The Greek composer and musician Evangelos Papathanassiou passed away in Paris recently. Better known as Vangelis, the award-winning musician and beloved film-score composer. Obituaries and the programs of his life abounded against the fact. A career of over fifty years, and not one that could be characterized easily; Vangelis floated through genres, as he roamed from place to place, picking up and discarding forms in the search for the sound he is now remembered for.
Papathanassiou began his musical career in his home country, forming the band Forminx in the early 60s. A rock-n-roll band that was through by the mid 60’s. With the political turmoil of the 1967 Greek Coup, Papathanassiou debarked to Paris in search of the new, and he found it in the Prog-rock band Aphrodite’s Child. Finding success with the band would ultimately lead to its dissolution as Papathanassiou began to abhor the structured program of show business, admitting that “you have to do something like that in the beginning for showbiz, but after you start doing the same thing everyday you can’t continue.” Now having solidified what music meant to him, an adventure, a kind of freedom to create, Papathanassiou settled into an apartment in Marble Arch, London, where he would emerge as Vangelis, creator of the poetic synth albums at his own expense.
In 1980, Vangelis was approached by Hugh Hudson to make the film-score of the movie Chariots of Fire. This, in Vangelis’ words, ‘very humble, low-budget film’ won him an academy award, and set a precedent in film-scoring. The incongruous synth in a movie set in 1924 – Ridley Scott’s comment: “It was off the mark, but worked like a son of a bitch.” It was this film that earned Vangelis the score for Scott’s Blade Runner, another perfect encapsulation, but this time of a Philip K. Dick inspired dystopia. It would have appeared that Vangelis had found his alcove, and the Hollywood scene would be waiting for his arrival; he did not take the bait. Vangelis only scored several films following his success, and again, the same reason which had resolved Aphrodite’s Child directed his actions: the stifling formula of success.
“I think music is much more interesting, and much more rich than to lock yourself in one kind of area”, said Vangelis, and this is the true sentiment that spans his long, adventurous career. Running after awards, or pandering to expectation, could not dwell amicably with Vangelis. The balance between ‘true’ creativity and success is a precarious thing, and one that often means disabling the former for the latter. Vangelis is an example of the opposite. He sat comfortably with music for music’s sake, and this extended from something intrinsic in his beliefs. Not a man to talk openly about his personal life, he rather aimed discourse towards music with a capital M. Music, for Vangelis, existed before humanity existed. In conjunction with humanity, music was a complex of the universe, of humanity’s metaphysical duration; obscure, infinite and absorbing.
It is no wonder that Vangelis’ sound echoes these very feelings; hints and suggestions of something large, something otherworldly. Music as remembrance, our channel to this metaphysical plane. Whether willingly or not, Vangelis’ life seemed to follow this kind of unsettled suggestiveness. He roamed, and possibly felt most at home in the roaming, rather than the stability of one place and one time, just as his music rhymed the disparate, way-ward, realms of the inner mind with the cosmic stuff that shapes the universe.
Hidden from the great palaces of Corso Sicilia, Italy, in the heart of the historic center of Catania stands the San Berillo district, a neighborhood that has been wounded, emptied, rebuilt, never completed. We discovered it by chance, my boyfriend and I, wandering around the city of Catania and immersing ourselves in its most hidden arteries, we found ourselves in a crossroads of flowery streets, colored walls, inventive sculptures, but above all construction sites and buildings barred and decrepit. When I first saw it, I thought of an African jungle that blooms on the ruins, flowers that are born from reinforced concrete.
The San Berillo district is the shelter of the marginalized of Catania, of those who find neither a home nor a sign of belonging in the good life and are reduced to looking for a bed where they find it, to earn money as best they can. Here, since the early fifties — following the unfinished evisceration, if not in the scandal — prostitutes, homeless people, and migrants live and work.
San Berillo is a historic district, born from the ashes of the Valdinoto earthquake of 1693, but it is also a failure of urban planning, the result of which has been the persistence and worsening of marginalization, collapses, banishments, and of new occupations.
Yet San Berillo, in the second half of the 19th century, was one of the most populous districts of Catania. The port laborers, the station workers, the sulfur miners of the factories lived there; even, between the two wars, it expanded, even more, hosting shops, theaters, and meeting houses. But life in the streets of San Berillo has never known urban planning regulations, and that is why the typical smell of the neighborhood, for years, has been that of open-air sewers.
In the fifties, the Catania city council launched an urban plan whose intent was to provide the city with a single artery, formed by Corso Sicilia and Corso Martiri Della Libertà, which should have led from the station to the center. This plan, certainly innovative, involved the almost total elimination of the neighborhood. Thus, the 30,000 “deportees of San Berillo” were transferred to the western suburbs, that is, to the residential area of the city then under construction, San Leone, which the inhabitants still call “New San Berillo”.
The task of urban regeneration, considered necessary and urgent, was entrusted to ISTICA, a private company in which the Christian Democrats, the Banco di Sicilia, small local economic powers, and the General Real Estate Company of the Vatican pushed. It began in 1957, and was soon defined as “the largest speculative-financial operation ever carried out in Catania”, the works were interrupted ten years later, amid scandals and rumors. In the same years, we witness a further social phenomenon, the birth of the suburbs: the expropriated owners are transferred to Nesima, about 20 minutes from the historic center, and go to live in neat and airy houses.
Since then, almost nothing has changed. There are four streets left of the Old San Berillo, a few gutted buildings, prostitutes, transsexuals, and migrants. For years, Catanian and Senegalese, Catholics and Muslims, Nigerian and Colombian prostitutes have lived side by side, near a school of the Koran, a bicycle workshop run by the village boys. There lives Flavia, the “crazy flower girl”, who filled the streets with flowers, hung them from hanging cables like laundry, we also find them among the nets of the walls. There lives Francesco Grasso, just over 60 years old, known by all as “Franchina”, one of the most sensitive and active souls in the area. A trans woman who has been walking these streets in high heels since she was twenty-three. It is Franchina who gives one of the most poetic definitions to this neighborhood: “If it were a state it would be anarchist, if it had a flag it would be the one with the rainbow if it were a factory it would churn out sins, if it were a district it would be called San Berillo”.
Franchina, Ambra, and Ornella are just some of the women who indulge themselves in the neighborhood, and whom Angelo Scandurra, a poet from Catania, defines as “fairies”. A large component of the prostitutes working in San Berillo is made up of transvestites and transsexuals, often coming from uncomfortable situations such as homophobia in the family, discrimination in the workplace, the need to earn a living. Over time, the neighborhood has become a reference point for those who decide to undertake the change of sex, often too easily able to obtain hormones and other substances that can lead to even serious psychophysical imbalances.
This year, Franchina wrote an open letter to the Municipality of Catania: “We are people like everyone else and you cannot cancel us from this space because it belongs to us and we belong to it, even if we do not we are always the rightful owners. Over the long years, these houses and their walls have been modeled, modified, and matured together with us. ” Franchina writes, with an open heart. “You can also raze the houses and buildings in the neighborhood but this would not be regeneration. You will find us in your condominiums, under the house, on the streets of the cities, creating more unrest and poverty. We are willing, if you cooperate, to give us shared rules for peaceful coexistence with all the inhabitants, those already present and those who will arrive in the future. “
The presence of foreigners in the neighborhood is often considered one of the major obstacles to the redevelopment of the district. In San Berillo live mainly Senegalese migrants and their children, many have been here for three generations. They are among the few who have decided to live in dilapidated houses, together with those who have not found accommodation elsewhere, with those who do not have a fixed salary.
There are not a few artists who have been interested in San Berillo, who have told the truth that lies behind their stories. What do they have in common? Perhaps the sense of emptiness that leaves the neighborhood, which sails into the depths of Catania like a wreck that no one wants to remember, inhabited by people no one wants to have near. Perhaps the desire to restore life and dignity to those forgotten streets, to people who are not recognized as people, and to show the beauty of the naked and raw truth to make it appreciated even by those who have never known a life of hardship.
There is Turi Zinna, a playwright from Catania, who tells the story of the evisceration, in his “Ballad for San Berillo”. There is Goliarda Sapienza, a writer born and raised in the old neighborhood, who tells her story in “The art of joy”, her book. There is Salvatore Di Gregorio, a Sicilian photographer, who created the project “Taliami e te fazzu petra” (which in Sicilian dialect means “look at me and I will turn you into stone”) in the arteries of San Berillo, and intends to narrate, through the faces of the inhabitants of the district, their authenticity, their reality, their truth. “I had in mind the myth of the Medusa, a symbol of the Sicilian Trinacria. The intensity of the gazes of the people of San Berillo connected me to the one who transforms you to stone with a single glance. And here comes Taliami e te fazzu petra, which in Sicilian means just that: look at me and I will turn you into stone. ” Di Gregorio told Vice.
I ended up there by chance, among the flowers of San Berillo, and its vitality caught me almost unprepared, it hit me, it marked me. Walking through the paths, I felt the load that the district has gone through, it exuded from its walls. This neighborhood, which has built itself, has welcomed anyone who has looked at the world and realized they didn’t look like it at all. The story that remains engraved on the colored stones cannot be wiped out by a simple redevelopment of the neighborhood: it is in its inhabitants, who have become its protagonists, who have modeled themselves and continue to shape its appearance, who have filled its streets with life, with love, with beauty. San Berillo is a different neighborhood, of course, it is a neighborhood that is not easy to digest, and for many it is often better to remain hidden, but it couldn’t be more authentic than it is.
From March 25 through May 1, 2022, the Kunstverein Krefeld in Germany will hold a retrospective of the works of Russian-German artist (and friend of our blog) Yury Kharchenko. This solo exhibit will focus on two phases of Kharchenko’s work: the first on his so-called Auschwitz paintings, which see superhero figures, such as Superman and Wonder Woman at the gates of Auschwitz; the second on his series of house and flower paintings.
Kharchenko was born in Moscow in 1986 and emigrated with his Jewish family in 1998 to the Dortmund Ruhr region of Germany. For the last 12 years he has made Berlin his home.
Kharchenko explores his Jewish identity with paintings reflecting his family history and the anti-semitism experienced in Germany. He has painted images of his relative Herschel Grynszpan, portraits of Jewish personalities with some association to Germany (and which he feels a connection), such as Freud, Einstein, Kafka and Alfred Flechtheim, as well as other more recent personalities, like Amy Winehouse.
All of this culminates in his most recent Auschwitz paintings, where Disney characters such as Scrooge McDuck and Goofy, action heros like Superman and Batman, characters from cartoon series such as Beavis and Butthead are pictured in front of the Auschwitz gates and the infamous sign — “Arbeit Macht Frei.” In doing so, Kharchenko wrestles with the issue of the utopia of heroism (why didn’t any super hero stop the holocaust?) and at the same time points to the current decline of the culture of holocaust remembrance.
Kharchenko’s most recent paintings are those of flowers, depicting large portraits of sunken plants, stems with buds, and unfurled roses. The theme of flowers has become a new cycle for Kharchenko, where he sees a connection to nature and the plasticity, metamorphosis, sensitivity and urge hidden within it to live and unfold, and also to pass away and to revive. His focus on flower buds brings to mind a life not yet unfolded, but perhaps about to unfold.
The Rose, oil on canvas, by Yury Kharchenko, January 2022
While his Auschwitz paintings are an existential confrontation with the processing of the horror of the 20th century, his latest images speak of the urge to live and the unfolding of life in the shadow of the world’s omnipresent abyss.
The side by side exhibition of Kharchenko’s Auschwitz paintings juxtaposed with his flower images might inspire some thought with viewers.
Four men, a measured distance apart, standing disinterestedly over four synthetic sound systems. There is a small crowd seated in front of them. The sound that permeates the room comes from the barely moving men, and it is one of melodic and harmonic simplicity. It is entirely electronic apart from the short vocal phrases.
This is the sound of Kraftwerk, one of the pioneering electronic music groups arising out of Düsseldorf, Germany in the later 60s. The music they produced would help kickstart electronic music across the world. When measured with the other popular music of their day, it is a striking juxtaposition. 60s, 70s, we think of the high-energy performances of blues influenced rock, expressive jazz and spiritual psychedelia bands; Kraftwerk seems terse and objective by comparison.
It is an entirely different strain of artistic thought. Let’s go back to the second decade of the twentieth century and into the city of Weimar. This is where the German art school, Bauhaus, was founded. A staple of Modernist thinking, Bauhaus grounded itself on an idea of design; designing in accord with functionality; an experiment in trying to join mass production with aesthetics. It was a meditation upon modernity, the experience of modern life.
Artwork that came out of Bauhaus was geometric and abstract; their architecture, functional for its purpose alone – not for lavish expression. Function and purpose, Bauhaus’s work was an image of the ideal modernist city (Bauhaus was founded eight years before Metropolis came out). It is a subsuming idea, one that seeks to interconnect art and the object; art and society. This aesthetic was diametrically opposed to a traditional view of beauty that had been evolving along lines laid out since the Renaissance: this was a modern beauty, new, and expressive by its sparsity.
Beauty had to be delineated in a different way. Technology was rapidly changing the experience of living, especially city living. Technology would also grant new ways to be connected. However, the Utopian modernist city is not without its flaws. It’s no surprise that modernity was fraught with an aggressive anxiety; humanity as a machine, humanity as an abstraction, flies in the face of our spiritually nourished past and, even, sense of selfhood.
Returning to Kraftwerk, then, we find a continuation of the Bauhausian aesthetic; much of their music centers around functional city living. ‘Fun, fun, fun on the Autobahn’; sparse lyrics joined with the simplicity of their pleasing melodies. Robotic pop, a logical following of Bauhausian thinking – a term Kraftwerk begun to use to describe their music. Their image as a group of robots blurs the line between their life as musicians and their functionality as musicians; robots built to serve the public by creating these sounds. A quote from early EDM musician and producer, Richard Burgess, comes to mind: “computer programmed to perfection for your listening pleasure”.
Again, this line of thought is not without its anxiety. It is perhaps this underlying stress that gives their music its allure. The celebration of technology and modern living, despite the interconnectivity that they provide, co-aligns with a growing sense of alienation from vital human contact. The two sides balance out in the gesture of the four performers standing straight over their synthesizers, working out the sound of modernity.
Of course, electronic music spread quickly into many different directions, avenues, and sentiments. Kraftwerk’s influence, however, ranges the entire spectrum; the consoling melodic line of modern living has echoed into the twenty-first century with relative ease. Unlike the common musician celebrity, Kraftwerk maintains an eccentric reclusiveness – perhaps better to control their image. In some way, it is fitting that this should be so. As their influence and music permeates world-wide, they stay relatively, personally, unknown; the music’s functionality has masked the performer.
Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), architect and engineer, sculptor and painter, is universally considered the pioneer of the Italian Renaissance and the creator of an approach to architecture that would dominate the European art scene, at least until the end of the 19th century. Through a passionate study of antiquity that brought him several times to Rome starting from 1402, he reacted to the anti-classicism of late Gothic architecture and artistic culture, referring consistently to the language of the ancients and proposing new design systems based on modular structures. The keystone of this cultural and technical turning point was the invention of the vanishing point perspective in which the great technological tradition of Tuscan architects and masters was combined with the new trends of scientific thought, all converging towards the ever-increasing use of mathematical tools in the study of reality.
By unifying all orthogonal lines towards a single vanishing point, the scientific rules were built to objectively measure the decrease in depth of bodies inserted in space. The Florentine artist was among the first to elaborate and use rules and numerical relationships in the architectural construction of space and figurative representation. And this, together with the effort to identify the geometric principles used to organize the reproduction and creation of space, was the basis of a return to antiquity.
Architecture was for Brunelleschi a tool for mathematical control of design. Classical architecture is understood as an example of the exact measurability of space, as a clear example of the concrete possibility of subjecting the whole substantial reality of architectural space to rigorous mathematical formulas.
With Brunelleschi, a new system of organization of the construction site and of construction work came about and the new social figure of the architect was born.
The architect was no longer a superintendent of works, endowed with equal dignity concerning workers to a large extent operating on an autonomous level concerning him, as was the case in the Middle Ages, but an intellectual, cultured, an updated figure, who conceived and prepared the project and the details of the building, to which the activity of the workers, artisans, and contractors engaged in the work had to be instructed.
It was the end of the ancient organization of building activity, which had supported and achieved the great Florentine, and more generally Tuscan urban expansion of the 12th and 13th centuries. In a new relationship with the client, the new artist, as was outlined in the Bruneschellian experience, was a well-defined figure in his individuality, who ventured into the field of artistic innovation with a new, freer and more secular spirit.
But the figure of Brunelleschi would still be unclear if we did not put him in his historical context, in his place, that is, in Florence at the height of its territorial expansion and closely linked to its republican institutions. In the first sixty years of the fifteenth century Filippo Brunelleschi, Masaccio and Beato Angelico, Donatello, Nanni di Banco, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, Paolo Uccello and Filippo Lippi, Leon Battista Alberti, Luca Della Robbia, and other artists lived and worked in Florence, all animated by the same effort of cultural transformation, all converging in outlining the contents of new art and a new artistic figure.
Why, we might ask, did this constellation of artists come together in Florence? The early Renaissance artists, like few other examples in history (and the comparison with the Athens of the 5th century BC, although abused, may be useful), was configured as the expression, in the work of artists, of a cultural renewal that affected the entire city.
Thus, the desire of the artists to revive the noble classical prototypes was linked to the fervor of literary and humanistic studies and above all to the investigation, the enhancement of the virtues of the ancients, to the awareness that they could relive – indeed, that they were living – in contemporary Florence.
The Search for Measures and Proportions: Inspiration From the Classic
The trip to Rome (between 1402 and 1404) with Donatello was decisive for the formation of Brunelleschi’s architectural ideas. While his friend was more interested in the still visible examples of ancient sculpture, Brunelleschi studied the proportion of buildings and construction techniques. From Rome he returned with the idea that the architect should invent the overall structure of the building in proportional terms: concentrate on those, as the value and beauty of the work depended on them, and abolish the superstructure of the decorative elements, so dear to Gothic architecture. The assumption of ancient orders served this purpose: to limit the structural and decorative uncertainty of the Gothic to a reduced and correlated case study, according to ancient rules. The distance between two columns, to give an example, does not determine the height of the pointed arch thrown above them but instead defines the height of a round arch that joins them and allows to proportion the measures of the base and those of the height of the arch. The column, the pillar, the pilaster, the entablature, the round arch were the indispensable ingredients of an architectural practice that had, as its primary purpose, the creation of modular structures and the geometric rationalization of the plans and elevations. This is the radical innovation of the architectural practice made by Brunelleschi, who gave concrete proof of it in the buildings, secular or ecclesiastical, entrusted to him by the Florentine public groups and, more rarely, also by some private clients.
The Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Brunelleschi’s meditations on radial harmony developed during a long gestation resulting in one of his most daring and complex projects, the very symbol of the Florentine Renaissance and one of his best-known works in the world: the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore.
He was involved in it from 1417 until his death, through successive phases in which the various components of the colossal project were progressively developed: the huge converging caps raised in the void upwards, above the drum; the final lantern, keystone of the dome (completed around 1460, after the artist’s death); the dead stands, decorative elements but also buttresses of the formidable lateral thrusts caused by the large dome. Brunelleschi’s genius in this undertaking, as has been repeatedly noted, did not consist so much in the conception of the pointed arch shape of the dome, which was forced by objective requirements (for such dimensions it was not possible to think of using a hemispherical shape ), as in the ability to prepare the tools to complete the work (construction systems, machinery) and in the correct planning of the work phases.
Problems Posed by Construction.
The conclusion of the large apse tribune of Santa Maria del Fiore, by Arnolfo di Cambio (1367), and the subsequent erection of the massive octagonal drum (1413) with its four meter-thick walls, had left open the difficult problem of completing construction of the cathedral through an enormous dome, already foreseen by the original Arnolfian project. The opening that was intended to be covered by the dome, almost forty-two meters in diameter, was slightly smaller than the largest dome of antiquity, the Pantheon.
Following the competition launched at the Opera del Duomo in 1418, the construction of the dome was entrusted to Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, who were proclaimed winners after their joint a model of the project. The work began in 1420 and with that also disagreements between the two artists, and in 1426 Brunelleschi found himself with sole responsibility, something new for him, of the direction of the works.
The great innovation he introduced in the construction of the brick dome, supported by eight large white ribs, was the use of a load-bearing structure in every major phase of the work. The choice was a must: at this distance above the ground, it was not conceivable to use wooden reinforcements (ribs), as the traditional technique required.
Project and Organization of Works.
By adopting a double cap, internal and external, Brunelleschi simplified and strengthened the construction, placing the external one, parallel to the first, on twenty-four supports raised above the segments of the internal dome. The external dome was designed for practical and aesthetic purposes, to better protect the building from water, and to make it appear, as the work of the cathedral demanded, more magnificent and spacious.
It was up to Brunelleschi to think of the mechanical devices necessary to solve the complex problems of installation. For example, to lift the building material on the scaffolding he provided platforms for the workers; he even designed special boats for the transport of marble and bricks along the Arno. He designed every aspect of the dome covering, a first in the history of modern architecture, the position of sole manager.
Religious Significance and Earthly Significance.
After sixteen years of intense work, the dome was consecrated on 25 March 1436 by Pope Eugene IV. From a symbolic-religious point of view, it represented the triumphal crown of the Virgin to whom the Florentine cathedral was dedicated. But far more important was the earthly, social, and political significance of the work. Emblem of a city that had expanded its borders, the dome rose, with its expanded volume, over the roofs of the medieval city, detaching itself from the underlying body of the basilica, demonstrating a new way of considering history and space. Admired from afar, against the background of the hills that surround Florence, the dome, for the essentialness of its lines, for the visual effect induced by the contrast between the red brick of the caps and the white curvilinear ribs, becomes the pulsating center of a large urban system; dominating the entire region. The effect it had on his contemporaries must have been great because, as Alberti wrote, it seemed to “cover all the Tuscan peoples with its shadow”. It is a work still linked to the spirit of the Gothic because it is based on the calculation of structural forces in equilibrium, but the result of a new mentality as it redefines and re-proportioned the underlying building redesigns and subdues the surrounding area. However, it is a Renaissance work because, as the architectural historian Leonardo Benevolo wrote, it is the first “where the architect is not only a high-level consultant for a collective body of executors, but the only one responsible for the form, decoration, structure, and construction site organization”.
Construction Techniques of the Dome
The size of the dome that was to be built forced Brunelleschi to adopt new solutions to solve extremely difficult technical problems, also aggravated by the considerable height. The work was entrusted to him not because he had presented a particularly compellingly shaped dome model, but because he had provided a coherent work plan for its construction.
Brunelleschi found solutions to thousands of practical questions, capturing the wonder and admiration of his contemporaries. Vasari lists some of these measures: Brunelleschi had organized a lighting system for the stairs and corridors that run, at various levels, between the internal and external envelope of the dome and had placed the iron support points there to make it easier go up and walk through those tunnels; he had arranged the support points for the scaffolding of whoever, in the future, would have wanted to decorate the inner shell with paintings or mosaics, as in fact happened.
He had designed an elaborate rainwater drainage system; on the outside, he had even provided for “holes and several openings, so that the winds break, and the vapors together with earthquakes could not cause damage”. He went to the kilns to check that he was supplied with flawless bricks; he chose the stones one by one, making sure they weren’t cracked. He provided the stonecutters with models in wood and wax, and even carving them in turnips, in order to show them how the joints were to fix one stone to another. Nor could he overlook the problem of the organization of work. When the construction site gradually moved to higher altitudes, Vasari writes again, “workers lost a lot of time in going to dinner and drink, and they suffered great discomfort due to the heat of the day. It was therefore established by Filippo the order that taverns should have been opened in the dome with the kitchens, and wine should have been sold; and so no one would left work, except in the evening; which was to their convenience”. But the workers needed solid scaffolding to work safely at such high altitudes. At the beginning of the work, when the dome wall was still almost vertical, the scaffolding was supported by beams inserted into the wall, both inside and outside the building: but lastly, given the strong inclination of the masonry, he had to think of a different system. Filippo Brunelleschi designed a scaffolding suspended in the void, located in the center of the dome, probably supported by long beams on platforms fixed at lower altitudes. these platforms were also to serve as warehouses for materials and work tools. Brunelleschi had to take steps to lift the heavy bricks to the height of the installation.
He partly used traditional machines, derived from the construction practice of Gothic cathedrals, but he had to invent new ones, applying the multiplier system, invented for the manufacture of watches, which was able to increase the effectiveness of the strength of winches and pulleys. In such machines, the engine was driven by a couple of horses. By walking in circles, animals could rotate a vertical shaft. This, in turn, impressed it on a horizontal shaft from which the ropes that supported the loads, fixed at a height to pulleys, rolled and unwound. In this way bricks and stones could rise and fall through a difference in height of tens and tens of meters.
Interview by Asia Leonardi for the Carl Kruse Arts Blog
Amsterdam is the motherland of artists. Among its streets, its bridges, and its canals, a century-old history reverberates, interwoven on the concepts of tolerance, resistance to authoritarian domains, spontaneous expression, freedom. It is for this reason that this city offers a combination of the most sophisticated creative emergencies and the most avant-garde ones, making it a safe place where the most varied, the most interesting artistic profiles are invented and re-invented, full of creative expression. This is the city of Manon de Vlieger, a young woman who enjoys expressing her spiritual dimension through ceramics. Since graduating with honors from the Artemis Academy in Amsterdam, Manon has had a great interest in materials, shapes, and colors. Her approach to design and her love for trend influences is instinctive and endless. Her creative fury, when working as an interior designer and consultant, strives to embrace the identity, history, and values expressed by the person in front of her; when instead Manon carves out time for herself, she gives life and matter to her passion and lets the movements of her soul translate into the creation of ceramics. I had the immense pleasure of speaking with Manon, and of hearing her story and her message.
When did you start this activity? And where do you get your inspiration from?
I started in 2015. I worked for a fashion brand but I found the job too meaningless for me. I quit and began making ceramics as an exploration for myself; to learn new crafts and processes. Though to be honest this has always interested me. Ceramics is slow living. Impossible to hurry the clay as it takes time to give it form, let it dry, fire, trim, glaze and one last time into the oven. Slow living.
My inspiration comes from little things, art, cooking, furniture, history, photography, etc. Layers inspire me, in nature or on a picture, even in textile I can find some inspiration for my work.
I imagine that it gives a sense of tranquility, like an immersion in a peaceful dimension where each movement is natural, but I think that you have also to concentrate on the shape that you want to give to your work. What do you feel when you’re alone with your creativity?
Most of the time I feel free, this is my happy place. I can create without focusing and concentrating (after 5 years) so my hands and mind are flowing together, and out of this duet comes my work.
I see that you are an interior designer. How do you combine all these activities? Is pottery an activity of your free time?
Pottery is my passion project, I create it in my free time. In my work as an interior designer, my pottery inspires me. And the other way around. When I’m busy with my work and I do not feel at ease you can see it in my pottery work. So sometimes it’s hard to combine both passions. Pottery will always be my passion and not my work. I need to feel free to create so I don’t want to be dependent on what I sell.
My last question is: do you perceive the time you dedicate to pottery as a time in which you’re working, or as a time that you give all to yourself?
I create it for myself. I love to work with clay, every piece passes my hands multiple times. No vase is the same and no bowl is perfect. Every plate or cup has its own energy. I think my ceramic work wouldn’t be so charming if it felt like work. I think I would make it too perfect if that were the case and I love the fact that my work is a bit wabi-sabi. Every piece unique.
Manon’s words are sweet and full of meaning: expressions of her artistic soul, just like her works in ceramics. An expression of life matured in movements and shapes, which becomes concrete through the touch of her fingers. I am sure that Manon has so much to tell, that she will make her life a work of art, slowly, just like modeling a cup, a plate, a vase. A training ground for the serenity of the human soul.
The graphic art of Maurits Cornelis Escher is different from that of any other artist, instantly recognizable to millions of people around the world, representing an always compelling combination of art and mathematics.
Escher’s world, which explores issues of infinity and paradox, of impossible geometry and perspective distortion, is animated by a playful imagination and the unexpected, crafted with precision and an extraordinary attention to detail.
Born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, on June 17, 1898, Escher did not shine particularly well in the early years of school due to health problems, yet, he showed artistic talent and in 1919 he enrolled at the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts. He began studying architecture (a subject that would have fascinated him throughout his career) but after a short time, switched to the decorative arts with courses in drawing and wood engraving. Escher left school in 1922 and went on a tour of Spain and Italy that would significantly influence his later works.
During his travels, he met Jetta Umiker, whom he married in 1924, and for the following 11 years, the couple lived in Rome. Escher explored Italy far and wide, creating sketches and drawings, many of which reveal a growing interest in perspective distortion. Later, the artist would take these early elaborations to the extreme, basing his works on “impossible objects,” such as the famous and confusing Necker’s Cube and Penrose’s Triangle.
Under Mussolini’s regime, life in Italy became intolerable and in 1935 the family moved to Switzerland. 1936 was an important year for Escher and saw the transition in his works from natural landscapes to interior landscapes. He also saw the beginning of a lifelong fascination with tessellated shapes, inspired by a visit to the Alhambra. Escher called this new technical elaboration the “Regular Division of the Plane”. In 1937 the prints Still Life and Street and Metamorphosis I already testified to the essence of many of Escher’s new concepts: ambiguity, impossible reality, metamorphosis, altered perspectives, which would become dominant themes for the rest of his career.
After moving to Belgium in 1937, Escher returned to his Nazi-occupied country in 1941, where he would remain until 1970. These were years of great production and inspiration. After the war, the exhibitions earned him international fame and honors, including a knighthood. In the course of his life, Escher made 448 lithographs, woodcuts on wood or heads, and over 2000 sketches. His images bring to life the unreal, the paradox and the incomprehensible, with results that few others have equaled. In 1970 Escher moved to a retirement home for artists where he continued to have a studio. He died on March 27, 1972.
“I always move between puzzles. Some young people come to me to tell me: yours is Op Art too. I have no idea what Op Art is. I’ve been doing this job for 30 years.
Smaller and Smaller, 1956 | wood engraving and woodcut in black and red-brown printed from four blocks | 38 x 38 cm
Smaller and Smaller is an extraordinary example of Escher’s “Regular Division of the Plane” and also testifies to the artist’s interest in infinity. The lizards, arranged so that noses and tails coincide, are elegantly arranged in a vortex until they disappear into the infinitely small in the center. The work was created in 1956, the year that marks the moment when Escher began to take a research interest in expressing the infinite with tessellations. His interest was piqued by discussions with the mathematician Harold Coxeter, during which the two studied the possibility of combining the artist’s principle of “Regular Division of the Plane” with Coxeter’s geometric figures.
Escher himself often pointed out that he did not receive a formal education in mathematics, however, in works such as Smaller and Smaller and others, he achieved perfect accuracy within complex geometric theories. As Coxeter reiterated in 1995 “Escher is absolutely accurate, down to the millimeter.”
“Only those who measure themselves against the absurtd will achieve the impossible. I believe it’s in my basement..Now I go up and check.
Other World (Another World), 1947 | wood engraving and woodcut in black, light browning green printed from three blocks | 31,5 x 26 cm
Other World, also known as Another World, the first of Escher’s prints to explore his idea of relativity, is a study of the relationship between objects. The artist presents to the viewer a structure with five open walls, with almost identical Romanesque arches that offer a view on a series of different panoramas. The two arches at the base present an upward perspective on space, the two upper ones look down on a lunar landscape and the two in the center on a lunar horizon. The image, therefore, creates a paradox: each floor could be both the zenith and the nadir of the structure, so everything is relative depending on where you look. The image also features a bird with a human face perched on three arches, while a horn hangs from three other arches. The bird is the representation of a small sculpture donated to Escher by his father-in-law, and is present in several works by the artist.
“Are you really sure that a floor cannot be also a ceiling?”
Bond of Union, 1956 | lithograph 26 x 34 cm
The heads of a man and a woman float in the darkness and are formed by a single spiral ribbon that also joins them for the forehead. Infinite space-time is suggested by the spheres, similar to small planets, suspended in front, behind and inside the heads. Bond of Union is one of Escher’s most representative works and was inspired by the reading of “The Invisible Man”, the novel by H. G. Wells in which the hero has his head wrapped in bandages.
In this work, once again, the image expresses the artist’s exploration of the infinite. Moreover — an uncommon aspect of Escher, more interested in paradox, geometry and unreality than in “human” issues — he recalls the myth of Adam and Eve, and the bonds that keep men, women, and all humanity together. In this sense it is one of Escher’s most touching and most surprising works.
“The things I want to express are so beautiful and pure.”
The antithesis between abstract and realistic art, which lasted for a long time in the 1950s, was overcome during the decade which — although difficult to reduce to a common denominator — can be grouped under the definition of “informal.” This term, used for the first time in 1951 by the critic Georges Mathieu, obviously in its French sense, appears to be preferable to others — tachisme, that alludes to a painting with irregular spots (tache = spot); action painting, which refers to a sort of submission of the language to gesture, to action; lyrical abstractionism — precisely because of its generic nature, which lends itself to giving a minimum of unity to not very similar experiences.
Informal art, not only a European phenomenon, has its roots in the climate of mistrust in the cognitive abilities of reason, that arose following the Second World War. The deep devaluation of conventional means of expression — form and color — leads artists to focus their explorations on material, sign and spot. The premises of the informal are to be found in works by fairly isolated artists, active in the last years of the war in New York (Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning) and Paris (Wols, Jean Fautrier, Jean Debuffet). But mostly, it is in America where action painting arises, and indeed, Paris has lost its role as artistic capital since then.
Common elements are the detachment from history, even from the history of art, and often the refusal of political commitment: for many weighed the disappointment felt in having seen the hopes lit at the end of the conflict gradually vanished. The philosophical currents of the time (above all existentialism) accounted for the precariousness of life and paralyzing anguish, and from which there was no escape by gestures of revolt. The artist, having relations with reality become precarious, anxiously looked for an original and primitive artistic creativity.
The movement was influenced by the art of the Russian Vasilij Kandinsky, but also by surrealism, which sought to express the unconscious most directly and spontaneously. The main thrust, which gives impulse to the movement, is fueled by the artist’s need for improvisation, spontaneity and motor movement. The artist acts by giving free rein to his unconscious, and in this way he frees himself from the anguish and his restlessness with the physical movement of painting.
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) founder of American action painting, sought in a technique of automatism, similar to certain surrealist proposals, the way to free creativity from the unconscious. In this way he made his painting progressively more abstract until he made his first works in 1946 with the procedure called by himself, dripping, consisting in dripping, precisely, the color from a brush or a stick onto the canvas spread on the floor. The movement of the artist’s hand created an intricate set of lines on the surface, according to a more or less convulsive “rhythm” that has quite reasonably been compared to a piece of jazz music. Art, for Pollock, therefore loses its cognitive purposes, becomes an act of violent, angry participation, a testimony to the malaise in which the new generations find themselves.
Pollock also said that, spreading the canvas on the ground, it was better to walk around it and he felt an integral part of the picture. In the course of his experimentation he made some studies on the radiation of the Native American Indians and realized that the prayers addressed to the “Gods” took place through repeated turns of the Indians around the fire, during a state of trance and semi-awareness. From this experience Pollock associated the canvas to the fireplace, and the painter to the shaman. This union will transmit all of its most intimate interiority to future paintings, thanks to an accurate and spiritual escape from reality.
It is the artist’s ego that looms completely over the painting, and it is the painting itself that commands like the fire in a shamanic rite. Action painting never shows nor expresses an objective or subjective reality, but releases a tension that has accumulated in large quantities in the artist. It is an action not conceived and not planned in the ways of execution and in the final effects. It expresses the artist’s malaise in a well-structured society where everything is planned; it is a violent reaction of the artist-intellectual against the artistic-technician. “When I’m inside my paintings,” said Pollock “I’m not fully aware of what I’m doing. Only after a moment of awareness I realize what I have achieved. I am not afraid to make changes or to spoil the image, because the painting has a life of its own. I try to get it out. It is only when I happen to lose touch with the painting that the result is confusing and poor.”
Pollock’s drippings do not want to hit the viewer with colors or with a pleasant appearance, but only be the testimony of the artist’s life and presence. This is why observing the painting does not convey anything to us; because we have to think about the action that happens first, what Jackson did on the canvas. The painting is only the result, the work of art is the process of creation. To help understand the purpose of his works, in the 1950s Jackson began a collaboration with his friend and photographer Hans Namuth, creating some extraordinary photo shoots that portray the artist at work. There are more than 500 black and white shots where we see Pollock using brushes as sticks and “splashing” the paint directly on the canvas. Jackson chooses huge canvases for two specific reasons: the first is to represent the power of the United States, which after World War II will become the first world power. The second is to show the artist’s physical strength, who also sees the canvas as a sort of “gymnasium”.
The constraints of reason have little to do with art. Dripping is a true hymn to freedom, to the point that Pollock soon stopped giving a title to his works to limit himself to numbering them. If there had been a title, he argued, the observer would have been conditioned in some way. The canvases had to speak to each one only through color, leaving aside all that was rational. Words included.
What to do with an abandoned, six-story tall World War II bunker in Berlin? If you’re Christian Boros, build a 10,000 square-foot penthouse atop, fill lower levels with eclectic post-1990 art and open to the public.
Side view of the Boros Bunker with war damage. Photo: Carl Kruse
The Boros Bunker, originally designed by Albert Speer in 1942 as an air raid shelter for top-level Nazis, metamorphosed into a banana storage during the Communist era, then into a rave hotspot in the 1990’s before finding itself in the hands of Christian and Karen Boros.
A five-year renovation by Berlin’s Realarchitektur resulted in its present-day glory, receiving the Beton Architectural Prize for 2008.
Night descends on the Boros Bunker. Photo: Carl Kruse
A historical structure, home, and private art collection all in one, the bunker is a fantastic testament to what we can do if we want to do it. The artists in the collection include Olafur Eliasson (a favorite of Christian and Karen), Damien Hirst, Elizabeth Payton, Anselm Reyle, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Tobias Rehberger. This is not a museum but a private vision, the personal adventure of two people who love art and gathered what they thought worth gathering. And as they went collecting, they imagined living with all of it (or at least on top of it), which led them to the bunker.
Exhibit within the Boros Bunker. Photo: Carl Kruse
This place is worth a visit when in Berlin. Its collection might leave you wondering what is Art, and why some works are here. Christian Boros perhaps wonders himself as he says that he deliberately buys art that he does not understand. Whatever your impression it is a magnificent project, an adventure, one heck of a wild exploration.
Christian Boros says he deliberately collects art he does not understand, like a series of tires suspended from the ceiling. Photo: Carl Kruse in Berlin.