The Language That We Speak

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“Art is a basic human language that is universal among cultures and across time.”

–Peter William Brown (from The Painter’s Keys)

The well from which visual art arises in the soul is a place difficult to put into words.  Artists express what is in this place through what they put on paper or canvas. It is a fountain that is forcing its way out, pushing to the surface to be expressed. The fountain pours out, spills over.  What needs to be said appears on the surface.  What and how the expression is said is more or less directed by the individual artist.  The important point for artists is whether their art must be literally understood or is it open to the translation of the observer?

Screen shot 2013-11-18 at 8.43.51 PMThis past April, Chinese-French artist, Zao Wou-Ki passed away leaving behind a legacy of art that bridged two cultures. Julia Grimes has written extensively on Zao and his art.  Grimes quotes Zao in her article for CNN, “French and Chinese thought are not the same.  It’s hard to translate between them.  Sometimes you must wear yourself out trying to understand.  Painting must express these feelings.”  Zao’s art expressed what words could not.  Zao tells The New York Times, “Everyone is bound by culture.  I am bound by two.”  He had no words to adequately communicate the two cultures he inhabited.  Painting did that for him.

Does an observer understand Zao’s struggle between two cultures?  Or does the observer simply see art that is pleasing to the eye?  Does it matter?  Zao was immensely successful.  The language of his art spoke to others on many levels.  Whether others saw or understood his struggle did not affect his success.  The question for artists in their own work is if it is important for the language of their work to be understood literally?  If understanding is the important factor then a decision must be made as to how best to get the point across.  If the point is open for the interpretation of the viewer, more freedom of expression is possible.  It’s the artist’s language.  Each artist can decide how to speak it.

Magnetic Obsession

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“Most inner-oriented artists share a common characteristic, a certain quality of obsession.”  Kenneth Coutts-Smith  (from The Painter’s Keys)

Much has been written and will continue to be written about the strange story of Cornelius Gurlitt and the hoard of some 1400 works of priceless art in his Munich apartment.  How much of the art legally belongs to Gurlitt will be sorted out by the German authorities, eventually.  Until that time, the man has finally come out of hiding to speak of his obsession.  Gurlitt has given an extensive interview to Der Spiegel

 Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 6.17.18 PMFor those hoping to make sense of the story of the man, the interview won’t make that happen.  If anything, the interview of Mr. Gurlitt only makes the story stranger.  Gurlitt lived for and with his art and only his art.  He has no friends and very little contact with any relatives.  According to the article, he loves his art as if the works are his children.  He is devastated by the confiscation of his art.  He kept a collection of 25 drawings in a suitcase, taking them out each night at bedtime to gaze at them.  For eighty years, Gurlitt has lived for his art.

What is it about art that can so totally consume a person as it appears to have done with Gurlitt?  Some will say it is a mental health issue.  That apparently occurred to the German authorities.  They sent a social worker to Gurlitt’s apartment to speak to him.  But Gurlitt’s behavior is really no more strange that the behavior of some of the artists whose work is in his collection.

The magnetism of art is a documentable phenomenon.  For some it is visual art.  For others it may be dance or theater, books, poetry or music.  Is Gurlitt any different than the “Mystery Man” who put three roses on the grave of Edgar Allen Poe on the anniversary of his birth every year for over twenty years?  Or of someone who pays 142 million dollars for a single work of art?  The artists themselves, some of them, can be equally obsessive in the creation of the art.  That doesn’t answer the question.  What is it that creates the magnetism?

Magnetism is not something learned in school or in a book.  It can’t be described in scientific terms.  It either happens or it doesn’t.  Some artists have it.  Others don’t.  It does not appear to be related to the skill or lack thereof, of the artist.  If magnetism can’t be learned, is it out of reach to those who are striving for it?  No.  Magnetism comes from the still, small inner voice.  Some may be better at listening than others.  The skill of listening should perhaps be cultivated vigorously.  Will following that inner voice lead to creating the kind of art that results in an obsession like Gurlitt’s?  Who knows!  But it is doubtful it will happen without it.

The Telegraph, CNN and the Daily Mail have more on the Gurlitt case at the links.

For more on Poe’s “Mystery Man” go here.

The Plight of the Impudent Thief

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A 24 million dollar loss in the art world has been replaced in the news by a one billion dollar find.  Just weeks ago, the art world was lamenting the theft and probable burning of seven works of art from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam.  Now comes a new report of the German find of over 1400 artworks in an apartment owned by an eighty year old man.  The pain of loss is overcome by the joy of the new find.  But the antics of the theft ringleader are quite entertaining.  And insulting.

The Romanian ringleader of the art heist gang first attempted to have his trial moved from Romania to the Netherlands in hopes of a more lenient sentence.    His bargaining chip was the promise to reveal the location of the art in exchange for the trial move.  However, his loving mother nixed that plan when in an attempt to save her son, she stated she had burned the stolen paintings in her stove.  The ashes in her stove have been confiscated and are being analyzed.  She, apparently, didn’t have enough sense to get rid of the ashes, too.  Forensic capabilities may have uncovered evidence that proves she did, in fact, burn the art in spite of a latter retraction.

When the trial move was denied, the ringleader’s next trick was to claim the museum had been complicit in the theft to benefit from an insurance claim.  Or perhaps, it was the owner of the collection who was complicit.  “Somebody”, claimed the thief, made the heist possible so “somebody” could get the insurance money.  “Somebody” or “anybody” but the thief is responsible for the thief’s actions.  He is certainly not responsible.  He’s a good boy.  Just ask his mother.

And if that wasn’t enough, he continued to add insult to injury.  When the insurance claim idea was denied, he then threatened to sue the Museum, claiming it was the museum’s fault he stole the works because the museum’s security was not sufficient to prevent his theft.  Essentially saying, “Its your fault I stole from you because you were not strong enough to stop me.”  The sound of heads shaking can be heard.  One wonders who is paying the lawyers to file this claim?

However, the pain of the theft was deeply felt by the art community and compounded by the continued brazenness of the ringleader.  But all is not lost!  The stolen Matisse and Picasso artworks were replaced in the heart of the art community by the newly found Matisse and Picasso artworks.  The German find is many times larger than the Dutch theft. Will the thieving ringleader or his loving mother take credit for the find?  Who cares?  His fifteen minutes of fame are over.  Hope the prison food is tasty.

Note:  The thief’s name has purposely been withheld in compliance with the fifteen minute rule.

The Dutch Heist and the German Find have been covered extensively by The Guardian.  Read more here and here.

The Scotsman, the BBC, the Claims Journal, CNN, the New Yorker, the Atlantic Wire and more have all written about various aspects of the theft and trial.  Follow the links for more on this intriguing story.