& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, December 31, 2015

New York's art museums

During this week, I have been doing the rounds of art museums in New York – The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art – it’s simultaneously been an enriching and disturbing experience.

It was enriching because for the first time I saw the original art of the American abstract expressionists – the art form that began in New York in post-World War II era. I was familiar with the two masters of this form – Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.

Jackson Pollock (MoMA)
Marc Chagall (MoMA)
Picasso (MoMA)
MoMA has a permanent exhibition of the works of many others from the genre; it also has original works of many other masters of modern art, as does Guggenheim (Vasily Kandinsky) and the Met (Abstraction). It would take a long time to carefully study all the art work housed in the galleries of these museums.  

And it was disturbing because there was absolutely no representation of art from anywhere else except the western world. Perhaps that is a minor quibble, or perhaps it isn’t. Nevertheless it weighed upon my mind throughout the time I was in the midst of the western world’s iconic artists.

Then I read the Met’s explanation of Abstraction: “Widespread appropriation of artistic forms from Africa, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and other non- or preindustrial cultures encouraged modern artists to embrace abstraction as a meaningful alternative to the European tradition of depicting three-dimensional and realistic space and form. Many artists and designers considered abstraction to be universal and egalitarian because of a viewer’s appreciation of abstract art did not depend on learned knowledge of history or literature. Throughout the early twentieth century, abstraction developed in painting, sculpture, and design, ranging in style from geometric to organic, with variations in between. Additionally, many modernists associated abstraction with music, a form of expression that artists exalted as inherently subjective in meaning and free from the constraints of realism.”

It would seem that the Western art establishment even in the 21st century assesses the world from a colonial (or at least a neo-colonial) prism. This was definitely true of a majority of the important artists of the twentieth century. Postcolonial sensibilities many have manifested in the adoption of raw imagery and rough-hewn art techniques of the colonized world, but didn’t move the artists enough to make it the subject of their work.

Of course, urban art, which is heavily politicized, is making significant inroads into this rarified world, and is transforming attitudes. It is in this context that the work of urban artists such as Banksy needs to be viewed. His ongoing work on the Syrian refugee crises, and his earlier work in Palestine are perhaps the first instances of an established artist from the West charting a new artistic path.

But, that preoccupation with the neglect of the rest by the West has more to do with my heavily politicized mind rather than the inherent merits of the museums. I concluded 2015 among the best works of art that humankind has known.

Among the most fascinating works featured at the Met include the interpretation of the Three Graces by Manieree Dawson (American, 1887-1969), and a Roman copy of the Greek work.

Manieree Dawson's Three Graces

Roman copy of Three Graces
Throughout the recorded history of western civilization, a number of artists have interpreted the Three Graces. There were three Graces in Greek Mythology: Aglaia, the Grace that symbolized Beauty, Euphrosyne, the Grace of Delight and Thalia, the Grace of Blossom. The Graces were called Charities in Greek, and Graces in Roman. According to Greek poet Pindar, these enchanting goddesses were created to fill the world with pleasant moments and goodwill. Usually the Graces were attending the Greek goddess of Beauty Aphrodite and her companion Eros and loved dancing around in a circle to Apollo's divine music, together with the Nymphs and the Muses. 


The Most Arrogant Man in France

Gustave Courbet
Yesterday afternoon while roaming through the crowded galleries of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, I came across a painting in the 19th century European paintings and sculptures section that seemed coarse yet real. It depicted a woman in nude standing beside a waterfall, and instead of the usual frontal nudes, this one depicted the woman’s behind.

Titled ‘The Source’, the painting was by a French artist Gustave Courbet.  I hadn’t heard of the artist before. The painting and the artist were in a section that housed some of the best known works and artists of the 19th century. And so while it was impossible to find space to view Claude Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’, or Edgar Degas’s ‘Little Dancer’, nobody seemed interested in ‘The Source’.

The museum’s introduction to the painting explained, “This nude is painted in an unflinching natural style and is devoid of the trappings of academic allegory to which the painting’s tile alludes. Courbet is thought to have intended it as a response to (JeanAuguste Dominique) Ingres’s own La Source (1856, Musee d’Orsay, Paris), which was exhibited at the Galerie Martinet, Paris in 1861. The picture by Ingres depicts an idealized nude holding a jar from which water pours, as allusion to a spring or river source, and symbolizing poetic inspiration.”

Later in the evening, I browsed the internet to know more about Courbet, and discovered an artist who did everything that an artist should do – challenge preconceived notions of what should or shouldn’t constitute art. Courbet (1819-1877) created Realism in the mid-nineteenth century, and influenced early modernists such as Edouard Manet and Claude Monet. He rejected the then prevalent classical and theatrical style by focusing on the physical reality of the objects with all its imperfections. He introduced egalitarianism by making commoners his models, and painting their lives on a scale that had previously been reserved for either royalty or religion.

According to a website (www.gustavecourbet.org) dedicated to his work, “For Courbet Realism dealt not with the perfection of line and form, but entailed spontaneous and rough handling of paint, suggesting direct observation by the artist while portraying the irregularities in nature. He depicted the harshness in life, and in so doing, challenged contemporary academic ideas of art, which brought the criticism that he deliberately adopted a cult of ugliness.”

Courbet shook the French art establishment until then dominated by classicism that had been central to art since Renaissance. He forced the art community to consider an alternative vision that took cognisance of the prevailing sociopolitical and religious trends. He also declined the Legion of Honour that the despotic Napoleon III wanted to bestow upon him.

Active in the radicalization of the working class in France, he abandoned art briefly to serve the government during the Paris Commune of 1871. Courbet was put in charge of all museums and entrusted with the task of saving art from the rampaging mob that had taken over Paris. Subsequently, he was held responsible for carrying out the Commune’s decree of dismantling the Vendome Column erected by Napoleon I, and had to flee to Switzerland after he was ordered to pay for its reconstruction.

Courbet was opposed to the dominance of the state-sponsored art patronage and worked hard to establish a direct market for his work. He understood that an artist’s responsibility was not just to create art, but also sell it. He created new ways to create awareness about his art and himself, becoming one of the first artists to utilize the newly-available mass media of newspapers to create a wider audience for his work. Courbet’s efforts succeeded in getting women of Paris interested in art. (The Most Arrogant Man in France:Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture).

In a review of an exhibition of his works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008, The New York Times’s Roberta Smith wrote, “Courbet virtually wrote the definition of the modern artist as a bohemian, narcissistic loner and political radical who shunned the academy, tutoring himself at the Louvre and living by the phrase “├ępater le bourgeois,” or “shock the bourgeoisie.” He emerged in Paris in the 1840s, when court patronage was long gone, but the modern art market was still in formation. He was quick to grasp the usefulness of three related, also nascent phenomena: newspapers, popular illustration and especially photography, with its new realism.” (Seductive Rebel Who Kept ItReal).

Forever a rebel, he called himself ‘The most arrogant man in France’; and continued to provoke the art establishment and the society with his paintings. In the late 1860s, he began to focus on eroticism depicting female genitalia and featuring two women in bed. Naturally, these works were banned. In fact, when his works were exhibited in New York, the John Golding in his New York Review of Books observed that the layout of the display was such that it allowed the guards to deny access to parties of schoolchildren.

Just a year before his death, he formed the Federation of Artists (Federation des artistes) for the free and uncensored expansion of art. The group’s members included artists such as Andre Gill, Honore Daumier, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Eugene Pottier, Jules Dalou, and Edouard Manet.

Courbet’s ‘The Source’ is an antithesis of Ingres’s original. Ingres was a preeminent artist in France in mid-nineteenth century. His painting defined him. Kenneth Clark, one of the best art historians of the last century, described Ingres’s 'The Source' as the most beautiful figure in French painting. Courbet’s ‘The Source’ eschews romanticism, and realistically depicts a woman’s anatomy in a manner that was considered rude, vulgar and unnecessarily provocative in the mid-nineteenth century.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Scarlet Muse

Thanks to the efforts of my nephew Tapan Ramchandran, I have received a copy of The Scarlet Muse, an anthology of Polish poems translated into English by Umadevi (Wanda Dynowska) and Harischandra Bhatt (my grandfather).

The anthology was published in 1944 by Nalanda Publishers (NM Tripathi Limited), Princess Street, Bombay.

About a couple of years back, I had tried to get a copy of the anthology for Aleksandra Skiba is a librarian at Pomeranian Library (The Central Library of the West Pomeranian Province) in the Polish city of Szczecin.

Skiba, the researcher and librarian, had done good work unearthing information about Harischandra and Umadevi available in Polish library archives. If you’re interested, you may read the earlier posts here: Rediscovering a poet.

Poland is engulfed in a fresh bout of constitutional crisis. I’m reproducing two poems from the anthology from the World War II era, but have resonance even today.

The Song of Warsaw

(Broadcast by the Warsaw radio station Blyskawica)

With our feet on the grave, still our spirits
are high,
Fighting Warsaw fights on, none here weeps
in despair!
We straddle the Hun and with bare hands we try
To strangle the beast as he creeps to his lair.
While you still complain of the bloodshed
and flame
Devouring Warsaw as day succeeds day,
We here with our bare breasts the enemy stay
And laugh at your praise and suggestions of

But why must your song of lamenting still
When everyone, men, women, children are
Fighting and bleeding for Poland, for home!
Let the mournful dirges no longer be heard.

Here beats the great heart of Poland – intact!
Warsaw speaks! Warsaw thunders! And
this is her word:
“Spare us your praise. Give us arms. We
must act!”

(Translated by Elizabeth Clark Reiss)

The other poem is The Muse Scarlet (perhaps the poem which gave the anthology its name).

The poem is by Marian Hemar (1901-1972). When the anthology was published, Hemar, a Polish Jew, was alive and in exile in London, having escaped the clutches of the dreaded Gestapo. He could never return to Poland, because the Communist regime that ruled Poland after the end of the war. He died in England in 1972.

The Muse Scarlet

O Poetry full of grace
Do pray for us.
Thy honour is now coming
In thunder’s crash,
Thy hour is now pouring
In torrents of flame.
Lift up on us thy golden face
Thy wonderous countenance.

The glare of God’s wrath
Falls upon us,
Cast thyself in despair like a lion
On the path of His blaze,
Seize His hand which lifts up
His heavy sword over our heads,
O Poetry! Thou art the last
Rampart of Polish defences!

O walls of Zbarazh!*
Of Kamyenyets** invincibly proud
O tower of Mountain of Light!
Westerplatte falls,
Hell – villains will steal,
But thou wilt endure
Holy fortress of our Poets great.

Over our heads that lie in dust
Burst the bowl of thy dew.
Grant the grace of a sob
To our dumb, silent lips.
Wash our wounds and defeats
With thy holy tears.
O Poetry! Kneel and weep
And pray thou for us.

When by the flame
All words are twisted and curled
Like metal’s shabby plates,
Thou knowest alone the secret
Of words which defy all fires,
Born themselves out of flames,
Words – tears, words which are
Bread and salt of all life,
Which grow from the soil
And from heaven come down.

Sweep thou above us!
In a current og blazing white
And another of crimson-blood!
O poet, your hand to the standard!
No wreath for your brow,
No place for laurels now,
What matters it’s the flag
Not the hand
That holds the shaft

* a city at present in Ukraine
** a city at present in Belarus

Kashmir should top the Indo-Pak agenda

Hand-in-hand: Sharif-Modi Bromance
Narendra Modi has taken a bold decision to visit Pakistan and meet Nawaz Sharif. This spontaneity will undoubtedly lead to a breakthrough in thawing the relations between the neighbours; it’s about time for India and Pakistan to make a new beginning.

It’s a calculated risk that the Indian Prime Minister has taken, one that is fraught with inherent risks, and one that will certainly draw flak from his own party. But it’s a step that all sane people in the subcontinent will support, and encourage.

However, beyond the optics, and the people-to-people bhai-chara, it will be necessary for both sides to deal with concrete issues. For any meaningful forward movement, the Kashmir situation should be on the top of the agenda.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership has given the dark days of Emergency (1975-77) under Indira Gandhi nearly the same status as the Quit India movement (1942), because its leaders were part of the nationwide struggle to fight and overthrow Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s autocratic misrule; and they have always considered Jayaprakash Narayan, the socialist leader who led this fight, as one of their political philosopher.

Jayaprakash Narayan
It would do Narendra Modi a great deal of good to read what Jayaprakash Narayan had to say about the Kashmir situation (which has changed for worse since JP issues this press statement more than 50 years ago in December 1964; it’s reproduced here from Makers of Modern India, Edited by Ramchandra Guha, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011; Guha has reproduced it from Balraj Puri’s JP on Jammu and Kashmir, Gyan Publishing House, 2005): 

“The question we must squarely face is whether constitutional integration of Kashmir with India is more important in the national interest than friendship with Pakistan and justice to the people of the Valley of Srinagar. Legal technicalities will not provide the answer. What is needed is a mature and realistic reckoning. As far as I can see, the disadvantages of the present policy far outweigh the advantages.

“Let me take up first the issue of justice to the people of the Valley. There has been no credible proof yet that they have freely accepted the legal fact of accession. Constitutional integration has little meaning in the absence of emotional integration. In this age and time, it is impossible to hold down by force any sizeable population permanently. If we continue to do it, we cannot look the world straight in the face and talk of democracy and justice and peace. Nor, on account of the historical circumstances, can we take shelter behind the internationally recognized limitations of the right to self-determination. Perhaps the most harmful consequence of the policy of forcible integration would be the death-knell of Indian secularism and enthronement of aggressive Hindu communalism. That communalism is bound in the end to turn upon the Hindu community and destroy it.

“As for friendship with Pakistan, let us calculatedly determine how dearly we need that friendship. No country can afford to buy friendship at any cost. So let there be a reckoning of gains and losses. First of all, let us be mature enough to understand that we persist in our present Kashmir policy, there can be no friendship with Pakistan. The leaders of that country have not left us in any doubt on that score. If we disbelieve them, we shall have only ourselves to blame.”

After analyzing the geopolitical fallout of the differences between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, JP concludes with a sharp observation on the emotional division the rift has perpetuated between the people of subcontinent.

Modi at JP anniversary celebration program
He says, “The last and in some way the most disastrous consequence of the quarrel is its human and moral cost and the alienation of peoples that it threatens to bring about…These conditions would be sure to cause mass human degradation on both sides. The political division of the subcontinent cannot hide the fact that the peoples of India and Pakistan are really one people. This is not the first time that India has been divided politically. But there had always been a feeling of oneness and identity among the people divided between kingdoms and republics. Today, Bengalis of the West and the East are one people, irrespective of region; so are the Punjabis. In like manner, the Bengalis and Punjabis and Sindhis and Pathans and Jats and Rajputs and others of both countries make up one single Indian people, who are distinct from all other people of the world. States are passing shows, but people are eternal. Therefore, I would consider this alienation of the people of India and Pakistan from one another to be the most disastrous consequence of the present quarrel.”