11 November 2014
REMBRANDT: The Late Works
The little ash-grey brain cells start leaving us the minute we're born and by middle age they've taken early redundancy and when we're OLD they've emigrated in droves to wherever brain cells go when they're not in our skulls. The stubborn handful which remain to await final expulsion are just about capable of turning on the tv or perhaps taking up a hobby that doesn't take up too much room or make a mess.
This, in an exaggerated nutshell, is what scientists, academics and other highly qualified authorities assert is fact. Some of them have also done research which proves that ground-breaking innovation in art, as in other areas of human creativity, happens, when it happens, only in the young. The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.
In my un-authorised opinion youth is a flexible definition, one that can be stretched like elastic if the pull is strong enough. And the strongest pull of all is creativity itself, if persistently exercised, sustained and nurtured. Which is why certain individuals, Rembrandt for example, throw the facts about ageing out of the window.
Old Mastery, such as I was privileged to witness last week in the magnificent National Gallery exhibition of Rembrandt's late work, is proof that brain cells can and will obey the instructions of genius rather than the robotic agenda of nature. He died aged only 63, a mere stripling by modern standards, but the old man who looks out of his uncompromising self-portraits has reached a state of understanding which transcends age and a mastery of his craft which grants him freedom to focus only on what really matters to him - to the genius in him - and to discard the rest.
..In ancient Roman religion, the genius was the individual instance of a general divine nature present in every individual person, place, or thing.
...attendant spirit present from one's birth, innate ability or inclination’, from the Latin root of gignere ‘beget’.
Rembrandt, Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait 1669 (the year he died).
Could it be that the attendant spirit in each of us reaches a state of maturity only when we allow it to become the dominant influence in our lives? Whatever form it takes, whether expressed through art or by any other means, it seems to be a path consciously chosen and pursued with unswerving dedication.
More than Rembrandt's bold, astonishingly modern handling of oil paint and the miraculous fluency of his drawings and etchings it was the compassionate yet unsentimental truth of the portraits which struck me. Technical virtuosity was always evident throughout his career but it is in these late works that you can feel he has jettisoned all desire to please, to compete or to be 'correct'. His eyes are not looking at the audience, fans or critics, but into himself - the sadness, the losses in his life, his own failings and disillusions - but also beyond himself to the unknown and unknowable.
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4 November 2014
ANSELM KIEFER AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY
Like or dislike do not apply and Wow, though appropriate, is unacceptably lightweight for such weightiness. Weighty is the word that keeps coming to mind as I try to gather my impressions of this stunning - as in stunned by a sharp blow to the head - exhibition. Literally heavy: sky's-the-limit kilos of lead, plaster, clay, sand, ash, wood, straw, brick-thick slabs of paint and other stuff making the stately walls of the R.A. groan in pain, awe or ecstasy. Weighty as in authoritative, serious, ponderous.
Anselm Kiefer is a heavyweight in a lightweight contemporary art world. His works are like slow-burning coals in that world's flashy fireworks. Do I like his art? Like - a word now and forever degraded by FaceBook and other social media - does not apply. Kiefer's work is anchored, you could say trapped, in gravity, in gravitas. It aims at immortality with iron-willed determination and pre-empts the destructive effects of time by imitating them.
I'm going to risk stereotyping and say that you can't separate Kiefer's work from German history and culture. Wagner and Nietzsche could be the soundtrack to this show but a thoughtful silence is better. German identity - historical, cultural, political, mythological, psychological, personal - is a theme that Kiefer has intensely and consistently explored in unorthodox, often controversial ways and although he's travelled the world and now lives in France it seems to me that, wherever he goes, he carries his German-ness like a heavy back-pack which is both a burden and a useful source. Whether or not his astonishingly productive, energetic and successful career owes something to the Hero-As-Conqueror Teutonic gene, Kiefer demonstrates that you can conquer the world without invading and occupying it (turns these into art-actions). If proof is needed of his artistic dominance take a look at the list of some honours Anselm Kiefer has received:
Grand State Prize for Fine Art, Germany 1983. Wolf Foundation Prize in the Arts, Israel and Goslarer Kaiserring, Germany 1990. Praemium Imperiale, Japan Art Association 1999. Federal Cross of Merit and Austrian Decoration for Science and Art 2005. Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2008. Adenauer-de-Gaulle Prize (in recognition of his contribution to cultural dialogue between Germany and France) 2009. Chair of Artistic Creation, Collège de France 2010. Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, French Ministry of Culture 2011. Leo Baeck medal for German-Jewish reconciliation, Leo Baeck Institute, New York 2011.
I must apologise for not writing a comprehensive, objective review of the works themselves but, as an artist looking at others' art, my objectivity becomes blurred by personal agenda, personal creative tendencies, needs and preferences. In a gallery or museum my ego usually walks ahead, pushing aside my humbler self. "Is there anything here for me?" it says, hunting for something which might feed the muse, maybe just a clue, a hint. I'm not ashamed of my biased one-eyed doppelganger. I need it, it's a helper. If it pays insufficient attention to a large proportion of extraordinary things on show I have to admit that life, my artist life, is too short to appreciate everything. And anyway, great artists can do without my appreciation.
Among the pieces in this vast exhibition that my egocentric eye focused upon were, of course, Kiefer's books. I'd only seen some in reproduction before so the materials themselves, up close, excited me: watercolour on plaster on cardboard! Pages as tall as I am! Pages I'd need a weight-lifter's help to turn. Allright, I won't make my pages so heavy. But those lead books...I want to stroke the pages, forget about lead poisoning! No, I don't think I'll use lead. Ever. Plaster-coated cardboard, very possibly.
And there were woodcuts pasted onto canvas and painted over, under, between, behind. And a terrific giant concertina-wall woodcut The Rhine (Melancholia) that you walk through as you exit the show.....I will do some giant prints. In sections. Yes, I will.
To make up for my shortcomings as art reporter, here are some relevant links I found after writing this post. If any don't open when you click on them, copy/paste into your browser.
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29 October 2014
ADVANCE NOTICE OF PUBLICATION
I'm copying below a reduced version of the announcement which Frances and Nicolas McDowall have sent to their mailing list. Are you on it? If you want to be, contact The Old Stile Press. Apparently nearly all of the Special copies have already been reserved! Prices of the edition not yet known but will be within the range of other OSP publications. See their catalogue.
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22 October 2014
Folded sheets of milky white Canaletto Liscio, the text set in confident but not combative Storm Sans, beautifully printed in deep turquoise blue on one side and in maroon on the reverse... twenty four, yes twenty-four, different coloured inks have been used for the text throughout the book, complementing the strong black images.
The stack sitting on my table consists of one hundred and fifty copies of the final four pages of Trans-Siberian Prosody and Little Jeanne from France which Dick Jones, the translator of Blaise Cendrars' fabulously fabulating poem, and myself, its illustrator, spent this morning signing. This ritual usually takes place at the home of The Old Stile Press in Wales but geographical distance, time and logistics did not coalesce on this occasion and I'm recording it here for Posterity, whoever she might be.
I've eliminated my head from the photo below because...well, you can guess why. The word starts with V and is repeated twice in Latin and it means the camera either lies or tells the truth and some of us can't face it. Dick on the other hand looks fine so I've left his head in place.
The signing does not mean that the day of publication is upon us quite yet but only that this stack of sheets can now be sent back to The Old Stile Press, rejoining the much bigger stack of sheets for the whole book which will, when complete, be sent to the binders for beautiful binding designed by moi and Nicolas McDowall. Watch this space.
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6 October 2014
Technical things always seem to go wrong when you need them most. I don't know if that statement is generally true but it seems so to me.
My etching press, as often mentioned before, is an essential tool and I've currently been using it for printing relief blocks (for the 'Trans-Siberian' book) rather than etchings. The difference is basically in the thickness of inked blocks or plates which must pass under the roller in order for ink to transfer to the printing paper. Etchings are generally on thin metal plates and require heavy pressure - adjusted by tightening the top screws - whereas relief blocks can be any thickness and only need fairly light pressure since the ink lies on the surface of the block rather than in grooves below the surface (intaglio) as in etchings.
Unlike some of the more modern machines, it's not possible on my press to raise or lower the heavy steel top roller to allow any thickness of block to pass through. The DIY way of solving this problem is to loosen pressure completely, push through on either side of the roller a couple of flat wooden runners same height as the intended blocks, then tighten the screws again as needed. This I did and it worked fine for about a hundred proofs from relief blocks.
But recently an ominous bump developed in the middle of the press bed and though I tried to ignore it, when a vinyl block I was printing was bent beyond recognition and a cracking sound came from the press, drastic action had to be contemplated. Examination revealed that a sheet of formica, glued to the steel bed over thirty years ago and firmly in place all this time, had suddenly come unstuck in the centre, though not at the top and bottom edges. Result: solid bump in the middle. Reluctant remedy: get rid of offending formica. Easier said than done. This was all taking place around 2 am, by the way.
Struggling to lift the formica stuck to the edges of the base I succeeded in breaking off pieces while rough bits of the backing remained glued to the metal - that's the reddish-brown mess showing in the photo below - it looks like rust but isn't. Note the strip of wood keeping the roller off the base, but not enough to let the steel bed run right off the press which, in the worst scenario, would chop my feet off, or would fall to the floor and stay there because I wouldn't be able to lift it back up. Minutely accurate, heart-stopping attention to the top screws was needed to prevent such a disaster from happening.
Below I'm pushing a knife under the formica with one hand while the other hand (invisible) attempts to hold the camera and the roller screw simultaneously.
To make a long story a bit shorter, I did manage to escape injury and to remove all the formica, but not the residue from its backing which resisted all scrubbing with steel wool etc. So I decided to let it be but to stick a length of Fablon over it and the whole of the metal bed - another hair-tearing, tooth-grinding task that could only be undertaken in the crazy hours of the night by a stubborn fool.
There is a happy ending: my beloved machine is now restored to peaceful, purring operation and I can get on with printing new blocks for the special prints to be included with the special extra copies of Trans-Siberian Prosody and Little Jeanne from France currently in production at The Old
And here is something beautiful to conclude and to celebrate the marvellous Indian summer weather we've been enjoying in London.
Consider the lilies of the field....
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