Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Memorials: Art, Design and emotions

A ‘generation next’ monument is about to be raised in Berlin to celebrate the German reunification of 1989. It is going to be a dazzling, monumental, steel disk which will move like a see-saw, with a capability to hold up to 1400 people at a time! (I hope it will be a free ride. :))

Monuments and memorials have an ancient history. People have started building or carving them out much before art, design and architecture became clearly separated streams of knowledge. From the finest specimen of sculpture, great achievement in metallurgy to complex architecture or engineering excellence, memorials have come a long way. What has not changed is perhaps the ‘monumental’ nature of memorials. 

These are built with the support of public commissions in modern days and in the past were often ‘gifts’ to fellow citizens from some ‘dear king/queen’. I think it is a subject certainly very dear to the artists, designers, architects and engineers but also for the sociologists. These pieces of public art reflect upon the decision makers and subsequently the society which commemorates them. They could be artistic- non artistic, pompous-humble, honest-dishonest, autocratic-democratic in their own special way based on the timeline and political situation. 

Here are some interesting monument-memorials around the world, varying in style, medium and purpose. There is invariably a story behind each memorial, perhaps evoking joy, but more often sorrow. Let us leave off the story for now and view each of these interesting creations as manifestations of art.

Trajan's Column, Rome, Italy (113 A.D.)

Asoka's Pillar, Vaishali, Bihar, India (300 B.C.)

Chernobyl nuclear disaster memorial, Chernobyl, Russia (1986)

Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington D.C., USA

War Memorial, Mansu Hill, N. Korea 

Memorial of the native people, Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile 

War memorial, Swakopmund, Namibia

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Press where gods ‘re-incarnated’

About 60 kilometers from Pune going towards Mumbai (Bombay), there is a small village called Malavli. If you walk out of the train station and ask any local villager you happen to meet first, “Where is the ‘Press’?”, he will promptly direct you to where it is. He will also go ahead and tell you with grief “But there is nothing left in there and they won’t let you get inside the building.” The Press that he is referring to is a Lithographic Press established in 1899 by one of the greatest Indian painters, Raja Ravi Varma (b.1848-d.1906). 

Raja Ravi Varma is a revered Indian artist who initiated the renaissance style (more of a ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ style) depiction of Indian mythology and Hindu gods through his sparkling and bright paintings. He lived for 58 years, but his enormous contribution to various aspects of Indian art has made an ever lasting impact.
Raja Ravi Varma was born in the southern Indian state of Kerala and traveled and painted across the country and abroad. Highly enterprising and visionary artist, he imagined the concept of mass-circulation. Until then art (painting form) had a restricted patronage from the elite class of Indian royals of various states (Maharajah’s). But Raja Ravi Varma changed this picture with the litho press he imported from Germany and established in Mumbai (it was shifted to Malavli later). His prints of highly realistic, figurative depiction of the mythological figures and Hindu gods and goddesses were an instant hit with the masses. It was for the first time that people were looking at colorful two dimensional avatars of gods which were also available to be framed and hung in their households. It was a radical change and the prints went on to be admired and worshipped as well.

Many families in India have preserved these original lithographs purchased by their forefathers. They are of course very rare, but if you happen to see any by chance you cannot miss the beauty of the painting and the historical significance that lies hidden within it. One of my good friends, Mr. Mandar Bhopatkar in Pune, has a set of very carefully preserved original prints of Raja Ravi Varma which had been acquired by his grandfather. The prints shared in this post are from his precious collection. My sincere thanks to Mr. Bhopatkar for permitting me to share these prints here, and also thanks to my dear friend Prathamesh who did the great photocopying.

1. Raja Ravi Varma: He is greatly admired in India (partially because of cultural acceptance of his prints) by people. But he is also sometimes criticized for being too emotional and dreamy about his subject matter (similar to the reasons why Pre-Raphaelites are often criticized).  Many of his original paintings (oil on canvas) can be seen in various museums in India, they are really outstanding. He was wrongly criticized as a mere ‘calendar artist’ by some critics who perhaps reviewed his relatively flat lithographic prints and ignored his original dynamic oil paintings. 

2. The Press: Currently, the estate housing the press is a private property with no access to artists, historians or visitors. Some of the original German machines, prints and lithography stones are permanently exhibited in the museum at Manipal, India

Finally, this post was primarily to introduce Raja Ravi Varma’s idea of mass reproduction of art in India around a century ago. His work, his legacy and its impact on Indian art will require a dedicated post which I hope to cover some other time.

Museum picture courtesy: Heritage Village, Manipal, India, Litho-prints Pictures courtesy: Mr. Mandar Bhopatkar, Pune, India 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Hedda Sterne: The last of ‘The Irascibles’

Hedda Sterne, an important artist often associated with the (first generation) abstract expressionist movement, passed away on April 8, 2011. She was 100 years old. Notably, she was active as an artist up to the age of 94! 

Very often we recognize Hedda for her appearance in a highly popular group photograph called ‘The Irascibles’, which was printed in the ‘Life’ magazine in January 1951, captured by Nina Leen. It is an iconic picture, often bundled with the information about the early years of the Abstract Expressionist movement or the ‘New York School’. But the fact is that many of these artists, including Hedda, were not interested in such a tagging and even the group photo is quite contextual. This was a group of New York artists who protested against the orthodox approach of juries at an important group exhibition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eighteen artists signed a letter to protest, and ‘Life’ magazine article coined the term ‘The Irascibles’ in their article talking about the incident. 

Eventually all of these artists became very important names of the Abstract Expressionist movement (along with many others who were not part of the group picture), but sadly, women artists who were closely associated with the philosophy did not receive the recognition that they deserved. Hedda Stern, Elaine de Kooning and Lee Krasner were quite impressive artists who often participated in group shows and even had solo exhibitions at that time. But, as compared to the almost ‘god like’ recognition that Pollock, Rothko or de Kooning received, women artists were rarely discussed or acknowledged.   

Hedda Sterne was a remarkable artist known for her powerful and very original objective paintings. She was born in Romania and studied in Paris and Vienna before she immigrated to the US during WWII (hence also recognized as one of the influential ‘immigrated artist’ members of the Abstract Expressionist movement). 

Here is the picture of 'The Irascibles’ with some information on the artists who are part of the group. Hedda Stern can be seen standing at a prominent position in the photograph in the top row, an apt placement for the artist who made the female presence felt in the dominantly male world of the American art of the 50s. 
The "Irascibles" in the January 15, 1951 issue of Life magazine 
Front row: 1. Theodoros Stamos (December 31, 1922 – February 2, 1997), 2. Jimmy Ernst (June 24, 1920 - February 6, 1984), 3. Barnett Newman (January 29, 1905 – July 4, 1970), 4. James Brooks  (October 18, 1906 – March 9, 1992), 5. Mark Rothko (September 25, 1903 – February 25, 1970)
Middle row: 6. Richard Pousette-Dart (June 8, 1916 – October 25, 1992), 7. William Baziotes  (June 11, 1912 – June 6, 1963), 8. Jackson Pollock (January 28, 1912 – August 11, 1956), 9. Clyfford Still (November 30, 1904 – June 23, 1980), 10. Robert Motherwell (January 24, 1915 – July 16, 1991), 11. Bradley Walker Tomlin (August 19, 1899 – May 11, 1955)
Back row: 12. Willem de Kooning (April 24, 1904 – March 19, 1997), 13. Adolph Gottlieb  (March 14, 1903 - March 4, 1974), 14. Ad Reinhardt (December 24, 1913 – August 30, 1967), 15. Hedda Sterne (August 4, 1910 – April 8, 2011)

Monday, April 04, 2011

I support Ai Weiwei!

Ai Weiwei still missing after being held by Chinese police. Artist's assistants and wife released but his whereabouts not disclosed by Beijing authorities.” This is the status today of the acclaimed Chinese artist, thinker and activist Ai Weiwei as reported by The Guardian. Weiwei was detained by the Chinese authorities on Sunday (April 3, 2011) at the airport when he was about to board for Hong Kong. 

In case you are not aware of him, his work, his lone fight against the stubborn Chinese authorities, I would strongly recommend this great video on PBS, called “Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?”

Ai Weiwei (b.1957), son of a highly regarded Chinese poet Ai Qing is not just an art superstar, but is also a thinker, a philosopher and an outspoken activist. The impact of his art and his philosophy has been so intense that the government of the “all well, all rapidly progressing” China has become extremely uncomfortable. The Chinese government is dealing with a highly celebrated, world renowned artist here. Weiwei was the art adviser for the very popular ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium China had constructed for the Summer Olympics of 2008. Although Weiwei contributed to this monumental miracle, he refused to participate in the Chinese (Government’s) triumph showcasing a false picture of ‘all well, all happy’ new China. His various installations and sculptures not only display his artistic talent but also deal with the discrepancies he observes and daringly makes statements against them.
Despite house arrests, beatings, detentions and demolition of his studio by the authorities, he has chosen to remain in mainland China all these years. He is making his art, writing his thoughts, communicating with thousands of young Chinese people through internet and most importantly he is standing firm by his own philosophy. Recently he exposed a corruption racket which was responsible for faulty construction of residential projects and school buildings in Sichuan. In the 2008 earthquake, thousands of school children died as a result of these badly constructed schools. Authorities, outrageously, kept the exact numbers and names of these children undisclosed. Weiwei, with the help of several volunteers researched and uncovered the names of more than 5000 schoolchildren who had died. Then he went ahead and made a startling installation in the form of a memorial to these unfortunate kids. 

He is dealing with the powerful, control freak rulers who have a proven track record of insane censorships, data manipulation and unruly arrests of the intellectuals. In the current times where the world is coming ever so close and newer media for communication and expression are evolving every other day, China is ridiculously choosing to regress back in time. 

Today the entire world is concerned about Ai Weiwei’s whereabouts. Not only artists, but any person who recognizes the thing called ‘freedom of expression’ would be concerned for Ai Weiwei. I do not know where this is all going to go from here, but all I can say is, “Yes, I too support Ai Weiwei and in the name of art and freedom demand that he, and the others detained now in China be released immediately.”