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Helen Frankenthaler was eminent among the second generation of postwar American abstract painters and is widely credited for playing a pivotal role in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting. She blurred the borders between geometry, order, chaos, the body, atmosphere and ground. Her huge colourful paintings look like gigantic watercolours, but are in fact painted with oils and acrylics. She worked directly on unprepared canvas and diluted the oil paint with turpentine (later she switched to acrylic paint), causing it to soak into the canvas a technique called ‘soak stain” that was later adopted by other abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock.
Her work was not highly gestural and painterly, instead she preferred to create pieces that looked as if they were “born in a minute”. Helen Frankenthaler said about her artworks:
“A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It’s an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks labored and overworked, and you can read in it, well, she did this and then she did that, and then she did that there is something in it that has not got to do with beautiful art to me.
I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute”.
What concerns me when I work, is not whether the picture is a landscape, or whether it’s pastoral, or whether somebody will see a sunset in it.
What concerns me is “did I make a beautiful picture”?”
Basque Beach (1958) was painted while Frankenthaler was on her honeymoon with painter Robert Motherwell. The couple stayed for two months in a villa in the Basque beach town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France. Basque Beach captures the mood, colors, light, and sensuality of the beach. Space goes back to the horizon where light flickers in the blue sky. A blue mass extending from the center to the right of the canvas evokes water. The beige and brown colors suggest the shore. On the left of the canvas one can see a body with legs and rounded head and arm forms. It has the sensual quality of a nude figure on the beach. The beach setting and Frankenthaler’s amorous feelings fused to create a sensual and powerful image. Basque Beach reflects a period of discovery for Frankenthaler. It was a struggle between the need and desire for abstraction with an innate passion for nature and landscape imagery. The complex relationship between depth and flatness is also apparent.
I deeply like Basque Beach because of its light and simple beauty. I have the strange feeling that no one could deny the grace of this painting, that is why I find it of universal value. In addition, it reminds me of the inner tranquility that can be found on the beaches of the Basque country, a charming place that looks like a lost paradise. Finally, I find that Basque Beach illustrates well that Helen Frankenthaler was one of the foremost colorists of our time.
Terrence Malick truly knows how to capture the perfection of an image, a gift that he has not only showed in Days of Heaven, but also in The Thin Red Line (1998) and in The Tree of Life (2011) as well. Whatever, I have seen few films in which the photographic quality is so clear as in Days of Heaven. The light is always right and the location of the camera carefully selected. What is incredible is that if you press pause on the player at almost any moment, you have a perfect image. Each plan is a work of art.
“Nobody’s perfect. There ain’t ever been a perfect person around. You just got half devil and half angel in you” says Linda, the little girl who narrates the film. She captures here the essence of one of the dominant themes of the movie, navigating the boundaries between good and evil. The film is set in 1916 and Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are impoverished lovers who move out Chicago with Bill’s little sister Linda and end up in the Texas where they take on farm labouring jobs for a wealthy but dying farmer (Sam Shepard). They pretend to be siblings to prevent unwelcome questions. After noticing that the farmer is interested in Abby, Bill persuades her to try to marry the farmer so they can get his money. The plan goes well but then the farmer does not get any sicker; a classic love triangle with disastrous consequences ensues.
It might seem that Bill is the obvious villain with his rage and manipulative abilities. But his stoicism while watching the woman he loves with another man and his pursuit of his right to a better life prevent us from hating him. Abby seems sympathetic, torn between her love for two men, but yet she accepts the plan and lets the tragic events occur. The farmer, who is a good man reaching out for a companion in his loneliness, is also fatally flawed by jealousy. Each of the characters has good and evil within them. So Malick enables nature to provide a commentary on their complex relationship. The bucolic landscapes of the early film – the vast plains of Texas wheatfields, actually filmed in Canada – are consumed in a biblical display of nature’s dark side in the form of a plague of locusts and an almighty fire. It is not only humans who are multifaceted, but nature herself is also half-angel, half-devil. Days of heaven really turn into days of hell.
Nature is truly another character in this movie and Malick is interested in the interplay between man and the natural world. Although the open plains provide a marked contrast to the dirty poverty of Chicago, the movie reminds us that the farm is also an industrial landscape. It is a landscape in which man and nature collide. In the Edward Hopper inspired shots of the grand farmhouse towering (from his House by the Railroad), isolated, over the enormous fields we are reminded that man is trying to take control here. The panoramic shots of the massive harvesting machinery in action reinforce this idea.
Despite man’s amibitions, Malick reminds us of our own insignificance. He does it notably by capturing the glorious light of the sky. Unlike many directors, Malick tried to film using natural light. Days of Heaven was largely shot in the so called “magic hour”, the narrow sliver of time just around sunrise and sunset. This made filming rather long as the shooting time each day was severely limited, but the results are spectacular. This almost exclusive use of natural light gives the movie the rose-tinted wash of memory, which somehow takes us back to hazy childhood summers, to carefree days in the sun.
A great deal of this telling is done without words. The dialogue is kept to a bare minimum, sometimes giving the film a silent-movie feeling and yet the acting is really nuanced. The soundtrack, especially the famous but still magical Aquarium by Camille Saint-Saitns, – expresses the story with greater force than words and gives the movie a sacred nature. Malick spent over a year editing this movie; looking for the best shots, cutting the extraneous, putting the film back together to form a meaningful, coherent whole. Days of Heaven thus represents for me at once a film of great beauty and a homage to the search for perfection – a visual poem.
The Stravinsky Fountain was inaugurated in 1983. It is a striking work composed by sixteen small musical fountains spouting jets of water, which are gathered in a 33m long by 17m wide shallow basin.
This unusual fountain is intended to evoke the emotional and sometimes strange music of the famous Russian composer, who had a link with France as he lived there between 1920 and 1939, and became a naturalized citizen in 1934. Stravinsky is not only one of the most influential composers, but also one of the most eclectic and unconventional of the 20th century. The Stravinsky Fountain is a tribute to his talent: the fountains sit in the water and create a series of sounds that evoke Stravinsky’s musical creations. Each sculpture of the fountain is reflective of his compositions. For instance, one of the birds is from his piece called The Firebird. Moreover, Stravinsky was known for his unconventional musical compositions. With Mozart and Beethoven as his predecessors, his music is definitely ‘modern’ in style. Hence the unconventional nature of this incredible fountain.
The Stravinksy fountain is the joint creation of the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely and his wife Niki de Saint Phalle. Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle were both artists of the so-called Nouveau Realisme (New Realism) movement, but their works couldn’t be more different. Tinguely’s sculptures are made of steel and aluminium and painted black. His objects look almost like machines, with a very mechanical nature. In contrast, Saint Phalle’s works are created from fiberglass and polyester; they are bright and colorfully painted. Her works seem to come from a merry phantasy world. Many of the sculptures represent animals, such as a snake, a fox and an elephant, while others symbolize concepts such as love (huge lips) or music (the G-clef). According to Tinguely, the ‘circus-like’ chaos of the fountain is intended to evoke Stravinsky’s encounters with jazz. Additionally, the artists asked that the water be left untreated and that moss be allowed to grow on the fountain so that nature could contribute to the work, but it didn’t happen. The artists did not want the fountain to overwhelm the already eye-catching Centre Pompidou. The fountain is low to the ground and approachable, with low-powered motors in the waterworks so that visitors can wade in the water on hot days. Tinguely was responsible for the electrical motors that animate the kinetic sculptures (already equipped with water jets), which add to the fountain’s attraction. The Stravinsky Fountain, or Fontaine des Automates, is thus a gigantic musical work of art in motion. It was not without controversy though. When it was unveiled in 1983 some found the primary colors and abstract shapes gaudy and at odds with the refinement of classical music. Nowadays, the fountain is one of the most photographed attractions in the neighborhood though.
What I find very admirable is first the diversity that this single work contains. Indeed, because of its composition and meaning, it is an artwork at the crossroads of disciplines, between architecture, sculpture, music, painting, mechanics and urban design. The combination of the two styles of Saint Phalle and Tinguely also makes the fountain appear whimsical and disorderly. Then, the choice of the location is very interesting. On one end, there is the Centre Pompidou, the huge museum complex whose design, by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, turns the building “inside out” with mechanicals and stairways on the outside. Saint-Merri, at the other end of the fountain, is a 16th century church. Thus the fountain appears to me as a bridge between two artistic worlds, which sometimes struggle to meet. The Stravinsky fountain is also encircled by a few restaurants and by the IRCAM centre for contemporary music. In addition, it often attracts various street performers, such as mimes, jugglers, acrobats, dancers, and caricature artists. During the high tourist seasons of the spring and summer, these performers are organised into small carnivals accompanied with food and music and souvenirs. The whole participates to the particular warm atmosphere emanates from this place. It is thus a very pleasant and popular place to stroll around or sit and relax. My parents brought me there one time when I was five years old and the fountain had marked me so much that I have always remembered it as a very good memory, without knowing anything about it for a long time. And indeed, the Stravinsky fountain is especially popular with children who are intrigued by the bright colors, the water jets and constant movement of the almost comical figures.
At the end, the Stravinsky fountain touches me because with its childish airs, its roundness and its jaw-dropping machinations, the ‘fountain of automatons’, in perpetual movement, releases something playful, carefree, but also magic or surreal.
“We often forget that we are nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So, when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.”
Andy Goldsworthy is a British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist living in Scotland who has created sublime works of art made up of only natural materials. He not only works with nature, but in nature. Goldsworthy’s work draws upon a Minimalist aesthetic that derives from seeing the poetic in the everyday. He delicately shapes leaves, snow, ice, twigs, feathers, rocks, and other elements, and blurs the line between natural and man-made beauty. He thus rearranges natural forms in such a way as to enhance rather than detract from their beauty. Andy Goldsworthy uses many techniques in his artworks such as, circles, lines and spirals, often quite small in scale and ephemeral. This last aspect makes his work even more precious. Indeed, Goldsworthy views the inevitable death and decay in his work as part of the life cycle – he takes an environmentalist’s approach, lending an utmost respect toward the natural world as most of his pieces gradually fade away into the land from which they have come. The passage of time and its eventual dissolution of materiality is central to Goldsworthy’s work. In focusing on ephemerality, Goldsworthy rejects the idea of art as a commodity to be exhibited and sold. Furthermore, he sees the fact that he uses temporal objects as a reflection of the ever-changing world we live in and the need to understand that nothing is eternal.
It is the 2001 documentary Rivers and Tides, directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer, that has made me discover and appreciate Goldsworthy’s art. Indeed, in this film, we can see how he is dedicated to his work and one can only be impressed by the respect he has for nature and the calm he shows face to its power (especially, face to the one of destruction). It is interesting to understand how working with nature roots him, and how time away from his work makes him feel rootless. Moreover, Goldsworthy’s images are so potent we can practically smell the icy snow, the wet leaves, and the damp earth.
Dandelions and Hole is an attractive artwork in many ways. First of all, the arrangement of flowers both natural and modified by Goldsworthy creates a kind of sun, whose rays are irregular and everywhere. The artist’s contribution is minimal (only the inner circle needs Goldsworthy to be formed), but at the same time crucial to showcase the beauty of nature. Then, the flaming yellow of the dandelions is highlighted by the contrast with the dark green grass, so dark that the hole in the middle seems to be black, reminiscent of another of Goldsworthy’s works made the same year, Rowan leaves and hole. The black hole has indeed been a constant theme throughout Goldsworthy’s career. He sees black space as not merely the absence of light but rather a positive presence, a tangible substance in its own right. There also seems to be a slight wind that rustles flowers and grass, which adds a slight movement to the creation. Finally, when I look at Dandelions and Hole, I find that it conveys a feeling of freshness and carelessness during a sunny end of day.
Yael Bartana’s films, installations and photographs explore the imagery of identity and the politics of memory. Central to the work are meanings implied by terms like ‘homeland’, ‘return’ and ‘belonging’. In her Israeli projects, Bartana dealt with the impact of war, military rituals, and a sense of threat on every-day life. Though she sees her work as in contact with politics, she refuses to pass judgment or offer solutions to political conflicts. Instead, she reveals political conditions and mechanisms, inviting her audience to be active viewers and participants.
One of her latest work, Tashlikh (Cast-off), is a visual performance that gathers personal objects linked to horrors of the past and the present. Inspired by the Jewish custom of Tashlikh, in which sins are cast into the depths of the sea, Bartana’s work generates a ritual that consists of the deliberate discarding of objects as a means of psychological liberation. In slow motion and accompanied by a constant thud sound, which creates a hypnotic and disturbing soundscape, a collection of diverse objects falls through the image. A black backdrop creates a feeling of limitless space, disconnecting the objects from a specific time or place. With this cascade of objects, the viewer has the impression to look at the stream of a virtual river from above. There are clothes, keys, books, medals, weapons, framed photos and other personal belongings of both victims and perpetrators of genocide. Not only the Holocaust is discussed, but also the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the more recent ethnic cleansing in Sudan and Eritrea. Private objects are material testimonies of personal histories, but at the same time represent a larger, shared history. In the context of war and survival, such objects become both comforting and hurtful signifiers of a world that has been lost, or is no longer accessible. The free-falling items also become performative actors, standing in for the people to whom they belong and representing the diasporas that form when ethnic groups are subjected to violence.
The first time I saw Tashlikh, I was visiting the Stedelijk Museum with a friend and we were joyfully commenting every artwork we found. Suddenly, we arrived in a dark room broadcasting Cast off. We immediately stopped talking and moving, as we were enthralled by what we were viewing. Indeed, the work’s ambient, echoing soundscape contributed to a sense of immersiveness, which completely dissolved the divisions between the space of the video and that of the museum. Not a single person of those who were in the room left it before that was over. The moment that hit me the most was the sudden rain of multiple Jewish yellow stars at the end of the film, because it was both visually beautiful and symbolically incredibly strong and painful. Thus, Bartana’s work generates a new ritual that consists of the deliberate discarding of objects as a means of psychological liberation by casting off possessions that materially connect victims and perpetrators to a traumatic past.
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