Bacchus (1580/85) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
(I never quite know what to write about this kind of painting – the more realistic, decorative and virtuose kind. To make a list of all the things? That seems rather pointless and probably has been done a thousand times by far more observant experts. To talk about techniques? Any painter could see and understand more than an outsider. It’s the kind of art that really doesn’t need to be talked about, but rather to be experienced and enjoyed. Reden tötet die Kunst. On the other hand, it seems so easy to talk about modern art. Does it not say something about modern art? Have we not talked too much?)
The Nietzschean Dionysus is the opposite of language. Out of him comes a chaotic meaningless murmur / scream.
In the state of ecstasy and madness, the sweet wine full to the brim, the glass weightless, nothing is left to say.
Giebelwände Fachwerk (1959-79) by Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher.
The beauty of architecture is sometimes lost within its own functionality. So they turn it into sculpture. Anonymus sculpture, for that the artist is no one but itself. Being created and creating at the same time, Schaffende und Geschaffene.
The autonomy of functional things.
Are they not Mondrian? Geometry following the rules of physics is no less beautiful than geometry born out of artistic intuition. Absence of colour reminds us to look at Mondrian in a more conscious and reflective way. It reminds us of the artificial aspect of art.
A repetition and variation at the same time, like a baroque suite.
The Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608/14) by El Greco.
300 years ahead of his time, the revelation of El Greco is that of modernism.
The human body is stretched thin and pale, the angular curves of muscles and bones are a hair away from going too far.
An array of bodies in every position, stand out from the colourful background to which they don’t really belong. Like figures in a collage with their stark black outlines, as if they were cut out from a magazine and put together in a new order.
It’s not about the story told in Revelation. And they are not really bodies, but rather masses with certain colour and certain shape, servants of the composition, each of them a single note of a chord.
The robes of salvation should be white, yet El Greco made them blue and red and yellow and green. And the little angels don’t even have wings. St. John has a body of a giant, long and stretched out like Le Corbusier’s proportion saint.
And then Picasso saw. So he brought them into Avignon and turned them pink. But that’s another story to tell. (The story of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.)
Der Potsdamer Platz (1914) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
They are standing on a porcelain round plate / an island in the green-yellow sea / a stage of seduction and allure / a blackhole, that drags everything towards itself and sucks them in.
Men, streets, buildings, darkness of the night, they all twirl and twist, like being pulled by gravity. Instead, it was two women.
Their faces a gloomy yellow, reflected and sickened by the grass-green of the streets. Their feathered hats, their dresses and high heels, in such a way that it almost seems honorable.
And the black veil of the widow. They say it was added later on when the war broke, 1914. So the dead soldier’s wife became a prostitute, imprisoned by her birdcage-shaped veil, used and abused by men.
Is this really what they were fighting for?
Friedrich Nietzsche (1906) by Edvard Munch.
It’s hard to resist the temptation of making that particular connection. The famous Scream with this Nietzsche portrait.
The familiar red-yellow sky, the blue curves of the mountain, the perspective of the bridge. A mirror image, but with far more introverted and muted colours and shapes.
Besides, the Nietzsche here isn’t exactly busy covering his ears, eyes terrified, mouth gaped.
But isn’t there maybe an echo of a scream, floating down from the other side of the bridge? A scream with the same anxiety, fear, desperation and pain, which Munch shared intimately with the man.
»I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous infinite scream of nature.« (Munch)
»Es war aber ein langer vielfältiger seltsamer Schrei, und Zarathustra unterschied deutlich, dass er sich aus vielen Stimmen zusammensetze: mochte er schon, aus der Ferne gehört, gleich dem Schrei aus einem einzigen Munde klingen.« (Nietzsche, from the book for all and none)
Die kleinen blauen Pferde (1911) by Franz Marc.
Franz Marc war das blaue Pferd von dem blauen Reiter aus dem Osten. Wenn dem Reiter sein Pferd fehlt, wie konnte er überhaupt weiterlaufen?
Auf das, das Kandinsky durch geometrische Abstraktion zum Ausdruck bringt, antwortet Franz Marc mit den Studien der farbigen Tierwesen.
Oder sind sie eher tierförmige Farbwesen?
Die Pferde sind nichts anderes als Kurven, Linien und Formen; Geometrie gefüllt mit Farben. In diesem Sinn haben die beiden dieselbe geschaffen. Im Wesentlichen sind sie eins, das Pferd und der Reiter.
Eine neue Möglichkeit wird hervorgebracht, unser Erleben der Farben von unserer Wahrnehmung ihrer Träger zu trennen. Ist es gelungen? Es gibt vielleicht keine Antwort.
Was bedeutet das Blau eines Pferdes, oder eines Dreiecks, eines Kreises? Sind Farben eigentlich jenseits der Form? Ihre Negation?
Und sind dies nicht bloß Wiederholung von den Fragen, die tausend Jahre alt sind?
»Blau ist das männliche Prinzip, herb und geistig. Gelb das weibliche Prinzip, sanft, heiter und sinnlich. Rot die Materie, brutal und schwer, und stets die Farbe, die von den andern beiden bekämpft und überwunden werden muß!«
Es gibt in Bildern keine »Gegenstände«, keine »Farben« mehr, sondern nur Ausdruck.
Woman Holding a Balance (1665) by Jan Vermeer.
Michel Serres sees a translation of Descartes’ mathematics in the works of Vermeer, and specifically in the one above, Woman Holding a Balance.
It’s a Cartesian coordinate system.
The hand holding the balance is the origin point, the number 0. The horizontal axis runs parallel and above the table and overlaps with the lower edge of the painting on the wall. The vertikal axis covers the left rim of the painting and continues with the table’s leg in the shadows.
There are, however, two more axes – diagonal. Light shines through the window, casts a division line between black and white on the wall, leading directly to the hand. This segmentation of dimensions through light and shadow goes on on her yellow dress. And the counterpart axis runs along her gaze. From her eyes to the balance she is looking at, and continues with the dark blue cloth that drapes down the table.
When x>0, y>0 (in the upper right dimension), we see a painting in the painting. It’s one of Vermeer’s favourite tricks, to give the work another layer of meaning, a world within a world. And here, the last judgement. The second balance in the picture. To weight a human’s soul. The little Jesus is holding his arms up in such a way that it mirrors the shape of the balance in her hand. A double balance. (A tripple balance, if we count the geometrical balance of the painting itself.)
And isn’t she perhaps Maria, holding all those “balances” with a gentle hand, and gazing peacefully at the zero point, the origin of all?
Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914) by Giorgio de Chirico.
A Freudian dream.
In the dream it was night, yet the streets were bright orange and the corridors shiny white. Lights came from nowhere and everywhere – just around the next corner, but also from objects themselves (the bizarre wooden cart in the middle). They were self-illuminating, but also covered in shadows.
Two sets of arcades, they exist in different dimensions, different physical worlds; their vanishing lines are almost vertikal to each other. A dream that cannot be true, yet everything makes sense. Harmony of the wrong physics.
The little girl, we couldn’t see her face, a nostalgic phantom chasing the loop down the bright orange street. The small empty circle carries all the melancholy with it. She’s heading toward the ghost around the corner, of whom we could see nothing but the shadow it casts on the ground. Is it a sculpture, a man with a pole? Mystery unsolved.
Maybe this was indeed what metaphysics should look like. All the physical rules and reality and memories twisted together, all the possibilities happening at the same time, and in the end, nothing is solved.
Vertigo (1908), by Léon Spilliaert.
There is a dreadful sense of sadness in Spilliaert’s painting. It’s not like the conscious melancholy of C. D. F., or the dramatic expression of Munch. It’s something born from inside, and also directed inward. Eine Traurigkeit, die von Innen auskommt, und wieder nach Innen richtet.
The steps are curves and curves. Where is the vanishing point? What’s wrong with our depth perception?
The woman sitting there, part of her floating in the wind. She is unreachable, although she is just a few steps away.
What’s down there? The fear of darkness and height is among the most primitive instincts of human being. Why isn’t she afraid? Is she a part of the abyss?
The only shadow she casts is that of her feet. Thin grey stripes dragging out of the black facade of the stairs. They are the only roots she has to this world, otherwise she will just float away, black turns into grey and then dissolves in the white sky.
Au-dessus des étangs, au-dessus des vallées,
Des montagnes, des bois, des nuages, des mers,
Par delà le soleil, par delà les éthers,
Par delà les confins des sphères étoilées…
(Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal)
The Man Made Mad by Fear (1843/44), by Gustave Courbet.
(There’s probably no label which has been more simplified and twisted other than that of realism. No one likes the sound of realism, not in this contemporary world anyway. And it is unfortunate that a great master like Courbet must carry the weight of this plain and often misunderstood name tag on his shoulders. Isn’t it time to put away those labels and little tags on the walls of a museum, and to really see with our own eyes?)
The man made mad by fear, as simple as that. Again, madness with a hand in his hair, with the same face from The Desperate Man. But now, the other hand is reaching forward, not to grab, not to hit or shake hand, but rather to touch the limit of his own madness. To examine and taste his invisible illusions with shaky fingertips.
But what is happening in the background? The sky too blue, grass too green, and the mad man has a big red cape (Whose illusion is this now?). The brushstrokes in the foreground are pure abstract. They were scrubbed into a cloud of chaos and grey matters.
Something is eating away the painting, slowly swallowing the man up, along with his surrounding; a fog rising up from the lower right corner, and will soon spread through the whole canvas. But he’s not afraid anymore, he hasn’t turned away. Instead, he charges right into the whirl of madness, emptiness, and chaos.
Was he made mad by fear? Or is he simply trying to embrace this madness?