I don’t know if Nicolas Longo likes to be compared to other artists. Many artists don’t, yet nobody lives in a cultural vacuum. As an art historian and art critic, I try to describe the innovations of new artists in terms of the legacies of the past. Nicolas Longo is a young Argentinian artist. He started painting Abstract art at the age of twelve, growing up in the age of digital art and the Internet. His geometric art seems to come to life: the abstract shapes pile up, one upon the other, in multiple dimensions and countless angles, beckoning to the viewer with their vivid colors.
In Longo’s art we can see traces of Piet Mondrian’s obsession with primary colors and simple geometric shapes, which the artist viewed as spiritual basics. As Mondrian famously stated in 1914: “Art is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality. To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. We find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art.” Perhaps echoing this idea, Longo observes: “I feel that the common trait in contemporary art is having nothing to say. I only focus on painting until my hands burn.”
While Longo’s artwork makes no claim to mirroring or expressing reality, it certainly evokes emotion. His vivid colors—bright reds, deep purples, and strident neon greens–clamor for our attention. Their geometric shapes burst unto the screen in a manner foretold but perhaps not fully imagined by Pablo Picasso’s Cubism, which depicted objects—and subjects—in terms of their underlying, simpler geometric shapes while allowing the viewer a fuller, richer three dimensional perspective from several angles. Multiply that Cubism by a hundred and you get Nicolas Longo’s dynamic Abstraction: a geometry bursting at the seams, moving with a mesmerizing force in a dance of color and form that overwhelms the senses and tantalizes the imagination.
Romanian masterpices at the Grimberg Gallery: Balancing originality and autonomy with tradition and patronage in contemporary artistic styles
By Claudia Moscovici, art critic, founder of the postromantic art movement, and author of Romanticism and Postromanticism (2007)
Since the modern era the notion of “artistic style” has become synonymous with “originality”. Originality represents a step beyond individuality. It traces each artist’s unique fingerprint, setting his art apart from the works of other artists. This understanding of “style”, however, is relatively new in the history of art. Before the nineteenth-century, originality and individuality were not the most highly prized qualities of art. As for autonomy, or regarding art as separate from social functions, this notion didn’t even exist before the modern period.
During the Renaissance, the artist emerged as an individual assumed to have a unique talent that was in some way useful to those in power. Artists helped elevate the status of the Church or the State through their masterpieces. They were also considered useful to society in general, by providing works of rare and incredible beauty that the educated public could enjoy. Despite, in fact, being “original”, Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo perceived their paintings and sculptures as a means of elevating and preserving the social order of their times not only as a mark of their individual genius. No doubt, both Leonardo and Michelangelo could afford to select among patrons and to aggravate those they did serve by postponing deadlines to perfect their masterpieces. In this way, they created the blueprint of the temperamental and independent “artistic” personality that would emerge more fully with Romanticism. Despite the increased prestige of masterful artists, however, Renaissance art contributed to the glory of the patrons and the community (or the nation) it was created for. In other words, art’s undeniable beauty was inseparable from its social usefulness.
As artists’ prestige increased during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so did their relative power and independence from patrons. Romanticism marked this transformation by explicitly declaring the artist to be a creative genius and by regarding individuality and originality as the supreme qualities of true art. Yet for most Romantic poets, writers and artists, as for the Renaissance masters, art was still bound to its social function. The artist or writer imagined by poets like Wordsworth, Lamartine and Hugo spread to the public, through his unique aesthetic sensibility, imagination, discernment and talent, not only aesthetic pleasure but also a heightened and more empathetic moral and political consciousness.
While earlier forms of Romanticism couple social utility and beauty, late Romantic and Modern art and literature would come to disassociate them. As early as the 1830’s, the autonomy of art from society was proclaimed by Théophile Gautier’s phrase, “art for art’s sake” (l’art pour l’art) and by his criticism of the notion that art had to be in any way useful to society.
postmodern philosopher, Arthur Danto
Postmodern art resurrects the notions of art’s utility and individuality, but usually only to critique them. Gautier’s well-known polemic in his 1834 preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin—“the most useful place of a house is the latrine”—seems to have turned into a twisted prophecy almost a hundred years later, when Marcel Duchamp, under the pseudonym R. Mutt, exhibited a urinal as an objet d’art at the 1917 Independents’ Exhibition in New York City. With this partly joking provocation, art took a seemingly irreversible conceptual turn. As the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto convincingly demonstrates, what constitutes art can no longer be discerned visually.
Ion Dimitriu Barlad – Enescu
Contemporary Romanian art, however, seems to distinguish itself through a partial return to the worthwhile aesthetic values of the past. And it’s about time. The Grimberg Gallery features some of the best contemporary Romanian artists, each of whom has a unique style; each of whom pays homage to the artistic past rather than only turning away from it. To offer only a few examples, among many talented artists: Ioan Dimitriu Barlad’s masterful sculpture is perhaps the most explicit homage. His bust of the composer George Enescu (1881-1955) captures the musician in a realistic style and paradigmatic pose: a particularly expressive moment of sensibility and contemplation.
Ioan Stoenescu – Icoana cu medalioane
Ioan Stoenescu’s Christian icon, “Icoana cu medalioane”, evokes the now lost art form of medieval “illuminations”: smaller oval portraits of revered saints surrounding the central depiction of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, painted with great delicacy and skill. A gilded foil illuminates the composition from within, giving it an otherworldly aura.
Adam Baltatu – Nuduri in peisaj
The painter Adam Baltatu reawakens our interest in figurative art, which is, indeed, after decades dominated by abstraction and conceptual art, becoming popular once again. His “Nuduri in peisaj” (“Nudes on landscape”) shows the beauty of the countryside enhanced by the beauty of feminine forms. The artist conveys the two women with a sense of harmony, balance and muted colors reminiscent of post-Impressionism, particularly of the paintings of Gauguin and Cézanne.
Iosif Iser- Odalisca
Iosif Iser’s “Odalisca” (“Odalisque”) also evokes post-Impressionism in style, although the odalisque was a favorite theme of Neo-classical and Romantic painters (particularly Ingres and Delacroix). Iser’s odalisque holds a relaxed, modern pose, displaying her half-veiled body in an almost defiant manner reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia.
Doru Moscu – Alfred’s dream
Doru Moscu’s “Alfred’s dream”, painted with broad brushstrokes of blues, grays, browns and greens, is more Expressionist in style. In this painting color assumes extreme importance, suggesting a somber mood, as furtive and enigmatic as the shadowy man on the right side of the canvas.
Mihai Zgondoiu -Artist`s Golden Hand Triptic
Surrealism has experienced a contemporary rebirth as well, as we can see in Mihai Zgondoiu’s “Artist’s Golden Hand Triptic”. In this monochromatic composition the artist’s hand, in a golden cast, stands out in poses suggestive of classical sculptures yet truncated, headless, and fragmentary: like the pieces of a disjointed dream that assume great symbolic significance.
Aurel Tar – Lectura
Aurel Tar’s “Lectura” carries the legacy of Impressionism forward, into the relatively new field of digital art. A painting reminiscent in theme and style of the works of Morisot and Cassatt–a mother reading to her tired, sleepy daughter as they wait together at the train station—has a (paradoxically) new feel through its explicitly retro look (the newspaper print-like pointillism of digital art).
Why is it is it so important for contemporary artists to reinvent, in their unique and original styles, some of the greatest traditions in art history? I think, first of all, because no art exists in a cultural vacuum. Complete individuality is an illusion. Originality, when pushed to an extreme, risks degenerating into mere shock value. Just as contemporary artists can’t reject the influence of the artistic movements that came before them, they shouldn’t underestimate the importance of their patrons: the critics, the viewers, the buyers and the lovers of art.
Picasso and Gilot
For, to conclude my introduction with a citation by Picasso—arguably the most subversive and original modern artist—even subversion cannot exist without tradition, nor can originality exist in the absence of sound aesthetic standards:
“Today we are in the unfortunate position of having no order or canon whereby all artistic production is submitted to rules. They—the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians—did. Their canon was inescapable because beauty, so-called, was, by definition, contained in those rules. But as soon as art had lost all link with tradition, and the kind of liberation that came in with Impressionism permitted every painter to do what he wanted to do, painting was finished. When they decided it was the painter’s sensations and emotions that mattered, and every man could recreate painting as he understood it from any basis whatever, then there was no more painting; there were only individuals. Sculpture died the same death. … Painters no longer live within a tradition and so each one of us must recreate an entire language from A to Z. No criterion can be applied to him a priori, since we don’t believe in rigid standards any longer. In a certain sense, it’s a liberation but at the same time it’s an enormous limitation, because when the individuality of the artist begins to express itself, what the artist gains by way of liberty he loses in the way of order, and when you’re no longer able to attach yourself to an order, basically that’s very bad.” (My life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot, 21)
Returning to some shared artistic criteria and reclaiming art’s role in society doesn’t mean reverting to the rigid criteria of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, which can be respected but not revived. It means revitalizing the importance of art today. As we’ve seen in my brief perusal of Romanian contemporary art featured by the Grimberg Gallery, individuality of style can coexist with respect for past artistic traditions and artistic freedom is entirely compatible with an appreciation of art’s patrons: us, the viewing public.
The legacy of Michael Hafftka: Emotion and expressionism in Holocaust art
by Claudia Moscovici
Michael Hafftka is an internationally renowned artist, whose works are displayed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art, among other museums. Art critics have dubbed his powerful and moving painting, “The Selecting Hand,” “the Guernica of the Holocaust”. This comparison with Picasso’s masterpiece is flattering and apt. Both paintings represent the atrocities inflicted upon innocent individuals: in Picasso’s case, the bombing of Guernica in 1937 by German and Italian planes (at the incitement of Spanish Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War); in Hafftka’s case, the suffering and death of millions of innocent victims during the Holocaust. Both paintings express undisguised pain and emotion in a way that is disturbing to viewers. Both stand as compelling anti-war symbols and reminders of the atrocities of the past for future generations.
In this spirit, Hafftka’s “The Selecting Hand” was selected as a representative work of art for the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date of January 27—the day that Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1945–was designated by the UN General Assembly as a day of commemoration of the Holocaust. On this day, “the UN urges every member state to honor the victims of the Nazi era and to develop educational programs to prevent future genocides” (www.ushmm.org). This day of international significance also has a profound personal meaning for Michael Hafftka. “I painted it in 1986 in memory of my parents and my family who perished in the Holocaust,” Hafftka declares in his artist profile on The Huffington Post. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-hafftka/)
“The Selecting Hand” alludes to the selection process in Nazi concentration camps. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, this process was quick and, for the most part, arbitrary. As soon as they stepped out of the deportation trains—where, usually, they had been deprived for days of food, water and hygienic conditions—the weakened victims were led by guards into the selection line. The guards first separated men from women and children, ripping apart families whose only solace and strength was each other. Then, following a brief and superficial visual inspection, the Nazi physicians decided whether an individual was fit for work or should be sent to the gas chamber. Babies, children, pregnant women and young mothers with small children were doomed. They were immediately taken to the gas chambers. Disoriented and frightened, the victims often didn’t even know where they were headed, since the death chambers were disguised as public showers. We see this aspect of the selection process featured in Hafftka’s painting, which reveals a woman with her blonde hair half shorn and a young child, crawling to her right, trying hopelessly to cling to life.
Although not painted in a realist style, “The Selecting Hand” is nevertheless a historically realistic painting. It’s accurate right down to the imprint of a hand on the wall and the slots through which the toxic gas Zyklon B (crystalline hydrogen cyanide) was channeled through pellets down the airshafts of the gas chamber. The painting shows the horrific and brutal reality of the Holocaust as it was. We see intertwined human beings fighting for life. Their bodies and individuated features are blurred by the toxic gas as it engulfs them. Darkness surrounds both the dead and the dying.
Since part of the significance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which Hafftka’s “The Selecting Hand” in turn commemorates, is to educate the public about the Holocaust and prevent future genocides, the question arises if we—“we” understood as humanity in general–ever learn from the history of the Holocaust enough not to repeat such disasters. Certainly, if you look at the number of genocides that followed the Holocaust—in Zanzibar, Guatemala, Pakistan, North Korea, Laos, Congo, Cambodia, Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Congo and Somalia among other places—it would seem that humanity hasn’t learned much from the past. Yet, hopefully, the future isn’t entirely bleak.
Our hope of dignity and survival consists in spreading truthful information about atrocities around the world and in combating indifference to human suffering in the places that aren’t immediately affected by them. Totalitarian regimes, ethnic or religious antagonism, and sociopathic rulers will no doubt continue to exist for as long as human beings live on this planet. Such dangerous and dark forces of history will continue to foster hatred and destruction around them.
Many have said after WWII that they didn’t know of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. Some have claimed they knew about “pogroms”, but not about mass genocide in concentration camps. Today, in an Internet age where information travels almost instantaneously to all corners of the world, claiming ignorance can’t offer the same shield from knowledge of the truth. We have fewer excuses—or reasons—to remain indifferent to atrocities perpetrated against the innocent. For, as Elie Wiesel reminds us in Night, “The Opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Michael Hafftka’s painting, “The Selecting Hand,” represents an homage to the victims of the past and a reminder to us today that we cannot afford to be indifferent to genocide ever again: no matter where it takes place and no matter who are its victims.
Emotion in the history of art
To my mind, one of the key aspects of Michael Hafftka’s art is that it evokes emotion. It is certainly inspired by visceral feelings processed through thought, aesthetic intuition (balance, shape, color, harmony) and the mysterious ingredient which we still call talent. It is impossible to look at any of Hafftka’s paintings and not feel the emotions it inspires, even before we analyze it intellectually or ascribe it a specific theme: be it suffering, death, disease, love, betrayal or pain. Because emotion is so central to Hafftka’s process of creation and to the viewer’s experience, it’s worth briefly integrating the artist’s richly emotive art in the history of art.
We tend to associate art and emotion. The Romantic notion of art as the product of an emotive, sensitive and inspired artist who creates masterpieces to move the public has not altogether disappeared from the popular imagination. Yet, in recent history—particularly since the movement of art for art’s sake in the nineteenth century and the formalist and conceptual currents of the twentieth century—emotion has almost disappeared from art itself. Even in the movement of conceptual art most closely associated with emotion and spirituality—abstract expressionism—emotion is a part of the process of artistic creation and palpable in the moving effect of art upon (some) viewers rather than readily recognizable in the artistic object itself. There is, of course, no eternally valid rule that dictates that emotion should be an inherent part of a work of art—or of any part of the artistic process, for that matter. And, in fact, art has not always existed as separate from artifact and artistic objects have not always been valued for their expressive powers.
For the ancient Egyptians, to offer one notable example, art served a largely symbolic and religious function. Tombs, busts and paintings were used as a means of preserving and glorifying the souls of kings, queens and other privileged members of society. E.H. Gombrich tells us that, appropriately enough, one Egyptian word for sculptor was “He-who-keeps-alive.” Egyptian artists depicted the human figure not as they saw it, nor to express or provoke emotion, but to capture the essence of an important person’s spirit for the afterlife by representing his or her body from its most characteristic angles. The face was shown in profile; the eye from the front; the shoulders and chest from the front; the legs from the side, with the feet seen from the inside and toes pointed upward. (The Story of Art, 60-1). For millennia Egyptian figures had a frozen and immobile, non-expressive look that strove to freeze the souls of powerful men and women in time and to safeguard their happiness in the afterlife.
Greek art was perhaps the first—and certainly the most influential art in the Western tradition–to capture the essence not only of the human spirit, but also of the human form, with all its movement and powers of expression. In Greek art, we feel, even the body seems infused with a soul. Myron’s famous sculpture of the discus thrower, Discobolos (c. 450 B.C), which is of the same era as the better known works of the sculptor Pheidias, displays the beauty, poise, force and movement of a young man’s efforts to launch the discus he holds in his hand. The sculpture is not entirely naturalistic—in the sense that athletes who would try to assume the same position would not be able to throw the discus very far. Nonetheless, it captures the elegance and athleticism of the male body in the first blush of youth. Part of this sculpture’s naturalism lies in the way it conveys movement and emotion through the positioning and poise of the body. This artistic video on classical sculpture by Philip Scott Johnson highlights this phenomenon:
More generally, classical Greek and Hellenistic sculptures rarely look stiff or contrived because of the way in which the human form is balanced: often in a position of counterpoise, with the weight shifted upon one leg, which allows sculptors to reveal the muscular curvatures of the body.
While classical Greek sculpture tends to focus upon the beauty of the human form, Hellenistic art—the art of the empires founded by Alexander the Great’s followers—places increasing emphasis upon the expression of emotion. The kinds of feelings represented in Hellenistic sculpture, however, are not those of everyday people in ordinary circumstances. Rather, Hellenistic art usually exhibits the emotions of extraordinary individuals engaged in tragic conflicts. To offer one well-known example, the sculpture Laocöon and his sons (175-50 B.C.)—executed by Hagesandros, Anthenodoros and Polydoros of Rhodes–immortalizes the story of a priest who is being punished by the gods for forewarning the Trojans not to accept a giant horse which, as it turns out, carried inside it enemy soldiers.
This sculpture was rediscovered in Rome in 1506 and many art historians believe that what was found was not the original sculpture, but a Roman copy. Whether or not it is the original work, The Laocöon Group made a strong impression upon Italian Renaissance sculptors, especially Michelangelo. Laocoon is frozen in an image of terrible anguish since his punishment consists of having to witness two gigantic snakes emerge from the sea and suffocate with their coils his beloved sons. Hellenistic art, at least in this representative sculpture that would become a favorite during the Renaissance and the Neoclassical periods, privileges the expression of a kind of emotion that is at once mythical and dramatic: mythical in its literary and religious references, dramatic in its depiction of human tragedy.
The painting and sculpture of the Renaissance masters continues to focus upon the expression of emotion on a grand scale and to grapple with the connection—as well as the hiatus–between the human and the divine. Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave (1513), for example, reveals the moment when the slave lets go of earthly life as his soul escapes toward heavenly existence.
Despite the twists and turns of his beautiful, muscular form, the slave’s body reflects the resignation, tranquility and spirituality of the transition from life to death. Emotive expression, Michelangelo shows so well, is not necessarily primarily located in the face. The whole body, every movement and gesture, expresses the feelings and attitudes reflected in the face.
This total, eloquent expressivity of sculpture reaches its apex, many believe, in Lorenzo Bernini’s The ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1645-52). The sculpture represents the sixteenth century mystic in a state of rapture. We witness the moment when the angel of God pierces the young nun with a golden arrow, provoking the paradoxical feelings of pleasure mixed with pain and of sensual abandon mixed with divine illumination. As she swoons, half-closing her eyes and slightly opening her lips with ecstasy, Saint Teresa becomes the very embodiment of religious fervor, spiritual attunement and passion. Even the drapery that enfolds her body swirls and twists around her with the same mixture of passive yet passionate frenzy visible on her face.
But what about the expression of more modest, individuated feelings? In the modern period, few artists were as thoughtful and successful in showing the relation between human form and feeling as Auguste Rodin. Despite the religious allusions of The Gates of Hell, Rodin brings emotion down to earth by materializing a passion that functions not only as a connection between the human and the divine, but also as an intimate and profound connection between earthly lovers. Perhaps no one else has described Rodin’s most sensual and moving sculpture, “The Kiss,” as eloquently as his friend, the art critic Gustave Geffroy:
“The man’s head is bent, that of the woman is lifted, and their mouths meet in a kiss that seals the intimate union of their two beings. Through the extraordinary magic of art, this kiss, which is scarcely indicated by the meeting of their lips, is clearly visible, not only in their meditative expressions, but still more in the shiver that runs equally through both bodies, from the nape of the neck to the soles of the feet, in every fiber of the man’s back, as it bends, straightens, grows still, where everything adores—bones, muscles, nerves, flesh—in his leg, which seems to twist slowly, as if moving to brush against his lover’s leg; and in the woman’s feet, which hardly touch the ground, uplifted with her whole being as she is swept away with ardor and grace.”
Rodin revealed human love and life as a process of mutual creation between women and men. Passion is not only a union with those we desire and adore, but also an elevation through shared feelings and sensuality which is always in process, never complete. His representations of the fragility of our mutual creation were as inchoate, vulnerable yet compelling as the material shapes that seemed to emerge only part-finished from the bronze or blocks of stone.
We have seen that art can serve many different purposes in different contexts such that it’s impossible to define it in relation to any set of common qualities, including emotion. Yet, as I have also suggested, when emotion is materialized in art, it renders artistic objects all the more poignant, moving and palpable for viewers. The expression of emotion not only touches us, but also enables us to connect to artistic creation in a way that’s unique and irreplaceable. Emotion and art don’t have to be interconnected. Yet what powerful and meaningful art is produced when they are! Next I’d like to examine Michael Hafftka’s artwork in the context of the expressionist tradition it’s informed by and continues.
Emotion and Expressionism in Holocaust art
The Holocaust brought out the worst in human emotion: hatred, prejudice, fear and indifference to immeasurable human suffering. Indifference too is an emotion, not merely the absence of feeling. Its underlying foundation is often contempt: in this case, for the lives of specific groups of human beings deemed by the Nazis to be “subhuman”. After all, as Samuel Beckett famously stated, “Nothing is more real than nothing” (Malone Dies, New York; Grove, 1956, 16). It is only fitting that the horrors of the Holocaust be captured by an artistic movement known for its emphasis on emotion and reviled by the Nazi regime: Expressionism.
In retrospect, the best-known artist considered to be the forefather of the Expressionist movement is the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Rather than focus, like the Impressionists did, on the optical experiments with play of light in natural settings, Munch turned within, to express through art our most raw human emotions: love, jealousy, hatred, anxiety, fear of death. Munch rendered explicit the goal of his art, stating: “We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want to paint pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created of one’s innermost heart” (Edvard Munch, http://www.edvard-munch.com/backg/index.htm).
His most famous work, “The Scream”, exists in several forms: two pastels (1893 and 1895), two oil paintings (1893 and 1910) and several lithographs. In fact, “The Scream” remains one of the most well known paintings in the history of art, selling for $119,922,500 in 2012. “The Scream” series began as an introspective expression of agony, or as Munch put it, “the study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self”, but soon became a general symbol of humanity’s angst in the modern era. The bright colors reflect feelings of madness and hysteria, while the skeletal form on the bridge confronts our mortality, sketching the boundary between life and death.
Expressionism as an art and literary movement, however, crystallized a decade or so later, in Germany, at the beginning of the 20th century. Expressionist painters, poets and writers placed primary emphasis on the expression of emotion, images and impressions that haunt human beings: in dreams, visions, and in life in general. Not shying away from the underside of human emotion, Expressionist artists conveyed anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, often mixing sex and violence. As the psychologist Carl G. Jung observed, “One does not become enlightened by imaging figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious”.
With this apt citation, Robbin Zella, the Director of the Housatonic Museum of Art introduces the work of Michael Hafftka, an American artist whose paintings convey the horrific experiences and the dark emotions that characterize the Holocaust. The son of two Holocaust survivors, Hafftka experiences the pain and misery of this dark era of history not as a direct witness, but as someone deeply haunted by the experience nonetheless. For him it becomes a revelation as well as a way to commemorate the suffering of his parents and other victims of the Holocaust. Michael states: “I began to paint my dreams and soon enough the experience of painting brought on exciting and mysterious experiences, as suggestive as dreaming. I felt freer than I had ever felt before. Painting became revelatory” (Michael Hafftka: A retrospective: large oils 1985-2003, Housatonic Museum of Art, Bridgeport CT, with an introduction by Robbin Zella).
Externalizing the nightmare that has haunted his family and his childhood, Hafftka expresses the raw emotions and undisguised horrors of the Holocaust. In his oil painting “Chain of Command”, we see mutilated–decapitated and amputated–humanoids whose features have been wiped out by misery and torture. Most of them are naked, deprived of every shred of civilized humanity. It’s not clear anymore who are the victims and who are the victimizers. As we know, in the sordid life of the concentration camp, prisoners acted as guards and torturers of fellow prisoners. With each person fighting for even one more day of survival, empathy was rarely possible in this environment. At Auschwitz, Polish and Ukrainian prisoners guarded the Jews, and some of the Jews were forced to be a part of the group that ran the crematoria. Humanity is desecrated to the core, reduced in its entirety to an emotion that is inseparable from sensation: unspeakable pain.
In the painting “Ceremony”, we see the aftermath of the slaughter of the innocent. The title is somewhat ironic, however, since millions of human beings were ruthlessly sent to their deaths–gassed and burned–with no ceremony whatsoever, and no real burial to commemorate their death. Their truncated, desecrated bodies become intertwined in the last effort to defy death in the gas chambers by climbing upon another body, living or dead, for a last breath of air.
As Sam Hunter states in his introduction to Hafftka’s series of paintings of the Holocaust, “The maimed and truncated body forms, with their ghastly pallor, recall the visual obscenities of the Nazi death camps seen in postwar photo journalism, not to mention Picasso’s mournful and eloquent Holocaust elegy, “The Charnel House”. (Michael Hafftka, with an introduction by Sam Hunter, DiLaurenti Publishing, 8). Like in Picasso’s masterpiece, there is no human emotion left on the canvas in “Ceremony”. Instead, it’s all transposed to us, the viewers, who observe with horror the gruesome spectacle of death.
Alex M. Bustillo is an international artist par excellence. Born in Miami, Florida and of Cuban origin, he currently resides in France. Alex has lived throughout the world, however, including the United States, Puerto Rico, Latin America and Italy. It’s not only his diverse cultural backgrounds that shine through in his photographic collages, but also his keen interest in all aspects of culture: including philosophy, literature, music and film.
Pablo Picasso is credited with having invented the artistic collage, made up of sketches, painting and newspaper cutouts. Bustillo transforms this modernist tradition into a postmodern artform that includes overlapping materials as diverse as digital photography, plexiglas and aluminum foil that somehow work together to create a striking and unique artistic whole. Not limited to the visual arts, Bustillo has even collaborated with the American musician Garland Jeffreys to incorporate musical ideas in a visual context.
Bustillo doesn’t shy away from anthropology, philosophy or even erotic fiction. His collection Story of the Eye (above) offers a visual interpretation of Georges Bataille‘s famous erotic and philosophical collection of vignettes by the same name, which was published in 1928. Bataille is best known for his anthropology of pleasure, Eroticism (1957), which studies human sexuality in terms of religious sacrifice and cultural taboos.
But it’s Bataille’s erotic tale that captured the imagination of artists, literary critics and film producers. Written in the tradition of libertine fiction made popular in eighteenth-century France by the Marquis de Sade, Story of the Eye describes the erotic passion between an adolescent male (the narrator) and Simone, his main partner. The couple have a menage-à-trois with Marcelle, a mentally ill teenage girl, engaging together in various exhibitionist acts (in front of Simone’s mother) and other taboo sexual behaviors.
Simone and the narrator are the original Bonnie and Clyde–or Natural Born Killers, more like it–manifesting their penchant for transgression through their increasingly violent sexual bond. When Marcelle breaks out of the mental institution, she becomes suicidal and hangs herself. The sociopathic lovers have sex next to her corpse, suggesting necrophilia, a recurrent theme in the book. This seedy story seems to be taken right out of pulp or pornographic fiction; however, it’s become a favorite allegory of taboo and transgression among French (and Francophile) intellectuals. Both the American feminist critic Susan Sontag and the French structuralist literary critic Roland Barthes wrote about it.
In Bustillo’s interpretation, Bataille’s tale of sexual liberty and libertinism takes a dystopic turn. His dramatic images are atavistic yet historical (in the photograph above you can see superposed images of an Egyptian bust, an American Indian chief and a Roman soldier); disembodied yet carnal (one slim leg appears, suggesting death rather than desire). Rather than glorifying transgression, they tell the story of what (and who) is sacrificed by the individual and society when the sadistic and perverse are allowed free reign and gain power over others. At once elusive and allusive, the photography of Alex M. Bustillo provides a tantalizing peek into the world of culture. You can view more of Alex’s portfolio on the link http://www.saatchionline.com/alexmbustillo.
No matter what they may say, few artists create art only for themselves. Just as few writers write only for themselves (unless they’re only writing in a journal, and even then, they may do it with an eye for posterity). Most artists aspire to share their art with others. Many want that elusive concept of “fame”. Artistic fame means being valued in their own lifetime as well as leaving a significant trace of their art for posterity. This, of course, implies canonization: making their name–and style(s)–common currency not only for their own times, but for future generations as well.
Immanuel Kant gave us three standards for great art that stands the test of time: 1) originality (the first of its kind in a certain style), 2) exemplarity (others will want to imitate that style) and 3) inimitability (the art is so unique that others won’t really be able to imitate it, just as there are many Impressionist painters but only one Monet or Renoir). If we examine, however, the manner in which art is consecrated in reality, we see at work the processes described by the sociologist of art Pierre Bourdieu. Art is what artists, critics, museum curators and collectors deem it to be. In my estimation, both philosophers are partly right: art is what those in “the field of cultural production,” to use Bourdieu’s term, say it is; however, what they perceive as “art” has a lot to do with Kant’s three criteria for aesthetic value.
Perhaps even more so, art has to do with the magnetic persona of the artist. To offer a notable example, Pablo Picasso not only reinvented his art in radically new style during each of his periods–ranging from the relative realism of his blue period to his Cubism, to his collage art–but also shaped public opinion, juggled and manipulated art dealers and defined international art. He commanded attention to his art largely thanks to his greater-than-life persona. Similarly, Salvador Dali, though one of the founders of Surrealism and an artist of immense talent, generated publicity for his art via antics that weren’t completely random. For example, to underscore the lobster motif of his art, he gave a talk in New York with his foot in a bucket and a lobster on his head.
In our times, I believe that Damien Hirst is the artist who manages to draw the public most effectively, not only through his sometimes shockingly original and diverse art–the pickled sharks, dissected cows, diamond-studded skulls and collections of diamond-clustered butterflies–but also through the way he presents himself to the media: through his dramatic persona. Artistic magnetism goes beyond mere shock value or even publicity stunts. It’s perhaps best described by Friedrich Nietzsche when he urges every person to live his or her life as a work of art. Few artists–let alone people in general–succeed in doing that. Because, as Nietzsche also states, “For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.” Artistic fame happens when both the artist and his art are able to intoxicate us.
The artist Helene Lopes Codrescu describes herself as “a free electron.” She finds inspiration in numerous traditions in modern art, spanning the globe and reshaping them according to her own talent and perspectives. The painting La Danseuse Voilée (Veiled Dancer), below, has something of the whimsical playfulness of a Paul Klee doodle.
But New York From the Sky, on the other hand, with its geometric shapes and mosaic angles and refractions, bears some similarity to the New York Op Art movement of the 1970’s.
Finally, what art lover can fail to recognize echoes of Pablo Picasso, during his Dora Maar phase, in the tortuous Cubism of Woman in a Box, featured below?
Helene Lopes Codrescu paints outside the box, however. She freely finds inspiration in numerous rich traditions of modern art, but makes them her own, with the independence and internationalism of the free electron that she is. You can see more of her art on the website artquid, on the link below:
It’s only since the nineteenth century that art became its own autonomous domain, separated from education and politics. Before that, the art world was shaped by the tastes of rich patrons, the Church, the Salons, and the art Academies. In the early nineteenth century, the French writer, Théophile Gautier, coined the term “l’art pour l’art”, or art for art’s sake. Although this concept doesn’t describe all art during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it had an enormous impact upon the attitudes of modern artists, critics and viewers. And yet, there were significant exceptions. Even the most modern of the moderns, Pablo Picasso, made a spectacular political statement in his painting Guernica. This painting represented a cri du coeur against the bombing of Guernica by German and Italian forces at the behest of the Spanish Nationalistists in 1937. Picasso’s Guernica brought the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War to the public’s attention and stood as an anti-war symbol for years to come.
Today I’d like to introduce a contemporary American artist, Michael Bell, who perpetuates the long-lost tradition of seeing art as a means of educating the public and of changing society for the better. Michael Bell’s paintings seamlessly combine aesthetic talent, educational value and political activism. Michael is best known for painting some of the most famous–and infamous–celebrities of our time, such as John Gotti and other actors from popular gangster movies like “The Sopranos,” Goodfellas” and “A Bronx Tale.” The artist has also won numerous awards in the field of art education as one of the pioneers of the Visual Journaling movement. He gives free workshops that educate the general public about art and art history.
Michael also participates in charity benefits. He raises thousands of dollars for worthwhile social causes from his painting sales. As an art critic who also writes about domestic abuse, what caught my attention most was his contribution to raising public awareness about domestic violence. On October 1, 2005, Michael Bell received the Good Shepherd Community Service Award at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles for his activism in raising domestic violence awareness.
Michael Bell’s series of paintings, Voices of Violence, expose the vicious cycle of love filled with pain, abuse and reconciliation, which many victims go through. These paintings follow the gaze of the model, ex-mafia wife and Hollywood stunt actress Georgia Durante, as she attempts to cope with years of abuse and free herself from the painful cycle of love filled with violence, which isn’t really love after all, but an expression of dominance and possession. Michael’s painting Love and Pain (see above) executed, appropriately enough, on two separate, fractured canvases, reveals the ambivalence that victims of domestic violence experience, as they remain hopelessly attached to the very person that causes them most pain. Please find below the link to the youtube video I made featuring Michael’s Voices of Violence paintings:
It’s relatively rare for an artist in our times to use his talent for the social good. Even though, truth be told, art is not just for art’s sake. Art is a human creation by talented human beings for the benefit of other human beings. For as long as we continue to view art as completely detached from our nature, our struggles, our mistakes and our goals, we’ll alienate viewers, as they’ll become detached from the world of art as well. An artist through and through–as well as an educator and a humanitarian–Michael Bell eloquently states: “All I am is what I create. It’s my blessing to share with the world.”