Category Archives: Art and Philosophy

ART, APPROPRIATION AND THE WORK OF RICHARD PRINCE

READERS PLEASE NOTE:  IN THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF THIS BLOG POST I INCLUDED IMAGES OF THE RICHARD PRINCE PHOTOGRAPHS which are widely published and included in many discussions of the appropriation issue. However, these images were all removed at some point from the text, presumably because I did not have specific permission to include them here. I find it very interesting that it is not possible to discuss the issue using the examples of the images which caused the problem in the first place. The use of these images in a discussion like this should be regarded as Fair Dealing for the purposes of review and analysis – see the discussion below. However … if you want to know more about what Prince actually did, you’ll have to search for yourself through the many online images which are freely available, though many are without context or explanatory discussion. For reproduction of the main images at issue go to: https://hyperallergic.com/107150/the-art-of-art-lawsuits/

————————————————————————————————————————————-

How far can appropriation go and still stay within the boundaries of the law? This question has been tested recently especially with regard to the works of Richard Prince.

The Fair Use test has been developed as part of US copyright law as a means of defending the re-use of someone else’s works including photographic works. It consists of a number of elements which singly or in combination can give protection to someone wishing to re-use another’s work.

There are four factors in the test. Only a Federal Court judge can give a definitive answer on whether a particular use meets that test. The four factors are:

  •             The purpose and character of the use
  •             The nature of the copyrighted work
  •             The amount and substantiality of the portion taken
  •             The effect of the use on the potential market

See http://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/four-factors/

In 2000 French photographer Patrick Cariou published a book, Yes Rasta (Powerhouse) about the lives of Rastafarians.  yes-rastaHis striking photographs were the main element of the book.

jpprince4-blog427
Portrait, from “Yes Rasta”. Republished in the NY Times, from Cariou’s blog.

In 2008 artist Richard Prince created a series of 30 art works which were based on Cariou’s paintings for a show, “Canal Zone”, at NewYork’s prestigious Gargosian Gallery. In 2009 Cariou brought a copyright infringement suit against Prince, his gallerist and the publisher of the exhibition catalogue. In March 2011 US District Judge Deborah Batts ruled against Prince and ordered the defendants to destroy remaining copies of the catalogue and the unsold paintings which were closely based on Cariou’s photographs.

carious-complaint
Cariou’s original photograph at left; Prince’s modification at right.

The decision was overturned on appeal in 2013, except for five paintings which were referred for further evaluation of claims of Fair Use.

The argument in favour of Prince was supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Along with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation they argued that the intellectual content and aesthetic meaning of a work of art is not always visible outside of art-historical context. The court decided that the case would depend on whether or not a reasonable observer would find Prince’s works to have been transformative, and thus protected under Fair Use. Because the case for the five paintings was settled out of court there was no legal ruling on them which has been seen as a loss for those seeking clarity in the operation of the law with regard to appropriation art.

Report on the Settlement appears in Art in America magazine.

In the latest copyright suit against Prince, photographer Donald Graham has claimed that Prince used a photograph of a Rastafarian which he took which was an infringement of his intellectual copyright. The photograph was used in Prince’s 2014 Gargosian exhibition “New Portraits” which present prints of other people’s Instagram posts with comments.

photograph-and-art-use
Grahamn’s original at left: Prince’s version at rig
richard-prince-gagosian-10-20-14
Part of Prince’s “New Portraints” exhibition: the Graham photograph in context.

This case differs from Cariou’s in several respects. In terms of the fourth element, the market infringement test, Cariou had made no fine art prints of his work and had not exhibited them as prints. But in the Graham case, the photographer has ONLY sold his work as prints and has never licenced the copyrighted photograph or made it available for any commercial purpose other than sale to fine art collectors. Another element of Fair Use relates to whether or not it has been used for commentary. In the present case the new photographs may be thought to be commenting on the way social media is intersecting with photography.

Another factor is the amount of copyrighted work taken. In this case, the photograph uses almost all of Graham’s image. There is a change in the framing and presentation. Moreover, the image, and the others appropriated for the show, is a striking and compelling image. It is not just the random snappings of amateurs.

However others disagree. Conceptual and appropriation art cannot be judged only on its formal and aesthetic qualities. One NYU law professor says it is “the art-law equivalent of Zombie Formalism”.

the-rise-of-zombie-formalism-900x450-c.jpg
The rise and rise of Zombie Formalism – or is it just The Blur?

[Zombie Formalism is a new art movement based on the long discarded principles of Clement Greenberg. For a discussion see an upcoming post].

Also the market test is different because Graham has a track record as a fine art and commercial photographer and makes his living from those photographic activities. If the court finds in favour of Prince, it profoundly affects the concept of copyright in photography and maybe other forms of art.

A longer account of the legal issues.

CONCLUSION:  Appropriation art based on the use of photography has increased in the Fine Art field at a rapid pace in recent years. Cases such as those of Richard Prince described above serve to highlight the extremely uncertain situation of current copyright law and tests of Fair Use. The fact that each country has its own Copyright law makes it even more complicated when cross-national jurisidictions need to decide what is ethical and what is not and even then cannot necessarily impose any penalties.

Gerhard Richter and the market for German Art

 

Gerhard Richter: Portrait by Lothar Wolleh. Wikimedia Commons.
Gerhard Richter: Portrait by Lothar Wolleh. Wikimedia Commons.

More thoughts on the Germans.  Gerhard Richter is by far the leader in the top ten most expensive living German artists.  But even leaving Richter aside, German art, particularly painting, is experiencing a dramatic upsurge in popularity among international collectors. Alexander Forbes writing for Artnet News in April 2014 reported that the power of German art in the market has actually increased since the 2008 recession. There is no sign of it slowing down. Richter himself believes the market for art generally, and for his own art in particular, has gone crazy.  Richter criticizes the art market.

Forbes suggests that German art’s penchant for “stringent conceptualism and a highly art historical approach likely proves a safe bet for value retention regardless of economic conditions.

I want to hold that idea. It suggests that art which reflects both conceptual thought – a philosophical element – as well as an embedded engagement with history is likely to hold its value best. On this analysis the German art market is likely to continue to ever higher peaks.

Richter’s mysterious  Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan) painted in 1968 during the height of his blurred monochrome period sold recently for $37,125,000 at Sotheby’s 2013 contemporary art sale. His paintings hold the first 53 places on the top achieving auction sales of German art, 33 achieving over $10 million.

 

Gerhard Richter
Auction house employees pose for the photographers in front of a 1968 oil on canvas painting by artist Gerhard Richter, entitled: ‘Domplatz, Mailand’ (Cathedral Square, Milan), in central London, Friday, April 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The range of Richter’s work is astonishing. Probably best known for his “blurred monochromes” of the 1960s, his abstract works have also taken on a special aura of mystery, seeming to move away from figuration and narrative completely. You really need to read Richter’s own writings (which are extensive) to get an idea of what he is thinking in this strand of his work, which seemingly just gets better and better. Cage 5, 2006, (below) is a vastly large oil painting reflecting back on his early vision, yet imbued with endless hints and depths of experience which could be landscape or water-surface or a close-up of a lot of brushstrokes – something he also explored in the 1980s. But he invites us to think of a cage, and that opens up a whole different set of associations.

Cage 5 2006
Gerhardt Richter  Cage 5, 2006

The sheer scale of Richter’s work is entrancing, but so is the sense of our shared collective history, that mid-twentieth century Europe with its horrors and excesses which he opens up to us from the 1960s on.  Neo Rauch, my second favourite German artist, does the same, although it a totally different way. You can read my academic article on Neo Rauch here.Neo Rauch Post Socialist Vision, Collective Memories

It is overwhelming in so many ways to enter the Richterian world. Fortunately it is also easy, as Richter’s own website is an absolute miracle of clarity, order and revelation. You can find  (almost) anything he has ever done there, complete with full references, links to written and audio discussions and interviews, the ability to zoom in onto details, and the complete presentation of his Atlas project, which really is no more than a full record of every image he has collected (or photographed) in his life. Explore the miracle of Richter’s work here.

Unbelievably there is almost nothing of Richter’s art in pubic collections in Australia. The AGNSW at least made some effort and holds three items, a painted monochrome sphere from 1989, a photograph from 1967, and his strange version of a nude descending a staircase, titled Ema, from 1992.

The Art Gallery of South Australia holds one of his luminous abstracts (Abstraktes Bild) from 1977 (Catalogue Raisonne: 424). * (Eric Clapton sold another in the Abstraktes Bild series for 21.3 million British pounds in 2013). One of Richter’s finest 1990’s abstracts CR:752-3, 1990, 225 x 200cm) is held in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, purchased with corporate funding assistance from Westpac Bank,  and the NGA in 2003 purchased Juno, oil on canvas 300 x 250 (NGA 2004.2).Richter’s 1995 Abstract at the NGV

Clapton's Abstraktes Bild
Sold by Eric Clapton: Abstraktes Bild at  Sotheby’s for 21.3 million

Gerhard Richter’s work is now so valuable that there will be little or no opportunity to ever acquire it in Australia. Should public collections in Australia be more open to contemporary work from outside Australia? Why German artists, and not those from Romania, Holland, or wherever?  Should we just focus on local art and artists and make a kind of nationalist stand? This might be a valid position but when you consider the extent of Australian gallery holdings of recent American and UK artists you just cannot help but conclude that the good old neo-colonial world order underpins every level of public culture, including public art. Sensible use of public assets or parochialism and subservience to a highly limited Anglophone culture sphere?

*Strangely though this rare work hardly features on the Gallery’s site. No image of it is available there. It has been shown only once in public as part of the exhibition “Making Nature: Masters of Early European Landscape Art” (June-September 2009). Why it was included in that collection is a mystery as Richter can hardly be considered “early” and this painting is very far from one of his landscapes. An image of it is available on Richter’s website – just click on the “Abstracts” collection with the CR number 424.

 

 

 

 

 

Sigmar Polke: Don’t mention the Germans

Australia has never had much of a taste for German art. Apart from the epic romances of Austrian born Eugene von Guerard (1811-1901) who towered over all others during his time in Australia from 1852-1992, and produced the most magnificent landscapes unrivalled in scale and grandeur then or maybe ever, German painting has never figured much in Australian galleries or exhibitions. Nor does it feature much on Australian art school curricula although Gerhard Richter turns up here and there.

300px-Eugene_von_Guerard00
Eugene von Guerard. Govett’s Leap and Grose Valley, Blue Mountains NSW 1873

It is true that Australian art tastes have generally been conservative and provincial anyway, so perhaps it is understandable that the work of contemporary German artists is of little interest. But in America the impact of German art has been powerful over several decades and shows no decline. The Americans however seem to pick up German artists and movements just as they start fading in Germany itself .

In 2014, New York’s MOMA offered a huge retrospective of the work of Sigmar Polke (“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010”). Polke, a contemporary of Richter, is seen as a pioneer of the formal cleverness and ironic perspective which underlies much of today’s painting. The dark irony of much of his work seems to open up a bitter playground where the gesture sits side by side with dexterous painterliness while poking fun at our aesthetic convictions. Polke was both more and less serious than Richter. Put them together and one illuminates the absences in the other.

Polke Bunnies 1966
Bunnies, 1966, acrylic on canvas, 150 cm x 100 cm

Also unlike Richter, Polke played with everything: drawing, painting, sculpture, film, video and sound. Richter was obsessed with the visual image, the photograph in particular, and the peculiar position of painting given the existence of photography. Polke’s work is harder to assess if only because it is so much more various. And influences are far more visible: pop art, American abstraction, psychedielia, a rabid experimentalism which the far more restrained Richter eschews.

2003 Primavera
Primavera – playing with the framing

All this messing around with materials should make Polke a great favourite among contemporary artists who don’t actually want to paint. Creating abstractions on glass using old lamp soot, flinging about different kinds of paint, and attacks on the picture plane itself all have had a turn. These processes once were shocking although now they do seem fairly routine.

At times Polke seems to hover in Richterian shadows. Frau Herbst und ihre zwei Tochter (Mrs Autumn and Her Two Daughters, 1991) seems redolent of early Richter, with its base in a nineteenth century French engraving on a massive canvas where competing representations alternate across the canvas. Cheap conventional images of German guard posts in the “Watchtower” paintings reference historial trauma, almost mechanically.

03+Sigmar+Polke+.+Mrs.+Autumn+and+Her+Two+Daughters+.+1991
Frau Herbst and her Two Daughters, 1991.

No contemporary German artist can challenge the dominance of Richter, but the shame of it is that here in Australia we rarely get the chance to see any of them, let alone Richter, in a full show. My first encounter with a Richter painting in Australia was that wonderfully mysterious painting of Helga Matura with her Fiance. For me, this image is emblematic of everything Richter was trying to achieve in the 1960s. There it was, the sole Richter representative in a rather bedlamatic show, Pop to Popism a the Art Gallery of NSW, in 2014. There was a lot of fun to be had with the usual suspects, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Brett Whitely among them. (What? Brett Whitely as a Pop artist?) It was a good show but the inclusion of Richter as part of a Pop movement seemed very strange and his brooding, magical monochrome painting did not sit comfortably with the other male hysterics around it.

Helga Matura with Fiance
Gerhard Richter. Helga Matura and her Fiance.

Polke responded constantly to changes in technology and their meaning for the reproduction of the image. In the late 1990s he worked on an endless series of photocopied works which occupied whole rooms of display space.

photocopiarbeiten
Photocopyarbeiten, late 1990.

These days that generation of German artists is still influential, but maybe fading. The Leipzig school, the great Neo Rauch and his pals, also may be on the edge of exhausting their cred among the avant-garde. But if you don’t spend time in Germany and read the German art press there’s almost no way to find out. The Australian art scene is right to focus on our own, with its distinctive history and brilliant grasp of landscape, light and space. But there is a kind of underground urban sensibility which wells up now and then, and could gain a lot from exposure to German painting. I am thinking of it as opening up a counterpoint to the Australian brightness, a protected area where we can hide from all that light and insistent demand that everything be laid across vast landscapes which dwarf and minimize our presence. Australian Gothic is a recognized feature in Australian cinema. Maybe that sensibility is lurking around in painting as well.

For a really detailed discussion of Sigmar Polke, see:

http://capscrits.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/sigmar-polke-2014.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of the Bower-Bird

In an earlier post (“What is Art? February 2015) I made some remarks about animal art. The issues around whether or not animals can make art are far from simple and very hard to research. It is as if the idea of animals being art-makers, or having an artistic sensibility, seems too silly for words to many people. If chimpanzees make drawings it’s because they have been rewarded for doing so by their human carers or otherwise manipulated. It just isn’t “natural”.

jimmy-painting-chimp
Jimmy, 27, a famous artist in Brazil

I find this very hard to accept. When you see talented chimp artists totally fascinated by their painting it’s hard to think they’re doing it for a dog biscuit or banana. And what about the creatures who go to a great deal of trouble to make art without any input from the human world? Jimmy the chimp artist at Rio de Janeiro zoo took up painting to get over his chronic depression. Animal rights activists have used his talent as a basis for obtaining his release from captivity, although so far the case has not succeeded in the courts.Jimmy the artist chimp has fame but not freedom

In recent times I have been feeling very close to birds. Spending a lot of time in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, and on the Hawkesbury River, brings the bird- world very close. The range of species, the musicality of the bushland, the presence of tiny wrens and finches seen so rarely now in city gardens is a great reminder of the richness and expressiveness of the bird-world. And the amazing beauty of the birds themselves.

Fairy Wrens Scott Fontini
Female and male Fairy Wrens – once common in Sydney gardens (credit: Scott Contini)

It is true that there are still many birds in Sydney but the range of species is limited compared to the luxuriant birdlife some years ago. All the same at our Sydney place which is just ten or so Ks from the CBD we have kookaburras, currawongs, Australian mynah birds, flocks of shrieking lorikeets and a regular visitor, a tawny frogmouth who sits on the back fence or the front railing uttering soft repetitive cooing sounds.

tawny frogmouth
Tawny Frogmouth

Just recently he and his partner have been raising an owlet in a ratty gumtree at the front of the house. He sits on the railing and stares into the house until we come out to greet him.During the day he rests against the trunk and dozes.

However this post has been prompted by a morning conversation about the Australian bower bird.* The Satin Bower Bird lives up and down the east coast. The adult male is black and glossy, the females and the younger birds are brownish-olive.

Bowerbird_Satin 3 (Geoffrey Dabb)
Lady Bower-Bird: look at her gorgeous blue eyes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many bower-birds live in the bush below the Mountain escarpments. The male is a consummate installation artist. He builds an elegant small bower for his lady to rest in and decorates the “floor” in front with a range of found objects in bright colours, an array of reflectivity, and a carefully designed layout. Blue is a favourite colour. I think he likes the blue because it reminds him of her lovely eyes.

Bowerbird at Bower 1
Male satin bower-bird with a bright blue feather for his installation

In a documentary I recently watched, the gentleman bird spent hours re-arranging his objets d’art until he felt they were absolutely perfect. Then his lady visitor was ushered into the bower, where she sat quietly while he picked up a range of his favourite objects, showed them to her one by one, put them carefully back and then began an elegant and very moving dance. All this was of course prelude to their love-making which was very rapid indeed. It was the artistic part – the collection, the curation, and the ballet – which was the main point of the exercise, the foreplay if you like, while the mating itself was a kind of boring obligation to be completed as rapidly as possible.

Courtship dance of the satin bower-bird

satin_bowerbird blue pegs
Blue pegs are a favourite

Yes, I know, this is putting things round the wrong way at least from a David Attenborough point of view. But why should we think that the bowerbird is mainly interested in the sex? It looks to me that the art is far more compelling.

Satin-Bower-Bird-Display
An exceptional display, completely surrounding the bower

I have never come across a good discussion of the role of art and aesthetics in animal evolution – rarely enough is it even touched on for humans. But Art’s role in human evolution is a major theme for 2016 Dark MoFo at MONA in Hobart.  An earlier exhibition The Red Queen at MONA in 2013 expressed the core ideas which David Walsh, quirky arts patron, has long been interested in. Here’s a short ABC report. More to come on the 2016 program shortly.

Story on Art and Evolution at MONA 201

* warm thanks for the conversation, fellow artists Tina McCormack and Gloria McGrath.

Lines of Resistance: Vattimo and Weakening Philosophy

white cloud marble
White Cloud marble: lines of resistance in nature

Gianni Vattimo is an Italian philosopher who has written on modernity and the metaphysics of being. A Festshrift for Vattimo recently appeared under the title of Weakening Philosophy (2007). Although Vattimo’s philosophy seems heavily indebted to the Italian tradition, including its entanglement with Christianity, his ideas can be used to open up some new considerations on art in contemporary context.

 

The publisher’s blurb says:

Moving away from Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionism and Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics, and building on his experiences as a politician, Vattimo asks if it is still possible to speak of moral imperatives, individual rights, and political freedom. Acknowledging the force of Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” Vattimo argues for a philosophy of pensiero debole or “weak thinking” that shows how moral values can exist without being guaranteed by an external authority. His secularising interpretation stresses anti-metaphysical elements and puts philosophy into a relationship with postmodern culture. 

Vattimo’s core idea is that although metaphysical power has been weakened under modernity the post-metaphysical world is not completely free and arbitrary. His thought leads away from arguments for absolute randomness, unstructured chaos and indeterminacy. These are important issues for contemporary philosophy, for example in recent thinking on aleatory materialism and radical contingency. No matter how apparently free-flowing thought and moral values might seem, there are lines of resistance which introduce a kind of structure of their own, even though it is not the product of a metaphysical intention (eg the mind of God). These ideas offer interesting perspectives on contemporary art among many other things.

tree-skin
Dense bark on old trees: lines of resistance as protection

We can take his idea of “resistances” and think about the emergence of global art movements, for example. As the signs carved out and organized in different forms by different cultures have been loosened from their previous determinants (beliefs, practices, cultural conditioning) they have begun to deposit a kind of magma which determines their possibilities of flow. Just as the grain in wood or stone makes the material easier to cut in one direction rather than another, so does thought and human expressiveness develop in ways which create a certain conformity even though this is not intended or in any way “planned”. It is a kind of neutral determinism.

If we follow this line of thinking, we might consider that the condition of being human, with all the animal and cognitive capacities this implies, always/already creates the possibility of flows of thoughts, ideas and interpretations, and the existence of deep structures in language makes this even more likely. This argument is notably contra the spirit of Deleuze and Guattari in Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972) and, by extension, much contemporary postmodern thought which argues against any form of “determinism”.

Yarlung_Tsangpo_river_tibet
Lines of resistance creating the landscape: Yangpo River, Tibet.

Lines of resistance do not imply that universal laws exist (although at the deepest material level they may do). The productions of human action in whatever form create ebbs and flows which are self-reinforcing, just as a small trickle of water can cut out a creek-bed and finish up as a river. Being should not be thought of as a one-way street, but rather a network of freeways, roads and by-ways which travel in more than one direction. Some result in dead-ends, others become more and more essential, until they dominate the options for existence. But this does not mean that they cannot come to a sudden end. There is no better indication of this than the many recent discoveries of versions of archaic humanity which seem to have appeared, flourished, and then disappeared without trace.

hobbits1
“Hobbits”: reconstruction of hominids found in Indonesia, half human size, long extinct

We can no longer think of the emergence of humanity as a single unified sequence of development with a logic of constant progression and improvement. Rather it seems to have been a winding inconsistent process of genetic networks and climatic outliers only some of which led to the present condition of the species, more or less by accident. But there are species continuities: the recent discovery of a new hominim species in South Africa (named Naledi) seems to have ritualized the disposal of the dead, maybe 2.5 million years ago. But everyone seems to forget that elephants also dispose of their dead, or at least attend the funerals.

mourning elephants

Vattimo’s is a radical critique of universalizing metaphysics like that begun by Heidegger, though in a very different time, context and technological capacity.

Nietzsche, considering European nihilism in the summer of 1887 said that under conditions of post-metaphysics those who will emerge and flourish are the most moderate, who have no need of extreme articles of faith, who concede and even embrace contingency and nonsense, who do not need to ascribe overwhelming value to human Being but do not diminish or belittle its significance.

One very interesting connection with art under modernity is the idea that the weakening of metaphysical power in the West was in a way announced by or even presided over by the withdrawal of apparent communication in the realm of art in modern times. Vattimo speaks of Kandinsky in this regard, but a better example might be Rothko. Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s discussion of Rothko in their book The Arts of Impoverishment (1993) opens up these horizons (to come in a later post).

rothko_2
Mark Rothko
Rothko_Chapel_2
Rothko Chapel, Houston

What is Art? Thoughts on bodies and animals.

The making of marks and images is embedded in human life.  From the blown ochres outlining handprints on cave walls to the ceilings in Renaissance palaces to the production of every form of visual material in today’s world productivity seems never to have faltered. Some of the most extraordinary art is made using the human body itself as canvas. Before modernity, in hunter-gatherer/horticultural societies, the artistic impulse seems already to have reached its full potential.  Without modern technologies, artists (almost everyone) understood how to obtain natural sources of colour (ochres, pipeclay, charcoals, earths) and how to use different media to mix and fix them to the body, to walls and onto the ground.  Although designs were usually inherited and traditional there was always room for innovation.  This is art in its purest, cleanest sense.  It has no environmental negatives and links the natural and bodily worlds in the deepest way.

Is art-making exclusively human? Do animals make art?  There are some amazing examples, although they seem to be limited to very specific circumstances.  [accessed 7/2/14]

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/January2012/270112-art-by-animals

http://www.kshb.com/dpp/lifestyle/pets/Kansas-City-Zoo-animals-bust-out-their-paint-brushes

Art, its existence and practice, raises complex philosophical and psychological questions.  Freud and post-Freudian theorists have proposed theories about art and its meanings which are not widely known, let alone accepted, in the art world.  The political meaning and function of art has received more attention.  The changes in the significance and function of art in era of technological modernity (and near universal commercialisation) are closely related to this question, under the influence of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno.  Many resist any attempts to traverse these fields and assess their implications.  Meta-theory is not necessary for the practice of art which always transcends philosophy.  But for anyone trying to practice art under contemporary conditions it can offer stimulus and insight.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the human commitment to art-making is how absolutely useless it is.  There is nothing to be gained from it in terms of the usual requirements for survival: it can’t be eaten, built with, or made to do anything other than to signify and please. Yet the desire for aesthetic pleasure seems embedded and the ability to respond to it seems part of the cognitive system.  Wherever it is possible to decorate something people will do it.  Making a basket to carry produce doesn’t require the intricate modes of weaving which so often appear, but there they are.  As soon as survival is assured and people can live somewhere above a bare subsistence, art-making appears.

Today’s systems of production mean that images are everywhere so nobody needs to feel obliged to make them in order to experience them.  Many feel they can take art or leave it.  But for others, it is something they are simply drawn to.  There are all kinds of art-making, some recognised and rewarded far more than others, but for art-makers one or more forms of expression seem to be pulling at the heart, or maybe the soul, with so much power that it can’t be resisted.

Art-making is a challenge as well as an intensely gripping activity.  I often feel the paintings I want to work on are actively demanding my attention, as if they already exist somewhere and are revealing themselves through me.  My ability to respond is limited by my inadequate technical understanding and lack of training.  Being able to make better art will meet the desires of my conscious, and unconscious, life process.

Hermann Hesse: Writing, Painting.

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), born in Wurttemberg, Germany, was a poet, novelist and painter.  His works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, Demian and The Glass Bead Game.  His writings became widely known in English only in the 1960s although he had received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. Hesse melded several forms of artistic endeavour with a deep interest in and respect for non-Western cultures and religious systems.

He had a troubled early life,  marked by deep depressions, associated with rebellion against the doctrines of his strict Christian upbringing.  He believed that conventional morality was, at least for artists, replaced by aesthetics.  He began writing poetry and short prose works in 1897/8 although they did not sell.  He worked in bookshops and mixed in intellectual circles, especially after moving to Basel, where he was able to explore his artistic desires and undertook many wanderings in wild places. He began writing novels and his first, Peter Camenzind, was one of Sigmund Freud’s favourites.  Literary fame followed, and he was able to support a family.  However by 1911 he was tired of domestic existence and left for a long trip to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Sumatra, Borneo and Burma.  He hoped to find spiritual or religious enlightenment, but this eluded him, in spite of his ongoing interest in Buddhism.

During World War 1 he was not fit for active service but was given the task of caring for prisoners of war.  He opposed the tides of nationalistic madness and hatred, and called for recognition of the heritage of European histories and cultures, calling for love towards the enemy.  This resulted in hatred and public controversy, made worse for him by the death of his father, the illness of his son Martin and his wife’s developing schizophrenia. He began to undergo psychotherapy, coming to know Carl Jung personally.  In three weeks he wrote his novel Demian, published in 1919 under a pseudonym.

After his marriage ended, he moved alone to a small town on the border between Switzerland and Italy.  This began the most productive time of his life.  He began to paint, and wrote the novella Siddhartha, about the life of Buddha.  His most famous novel, Steppenwolf, was published in 1927.  He married an art historian, Ninon Dolbin, and began his major work, The Glass Bead Game, also known as Magister Ludi.  His Nobel Prize was awarded mainly for this work.

The rising tide of Nazism began, and he helped many famous artists including dramatist Bertolt Brecht and writer Thomas Mann to escape into exile.  His wife was Jewish.  By the end of the 1930s his work was totally banned in Germany.  His work was revived in the post-war era, but he was virtually unknown to English readers.

After his death, his works suddenly appeared in English translation in the United States and became bestsellers.  His writing was associated with ideas of the 1960s counterculture movement, with the quest for enlightenment and seemingly psychedelic episodes in some of his writings such as the “magical theatre” in Steppenwolf.  One reason for his popularity was the enthusiasm for his works expressed by Timothy Leary, guru of LSD.  His renaissance spread all over the world and he became the most widely read and translated European author of the twentieth century, with a huge and continuing appeal to young people.  His novel Siddartha has been translated and published widely in India, where a Hermann Hesse Society today flourishes.

Although Hesse is known for his writing, his works in visual art are vivid and vital, expressing his deep encounters with both the natural world and the towns and villages found in remote locations.  His work was entirely in watercolour, in soft bright pastel tones, with high horizons.  Almost every work included a tree, or several trees, framing and anchoring the landscapes as he viewed them.  Many of his small works illustrated his poems. Galerie Ludorff mounted a rare exhibition of these works in 2008, with the texts of the poems published in German below each illustration.

http://www.ludorff.com/de/artist/hermann_hesse/works

His poems were translated by James Wright in 1970. A selection appears at:

http://www.poemhunter.com/hermann-hesse/poems/

In recent years, as conservatism and anti-liberty sentiments grew from the 1980s onwards, Hermann Hesse’s works once again disappeared from view, remaining popular with only a small contemporary audience.  He is seen as a bit stuffy and old-fashioned, part of a pre-war European intellectual heritage.  This is a pity as his work shows deep engagement with themes of great importance today: nature, art, individual feeling, the development of an authentic and meaningful culture and the need for compassion and sympathy to all beings.  He remains one of my great inspirations.