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Wanderlust at Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie

What does ‘Wanderlust’ really mean?

‘Wandering’ is an expression that feels somehow very luxurious and romantic to me; it makes me think of a movement that is slow, unhurried and meaningful, of someone who takes pleasure and joy in walking at their own gentle pace, taking the time to contemplate life as they wander – I can’t help but be reminded of the hymn, ‘I wonder as I wander’!  At the same time, I feel that wandering could just be about the act in itself, the very journey that is being carried out as one wanders.  I know that when I set out for a wander, my only intention is to do just that, nothing else must be achieved during my wander except the actual wander itself and maybe that is what is so luxurious!

When we pair these feelings about wandering with a kind of lust or a desire, ‘wanderlust’ seems to embody a deeper state of mind, a psychology combined with a passion.  Perhaps wanderlust symbolises a connection with nature or a world traveller, maybe it’s about an artist looking for inspiration.  Perhaps too, at its core, wanderlust really epitomises the tumultuous journey through life.

I hadn’t really thought much about the meaning of wanderlust, or how I felt about it, until I visited the wonderful ‘Wanderlust’ exhibition at the Alte Nationalgalerie on Museum Island in Berlin.  The exhibition aims to explore all of these different concepts surrounding wanderlust, it’s many dimensions and the allegories that represent its ideas, found in the paintings of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich and Auguste Renoir, and it is the first ever art exhibition in the world to focus on this theme!  I actually found the exhibition and the artwork that was presented so powerful and enlightening that I just can’t believe that this has never been done before!

Firstly, if you are a fan of the 19th century German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich, you absolutely have to get to the exhibition.  There is an entire room dedicated to his work, which includes the infamous ‘Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog’, completed in 1818.  I had wanted to see this painting for a long time, so this was a definite pull for me, and I was pretty awestruck by it!  It is so immense in its ideas, one lone man facing the world, shrouded in a mysterious haze, not knowing what lies beneath the fog… David Friedrich was one of the first painters to present figures with their backs to the viewer, and I find this adds such a personal but dramatic element to the ideas of the painting as well; we see what the man standing in the painting sees, his view is also our view so we could almost be him.  Our attention is drawn, not to him, but to what he is looking at, and that is so interesting!

 

 

I was extremely happy to be introduced to some other incredible paintings by David Friedrich at the exhibition too. I find his work to be very quietly powerful.  It’s not pretentious, or ‘showy-offy’.  It is humble and yet it addresses huge questions concerning life, the world, humanity… There was another portrait at the exhibition which was painted of David Friedrich working in his studio.  I was interested to learn that his workspace was utterly minimal; literally just an easel and canvas.  Apparently, he hated any kind of mess in his work environment, as when he was painting he wanted only to live in that world, with no reminders of his ‘real’ life.  I love to learn these snippets of information about artists whom I admire; it gives them such a character and personality in my mind and lets me see their work with more of them in it.

 

 

I saw several other fabulous paintings, but one that really stayed with me was ‘The Wetterhorn Mountain’ by Karl Eduard Biermann, from 1830.  It is difficult to see clearly in the photo below (click on the image to enlarge it), but there are two haggard and struggling climbers which contrast so starkly with the awesome and brilliant white mountain peaks.  Nature is all-powerful in this painting, while man seems so weak, human life so short and fleeting compared to the indestructible mountains and valleys.  I love the darkness and the light, I love the personality of both nature and humanity, and I find this painting altogether very inspiring!

 

 

The exhibition has so much to offer; there are, of course, very grand paintings as well as small sketches, sculptures and even music videos, including one by the Icelandic singer, Bjork.  In total, there are over 120 pieces of work on display, all arranged into different sections which showcase different aspects of Wanderlust, from ‘The Discovery of Nature‘ to ‘Life’s Journey‘, ‘Artists Wanderings‘, ‘Landscapes‘ and more.

As I wandered around the exhibition, it struck me just how poetic it all really was!  I was wandering through a ‘Wanderlust’ exhibition, contemplating beautiful works of art presenting ideas of wanderlust, as I myself experienced wanderlust.  In a beautiful twist of meta, wanderlust became the very act of going to the exhibition!

The exhibition is open until the 16th September (2018) and if you happen to be in Berlin until then I SO encourage you to go!  It takes roughly 2.5 hours to see it all, and I recommend getting the audio guide, unless all you really want to do is wander!

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An Artist in Focus: Sara Cubarsi

It’s such a crazy, wonderful thing to be able to say that your friends inspire you.  Although each of my friends live in different corners of the globe, I feel so connected to them through this inspiration and through a deep, profound respect for what they are doing and their work.  My friends are creating new art and music, asking new questions, re-inventing answers to old ones, revealing new paths and I absolutely love and value these things, besides the wonderful people that they are!

One old school friend of mine – violinist and artist, Sara Cubarsi – came to visit me in Germany last year (she is originally from Barcelona and is currently living in California).  She was then right in the middle of a huge project that she had created and developed – actually, the project is still not finished!  The other day I got to catch up with her and asked all about how the project was progressing.  As she told me about it, I found the ideas behind it and everything she has achieved thus far so AMAZING and so COOL, that I decided I just had to write a blog post about it and share it!  This is the story of the ‘Wax Painting Project’, by Sara Cubarsi.

Something to know about Sara, right from the beginning, is that she is not only a clever and talented violinist, but she is also an artist.  Remember in my post about Picasso’s Mad Man (read it here), I mentioned that I had a friend who drew her own mad man on her bedroom wall – that was Sara!  She has done some really wonderful paintings (I’m still waiting for one that she promised to make for me one day) and her style of art and emotion is really present in all of her work, whether its through music – her own compositions or more classical pieces – paint or any other art form.  So, Sara had the idea that she wanted to create a painting to go in one of her performances, and that’s where the origin of this project stemmed from.

The next step of the project came about purely as a joke.  Someone said to Sara, what would happen, though, if your painting would accidentally melt under the heat of the stage lights?? In the moment, Sara laughed, but then realised that that was a fantastic idea and EXACTLY what she wanted!  So she began to research what would make the best material for a painting that needed to melt, and wax became clear as the most ideal option.  Another thing to know about Sara, is that she adores the work of Francis Bacon – you can probably see this in a LOT of her work!  She absolutely loves his organic and raw style and wanted to capture this in her own painting and wax seemed the best, most fleshy and human-like material for her to use.

The first wax painting that Sara created was called ‘The Blind Cow’ and the performance of it took place late one night in February of 2016.  It was a small painting of a cow with a bloody eye that hung from the ceiling of a dark classroom.  To accompany it was a white noise track,made by one of Sara’s friends, with Sara speaking on top of it into a microphone, with distortion; she was reading poems by T.S. Elliot and a Catalan poem about a blind cow.  Sara used candlelight to melt the painting and it worked!  The painting melted completely.  Although, the funny thing was that Sara was facing a wall and unable to see the painting while she was performing the poems, so she had no idea if it was working or not!  This was also what made it so exciting, though, as she just had to have hope that it was all going to plan.  And so went the ‘first public melting’.

After this success, Sara thought – OK, this works, now let’s make it big.  She decided she wanted  to make a new wax painting, big enough that a string quartet could hide behind it, and melt it using electric heaters.  The painting that resulted, which Sara called ‘Ludwig’s Ear’, was 12 x 8 feet and the performance was planned to take place in a bigger concert hall in March 2016.  Sara composed a string quartet to go with the painting, which was very much related to it; she told me that her music emanated the feeling of wax melting, its pace and it’s colours.  Now, here is where is starts to get really exciting.  The night before the performance, the heaters broke – smoke came out when she tested them!  Running out of time, Sara went out to buy six irons and planned to have people standing behind the painting, ironing it to get it to melt!  However, during the performance, there was SO much electricity being used (six irons, speakers, heaters etc.) that the electrical circuit broke!  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), at the end of the performance, when Sara stepped out from behind the painting, she saw that it had barely melted at all and the public reaction was extremely awkward – here were all these people who had come to see this monster wax painting melt… and nothing happened!  But isn’t this the nature of experimenting?!  We have to try stuff out to see what works and what doesn’t.  Sara called her ‘second public melting’ a “successful un-happening”!

Ludwig’s Ear, pre-wax

Ludwig’s Ear, post-wax

Sara was nowhere near finished.  We have to remember that, while all of these wax adventures were going on, Sara was still trying to live her life, as a musician and an artist dealing with all of her own insecurities.  At around about this time she was playing a LOT of contemporary music and was feeling really anxious about her classical playing – she felt that she had lost touch with Bach and with the violin and was trying to find herself as a violinist again.  She decided that she had to force herself to put on a concert and perform some Bach, as this would simply MAKE her practice it.  Connecting all of her work together, she created a new abstract painting for a performance at Art Share, L.A., to which she would play Bach’s Second Partita.  This piece is made up of four smaller dance movements and a monumental Chaconne final movement.  The day before the concert, Sara freaked out – she was feeling so uncomfortable with her playing that she decided to cancel the four shorter movements and just perform the Chaconne.  The very last note of this movement ends on a very powerful ‘D’ chord and at that point in the performance, Sara held this ‘D’ note as a drone, on top of which she sang microtonal intervals, all reflecting the huge Chaconne movement, in a kind of slow motion, while her little painting melted.  I see this concert as a sort of interlude from the main project, but nevertheless very important and relevant to Sara’s personal development and also to show her own personality in relation to the rest of the project.

And now back to the main wax project.  What came next was a painting that Sara called ‘Concerto For A Painting’ which was composed to 9 string instruments and piano and performed in April 2016.  Sara’s music was somehow Wagnerian, but with no rhythmic gestures, and the painting was ambiguous – it could have been a womb or even a woman’s breast (I guess it depended on one’s own personal interpretation).  What I find really cool about this painting is that Sara really made the wax look like flesh, so that when it melted, it left the painting red.  She told me that this made it look like a baby had been born, almost like there was now no baby left in the womb.  Only two heaters were needed to melt this painting and it worked beautifully – the painting melted.

Concerto For A Painting

But remember that huge painting, ‘Ludwig’s Ear’, that didn’t melt? Sara had no idea what to do with it.  This was the point at which she visited me and we discussed what she could possibly do.  She had the idea that she wanted to burn the painting somehow (an idea that also stemmed from a joke comment made by a friend!) and had a vision of doing this in a desert space where there is nothing, no life, around.  My boyfriend, who knows California pretty well, suggested Salton Sea.  It is right in the middle of the desert, it’s not very populated so she could find a space to be alone, and it’s not a ‘nice’ place – she didn’t have to worry about being too careful there.  So when she went back to the States, in October 2016, she took her monster painting to the desert and set it on fire by throwing gasoline all over it.  Of course it was impossible to make music to go with it in this context; the desert was too hot, this escapade far too dangerous and extreme.  While she was burning the painting she was also filming it all and I think the silence aspect and having no music will come across amazingly well on film.  She described to me that by the end she was so light-headed and hot, worried about what she was doing and if she would get caught, heavy from so much physical work… she actually couldn’t finish and had to leave her painting burning there in the desert (it was found and some reports of it turned up on social media and the internet by people wondering what it was!).

Ludwig’s Ear in Salton Sea

Sara’s final wax painting performance, titled ‘Exvoto Study’, happened in November 2016.  On a trip home to Barcelona, she went to visit the gothic cathedral at St. James’s Square, Cereria.  This area is really, really old and very religious.  When someone is suffering some kind of ailment or wound, here they can offer an ex-voto – a votive offering – of the wounded body part, made of wax, to the deities, hoping that they may be cured.  Sara found a little wax ear and took it home, where she decided to film herself melting it.  Her new idea was to project this little film onto a screen for her performance.  However, this wasn’t to be a normal screen – she planned to make a screen of wax!   She got hold of a canvas, which she covered in black paint with white wax on top of it, and this became her screen.  The score that Sara wrote to go with her film, which she performed with two colleagues, reflected what the ear hears; bubbling, gurgling, coughing.  It wasn’t a totally smooth concert; smoke started to come out of the heaters that were melting the wax screen and somehow, because of the light and darkness in the concert hall, this became very visible to the stage managers – they turned off the heaters!  This was a bit of a disaster because Sara needed the screen to melt to achieve her effect, so she got up herself during the performance to turn the heaters back on.  Because of this, the screen only melted partially, but the overall effect of the video of the melting ear being projected onto a screen that was melting LIVE definitely came across – I WISH I could have seen this!

Exvoto Study

The thing that I find really interesting about the whole project and in all of the performances, is that there are two elements going on all the time; the music and the melting painting.  The process of composing and performing the music is very calculated – there’s a score and a system and musicians know what they do, it’s very organised and clean.  But the painting is always a total risk.  For one, the musicians can’t ever see it, so there is no way to ever know if it is melting or not and if the performance is working.  And secondly, it’s always unpredictable – Sara can never know if the heaters will work, if the wax will melt.  These two art forms are continually working together and against each other during her performances, and this is what makes it so truly exciting.

Another thing to think about is that these are performances that are ephemeral; they can only ever be done ONE time, because the painting can only melt once.  It really is amazing, because Sara then puts absolutely everything into this one performance, but there is also a sad quality to this; the painting melts and will never again be what it was, it gets lost to the moment of the performance.  This is performance art at its most real, most meaningful, most alive!

And now? I don’t think Sara is quite finished with her wax painting project yet!  She told me that she wants to master it so that it can be done anywhere.  She also wants to make a film of the Salton Sea experiment, of which she has many hours of footage.  I can’t wait for the next melting episode!

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Favourite Paintings: The Mad Man, Picasso

Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon.

-Pablo Picasso

I don’t remember the exact point at which I fell in love with Picasso.  I have had pictures of him and his paintings hanging in my bedrooms/apartments since I was a teenager – including that famous image of him pointing a gun in his studio (which might seem a little strange, now that I think about it… most teenage girls have pictures of pop stars and celebrities looking handsome in their bedrooms, while I had Picasso holding a gun).  But the truth is, as I discovered more and more about him and his work, and although I found his paintings absolutely fascinating, it was him, the artist, that totally captured my attention and my heart!

I very distinctly remember visiting the Picasso museum in Barcelona when I was about 18.  This point really sticks out in my memory, mainly because I saw, in real life, the painting of the Mad Man.  Before this moment I had only heard rumours of the Mad Man.  A dear friend of mine had painted her own recreation of him on her own bedroom wall and had told me all about her obsession with this character.  I didn’t know quite what to expect from the painting (you never know with Picasso, do you?) but I remember feeling swept away by it when I finally saw it for the first time.  Whatever ideas that had formed in my head of what I might see in this painting were forgotten IMMEDIATELY!

What a crazy image it is!! Look at the shape of his spindly body, and his long, spidery fingers and toes – can they be real?  Perhaps strict academics and critics will assert that these projections are not true to form, that they are augmentations of real bodily limbs.  But, to me, in the sense of the whole portrait of this lunatic character, they seem totally correct and real!  He looks absolutely wild; his hair is unruly and feral, his clothes are barely clothes at all, just pieces of torn cloth here and there, hanging off him.  His eyes have an incredibly intense energy piercing out of them.  What is his story?!  How did he come to be like this, to look this way?  Was he always mad or was he driven to madness, and if so, by what?

The position of his body is also amazing – standing perfectly straight but making this strange, incomprehensible shape with his arms and hands.  I just tried to make the same shape with my body and I instantly felt mad in character!  I don’t really know why.  Perhaps because this position is so abnormal for our bodies, or because there is no situation or reason in life when anyone would, in their sound and sane mind, make this shape.  It feels totally unnatural and un-organic.  Incidentally, I looked at myself in the mirror while I did this, and my fingers seemed to have doubled in length (at least, by what I saw), which shows how the mad man’s long fingers really MUST be that long in real life.

Picasso created this painting in 1904, in the height of his ‘Blue Period’, during which he painted many sombre, almost-difficult-to-look-at images of characters reminiscent of the Mad Man; prostitutes, alcoholics, beggars, sick people… These are definitely some of my favourite paintings from Picasso’s entire collection – there is something so real and raw, so imperfect about these characters which makes them kind of addictive, although it can be dangerous for your mental health to because too obsessed with them.  If you love the Mad Man, I definitely recommend checking out more from Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’!

Check out my last post in this ‘Favourite Paintings’ Series: Wheatfield With Crows, Van Gogh, here!

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