Art has always been a way for people to express themselves and leave their mark (quite literally). It is not just the Monets and the Morisots of the world, even the Neanderthals were at it. Whether a cave painting or a canvas hung up in a bright, white gallery, art is a universal language that transcends time and borders. And there is a lot that common language can do: it can make us think, feel, and see things from a different perspective.
Here at SASiety, we like to think that there is a lot of merit in seeing how the arts and the academy can interact with each other, and in many cases, respond to each other in ways that are mutually beneficial. With that in mind, we are doing something special this month and curating a series of blogs all around the idea of art. As well as your usual SASiety content, we will have guest contributors and interviews with contemporary artists. To kick things off, each SASiety committee member has selected a painter or painting that means something to them and has written a few words as to why.
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SASiety's Art Picks
Natalia Fantetti (Institute of English Studies, SAS)
It was hard to pick a single painting or a single artist for this piece. I like artworks for all kinds of reasons: sometimes it’s a majestic handling of shadow and light, sometimes it’s how richly depicted the fabrics are, and sometimes it might be an enigmatic figure that draws me in. But if I had to choose the painting that gave me a sucker-punch of emotion upon looking at it, that to this day has not left me, it could only be Picasso’s Guernica.
Painted in response to the bombing of the town of the same name on 26th April 1937, it is not what you would call a pretty painting. Chaos, rendered in shades of black, white and grey, dominates the entirety of the canvas, which is no mean feat considering its sheer size. It does not depict the town itself, but rather seeks to convey the destruction of Guernica through a variety of human and animal images and symbols.
I remember looking at the painting and almost being able to hear it – the shattering of broken glass, the braying horse in distress, the people’s cries for help. It almost makes you want to turn away, wincing, but you can’t. You are drawn back. And so you face the painting once again, drinking in each horrific detail, and you can’t help but be affected. Picasso intended this painting to be an anti-war statement, and in looking at Guernica, it really does seem that sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
Conny Kaufmann (Institute of Languages, Cultures & Societies, SAS)
If there is one person I need to credit with introducing me to the world of art, it is my primary school teacher. She used every opportunity to take us to museums, taught us colour theory and had us copy world-famous paintings and painters – ranging from Monet to Picasso – when we were eight years old. I can still remember the day she introduced us to the works of Vincent van Gogh – this was art that actually spoke to me. Even now, almost 30 years later, I still have my attempt at painting his masterpiece Vase with Twelve Sunflowers. To this day, Vincent van Gogh remains my favourite artist of all time.
I am still drawn to his bold colours and dramatic brushstrokes. Of course I would never touch an original painting, but even looking at prints, I can feel the textures of the different layers of paint under my fingertips, the grooves of the brushstrokes. His paintings are alive to me. Seeing them now, it boggles my mind that his art was unappreciated and he was virtually unknown in his lifetime.
Looking at his vivid works, the dreamy swirls of stars and clouds he captured in paintings like Starry Night or Wheat Field with Cypresses; the soft, intimate glow of light in Café Terrace at Night; and the contrasts he used to bring his (self) portraits to life, it is hard to imagine that the creator of such beauty lived a life tortured by mental illness.
Even more remarkable is the visible change in his works from straight lines and dark tones reminiscent of the old Dutch masters, to the vibrant colours, swirls and short brushstrokes he used in later life and that have become synonymous with his style. To me, his paintings are proof that joy and beauty can still be found in the midst of depression. Despite tragically dying at his own hand at only 37 years old, the works he created within the last two years of his life are some of van Gogh’s most vibrant.
Over the past 30 years, I have visited many museums that housed Vincent van Gogh’s works. But none has blown me away like stepping into the paintings at the Van Gogh Immersive Experience, which is currently touring in various European cities, including London. The feeling of walking amid the brushstrokes of my favourite van Gogh paintings Olive Trees and Road with Cypress and Star was simply ineffable.
Antimo Lucarelli (Institute of Languages, Cultures & Societies, SAS)
Hygieia was a Greek and Roman goddess. She was the goddess of health and cleanliness. From her name the word “hygiene” was born.
On 15th March 1901, Medicine was previewed at the 10th Secession Exhibition. The painting involved numerous and violent controversies, which affected different fields. The renowned magazine Medizinische Wochenschrift complained that the two fundamental properties of medicine had not been treated in Klimt’s work: prevention and healing. On the other hand, public morality was indignant for the various nudes, especially for the one representing the pregnant woman and for the one standing on the left who uninhibitedly shows her belly to the spectator.
I can remember seeing this fresco when in the University of Vienna’s Great Hall. It was astonishing, seeing this superb figure staring at me in all her splendour. That moment I understood one sense of “health”, which one may well recall from Nietzsche’s writings: overabundance of power, and the feeling of this overabundance.
Monja Stahlberger (Institute of Languages, Cultures & Societies, SAS)
David Hockney probably needs no introduction since he is one of, if not the most famous contemporary British artist. So why pick him? Well, for me, there is something fascinating about his journey as an artist and his incredible range. Whenever I go to a Hockney exhibition or, just recently, the immersive experience, I discover something different: the composition of colour, the capture of movement, the use of perspective …
When I went to the Royal Academy in 2021 to see his then most recent art series The Arrival of Spring, Normandy 2020 we had just come out of another lockdown with all its restrictions. Perhaps it was the timing and my mindset that evoked all the emotions in me when walking through the gallery of the Royal Academy. After all, if critics were to be believed, his 116 iPad pictures are an expression of uniformity and basic compositions. Yet, despite the obvious technological limitations (or maybe even because of them) the interplay between the organic portrayal of nature and the often bright palette of lime green, yellow, and turquoise seemed to be a direct response to the bleakness of the pandemic.
While his iPad art might not be his most celebrated work, particularly his 2020 paintings are anchored in our everyday reality during the pandemic. Combining the use of technology we all got acquainted to in 2020 with the theme of renewal, he creates a vivid contrast. When I look at the series of paintings, I see the mundane and static aspects of life in lockdown, particularly being confined to your own home, but I also see the unusual and extraordinary experiences by being reminded of the digital lens that became part of everyday life during covid.
Elena Zolotariov (Institute of English Studies, SAS)
I often think of Jennifer Packer’s exhibition “The Eye is not Satisfied with Seeing” at the Serpentine South Gallery, nearly two years later. Packer notes: “[m]y inclination to paint, especially from life, is a completely political one. We belong here. We deserve to be seen and acknowledged in real time. We deserve to be heard and to be imaged with shameless generosity and accuracy.”
Packer’s out-spoken political consciousness shines through, turning art history on its head, giving it a well-deserved kick in the butt. When I was younger, I used to collect postcards of still-life. Blooming, wild flowers, contained in dark rooms, so pretty, so delicate. You can see some of them already withering (more often than not it’s the unfortunate carnations or tulips), while the peonies soldier on. No flower is out of place, all perfectly organized, contained.
Packer’s still-life paintings don’t have vases – the flowers have escaped from their glassy confines. Packer’s flowers are fantastical: I see dragons, and viridescent tongues. Order? What order, the painting seems to ask. It laughs in the face of Ambrosius Bosschaert. Packer’s paintings aren’t subdued, there is an explosion of colour and life, life that is unrestrained, unfiltered. Life that can be messy and tragic, but also beautiful and deeply nuanced. Truth marks Packer’s paintings: still life is still dying. Undeniable grief seeps through Say Her Name (2017). The catalogue explains how it is a painting that came out of the death of Sandra Bland, “a 28-year-old Black American woman who was found dead in police custody in Texas, largely believed to have been murdered.” Even if the viewer is ignorant of the context, you can taste the all-consuming grief, and the viewer has to grieve too, and has to evaluate, reassess their own complicity, and stare at life, or death, square in the eye, but most importantly, they have to think of lives other than their own.