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Category: Art

RUBALDO MERELLO

Sori, 10th February 2018

My wife and I were recently in Genoa. Since it was a rainy day, we had decided that our usual excursions along the coast were out, and had opted to visit a couple of exhibitions at the Palazzo Ducale, the Ducal Palace. The Palazzo Ducale was recently the scene of much brou-ha-ha. It had hosted an exhibition of Modigliani’s paintings. Some Modigliani experts had claimed that half the paintings were fakes (apparently Modigliani is very easy to fake), the organizer retorted that all the paintings had certificates of authenticity emitted by various other experts and that very respectable institutions had already hosted the exhibition, the Carabinieri had nevertheless moved in and confiscated the whole exhibition and were pressing charges for fraud, the organizer in turn was suing person or persons unknown for making false claims … in a word, there was a right royal mess.

Luckily, the exhibitions we were visiting were not the subject of such polemics. One was an exhibition of works by Picasso from the Picasso Museum in Paris. Although interesting, I will not comment on it (although I should note in passing that Picasso has also been widely faked: organizers beware!). The other was an exhibition of works by Rubaldo Merello.

I will perfectly understand if readers have never heard of Merello. I had not heard of him either until we saw this exhibition advertised. He is, to be honest, a minor Italian painter and sculptor, and his story is quickly told. Born in 1872, he worked at the turn of the last century, dying in 1922 at the relatively young age of 50. He was a local son, learning his trade at Genoa’s Accademia Ligustica delle Belli Arti. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, he tied his colours to the movement known as divisionismo, Italy’s answer to France’s pointillisme. For some reason which is not completely clear but which may have had to do with his paintings being rejected by the 1st Venice Biennale, he started isolating himself from the art world, eventually holing up, in 1906, in San Fruttuoso, a small fishing hamlet on the promontory of Monte di Portofino.


I have already written about San Fruttuoso in an earlier post, but it’s worth repeating here that while charming San Fruttuoso is very remote. The only ways to reach it are by boat from Camogli, which even today can be impossible if the sea is too rough, or by foot up and around the mountain and then down a steep track to the shore – in Merello’s days either your own feet or mules’ feet. But Merello buried himself and his family here for eight years, despite many calls from his friends to return to civilization. He paid the price for his isolationism. In 1913, his younger son died of diphtheria because medical help couldn’t arrive quickly enough. His wife had a breakdown after her son’s death (poor woman, who can blame her after the hermit’s life her husband had imposed on her), and Merello himself was never quite the same. He moved the remaining family to Santa Margherita Ligure in 1914 and worked there, mostly on sculptures, until he died.

Because Merello chose to stay in San Fruttuoso, most of his paintings are of the hamlet and its surroundings. His paintings of the hamlet itself are interesting but no more than that.



It’s when Merello clambered up the mule track behind San Fruttuoso to be high up above the village that his paintings begin to grip me. There was one view in particular which he painted again and again, almost obsessively it would seem, a view of the small bay of San Fruttuoso from the Monte di Portofino, which I have been always fond of. It is a plunging view, from high up the mountain down to the lapis lazuli sea far below, seen through a screen of trees. It is a view much photographed.

Merello tried a number of colour combinations for the view, resulting in a fascinating array of paintings.


Even more striking, though, were his paintings still from high on the mountain but now focusing just on pines and the sea in the far distance.

He arrived finally at an almost abstract composition of pine against water.

If this last painting had fallen off the back of a truck, I would not have hesitated to keep it, on the basis of the morally dubious saying “Finders keepers, losers weepers”. Out of a somewhat masochistic curiosity, I checked auction prices for Merello’s paintings. While many orders of magnitude below what you need in your bank account to buy a (real) Picasso, at around €40,000 a painting they are way out of my league. Well, I guess I’ll never have a Merello on my wall – unless it falls off the back of a truck.

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Rubaldo Merello: http://www.palazzoducale.genova.it/rubaldo-merello-la-vita/
San Fruttuoso: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/san-fruttuoso-bay.html
San Fruttuoso: https://www.fondoambiente.it/luoghi/abbazia-di-san-fruttuoso
The bay of San Fruttuoso from above: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g227888-d4569424-i112196609-Camogli_San_Rocco_Batterie_San_Fruttuoso_Trail-Camogli_Italian_Riviera_L.html
Other photos: my pics

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ROCKY OUTCROPS

Milan, 28 January 2018

I’ve just come back from Yangon, where I was giving a training course on the implementation of cleaner production methods. An interesting topic, but not actually the subject of this post. It so happens that on the first night I was there I stumbled across this picture.

This is Popa Taung Kalat, a monastery perched atop an old volcanic plug some 50 km away from Bagan. I immediately sent my wife a WhatsApp asking why we had not visited this place on our visit to Bagan. The question was rhetorical since I know the answer: we didn’t go because neither of us knew that Popa Taung Kalat existed until I came across this photo.

Which is a great pity, because I have a certain fascination for places perched on knolls, buttes, tors, or other rocky outcrops, especially if they sit in a flat plain and are visible from miles around. My wife and I recently spent a very pleasant evening in a similar place to Popa Taung Kalat, the small town of Laon close to Reims, when we did our tour of French battlefields of the First World War.

In this case, although it sports a magnificent 12th-13th Century cathedral

the outcrop’s original use by the Gauls was martial rather than religious; they built a fortress on the top. The outcrop’s military vocation continued for centuries thereafter. Given its position, this is not really surprising. Whoever commanded Laon controlled one of the major entry points into the Île de France.

Polignac, in the Auvergne, is another rocky outcrop where military considerations seem to have been paramount in its original colonization. The Velay family built the first castle here in the 11th Century and continued to live there and rule the surrounding country for some six centuries.

Edinburgh, too, where my wife and I met more years ago than I care to remember, when we were both university students there, sports a magnificent castle atop an ancient volcanic plug.

Here, though, that rather special effect of being able to see it from miles away is lost, the old sight lines having been obscured by the urban jumble that has spread out from the historic core of the city which lay huddled at the base of the castle or which clustered along the long road, the Royal Mile, that led down from the castle to the royal palace below.

A similar stony promontory lies close to my French grandmother’s (now my sister’s) house near Mâcon, the Roche de Solutré, one which I spent many happy hours in my youth climbing.

It was first used by our ancestors 20,000 years ago to kill wild animals in large numbers. They would drive the poor beasts up towards the edge where, in their panic, they would fall off to their deaths below, to be butchered on the spot. The archaeological finds gave the name Solutrean to a phase in the Upper Paleolithic. But coming back to our martial theme, it is of greater interest that a certain Raoul de Bourgogne built a castle on its top in 930, and his descendants used its dominating position to harass those passing by and demand protection money. Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy, finally decided that enough was enough and ordered its destruction in 1434. Popular jubilation was such that several people were killed in the crazed desire to rip the castle apart, stone from stone. Since then, no human constructions have gone up on the Roche; as the picture above shows it only sports vineyards on its lower slopes, vineyards which, I may say, make excellent wines – Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Mâcon-Solutré – and which have made millionaires of the local viticulturists.

Thousands of kilometers away, in Sri Lanka, another outcrop similar to that of Popa Taung Kalat, Sigiriya, is now the site of peaceful gardens.

There was a time, though, back in the 5th Century, when it was a fortress built by King Kashyapa. But it seems he was also a lover of the arts. There is only a small piece of fresco left now in a concavity

but apparently the whole western side of the rock was once frescoed. It must have been an incredible sight. Perhaps for the good of his soul King Kashyapa turned his palace over to monks at his death, who installed a monastic community. They stayed until the 14th Century, then moved on. It’s a pity that the last time I was in Sri Lanka the country was still being torn apart by the civil war, making travel outside of the capital Colombo risky. Who knows, one day maybe I’ll go back there with my wife and we can go and visit this enchanting place.

But actually, coming back to where I started this piece, at Popa Taung Kalat in Myanmar, while I understand the cold logic which drove warlords to view these outcrops as natural fortresses, I prefer the more mystical impulses which have driven men, and sometimes women if they have been allowed to, to perch a monastery, a church, or just a simple hermitage on top of such outcrops, where they can pray in peace far from the madding crowd. It’s given us some wonderful blends of nature and architecture. There are the Orthodox monasteries in Meteora in Greece.

There is the chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy-en-Velay, in France, which was first established in 969.

There is the little hermitage/monastery in Katskhi, Georgia.

The last picture makes me think of Simeon Stylites, the 5th Century Christian monk who, it is reported, spent some 30 years on top of a column, and who started quite a craze in holy men perching themselves on columns. There is of course no picture from the period but this is an imaginative rendering.

As for his column, this is all that is left of it after centuries of devout pilgrims chipping off pieces as relics.

Over the ages, monks have shown an enduring enthusiasm to climb up to inaccessible places to be left alone, leaving behind wonderful creations in the process. When my wife and I were in China, we once visited the Hanging Temple near Datong, a Buddhist monastery literally clinging to the side of a cliff.

The monks had excavated a series of caves in the cliff face, connected by a series of suffocatingly narrow internal staircases or alarmingly rickety walkways pegged to the rock, and then had clamped a temple facade onto the exterior. The effect is quite magical.

Meanwhile, in Cappadocia in what is now Turkey, Christian monks had also burrowed into mountain sides to create their communities far from the world.

Some of the churches they dug out of the rock still carry their frescoes.

And up in the Ethiopian highlands monks have built their churches high up on cliff faces, like the Abuna Yemata Guh church in Tigray province, which can only be reached after an arduous climb

and some sphincter-clenching shuffling along narrow ledges with long, long, long falls if you take a false step.

But once there, you are greeted with delightful frescoes in the Ethiopian style.

How much trouble those monks went to to get away from it all! I can’t complain since they created such wonderful places for me to visit one day. But surely they could have made their lives a little bit easier and still managed to pray and contemplate to their heart’s content. But hey, who am I to judge? The contemplative life never attracted me; the real world, with all its troubles and vicissitudes, but also with all its joys and satisfactions, is much more my scene.

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Popa Taung Kalat: http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/As/Burma/Mandalay/PopaTaungKalat.htm
Laon: https://www.tourisme-paysdelaon.com/Cote-histoire/Historique-du-Pays-de-Laon/La-mutation-en-ville-prefectorale
Laon cathedral exterior: https://www.taringa.net/posts/info/18971189/A-que-no-sabias-esto-lince.html
Polignac: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/33272295
Edinburgh Castle: https://erasmusu.com/en/erasmus-edinburgh/erasmus-photos/princes-street-gardens-and-edinburgh-castle-75483
Old print of Edinburgh: https://phrenologyandcrime.com/2014/08/31/edinburgh/
Solutre: https://www.geo.fr/environnement/france-nature/les-paradis-nature-de-bourgogne/solutre-rocher
Sigiriya: http://www.gocaribou.com/blog/2015/7/4/the-cultural-triangle-of-sri-lanka
Sigiriya frescoes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigiriya#Frescoes
Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece: http://www.touropia.com/meteora-monasteries/
St-Michel de l’Aiguilhe: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Puy-en-Velay,_%C3%89glise_Saint-Laurent_et_Aiguilhe_PM_48569.jpg
Katskhi Pillar Church: http://orthochristian.com/89130.html
Simeon Stylites: https://www.vimaorthodoxias.gr/theologikos-logos-diafora/agios-simeon-o-stilitis/
Remains of the column of Simeon Stylites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites
Hanging temple, China: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Temple
Cave churches of Cappadocia: https://www.expedia.com/things-to-do/full-day-tour-of-cappadocia-region-goreme-open-air-museum-with-lunch.a395058.activity-details
Cappadocia cave church frescoes: http://www.aydinligoremetravel.com/goreme-open-air-museum/
Climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN67Zsxx-Vo
Arriving to the Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_GxzdGS84M
Abuna Yemata Guh inside: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2823326/Abuna-Yemata-Guh-church-sky-Ethiopia-world-s-inaccessible-place-worship.html

ABDOULAYE KONATÉ, MALIAN ARTIST

Milan, 31 December 2017

My wife and I went for a walk the other day in Milan’s so-called Fashion Quadrilateral, the zone in the city centre bounded by four roads – Via Montenapoleone, Via della Spiga, Via Manzoni and Corso Venezia. Here, you will find the boutiques (shops seems too vulgar a word) of the greatest Italian fashion brands as well as of quite a number of the best-known foreign brands. I won’t name names, I don’t feel like giving even an iota of publicity to these temples of conspicuous consumption.

I should clarify that I dislike visiting shops, and the higher the price tags on the merchandise the more I dislike them. Visits to places like Milan’s Fashion Quadrilateral therefore turn me into a rabid Socialist. In moments like these, my wife just ignores me and enjoys the window-gazing.

As I stumped grumpily along streets whose windows were stuffed with items the sale of any one of which could cover a Bangladeshi garment worker’s salary for several decades, I spied something out of the ordinary in a window. Now this was something intriguing indeed!

Seeing another one inside the boutique in question, I metaphorically held my nose and entered. It was somewhat smaller but just as striking.

A sign stenciled on the boutique’s window helpfully informed me that the works were by a certain Abdoulaye Konaté. I had never heard of this artist, but a quick search on the Internet revealed the bare bones of his life: he is a Malian artist, one year older than ourselves, and resides in Mali’s capital city, Bamako.

And what lovely pieces he creates! He works primarily with textiles, with one thread of his work – if I may put it that way – veering towards abstract compositions made with small rectangular stripes of highly coloured cotton textiles, much like his works in the boutique. I give here a little gallery of these works, drawn from the Internet.

This final one has recently been purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

The other main thread of his work veers more towards the figurative, as these examples show:

Thoroughly excited by these discoveries, after Christmas I headed to the gallery in town which was lending the pieces to the boutique. Alas! The gallery only held the pieces loaned to the fashion boutique. Instead, it was holding a show dedicated to Gianfranco Zappettini, an Italian artist from the so-called Analytical school of the 1970s. Paintings like these surrounded us as the young, enthusiastic fellow on duty told us more about Konaté and eventually about Zappettini.

Analytic painting, and I quote, “wished to conduct an analysis of the material components of paintings (the canvas, the frame, the material of the paint, the colour, signs) and the material relationship that takes place between the work as physical object and its author. Painting therefore became the subject of investigation of itself and lost the references which linked it to reality (in figurative painting), to expressiveness (in abstract painting) and to the underlying significance (in conceptual art)”. Well, that pretty much sums up the complete dead-end that modern Western art has finished up in. A feeling that was underscored for me by a visit to a new art venue in Milan, the Pirelli Bicocca, once – as its name implies – a factory of the Pirelli Group, now a large ex-industrial space given over to art. The space is wonderful. But this is what we saw there – piles of old clothes passed off as art.

Konaté takes textiles and turns them into lovely pieces of art. We in the west can only make untidy piles out of these textiles and call it art.  It seems to me that contemporary art is like and old tree, rotted away at its heart but still living around its edges which are supporting an exuberant  foliage.

Thank God for Malian artists like Abdoulaye Konaté, or Inuit artists like Kananginak Pootoogook, or Malagasy artists like Joel Andrianomearisoa, or a dozen other artists from the so-called periphery of the world, who are keeping art alive!

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Shopping in Via Montenapoleone: http://www.wheremilan.com/discover-milan/sightseeing/montenapoleone-district/
Abdoulaye Konaté: http://www.artesmundi.org/artists/abdoulaye-konate
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-1: https://www.blainsouthern.com/artists/abdoulaye-konat%C3%A9
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-2: https://it.pinterest.com/sztukaafryki/abdoulaye-konat%C3%A9/?lp=true
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-3: https://www.wallpaper.com/art/abdoulaye-konat-exhibits-merges-music-and-colour-at-blainsouthern-gallery
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-4: https://www.widewalls.ch/abdoulaye-konate-at-blain-southern-berlin-solo-exhibition-useful-dreams-2015/
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstact-5: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/461689399276917735/
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-6: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/655979
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-1: http://biennaleartmagazine.com/1986/04/18/abdoulaye-konate-arken-21-april-18-september-2016-dk/
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-2: https://it.pinterest.com/sztukaafryki/abdoulaye-konat%C3%A9/?lp=true
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-3: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16308012
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-4: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/abdoulaye-konate-fete-africaine-the-men-and-the-marionettes
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-5: https://scope-art.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/SMB14-NL-03-v5.html
Gianfranco Zappettini paintings: http://www.primomarellagallery.com/it/mostre/63/la-luce-prima/
Old hollowed-out tree: https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-6904222-stock-footage-old-hollowed-out-oak-tree-was-struck-by-lightning-about-years-ago-and-despite-having-a-lost-it.html

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING

Milan, 25 December 2017

I suppose it’s a sign of old age creeping up on me that I recall with ever greater fondness the memories of my youth, and in this festive season no more so than to Christmases past – here, to get us into the spirit of things, I throw in a picture of Scrooge being visited by the ghost of Christmas Past.

There is one Christmas in particular which comes back vividly to mind.  I must have been six years old, old enough to remember things forever more and young enough for incidents to be deeply impressed into my still malleable brain. I can still see in my mind’s eye the living room of our house in Eritrea – this was probably the last Christmas we spent there; we would be leaving it forever within the coming year. The furniture had been moved around to make room for a Christmas tree in the corner and a nativity scene along the edge of one of the walls. Following the cultural divide in our family, my British father was responsible for the tree while my French mother was responsible for the nativity scene, or crèche as she used to call it. The tree was a source of endless fascination to me, covered as it was with those glittering balls and other baubles. This picture of a Christmas tree from the 1950s captures well the glittering fantasy I beheld.

The balls in particular were a magnet for my little fingers, which was a problem because they were incredibly fragile in those days, made as they were of some very thin, very easily breakable material.  Alas, despite numerous parental warnings to keep out of the living room, I could not resist sneaking in and touching those beautiful balls, with a broken ball and a sore bottom being the inevitable result.

The crèche was an equal source of fascination: the little manger, the figurines of Mary and Joseph, the Mum and Dad to that little baby, Jesus, lying in the hay, the donkey and the cow, very much like the ones I saw when we went for drives in the countryside around the town, the shepherds hanging around the manger, who also looked pretty much like the shepherds I sometimes saw out in the countryside, the angel which hung by a thread over the manger, the three old fellows and a camel who, day by day, were brought closer and closer to the manger until they reached it some time after Christmas … all wonderful stuff. The crèche photographed here has the rough and ready look which ours surely had – in fact, it looks already to be one level above whatever it is that we prepared, although to my innocent eyes ours was a work of art.

I had little understanding and, frankly, zero interest in the theological profundities which were being exposed before us. What I loved were all those little figurines which we could move around! Our mother made it even more interesting by allowing us to add our own figurines to the mix. I don’t recall what I brought but I remember that my elder brother came with his toy cowboys and indians which he proceeded to hide behind the various trees and bushes dotting the papier-maché landscape.

In all my Christmases Past, I have had a particular fondness for these Christmas trappings, even though for reasons which are now not clear to me the crèche quite quickly dropped away in my parents’ Christmases, leaving only the tree and its baubles. When my Italian wife and I started having our own Christmases the decorated pine tree also dominated, although my wife remembered with great fondness the crèche, or presepe as she calls it, which her father would create when she was young. As she described it to me, it seemed very much like the crèche of my memory, although her father had cunningly inserted a pond into the landscape using a mirror and had rigged up a little light driven by a battery which would shine in the star above the manger – very clever! Since it was very much my father-in-law’s project, I suppose that after his early death my mother-in-law never had the heart to take the presepe out and set it up, even when our children were young and might have appreciated it. But we took them along to the local churches – every self-respecting Italian church will have a presepe set up in one of the side chapels at Christmas.

This year, as I did my annual trek to the attic to bring down our Christmas tree (made of plastic and reusable; I have to walk my talk, after all, and I can’t stand those piles of dead and dying pine trees on pavements after Christmas), I spied in the corner the box where my mother-in-law had stored the presepe materials, an old box which had once contained a humidifier and which still had her handwritten note on the top of it – a message from the past.

Since it was to be a family Christmas this year, with both our children joining us, I decided on the spur of the moment to set up the presepe. I brought the box down, took everything out, and carried out a general inspection. I decided to drop the pond; I didn’t approve of this novelty. The electrical system was kaput, so I ditched that. The main actors were all there – Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the manger, the ass and the ox, the shepherds and their sheep, the angel, the three Wise Men and their camel. But I was going to need some extra characters, to make up for the cowboys and indians which in my wiser old age I recognized as very incongruous – and anyway I had no cowboy and indian figurines at hand (I had some of my son’s Warhammer figurines in the back of a cupboard, but they would have been even more incongruous).

I decided to check out the greatest of all presepi in Italy, the ones made in Naples, which had brought the art of nativity scenes to heights of splendour. I mean, look at these two!


Now that’s what I call nativity scenes worthy of kings! (and queens) Making one was to be my KPI!

A little research informed me that there are a certain number of stock characters in Neapolitan nativity scenes. There is Benino, the sleeping shepherd, a reference to the line in the gospel that the shepherds were out in the fields at night (and therefore presumably snoozing). There is the wine seller, a reference to the Eucharist, but there is also Cicci Bacco, who is a reference to earlier pagan rites. There’s the Fisherman, symbolizing the fisher of souls. Then we have the two pals Unc’ Vicienzo and Unc’ Pascale, personifying Carnival and Death. There’s the Monk, who is meant to symbolize the union between the sacred and the profane in the Neapolitan nativity scene. There’s a Gypsy Girl, whose symbolism is uncertain but who is fun to have around. There’s Stefania, around whom there is an elaborate tale which I will not relate here. There’s the Prostitute, who is there to form a contrast with the purity of the Virgin and who normally is made to hang around outside the tavern – where else? Finally, there are the sellers in the market, one for each month of the year: butcher for January, seller of ricotta or cheese for February, seller of chickens and other birds March, seller of eggs April, a married couple holding a basket of cherries and fruit for May, baker for June, tomato seller July, watermelon seller August, fig seller September, wine seller October, chestnut seller November, fishmonger December. A rapid comparison of what I had inherited from my in-laws told me that we had a lot of gaps. I had a Benino, a fisherman, a fishmonger, a young girl with a basket who could be one half of the married couple of May, a young girl who could be Stefania. And that was about it. I had a number of other figurines who it seems are not part of the stock players in a Neapolitan nativity scene. There were a couple of figurines of men playing various instruments, maybe referring to a tradition which was still alive – just – when I first came to Italy in the 1970s and which saw men appearing a little before Christmas playing the Lombard equivalent of bagpipes and inviting donations from passers-by for their efforts. There was also a neat little figurine of a fellow making polenta, no doubt part of an effort to defend the honour of northern Italian cuisine. My wife had come across by chance a little shop which sold a medley of figurines for nativity scenes, so we stocked up on a few of our missing characters. We also bought some sheets of coloured paper to use as backdrops, a bag of moss to sprinkle around as generic vegetation, and some little houses to create a nearby Bethlehem.  Then we got to work, my wife on the tree and me on the presepe alla napoletana. The result is not so bad, even if we say so ourselves.

But there is still much to do on the presepe! Luckily, I am a believer in the philosophy of continuous improvement. Next year, we will make our presepe somewhat better, the year after that better still, and on and on. If I’m lucky enough to celebrate many more Christmases Yet to Come we will finally end up with a magnificent Neapolitan-style presepe! – with some tweaks to distinguish ourselves from our southern cousins.

 

Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noël! Buon Natale!

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Ghost of Christmas Past: http://www.wisegeek.com/who-is-the-ghost-of-christmas-past.htm
Christmas tree: https://it.pinterest.com/suehirtle1/1950s-christmas/?lp=true
Manger: http://www.unionesarda.it/articolo/sardegna_agenda/2017/11/29/a_villamar_un_corso_per_salvare_l_arte_del_presepe-122-671332.html
cowboys and indians: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/hajosc49/toy-land/
Parish church nativity scene: http://www.valcenoweb.it/2017/12/10/chiesa-parrocchiale-di-pione-bardi-inaugurato-il-presepio-venerdi-8-dicembre-2017/
the presepe box: my photo
Warhammer figurines: http://www.sickchirpse.com/peta-campaign-against-warhammer-fur/
Presepe napoletano: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presepe_napoletano
Presepe napoletano-2: http://www.oggiroma.it/eventi/mostre/il-presepe-religiosita-e-tradizione-popolare/27671/
The finished Christmas tree: my photo
The finished presepe: my photo
Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Shepherds: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adorazione_dei_pastori_(Ghirlandaio)

AUTOSUGGESTION

Milan, 9 December 2017

I was recently reading The Lying Stones of Marrakech, a volume of essays by one of my favorite authors, Stephen Jay Gould.

My writing style in these posts owes a great deal to his essays. If any of my readers have an interest in natural history in general and paleontology specifically, I can highly recommend his books. Tragically, he died of cancer at the age of 60.

In any event, I had just started reading an essay entitled “Of Embryos and Ancestors”, which starts by Gould quoting the phrase “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”. He then writes that the phrase was invented by a Frenchman by the name of Émile Coué.

Coué, Gould informs us, was “a French pharmacist who made quite a stir in the pop-psych circles of his day with a theory of self-improvement through autosuggestion based on frequent repetition of this mantra”. Gould mentions in passing that the phrase in the original French reads “tous les jours, à tous les points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux”. I suddenly sat up – I was reading in bed – as if electrified.

To explain my reaction, I have to recount a little bit of the history of the French side of my family. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, my maternal grandfather contracted tuberculosis in the 1920s. This was in the days before antibiotics, so it was essentially incurable; 50% of the people diagnosed with active tuberculosis had died of it within 5 years, and it was the cause of 1 in 6 deaths in France at that time. Tuberculosis surrounded one on every side. Edvard Munch painted his sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 14, sick in bed (his mother also died of the disease).

Claude Monet painted his first wife, Camille, on her deathbed, killed by tuberculosis.

Literature was full of people who died of tuberculosis: Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias, Fantine in Les Misérables, Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Coming fast on the heels of my grandfather having lost all his money – actually my grandmother’s dowry – in a failed business, his contracting tuberculosis spelled economic catastrophe. My grandmother was forced to take a job as personal secretary to a rich English woman by the name of Mrs. Green, down in Menton on the Côte d’Azur where the lady and her husband would spend the winters. Mrs. Green stipulated that my grandmother could not live with her husband, for fear that she would contract the disease and – this was the real point – pass it on to her employer. So my grandfather was forced to live hidden away in Nice, where my grandmother would visit him from time to time in secret. In the summer, when Mr. and Mrs. Green returned to England, my grandparents would come up to the house they had managed to hang on to near Mâcon. But even here my grandfather lived apart, away from the children, in a room of his own, using his own sheets, his own towel, his own napkin, even his own plate and cutlery, all in an attempt to avoid infection.

To no avail. One day, my grandmother was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Catastrophe reared its head again. Mrs. Green would fire my grandmother the moment she heard her coughing. But my grandmother was not one to give in to anything. As my mother recounted it, she began to repeat every morning, “je vais de mieux en mieux”. And by God it worked! The tuberculosis was stopped in its tracks. I had always thought that this was just one more example of my grandmother’s indomitable will overcoming yet another setback in life. But reading that phrase in French in Gould’s essay immediately persuaded me that my grandmother had actually been using Coué’s method of autosuggestion.

I was even more convinced of this when I read a bit more about Coué’s method. It was very straightforward. He said that people who wanted to get better should quickly, mechanically repeat the phrase “tous les jours, à tous les points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux” twenty times, morning and night, while running a string with twenty knots in it through their hands. My mother’s detail that my grandmother had uttered the phrase every morning jibed well with the Coué method.

How my grandmother might have heard about the Coué method is now lost in the fog of time. Perhaps she bought one of Coué’s books, very popular at the time; his best-seller was La Maîtrise de soi-même par l’autosuggestion consciente, published in 1926.

Perhaps she read an article in the newspapers about him. Perhaps she heard the record which he made to reach as many people as possible (I’ve heard it in Wikipedia, a thin, scratchy voice from a long time ago). Perhaps one of her friends told her about it. If she did decide to use the Coué method, she never told her daughter about it; perhaps she was a little ashamed of using something that appeared akin to magic.

Of course, as a scientist Gould is dismissive of the method, seeing it only as an example of the placebo effect. I’m sure he’s right, but it – or something very like it – seems to have helped my grandmother overcome her tuberculosis. Which is just as well. My grandfather died of his in 1936. If my grandmother had also died of it, who knows what would have happened to my now-orphaned mother (and her brother). For sure she would not have met my father, so I wouldn’t be around. So thank you, placebo effect! And thank you, Monsieur Coué, if you indeed helped out here!

____________________
Stephen Jay Gould: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Jay_Gould
Émile Coué: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Émile_Coué
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuberculosis_in_human_culture#/media/File%3AMunch_Det_Syke_Barn_1885-86.jpg
Claude Monet, Camille Monet sur son lit de mort:

“La Maîtrise de soi-même par l’autosuggestion consciente”: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Méthode_Coué

LUXOR, EGYPT

Milan, 19 November 2017

My wife and I have just finished a little holiday in Egypt (I also went to do some consultancy on a project proposal in Upper Egypt, whose objective is to create small businesses around the reuse of agricultural and agro-processing waste; but that is a story for another day). We primarily visited Luxor, so the main thrust of our visit was the monuments of Ancient Egypt.

I must confess to being quite ignorant about the art, culture, and history of Ancient Egypt. Of course, I have a passing knowledge about all the usual things: the rather icky mummies

and the richly decorated Russian-doll like cases which enclose them

the – rather static and boringly repetitive – statues which fill halls in various Worthy Museums in Europe (here’s the British Museum’s, which I suffered through as a child).

Having read articles from time to time about King Tut and his tomb, I have of course absorbed a certain amount of his story, but to give an idea of the shallowness of my knowledge I have a very clear memory of doing a long line when I was young to visit a King Tut exhibition at the British Museum, but for the life of me don’t remember anything I saw in the exhibition itself.

I was also entertained in my childhood by the presentation of Ancient Egypt in the comic books I read: Tintin first of all

with the amusingly absent-minded Egyptologist Philémon Siclone

then Asterix

with the Egyptians speaking in hieroglyphics.

In more recent times, I have been tickled by films relating to various Curses of the Mummy.

And that’s about it. In short, I was really very ignorant about Ancient Egypt.

The hotel we stayed at in Luxor continued the comic-book theming of Ancient Egypt. We were staying in the Nefertiti wing, with the Cleopatra wing close by. These two pastiche statues greeted us every day as we made our way to the breakfast room


and the hotel’s walls were decorated with this kind of pastiche fresco.

Luckily, the French-speaking guide we had hired over the Internet turned out to be very competent. He had put together a nice programme which covered many of the best of the sites in and around Luxor: the temple of Karnak, with its large-scale bas-reliefs on its walls

the temple of Luxor, which we saw at night

with its avenue of sphinxes

Luxor Museum, which had some lovely pieces

several of the tombs in the valleys of the Kings, Queens, nobles, and in the village of the artisans, with their incredibly fresh frescoes


the temple of Dendera, with its amazing astronomical ceiling

the temple of Abydos, with its lovely bas-reliefs inside the temple

the temple of Hatshepsut, with its dramatic setting

and finally the Ramesseum, with the green fields fed by the Nile’s waters lapping at its feet.

I won’t pretend that by the end of it all I was an Egyptologist, but I do think I now have a passing understanding of the history of the 18th to 20th dynasties (noting, though, the rather depressing fact that there were 30 dynasties in all before the Romans put a halt to pharaonism; I have much more to learn). I also think I have a – still very sketchy – understanding of ancient Egyptians’ religion. Finally, I have a passing knowledge of the architectural principles underlining the buildings that we saw.

I do not propose to bore readers with a breathless precis of what we saw, heard, and sort-of understood. I’ll just comment on some of the things that particularly struck me as we went along.

The sun truly dominated the thinking of the ancient Egyptians. After our two weeks there I can understand why. I saw clouds just once, and that was in Cairo. In Luxor, we had a clear, hard, lapis-lazuli sky the whole time, with the sun climbing slowly from the eastern horizon

up to its apex

and then falling slowly to the western horizon, as we moved from site to site.
It must be like this all the year round, so I can understand how the sun played a primordial role in ancient Egyptian religion. I particularly liked, then, to hear that the obelisk, that most Egyptian of things, was considered a petrified sunbeam.

What a lovely idea! A ray of the sun, congealed – frozen – in stone, driving into the earth. The equivalence would have been even stronger in the old days, when obelisks’ pyramidal capstones were covered with electrum, an alloy of gold and silver; the tips of the obelisks would have flashed and glowed in the sun.

In Cairo, were told the same thing of the pyramids, but it was more difficult to imagine pyramids as rays of the sun in stone.

The place of the sun in Egyptian religion reached its extreme under the “heretical” pharaoh Akhenaten: he abolished all deities in the Egyptians’ pantheon except for the solar god Aten. In his frescoes and bas-reliefs, he had Aten depicted as a disc from which emanated rays that ended in hands.

The sun caressing the Earth and all that is on it … a beautiful idea! For doesn’t all life on this planet ultimately depend on the the warmth and heat of the sun?

Akhenaten was an interesting fellow, not least because of the way he had himself depicted in his official statuary, with an elongated, sensual face, quite different from everything that came before and after.

(the statues of him in the National Museum in Cairo are even more intriguing, with a body that looks distinctly feminine, to the point that some claim this is actually his wife Nefertiti)

The sun even played a role in the design of the bas-reliefs which covered the walls of temples and tombs. We saw two types of bas-reliefs. The more delicate ones were true bas-reliefs, with the background cut down until the subjects were in light relief, like the ones I showed above from the temple of Abydos. The second type were created instead by cutting deep grooves along the outline of the figures and finished with some light molding of the figures. These were very striking in a raking light – in the late afternoon, for instance – when they stood out, almost like charcoal drawings on the walls.


It seems the effect was deliberate, to make reliefs that were readable in the country’s strong light.

The Egyptians held that the goddess of the sky, Nut, swallowed the sun at sunset and gave birth to him again in the morning. She was the wife (and sister) of the god of the earth, Geb. The story goes that she wanted to lie on him perpetually, but Ra ordered their father Shu, god of air, to force them apart. But Nut managed to keep her hands and feet touching Geb. I just loved the way the artists depicted these stories. The artists painted Nut – very often on ceilings, as one might expect – with her feet touching the Earth in one corner, her hands touching it in another, and her thin, lithe body curving along the edge of the ceiling between these two corners.

See how in the first of these two photos, Nut is shown giving birth to the morning sun and about to swallow the evening sun, while in the second Shu is holding Nut and Geb apart.

Originally, Nut was goddess of the night sky, and night skies are a common decoration of ceilings. We saw many ceilings painted blue and sprinkled – sprayed might be the better term – with a multitude of white stars.

It was a charming effect, and in the tombs certainly gave all those mummies lying on their backs a beautiful night sky to gaze upon for eternity – in the case of the photo above Nefertari, the main wife of Ramesses II.

I finish with the so-called Colossi of Memnon, although actually they are statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III. Tourists who passed through here a couple of thousand years before us – the Ancient Greeks – misnamed the statues.

Truth to tell, they are not much to look at; they have suffered much at the hands of time. As we stood there, a muezzin nearby started singing his call to afternoon prayers.

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.

Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-llah.
Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-Ilah.
Ashhadu anna Muhammadar Rasulu-Ilah,
Ashhadu anna Muhammadar Rasulu-Ilah.
Hayya ‘ala-s-sala,
Hayya ‘ala-s-sala.
Hayya ‘ala-l-falah,
Hayya ‘ala-I-falah.
Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar.
La illaha illa-llah.

God is great, God is great.
I bear witness that there is no god but God.
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
Hasten to prayer.
Hasten to success.
God is great, God is great.
There is no god but God.

As the song floated over the shattered statues before us, I reflected on the seemingly inevitable passing away of civilizations and their religious constructs. The religion of the Ancient Egyptians was thrown onto the dust heap of history in the 3rd Century of the Common Era, after surviving 3,000 years or more, with a triumphant Christianity taking its place. After a mere 400 years, Christianity in Egypt was in turn overrun by Islam. Today, after 1,400 years, Islam stands seemingly secure in the lands of the Nile. But one day, when the statues before me will have crumbled to mere stumps of stone, Islam will no doubt have given way to something else. Nothing man-made survives the test of time.
_________________
Royal mummy: https://islampapers.com/2013/01/09/the-identification-of-the-pharaoh-during-the-time-of-moses/
Mummy cases: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130823091144.htm
Egyptian statue room, British Museum: https://www.pinterest.com/rowan925/egyptian-exhibit-british-museum-artifacts/
Cigares du pharaon cover: https://www.bedetheque.com/BD-Tintin-Tome-4-Les-cigares-du-pharaon-32559.html
Cigares du pharaon egyptologist: my photo
Asterix et Cléopatre cover: https://www.bedetheque.com/BD-Asterix-Tome-6-Asterix-et-Cleopatre-22950.html
Asterix et Cléopatre speaking hieroglyphics: my photo
The Mummy movie poster: http://www.impawards.com/1999/mummy_ver1.html
Pastiche statues and fresco: my photo
Temple of Karnak: http://www.nilecruised.com/tours/karnak-temple/
Temple of Luxor: https://www.traveladdicts.net/2011/10/karnak-temple-luxor-temple-egypt.html
Avenue of sphinxes: http://www.travelphoto.net/a-photo-a-day/wordpress/2005/04/15/sphinx-avenue-at-luxor-temple/
Luxor Museum: http://egypt-magic.com/category/luxor/
Tomb, Valley of the Kings: https://www.flickr.com/photos/shelbyroot/1164944359
Tomb, Village of the Artisans: https://archaeology-travel.com/archaeological-sites/deir-el-medina-luxor/
Temple of Dendera ceiling: https://paulsmit.smugmug.com/Features/Africa/Egypt-Dendera-temple/i-BJPQ24h
Temple of Abydos bas-reliefs: our photo
Temple of Hatshepsut: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-africa/mortuary-temple-hatshepsut-deir-el-bahri-002777
Ramesseum: https://www.egypttoursplus.com/ramesseum-temple/
Sunrise Luxor: http://www.news4europe.eu/6369_entertainment/4797559_egypt-s-newly-discovered-artifacts-to-help-revive-tourism-in-luxor.html
Sun high in sky: http://www.psdgraphics.com/backgrounds/blue-sky-with-sun/
Sunset Luxor: my wife’s photo
Obelisk, Luxor Temple: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luxor_Temple_Obelisk.JPG
Obelisk with golden capstone: http://www.riseearth.com/2016/08/mythical-benben-stone-landing-site-of.html?m=1
Sun rays with hands: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-africa/art-amarna-akhenaten-and-his-life-under-sun-002587
Akhenaten head: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/2105526
Akhenaten statue: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/312437292872997702/
Grooved bas-reliefs: our photos
Goddess Nut, Dendera: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-egyptdenderaptolemaic-temple-of-the-goddess-hathorview-of-ceiling-68990173.html
Goddess Nut, tomb Ramses IV: http://www.gettyimages.it/detail/news-photo/egypt-thebes-luxor-valley-of-the-kings-tomb-of-ramses-iv-news-photo/88701257
Stars on ceiling, Nefertari tomb: https://www.pinterest.com/ancha_no1/inside-egyptian-tomb/
Colossi of Memnon: our photo

LE COUSIN JEAN

Luxor, 11 November 2017

This painting, “A Dawn” by C.R.W. Nevinson, which is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s, was making a splash in the newspapers a couple of weeks ago. It shows tired French troops marching silently to the front on a dawn morning in 1914, those cataclysmic first months of the War when France suffered staggering losses. Nevinson, who was in France as a volunteer ambulance driver within weeks of war breaking out, must have seen these men marching by.

When I saw the painting, it made me think of my French cousin Jean – well, not my cousin, strictly speaking; my French grandmother’s cousin. When I was young, there was this faded oval photo hanging in my grandmother’s living room, of a bearded young man in uniform, solemnly looking out at the viewer. The photo was bordered in bleached purple velvet. One day, when I was nine or ten, I asked my grandmother who this young man was. She became very solemn and intoned, “It is le cousin Jean. He died in the First World War. He died very bravely.” Suitably impressed, I kept silent for a moment before carrying on with my life.

But that photo of le cousin Jean has always stayed with me. It has something to do with his quiet composure in the photo; there was none of that swagger you often see in studio photos of World War I soldiers, with the sitter showing off his uniform and trying to project a military bearing. Jean just gazed steadily out at the viewer. So on this day, the 99th anniversary of the end of the First World War on the Western Front, my memory jogged by Nevinson’s painting, I’ve decided to memorialize his story in that war, illustrating it with other paintings by Nevinson. I should warn readers that his is not a particularly dramatic story. He just did what he had to do.

Jean was 23 when war was declared in 1914, and he was called up almost immediately. He joined his local regiment, the 95th Infantry Regiment, as a sub-lieutenant. The 95th took part in the initial French attempts to retake Alsace and Lorraine. But when the Germans attacked Verdun, leaving the beleaguered city and its string of forts in a deep salient, Jean’s regiment was pulled back and thrown into the furious attacks and counterattacks that took place as the Germans tried to completely surround Verdun and the French tried to stop them. The armies on both sides fought to the point of complete exhaustion.

It was during this period that Jean was wounded in Bois d’Ailly, just south of Verdun, some time in late September-October 1914. He was wounded badly enough to be invalided out. He was probably subjected to the rough and ready medical aid that was available, especially at the beginning of the war.

At some point, Jean had recovered enough to be brought back into active service. He joined a regiment newly-formed in April 1915, the 408th Infantry Regiment. It was created with “elements from the depots”, presumably wounded soldiers like Jean as well as others passed over in the first round of call-ups. He joined one of the regiment’s machine gun sections.


The regiment spent 1915 and the first months of 1916 in a quiet sector of the front. Then in early March, as the situation rapidly deteriorated for the French in the Verdun sector after the Germans renewed their attacks in February, the regiment was shipped in urgently to fight around the Fort de Vaux, in lunar landscapes like this.


The regiment suffered heavy losses, but Jean survived. They were eventually pulled out for rest and refitting. By late September/early October 1916, they were in good enough shape to take part in some small battles at the tail end of the Battle of the Somme. They spent the time thereafter in reserve positions, filling in gaps here and there. They probably did a lot of marching back and forth, from one position to the next.

The regiment’s second tour in the dreaded mincing machine of Verdun came in October 1917, although by then the worst of the fighting was over. By now, Jean had risen to be a Captain, no doubt because everyone else above him was either dead or was filling holes in the ranks even further up the chain of command.

The regiment was out of Verdun by January 1918, moving to a quieter sector. Then, at the end of May, the regiment was sent to the sector just south of Rheims. This was part of the Allies’ increasingly desperate attempts to stop what turned out to be the Germans’ last roll of the dice. In March they had punched a hole through the British lines. In June they punched another through the French lines just west of Reims and had managed to move 14 km south, but now they were caught in a salient, from which they were trying hard to break out. At midnight on July 14th, they abruptly started a bombardment of the eastern wall of the salient, just south of Reims. Their goal was to break through to the town of Épernay and so cut Reims off from Paris. On the morning of July 15th, they began hammering their way through the narrow valley of the River Ardre and the two woods on either side, the Bois de Vrigny to the south and the Bois de Courton to the north. Jean’s machine gun section lay nestled in the Bois de Courton. At some point, Jean went over to his commanding officer to report. While there, he was badly wounded by a shell burst. The family history says that his last words to his commanding officer were, “I’m sorry, Sir, to be leaving you at such a moment” before climbing into an ambulance. Did he really say that? I suppose he could have, but the family can only have known of this from a letter which they received from the commanding officer. Quite often the writers of these letters of condolences tried to make the man’s death more noble than it had been, in an attempt to soften the blow. My guess is that he just crumpled to the ground unconscious, bleeding profusely, and they bundled him into an ambulance.

In any event, according to the French Ministry of Defence’s bureaucratic fiche which logged his death, he died the same day in an Italian dressing station in a small place called Cartière, near Hautvillers, which lies some 10 km from the Bois de Courton. Jean was 27 when he died.

The reference to Italy confused me until I read that the 76th Infantry Regiment of the Italian II Corps had been posted just south of the Bois de Courton on the road to Épernay. The Allied High Command had given the II Corps the task of holding the road, which they managed – just – to do. I suppose the Italian dressing station was the closest to that particular sector of the front.

Jean’s body was brought back home by his family after the war for burial in the family plot; they were lucky, his body could be identified. So now he lies, together with his parents and maternal grandparents, in a graveyard which is a mere 5 km as the crow flies from where the ten year old me stared at that faded photo and asked my grandmother who the young man was with the steady gaze.
______________
CRW Nevinson, “A Dawn”: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/30/first-world-war-painting-expected-to-reach-up-to-1m-at-sothebys
CRW Nevinson, “Troops Resting”: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2016/modern-post-war-british-art-l16141/lot.3.html

CRW Nevinson, “The Doctor”: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/362469469989052114/

CRW Nevinson, “La Patrie”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01b6rnx/p01b6qvn
CRW Nevinson, “La Mitrailleuse”: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nevinson-la-mitrailleuse-n03177
CRW Nevinson, “In the Trenches”: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/393431717421822995/
CRW Nevinson, “After A Push”: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20212
CRW Nevinson, “Column on the March”: https://kweiseye.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/christopher-r-w-nevinson-1889-1946/amp/

MIHO MUSEUM

Milan, 30 October 2017

One of the more remarkable things which my wife and I did this year during our three-week stint in Kyoto was to visit the Miho Museum. I must confess that we had never heard of this museum before scanning a newspaper listing the various things to do in Kyoto during the month of October. It’s actually located outside of the city, up in the Shigaraki Mountains, surrounded by a nature reserve. To get there was a mini-adventure in itself: bus to subway; subway to train; train to a final bus, which after a 45-minute meander over hill and dale brought us to our destination – all this while trying to follow our course by painfully deciphering the Japanese names of the stations or bus stops as they went by.

What decided us to go – apart from the excuse it gave us to adventure outside of Kyoto – was the fact that the museum had been designed by I.M. Pei, he of the Pyramid at the Louvre

but also of the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington D.C., which we had discovered as youngsters in the early 1980s


as well as of the Suzhou Museum, which we had discovered at a more venerable age some five years ago


along with his building for the Bank of China in Hong Kong.

Mr. Pei, who – as we discovered at the museum in some breathless descriptions of him – is 100 years old this year, did not deceive us. He whetted our appetite by leading us up a rather spectacular road to reach the museum proper from the car park, bus drop-off, and ticket office. After passing through a twisting tunnel, the road runs over a futuristic bridge spanning a cleft in the hills to bring us to the museum’s main door.

There is hardly anything to see of the museum from the outside. In the museum’s own descriptions of its design much is made of the fact that it has been buried so as to have minimal impact on the surrounding nature reserve. But the inside more than makes up for this external modesty: long clean lines, asymmetry, a profusion of triangles, light flooding in – all signature touches from I.M. Pei; a wonderful light beige stone used for cladding, spectacular views across the valley behind the museum.

And the collection housed by all this is not to be sniffed at.






And yet … some second-thoughts began to creep in as we watched videos describing the building of the museum, and read articles about how the collection had been put together. When we first read that the museum had been built below ground to respect the natural surroundings, we presumed that they had dug and tunneled down into the rock. Not a bit of it! They just took a huge bite out of the ridge, built the museum, and then covered it up and planted trees and vegetation on top. Granted, the modeling of the covering had been done well, blending apparently seamlessly with the remaining ridge, and the plantings had stayed faithful to the original vegetation. But to claim that this way of building respected the original environment seems to be quite an exaggeration.

As for the art, we read that Mihoko Koyama, who with her daughter Hiroko commissioned Pei, had originally planned to build a small museum to house her relatively small collection of Japanese art, mostly of items linked to the tea ceremony. But Pei told them he would accept the commission only if it would be for an international collection. So the Koyamas went on a massive buying spree on the international art markets. We know from cases like the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles that when rich buyers appear on the art market wanting to buy in a hurry and not looking too closely at the exact history of the pieces they are offered, all the tomb robbers and their shady intermediary dealers are given a huge incentive to carry out their nefarious activities. Indeed, it turned out that a Chinese statue from the sixth century which mother and daughter purchased for their museum had been stolen from a public garden in Shandong province (let’s put aside questions as to why on earth such a statue should have been put up in a public garden in the first place). Who knows how many other of the museum pieces have shady pasts? And of course hardly any of the pieces have known provenances. So, while they are unquestionably beautiful works of art, their value to archaeology is zero.

I must confess I also began to uncharitably ask myself how Ms. Koyama senior got the $400 million – or maybe even $1 billion (the size of the final bill is unclear) – which it took to pay both for the building of the museum and stocking it with high-end art. So I began to burrow into her life. The details I found were sketchy, so what I present here is subject to possible revision.

Mihoko Koyama, who came into this world in 1910, arrived with a very large silver spoon in her mouth. Her family had started the Toyobo Textile Company some 30 years earlier, back in the 1880s, at a time when Japan was feverishly trying to catch up with the Europeans and textile companies were still the nec plus ultra of industrialization: a country without a textile industry was simply not industrialized. Toyobo was, and still is, a very big and very wealthy company. In the 1970s, its management cannily understood that textiles were a thing of the past and moved into the next nec plus ultra of industrialization, plastics. Now they are navigating in the futuristic waters of biotech, the next nec plus ultra of industrialization.

As if it wasn’t enough to be a wealthy Japanese heiress, Mihoko married a Japanese millionaire. I’ve not managed to find out how he made – or inherited – his millions. Bottom line, she was very comfortably off in her own right. Whether or not she was happy in her marriage is not related.

The moment that changed her life came in 1941, when at the age of 31 she met Mokichi Okada. An intriguing fellow, this Okada. Born poor, he eventually made a fortune in the jewelry business. In 1926, at the age of 44, he claimed to have received a special revelation from God, and nine years later he founded a new religion, the Church of World Messianity. This religion has three pillars, the one of most relevance to us being the Art of Beauty. Okada believed that art had an important role to play in heightening people’s emotions, enriching their lives, and giving meaning and enjoyment to their existence. I can’t really argue with that; this whole blog is pretty much based on the same idea. The second pillar of this religion is the Art of Nature, which includes nature farming. Originally called “no fertilizer farming”, nature farming is based on the ideas that fertilizers pollute the soil and weaken its power of production, that pests will eventually break out from the excessive use of fertilizers, that the difference in disease incidence between resistant and susceptible plants is attributed to nutritional conditions inside the body, and that vegetables and fruits produced by nature farming taste better than those by chemical farming. I can’t quarrel with any of that either (apart from the third idea, which I don’t really understand).

Where things begin to get sticky is the religion’s third and actually most important pillar, the concept of johrei. Okada claimed that his divine revelation of 1926 gave him the power to be a channel of God’s Healing Light (“johrei” in Japanese), which could purify a person’s spiritual realm and so remove the spiritual causes of that person’s illness, poverty, and unhappiness. If enough people received johrei, then they would achieve Messianity and a new Messianic Age would be inaugurated. Okada went on to teach johrei to his followers, allowing them to achieve, like him, Messianity and spread the teachings across the world. Wearing a pendant containing a copy of one of Okada’s calligraphies, which allows the wearers to access the powers of Okada in the spirit world, practitioners of johrei claim to be able to channel healing light into patients by waving their hands over the their body. All this would be kind of cute although pretty weird if it weren’t for the fact that members of this religion forsake modern medicine, arguing that johrei alone can heal. So the usual stories abound of children dying of perfectly preventable diseases because their parents refused to go and see a doctor.

In any event, Mihoko Koyama was bowled over by Okada’s teachings, and she decided to devote the rest of her life to practicing what he taught. After this, things get a little murky. She must have joined Okada’s Church of World Messianity but in 1970, for reasons that are not apparent – at least not from the “open literature” of the Internet – she split off and founded her own group, the Shinji Shumeikai group, Shumei for short, dedicated to the same three principles as Okada’s church: the pursuit of beauty through art; appreciation of nature and “natural agriculture”; the practice of johrei. Mihoko was Shumei’s First President, her daughter Hiroko has been its Second President since her mother died.

All just fairly weird were it not for the distasteful issue of money. To become a new member of Shumei, one has to participate in a three-day “training” in johrei and pay about $300 to obtain the famous pendant used during johrei. Members are then put under severe pressure to either bring in new recruits or to make donations, with public humiliation if they can’t meet agreed targets. Members are also subject to a “daily gratitude donation”, where they are expected to donate 100 yen for every meal they eat to show their gratitude for a safe daily life. This is equivalent to about $100 a month. Members are also expected to make a donation every time they visit the group’s headquarters, and of course the bigger the donation, the greater the praise. Whenever members have a stroke of good luck, they are encouraged to make a donation commensurate to the size of their luck. Conversely, when members suffer a misfortune, they are encouraged to make a donation in thanks that the spirit of Okada helped them avoid the worst. And so on.

So, after this rather long digression through Mihoko Koyama’s life, we can come back to my uncharitable question: how did she pay for the Miho Museum? Well, I would like to believe that Ms Koyama used some of her personal wealth to foot the bills, although the cynic within me suspects that much if not all of the money came from all those donations that the members of Shumei have piously or perhaps fearfully made over the years, or that have been extorted from them through threats of humiliation, eternal damnation, or worse.

All of which leaves a rather bad taste in my mouth. But then, how did all those Renaissance popes pay for the wonderful art they commissioned from the likes of Raphael and Michelangelo? Wasn’t it the Popes’ selling of the indulgences to fund their art purchases and building programmes which led to Martin Luther’s disgust with Rome and eventually the Protestant Reformation?
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Pyramid at the Louvre: http://www.dezeen.com/2017/04/26/architect-im-pei-100-birthday-10-most-significant-buildings/amp/
East wing, National Gallery, exterior: https://www.dezeen.com/2017/04/26/architect-im-pei-100-birthday-10-most-significant-buildings/amp/
East wing, National Gallery, Interior: http://www.monkeyswithwings.com/aaeastwing2.html
Suzhou Museum: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/291678513348642992/
Suzhou Museum: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/i-m-pei-image-gallery-of-the-suzhou-museum/1570/
Bank of China, Hong Kong: https://www.dezeen.com/2017/04/26/architect-im-pei-100-birthday-10-most-significant-buildings/amp/
Miho Museum tunnel and bridge: https://www.archdaily.com/639108/miho-museum-i-m-pei/556f94f8e58ece3dc4000025-miho-museum-i-m-pei-photo
Miho Museum: https://amuse-i-d.vice.com/why-you-should-visit-i-m-peis-extraordinary-miho-museum/
Miho Museum: http://regex.info/blog/2013-12-06/2349
Miho Museum: http://regex.info/i/JF4_045278.jpg
Artefacts at Miho Museum: https://www.pinterest.com/RoxenPhoenix/ancient-persian-central-asian-jewelry-artifacts/
Artefacts at Miho Museum: https://www.pinterest.com/gianfrancocurat/archeo/

http://www.miho.or.jp/en/exhibition/20th/

FRAGMENTS OF A GREEK HOLIDAY

Milan, 20 September 2017

Fragments of memories from our brief trip to Greece:

– The constant presence above your head of the Parthenon on its Acropolis.

What a sight it must have been for people riding towards Athens across the plains of Attica 2,000 years ago!

– The Parthenon up close.

Like a famous actress from long ago, a bit of a shock to get too near and see the ravages of time.

– The new Acropolis museum.

It’s handsome – but that only makes it even more painful to look at the Parthenon’s smashed and crumbling architectural reliefs which it was built to house and preserve.

– The National Archaeological Museum, visited 40 years ago when I was a young teenager, but still with the power to fascinate:
The “face of Agamemnon”

The smiling, smiling, ever smiling Kouroi


Zeus calmly throwing his lightning bolt

The young jockey

Emperor Augustus, looking benign but whose empty eye sockets make him rather sinister.

– The Goulandris museum, with its collection of statues from the Cycladic islands

which so fascinated the likes of Modigliani, Hepworth, and Moore.

– On the outskirts of Athens, the remains of the monastery of Daphni; the few remaining shards of 11th Century Christian mosaics clinging to its walls have managed to withstand earthquakes, marauding Barbarian, Crusader, and Ottoman troops, and more recently just general indifference.



– The Byzantine and Christian museum, with its collection of icons.


– At the Islamic collection at the Benakis museum (a reminder of how close to the Muslim world Greece is), having an omg moment when I spotted the 16th Century Ottoman plates which look exactly like the plate I bought 12 years ago in New York.

– The kilometers of small streets, once no doubt bursting with local life but now bursting with tourist tat.

– The shocking amount of graffiti, disfiguring so many buildings.

– Empty shops everywhere, mute testimony to the country’s dire economic straits.

– The ridiculous marching by the two soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Parliament


so reminiscent of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

– The island of Spetses

where the wedding which brought us to Greece in the first place was held, in this open air theatre.

– The sea from the ridge running along the centre of the island


the sight of which brought to my mind the famous lines from Xenophon’s Anabasis. He is recounting how a Greek mercenary army, stranded in northern Mesopotamia by the death of their Persian employer, Cyrus the Younger, fights its way back to the safety of the Greek cities lying along the coast of the Black Sea: “When the men in front reached the summit … there was great shouting. Xenophon and the rearguard heard it and thought that there were some more enemies attacking in the front … So Xenophon mounted his horse and, taking Lycus and the cavalry with him, rode forward to give support, and, quite soon, they heard the soldiers shouting out “Thalassa! Thalassa! The sea! The sea!” and passing the word down the column. Then certainly they all began to run, the rearguard and all, and drove on the baggage animals and the horses at full speed; and when they had all got to the top, the soldiers, with tears in their eyes, embraced each other and their generals and captains …” They could finally believe that, like Odysseus, they would sail hometo their wives and family

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Shards of Ancient Greek pottery: https://umfablog.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/collection-highlight-amphora-depicting-shrine-with-warrior-paying-respects-to-deceased-man/
Parthenon from streets below: https://brigitaozolins.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/athens-and-the-oracle-at-delphi/
Greek chariot: http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub367/item2000.html
Parthenon up close: https://www.hexapolis.com/2014/06/27/8-fascinating-facts-about-the-parthenon-the-cultural-icon-from-ancient-greece/
Acropolis museum: http://yourhellas.com/listings/acropolis-museum/
Museum contents: http://andrewprokos.com/photo/acropolis-museum-parthenon-gallery-athens/
Face of Agamemnon: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mask_of_Agamemnon
Kouros: https://www.athensguide.com/archaeology-museum/athens-national-museum050b_jpg_view.htm
Kouros close up: my wife’s photo
Zeus: http://ancientrome.ru/art/artworken/img.htm?id=6131
Young jockey: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g189400-d198713-i237853952-National_Archaeological_Museum-Athens_Attica.html
Emperor Augustus: http://www.aviewoncities.com/gallery/showpicture.htm?key=kvegr1128
Cycladic statue: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/claude2744/cylades/?autologin=true
Modigliani portrait of a woman: https://www.wikiart.org/en/amedeo-modigliani/portrait-of-a-polish-woman
Daphni monastery mosaics: my photos
Byzantine and Christian museum : mine
Benakis museum: http://www.mesogeia.net/athens/places/thissio/islamikomousio_en.html
Tourist street: https://www.athensguide.com/ermou/index.htm
Graffiti: http://www.greece-is.com/news/athens-mayor-gets-tough-graffiti/
Empty shops: http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/tag/troika/
Soldiers at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier-1: https://brigitaozolins.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/athens-and-the-oracle-at-delphi/
Soldiers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier-2: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-changing-of-the-evzon-honour-guard-tomb-of-unknown-soldier-athens-12450649.html
Ministry of Silly Walks: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/453034043738797177/
Spetses: http://www.ermioni.info/spetses-island
Open air theatre Spetses: http://www.spetsesdirect.com/out-about/theatre/
Sea from Spetses: my photo
Sailing ships: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/ancient_greeks/sea_and_ships/
Warrior returning home: https://it.pinterest.com/contencioso/greek-vases/?lp=true

KANANGINAK POOTOOGOOK

Milan, 6 September 2017

After our friends’ birthday party, described in my previous post, my wife and I decided to stay a couple of days more in Venice to visit the Art Biennale, the international exhibition of modern/contemporary art which the city holds every two years. We spent one day at the Giardini section of the exhibition and one at the Arsenale section.

I don’t know, maybe I’m getting old, maybe it was the oncoming cough and sore throat that got to me, but it was all such … crap – I can’t think of another word to better describe what we saw. It was just a lot of empty rhetorical flourishes: large pieces of things hanging from ceilings or plonked down on the floor; meaningless videos; assemblages that wouldn’t look out of place in a teenager’s bedroom; and long-winded texts on the walls full of ultimately empty words that pretended to make sense of the rubbish surrounding us. What’s the problem with modern art, for God’s sake?! Looking at all this with an admittedly dyspeptic eye I concluded that art has entered a cul-de-sac where it will die with a whimper.

I had a glimmer of hope on the first day, in the Giardini section, when I saw the quite powerful portraits by the Syrian-German artist Marwan Kassab-Bachi.


But it was really only on the second day, at the Arsenale section, when I was at my most despairing, that I stumbled across the one light shining in all this gloom, 11 paintings by the Inuit artist Kananginak Pootoogook – drawings is probably the better term, since they were mostly done with ink and coloured pencils.

Let me immediately say that I had never heard of this artist before coming face-to-face with these drawings, but I have since boned up on him a little. 1935, born in a traditional Inuit camp near Cape Dorset in Canada’s Northwest Territories. 1957, married Shooyoo and moved to Cape Dorset. Was one of the leaders in the establishment of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, the first Inuit owned cooperative, and was its president until 1964. In the 1970s, finally began working full-time as an artist, producing drawings, carvings and prints. 1980, was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. 2010, was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent an operation, from which he did not recover.

After that potted biography, let me without ado show some of his drawings at the Biennale, together with one extra drawing out of many which I found on-line.

Reflecting the Inuits’ traditional way of life, we have:
Whale hunt

Successful walrus hunt

Untitled

Reflecting the Inuits’ modern lifestyle, we have:
He thinks he has run out of gas but his engine is shot

Kananginak and his wife Shooyoo in their home

Reflecting the Inuits’ age-old connection to the natural world around them, we have:
Self portrait drawing a wolf

Shedding the velvet

Wonderful … Thank God someone had the great idea of including him in the Biennale. It made up for all the misery of two days’ worth of glum traipsing around from one pile of crap to another.

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Marwan Kassab-Bachi:
Portrait 1: http://mosaicrooms.org/event/not-towards-home-but-the-horizon-marwan/
Portrait 2: http://artsalesindex.artinfo.com/auctions/Marwan-Kassab-Bachi-3598424/Sans-titre-1976

Kananginak Pootoogook:
Whale hunt: http://canadianart.ca/news/kananginak-pootoogook-inuit-art-venice-biennale/
Successful walrus hunt: http://www.nunatsiaqonline.ca/stories/article/65674inuk_artist_to_be_featured_in_renowned_international_exhibit/
Untitled: http://canadianart.ca/news/kananginak-pootoogook-inuit-art-venice-biennale/
He thinks he has run out of gas but his engine is shot: http://canadianart.ca/news/kananginak-pootoogook-inuit-art-venice-biennale/
Kananginak and his wife Shooyoo in their home: http://canadianart.ca/news/kananginak-pootoogook-inuit-art-venice-biennale/
Self portrait drawing a wolf: http://canadianart.ca/news/kananginak-pootoogook-inuit-art-venice-biennale/
Shedding the velvet: http://digitalcollections.stlawu.edu/collections/inuit-art/bycreator/Pootoogook,%20Kananginak