Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. It was her final album on the Asylum label, run by her Free Man in Paris.

Ten years after quitting his job as a crime reporter David Simon published The Corner, later praised as an “unblinking and agonizingly intimate” account of the urban drug trade on a single street corner in Baltimore.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, having narrowly avoided death during the construction of the Thames Tunnel, almost choked when he inhaled a coin while performing a trick for his children. The disc was finally jerked free weeks later.

John Coltrane formed his classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. After two years the group produce one of the most famous recordings in jazz, A Love Supreme.

Despite years of frustration at a lack of commercial or public interest in his work Edward Hopper continued to paint, working on seascapes during time spent on an island off the coast of Maine.

'Monhegan Houses, Maine' Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

‘Monhegan Houses, Maine’
Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

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Surrealism…with a small speck of Moate

Moate meets modern art at IMMA.  Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Moate meets modern art at IMMA.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Surrealism.

Think Andre Breton.

Think Salvador Dali.

Think Max Ernst.

Think slicing up eyeballs.

Think buttery clocks and mechanical elephants.

Think a million unread art history theses.

Think Moate.

Yes, Moate. I wouldn’t have thought so either.

Then I attended an exhibition currently running at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on ‘The Celtic Surrealist’, painter Leonora Carrington.

The citizens of Mexico, where Carrington lived for most of her adult life, might disagree with the title. And, to be honest, the few Celtic influences in the paintings are overshadowed by multiple flying horses and scores of small stoat-like creatures.

Nonetheless. A surrealist legend with a connection to Moate, Co Westmeath, population 3,000 and heretofore unheralded on the map of modern art?

This was a surprise to someone who grew up in nearby Athlone and later covered Moate on the beat as a local reporter.

Carrington did not hail from the town herself, alas. But her mother, Marie Moorhead, did. The other main female figure in her early life was her Irish nanny, who reportedly fed her full of Irish mythology.

Carrington is later explained: “My love for the soil, nature, the gods given to me by my mother’s mother who was Irish from Westmeath, where there is a myth about men who lived underground inside the mountains, called the ‘little people’ who belong to the race of the ‘Sidhe’.

“The stories my grandmother told me were fixed in my mind and they gave me mental pictures that I would later sketch on paper.”

'Ulu's Pants' Leonora Carrington (1952). © Estate of Leonora Carrington/ARS

‘Ulu’s Pants’
Leonora Carrington (1952).
© Estate of Leonora Carrington/ARS

After childhood, the Moate and Ireland connection appears to end. There’s no record of Carrington visiting Westmeath. One of her works, not on display at IMMA alas, is an imaging of her mother’s family home there: Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen (1975). 

Carrington went on to live in Paris in the 1930s, becoming a figure in the nascent Surrealist movement there, and Max Ernst’s lover. She later lived in Spain, was committed to a mental institution, before moving to the United States and eventually Mexico.

She achieved considerable fame in that country, becoming second only in national affection to Frida Kahlo. Her home countries were slower to recognise her. Carrington had her first major exhibition in London in 1991 and ‘The Celtic Surrealist’ is the first Irish exhibition devoted solely to her work.

There are traces of Ireland in paintings displayed at IMMA. But citizens of Moate will have to look long and hard at the paintings to decipher a connection to the town.

Celtic mythology is elsewhere though: a flaming red-haired Fionn mac Cumhaill facing his salmon of knowledge; a depiction of St Patrick with snakes; and a work, ‘The Red Steeds of the Sidhe’, which depicts the 1st century Irish high king Conaire and his encounter with three Sidhe horsemen.

If not Co Westmeath itself, the flatlands of the Irish Midlands form the background to the latter work, with Conaire seen approaching the Hill of Tara in Co Meath.

Just about enough of a local connection to justify the exhibition’s title.

Elsewhere ‘The Celtic Surrealist’ contains 90-odd works including paintings, sculpture, film, writings, curios like childhood notebooks and even bank documents.

Mother goddesses mix with NYPD cops and Edwardian breakfast guests. And there are many, many flying horses.

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‘The Celtic Surrealist’ runs at IMMA until January 26, 2014.

Here are curator Sean Kissane’s comments on Irish mythology in three of the paintings on display:

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