Art as propaganda or reality?

The Kim Utopia and North Korean Perspectives

After an hour of studying the paintings and watching a documentary about North Korea in The Kim Utopia exhibition a restless feeling seeped under my skin. My western mindset found the paintings of ecstatic workers, sublimely pretty traffic wardens and tranquil farm scenes far too surreal. Yet other paintings depicting barbaric American soldiers torturing a North Korean or setting crops on fire struck a chord with the atrocities in Vietnam, adding a possible sliver of truth to the overt propaganda machine. Yet what kind of regime would commission a painting of bounteous sheaths of corn at a time when most of its citizens were starving? And why does nearly everyone always look so vibrant and happy?

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Kubrick at the Eye

Spartacus, Lolita, Full Metal Jacket. Just three of Kubrick’s epic oeuvre of 15 films produced over a period of 46 years.

The exhibition is a series of ‘rooms’, each one dedicated to a different film. The first room introduces Kubrick’s career – he started off as a photographer for Look Magazine. Then you progress through his history. In each room scenes from the film are shown on a big screen. The walls are covered in various memorabilia such as items from the film set, photos, and letters. In the middle of the room you can sit down and watch a documentary: the story behind the film, its production and how cinemagoers received it (Woody Allen needed to see 2001: A Space Odyssey several times before he could appreciate it).

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Blurred Boundaries

The sensuous world of Jean Paul Gaultier

Be surprised, shocked, amazed, confused, titillated and smile! Welcome to the world of Jean Paul Gaultier. Fashion’s Andy Warhol. Full of ideas, naughty, yes, but cheekily nice. A designer who refuses to be  categorised and constantly breaks the boundaries. Get beyond the cute teddy bear wearing the pointed bra, a concept that years later Gaultier would put on Madonna. See beyond the almost predictable toying with fetishism and the collection of dresses portraying the flesh on the dress. When he co-presented Eurotrash, Gaultier was decidedly the agent provocateur. However, his work has many subtle, thought-provoking and intriguing aspects.

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How Amsterdam Made Peter Great

Peter the Great @ the Hermitage, Amsterdam

Peter the Great was a radical reformer. In his lifetime he changed Russia from a medieval Byzantine  backwater where only the tsar had knowledge, into a modern country epitomised by the free and open new capital of St Petersburg. “If God give me time, I shall make of Petersburg a second Amsterdam.”
Peter 1703.

The exhibition explores this complex and highly gifted man. He was not afraid to roll up his sleeves and he became a skilled craftsman who mastered 14 different trades. And yet with those same hands he personally executed some of the Strelstsy (tsar’s personal bodyguards) after they had rebelled against him.

So what exactly was Amsterdam’s role in all of this? Peter visited Amsterdam twice. He stayed for three months during his first Grand Tour of Europe in 1696-1697 and he stayed again for some time during his
second Grand Tour of 1716-1717. Amsterdam inspired St Petersburg that was built on the site where Peter had defeated the Swedish army of Charles XII. St Petersburg, like Amsterdam, was built on wooden piles and it made use of the rivers and other water there as lines of defence, just like the Singel in Amsterdam used to act as a moat around the old city. When Peter first came to Amsterdam he initially stayed in  Zaandam and the wooden house there inspired his first wooden cabin where he lived in St Petersburg. This new city was partly built to defend Peter’s trading interests. It provided an ice-free port all year and gave Peter command of the Baltic.

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Frans Hals

Eye to Eye with Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian

I knew Hals as the artist who portrays engaging, everyday people laughing and making merry. Then I read an article in a Dutch newspaper about this exhibition which asserted that Hals has possibly played second fiddle to Rembrandt too much: Although Rembrandt might have acquired more worldwide fame, Hals was definitely more masterful in his use of the brush and more innovative in his approach. So I spent a sunny Sunday afternoon in Haarlem examining the evidence for myself.

First impression? It was immediately clear that Hals was a trendsetter. His rapidly applied brush strokes in the style of Tintoretto were not used to convey religious or mythological scenes like those of his mentor Karel van Mander, but to bring everyday people to life. And he was darned good at it.

For example, the exhibition has three paintings side by side of a man in black standing next to a chair. They are a Rubens, a Van Dyck and a Hals. Rubens’ painting has a detailed life-likeness, more so than Van Dyck, but only Hals really brings the figure to life. And as I wandered through the exhibition I realised why. It is how he portrays the light in his subjects’ eyes. Somehow the eyes make contact with your eyes and draw you into the life story of the person depicted. I found that was a better
clue to identifying a work of Hals correctly than his trademark smile, because some of his contemporaries in Haarlem, such as Judith Leyster, were pretty good at that as well.

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Fellini at the Eye

As I went round this exhibition I wanted to get beyond Fellini’s fertile imagination and the iconic fountain scene from La Dolce Vita (1960). I wanted to discover how he saw his Italian world.

So I wandered around the exhibition several times watching the various film clips and examining the other exhibits. In the end, I chose four scenes that portrayed more than a thousand paintings ever could. For me that is Fellini. In a short scene he could capture an entire city, culture or era without any particular need for words. To my amazement he shot most of his work in the studio, even the motorway scene in Roma (1972). “For me the studio is the place where the images you have in your imagination can be made in a totally controlled way, as a painter does on a canvas with his brush.” This is a man who let his imagination run wild but was most particular about how the fruits of his mind’s eye were portrayed.

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Art fusion in the post-impressionistic age

Gauguin, Bonnard, Denis at the Hermitage

Perhaps the title should have been Denis, Bonnard and Gauguin. Although a crowd puller, Gauguin plays a minor role in this exhibition.

His work, especially his use of colour was, however, a major source of inspiration for Denis, Bonnard and the other artists of the Les Nabis movement.

It started in 1890, the year in which Van Gogh shot himself. Paris was emerging as a modern cosmopolitan city with metro trains rumbling underground and the first electric street lamps flickering on the streets. Les Nabis is derived from the Arabic/Hebrew word nabi, which means prophet. To be honest I struggled to see anything prophetic in what I initially experienced as a disparate collection of paintings: large commissioned decorative works, more impressionistic paintings with a hint of realism and some clearly more mystical and symbolic compositions.

My mind flashed back to an interview I’d read a few hours before in the Financial Times: “You have a few incredible composers and you put them together and it’s like a menu – Bach, Ravel, Beethoven and Prokofiev….. I like to have a lot of different combinations, a taste of everything.” (Food of love an
interview with Lang Lang, Financial Times, 5 October 2013).

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Meandering through the Mauritshuis

The Mauritshuis reopened its doors on 27 June following a 22 million euro refurbishment. Located just behind the Binnenhof (home to the Dutch Parliament) in The Hague it houses the Royal Cabinet of Paintings, most of which are works from the Golden Age. Top pieces include the Girl with the Pearl Earring (Vermeer, 1665-1667) and The Anatomical Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (Rembrandt, 1631). How do you visit an art museum? Are you an audio guide fanatic who studiously stops by each marked painting acquiring a certain knowledge of art history? Or someone who uses a smartphone app to get interesting bits of info on the paintings you like and take the odd photo while you’re at it? Do you just wander around and take it as it comes or do you allow previous experiences to influence what you see? And what in fact do you see?

Me? I’m a wanderer. I like to be surprised and inspired by a collection of paintings and to acquire my own story as I meander through it. Even, if like the Mauritshuis, I have been there many times before. As the names suggests, the Mauritshuis is an old grand house (former residence of count John Maurice of Nassau). The art is displayed on two floors. I found my first gem downstairs on a wall facing the Binnenhof. Ruben’s Old Woman and Boy with Candle (1616-1617). The young lad’s animated and expectant face contrasts beautifully with the old woman’s steadfast assurance born of a lifetime’s experience. I wonder if the powers in the building behind could learn something from these two?

Up the sumptuous staircase a feast awaited me. The expansive hall at the top of the stairs is full of works vying for attention. But one near a doorway grabbed my eye: Shepherd with Flute (Jacob Adriaensz Backer, 1634). He returned my look without guile.

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Lost and forbidden cities: Petra and Mecca

Petra, Wonder in the Desert is at the Museum of Antiquities until March 2014. It portrays the history and archaeology of Jordan’s famous hidden city, which Hollywood immortalised in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

What made this exhibition for me was the retrospective of paintings by Dutch artist Gerti Bierenbroodspot in Petra Revisited. She spent ten years there, helped with various archaeological digs and could paint wherever she wanted in the city.

“And then I saw Petra… it was like stepping into my own paintings, and more… it was like a very slow progress of stepping into metaphors of archaeology, architecture and mythology and tried to capture and put into another space (that of a large piece of rice-paper) these phenomena of the unconscious mind.” Gerti Bierenbroodspot

Petra is the classic lost city. Mecca though, arouses curiosity because it is a thriving but forbidden city. Unless you are a Muslim of course. What draws Muslims to Mecca? What do they do when they get there? And how does the pilgrimage to Mecca change their lives?

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