The Mad Square

Art Exhibition:  The Mad Square – 5 November 2011

New South Wales Art Gallery

I had to come a second time and see this – the modern German art of the Weimar Republic years between the two World Wars.  An hour was not enough.

It’s hard to say what I want to see – I want to look at the Bauhaus artist’s photographs and write my impressions as if writing is a kind of art, using my words as a medium to sketch or paint studies in words of each of the little pictures.  The artist Paul Klee was there too, teaching at the Bauhaus.

The photographs are different from the hard-edged, gravelly cynicism of Grosz and Beckman.  They seem to have a fecund glow about them – these photos of pieces of machinery and their spatial relationships.

30 years ago, the drawings of George Grosz’s ‘Ecce Homo’ struck me intensely as I was feeling the weight of a human existence almost too heavy to bear.  With each jagged line of the pen, my world cracked with a vast sense of alone-ness, of the harshness of life, of despair, futility and emptiness.

Did Grosz feel the same sense of heaviness of existence?  He was an alcoholic, living the last of his days as a white-suited expatriate in America, forever haunted by the apocalypse he left behind him.

Today, it is almost around the same time of the year, years later, we meet again.  But I am more interested in the photos and want to know why.

 

George Grosz – Painting – Suicide.  The painting glows red carmine with the fallen figure of a man with skull-grin face, lights out lies isolated beneath the unseeing gaze of a prostitute and her gentleman client on the balcony.

Suicide

 

Sex Murder in Ackerstrasse – Psychopathic killer washing his bloodstained hands in a basin, his clothes suggestively awry, looks blandly over the beheaded corpse of a woman who must have died in agony of pain.  He is the kind of faceless, innocuous, docile man who remains unnoticed in a crowd, and is used to being told what to do.

SexMurder

 

Another painting by someone else, a woman.  Within the smooth metal surface, the machine arc, lie eyes of unutterable longing.  The artist is Hanna Hoch, painting ‘Imaginary Bridge’.

ImaginaryBridge

 

Laszlo Moholy – Nagy’s photograms – Untitled Weimar 1923-1925

Sphere, faintly obscured by a shadowy grey behind an almost three-dimensional oblong shape where lies a luminous white disc and all delicately balanced on two slim, long sticks of light.

A metal triangle lying partially on a circle of greyish light, half submerged by darkness, a slightly half-lit ring with its metallic gleam shining nearby beyond the slightly diagonal pole.  Bottom left, a full elliptical circle of luminous white light balances three balls of variegated shadow, or is it the movement of one?  And the dish appears to tremble.  Later, at a different angle, the dish looks more like a bowl.

 

Fotogram 1926

Overlay of white bars of light, like musical score bars against 2 overlapping discs, a criss-cross of pipe-like lines play across the bars of music under the complicated arcs of variegated darkness, pale grey, metal grey, darker and soot black.  The light appears to be glowing from within the two circles.  Curious that although the bars are the brightest white light, they are not the source of the illumination.

 

Fotogram Self Portrait

Embryonic profile of a face of a tissue of translucent glowing white paper skin against a depth of soft, black space.  Faint light plays along the crescent-shaped head.

 

Lucia at the Breakfast Table

Lying with her head on a white table, before a white, glowing, empty saucer concentric woven straw bowl of spheres of which appear to be apples, figs, plums, maybe pomegranites.  Nearby, partially seen on the bottom right-hand side of the picture, some crusty bread rolls.

LuciaBreakfastTable

Two bread knives lie balanced.  Lucia hardly seems to have pushed aside the empty plate with its knife and spoon lying almost under the dead weight of the back of her curly-haired head.

 

Feininger

A background row of tiny, dark little matchbox houses beside a taller soaring, oblong building of glowing white, accentuated by dark, horizontal contrasting bars of balconies and a vertical column of black windows.  To figures are running forward into the eye of the camera, one on the left brandishing a long, thin foil to the sky, reaching out with arms outstretched, leaping into the future.

 

Gertrud Arndt

Wall Painting Workshop

An ascending row of four busy people on three long, vertiginously balanced ladders, painting the smooth, precipitous face of a mountainous wall.

 

Lotte Stam-Beese – Group Portrait

A circle of the heads of some 14 Bauhaus students shot from above, their rapt and dreamy faces upturned.

 

Moholy – Bauhaus Nebau

Oblong block of building lies, its limpid, mirroring glass encased by a rigid and geometric iron framework.  In the foreground is a swell of dark lawn and the twigs and branches of a leafless tree acts as a kind of curtain.

 

Karl Grill:  Spiral Costume

A graceful, black-clad dancer, arms expressively arrayed.  Her right arm and pointing forefinger outstretched to the side, the other arm held bent towards her breast, hand hanging.  She is encased in a gleaming tutu of steel wire springing and a coronet of three springs on her head.  She is on tip-toe against a bare floor and wall.  A row of points of light glitter all along the top line of her arms and neck outline.

SpiralCostume

 

Laslo Moholy-Nagy – Light/space Modulator

The machine-harp of gleams and lights – almost a cubist sculpture, with sheets of perforated metal against contrasting bars.

LightSpaceModulator

 

I swam out into the warm, late-spring afternoon sunlight into the wide, gentle, green bowl of the Sydney Domain where the geometric forms of massive buildings loomed in the background under a blue sky and in a land sunk deep in its peaceful, mundane ordinariness.

The impression I got from the Bauhaus school, its teachings and influence is that the Germans artists and students did not shy from the machine.  Instead, they embraced it and harnessed its gleaming, futuristic energy.  Nature and the machine were intertwined, because was not the machine man-made and did not metal come from the earth?  In the photograms, they softened the curves and angles of metal and gave them a softly glowing life of their own.  They introduced it into the natural environment of light and shadow.

The Bauhaus school was enormously influential in all kinds of modern arts, from furniture, photography, painting and architecture.  What would it have achieved had not the Nazis shut it down?  In harmony with human, nature and the machine, what would our information and communications technology have looked like by today?

In the years after the Second World War, the live, pulsing, exciting man/machine world and the great hope embodied in the movie ‘Metropolis’ had given way to a fear of the machine, the feeling of being an impersonal cog in the works, the fear lurking behind modern living that the machine would overrun our lives and ultimately destroy us.  And this is precisely the fear behind the development of Artificial Intelligence today.

But there was a time when there was hope for harmony with nature in the technological revolution.  The works of the Bauhaus school teach me that there can be such a thing.

 

 

 

 

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45 Years – Film Review

Retirement can be a dicey proposition despite its seductive call.  Advertisements for superannuation companies extol the joys of retirement, epitomising the popular dream people have of a golden age where they blissfully have nothing they really have to do and they can do whatever they like.

Certainly many retirees, who have thrown off the working saddle and who are in a good financial position absolutely love doing whatever they like.  They go on cruises, go traveling and camping, visit art galleries or the cinema with friends or just potter around at home doing the gardening, reading what interests them and at night, turning off the light to sleep until another equally glorious day of their permanent holiday awaits them.

But there is a dark side to this golden dream.  Retirement also means the endgame of a long life and a kind of reckoning with unfulfilled threads of yearnings, actions and events occasioning deep trauma or guilt and painful losses that have lain suppressed, dormant and deep beneath the surface – until now.  What do we do with the last act of our lives?  Many people flounder at the sense of disempowerment and lack of purpose that retiring from a lifetime occupation brings and may suffer depression (at least for a time) as a result.

The beginning of the film ’45 Years’ opens to a bright, sunshiny but cold morning in the country, where a retired couple of some years, Kate and Geoff Mercer, live in their comfortable home.  The landscape is lovely and all is peaceful, but there is a sense of baffled expectancy about the day’s existence as if the people who live in it can do anything they like but they actually don’t do anything much at all.  At this stage of their lives, Kate and Geoff seem to have had had days and days and days like this.

Kate, is out warmly wrapped in a coat, her breath in mist, walking the dog.  She is a lithe, slim, good-looking woman on the verge of old age, all smiles for the young postman, but with the air of a long-term melancholic, locked in polite mode.  They exchange friendly greetings, Kate congratulating him on him and his wife’s new baby.  She tells him to call her Kate, saying gaily in parting ‘we’re not at school anymore!’.

Back home she briskly greets her husband Geoff, white-haired and fragile despite his substantial appearance, who is sitting at the breakfast table of their sunny kitchen with a letter.  She asks him about a song they could have played for their upcoming 45th wedding anniversary celebration, but it soon becomes apparent that Geoff has another and much more serious matter on his mind.

‘They’ve found Katya’ he tells her in his cracked voice, waving the letter ‘You do know who I’m talking about?’.  Kate does and is immediately all solicitous attention, but a cool shadow has fallen over their placid, apparently contented noonday lives.  A shadow that darkens as the film goes on.

Katya had been Geoff’s partner in the days before he met and married Kate.  Like many young people they were backpackers and they had traveled to the Alps in Switzerland.  Somewhere in this icy, mountainous terrain, a tragic accident had happened.  Katya had fallen through a hole in a bridge and plunged to her death in a glacier far below.

50 years later to the day we meet Kate and Geoff, the Swiss authorities had written to notify Geoff that they had located the body, perfectly preserved and suspended in ice.  Rattled, Geoff goes outside for a cigarette despite having given up.  Kate carries on making the arrangements for their upcoming celebration, choosing the venue, going shopping with her friends, looking for something to wear, talking to everybody with that perfectly crafted politeness, but easy self-assurance of a woman long accustomed to receiving compliments for her beauty.

But in the following days, these attempts at normalcy become the stilted facade of a marriage falling into disarray and deep, black, bubbling trouble.  Bit by bit, things about the tragedy that Geoff has not told Kate comes out:  he had been her next of kin and the couple had pretended to be married.  He goes to the library and borrows books on global warming, obsessing himself with the effects of climate change on glaciers.  He keeps going up to the attic, where he evidently keeps pictures and memorabilia of Katya there.  He admits to Kate that he would have married Katya.  Finally, Kate, fed up, draws a line in the sand, telling him that she can’t talk about the subject anymore.

There is more to come, however.  When Geoff is absent, Kate goes to the attic and discovers a secret shrine to Katya’s memory, complete with a rotary projector of picture slides and the most knockout blow of all to childless Kate is the clear evidence of the dead Katya’s burgeoning pregnancy.  The boil lying in the darkness below their happy marriage has surfaced.  Kate’s smooth confidence that she knows her husband absolutely is absolutely shattered.

All kinds of things about the state of their marriage seem to become clear.   The days up to the looming celebration become a nightmare.  Geoff had talked to Kate of having lost a certain sense of purpose he had had when he was young and in love with Katya.  He says that even if they had no idea of what to do in a day, that it would seem just as purposeful as when they set out to do something.  He supposed that people lost their sense of purpose when they got older, but had he, in all the adult years after Katya’s death just been in a somnambulistic state of suspended animation?

Kate and Geoff had met some five years after the tragedy.  ‘You were a bloody knockout!’ Geoff tells her in a rare moment of fun.  ‘You were so cool!’ replied Kate.  But somehow over the years Geoff had shed his beatnik ways and donned convention, having worked for years as a manager at a nearby manufacturing plant.  He had tempered his dislike for Kate’s bourgeoisie friends with the occasional grumble.  Their life together was strangely uneventful.  Neither of them in conversation can remember anything much about it out of the ordinary.  They didn’t even have photos on the wall.  In a failed attempt at lovemaking, Kate asks him to open his eyes.  Had he been imagining Katya in Kate’s place all this time?

And what of Kate?  Since Geoff’s heart attack some years before, she seems to have taken over the role of nursing Geoff and all her relations with him appear stilted with an affected display of civility and solicitude concealing a nervous over-eager desire to please.  She jumps instantly to his aid when he cuts his hand mending the toilet, but she talks to him with her mouth still full.  She tells him what he can’t do – smoke, return to mountainous Switzerland, read Kierkegaard past the second chapter.  And yet she struggles to have a creative life of her own.

As Kate sees it, Geoff for his part clings to her like a drowning man.  Not, that she is the love of his life, but that he has never been able to cope with the cataclysm of losing his first love.  She had been merely a distraction, a substitute.  In an explosive confrontation the day before their celebration, Kate bitterly tells him that she knows she has never been enough for him, but that she could not bear the pain and humiliation of other people knowing that as well.

So they go to the celebration, Kate smilingly accompanying her husband hand in hand, only looking death-like for a few moments of privacy in the restroom mirror.  But can she really endure playing the part of the loving wife, receiving Geoff’s stumbling, pathetic, platitudinous speech and dancing together to the banal song that played when they first met and see him going through that whole grotesque act of faked adoration before her, as he had always had the whole length of their marriage?  Could she really take it anymore?

Four stars!!!!

A PJ Harvey Concert

It was a Friday night a week ago when we went to the much anticipated PJ Harvey concert, my husband John, his friend Glen and myself.  Midsummer in Sydney it was a warm, inky twilight as we ate a dinner at a Chinatown restaurant and then walked on towards the International Convention Centre near Darling Harbour.  Our tickets on our mobiles were scanned by a bevy of security guards, one of who told me that my innocent steel water bottle had to go to the cloak room for the night.

Seated inside the vast auditorium with its subdued lighting and misty swirling air, we were a just a few of a mighty swarm of bees buzzing with a low, but powerful tone in the rows and rows of seats that slanted upwards from the stage and the crowded mosh pit.  Much of the audience were Gen-Xers in their forties, greying, but still defiantly young, dressed in jeans, moderately radical shirts and tees, tattoos and the women, some in gothic inspired dresses fluttering here and there bearing plastic cups of beer or other alcoholic beverages down the stairs to the concrete floored mosh-pit and back again chatting animatedly amongst themselves and occasionally embracing a friend.

Nick Cave was due to play at the same venue the next night, John remarked.  PJ Harvey and Nick Cave had had an affair.  I wondered how they would work together and here is their beautiful and melancholy duet Henry Lee.  But the affair ended.  PJ said later that she was so upset that she was going to give up making music and become a nurse.  But somehow she went on playing and composing music, the anti-war ‘Let England Shake’ and now the ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’, where hope in mankind’s future seems just about dead on the ground – to judge from the lyrics.

Not that I knew anything about this new album when the lights went dark and the band began to file onto the stage drumming, PJ Harvey amongst them brandishing a saxophone.  John said it was ‘Chain of Keys’.  The ten musicians took their places, PJ fronting the audience with her microphone, dressed in flowing, gauzy black robes, her fine straight hair loose, crowned with a black head-dress.  The rest of the band wore somber, dusty and rumpled looking black jackets and trousers.  At this juncture, John pointed out Mick Harvey, the musician at the keyboard, and said he was really good and had previously worked for some time with Nick Cave.

PJ has a distinctive voice.  On her albums, it is soft, silvery and so fragile it almost appears ready to break.  It is a two-coloured voice, veering from a deeper set of keys to a higher octave and very tunefully at the same time.  But live, at the concert, her voice sounds very powerful and rides above the band’s wave of music with perfect confidence.  Too, she sings with great feeling as she moves in complete accord with the rhythm, her hands delicately drawing and weaving the meanings of her music into a unity of sound, beat, voice and drama.

She moved with grace, like a muse or even a priestess, gliding quietly every now and then to the back of the stage near the drummer to take up a saxophone and play in company with the other saxophonist.  She has said she likes to keep challenging herself with learning how to play new instruments, which illustrates not only her creative energy, but also her respect for the other players in her band.

Much of what she played came from her new album the ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’, with songs such as the opening ‘Chain of Keys’, ‘The Wheel, ‘River Anacostia’, ‘Medicinals’, ‘The Orange Monkey’, ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ which sounded compelling, emotive and powerful on the stage although she also sang songs from other albums like ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, one about taking a child home and another about doing black deeds for love.  And I have to marvel at how she seemed to utterly best the comparatively subdued and rehearsed studio performance of her album with the crashing waves of her live act.  It was dynamite.  No danger of having a diva lip-synching here.  This was the real deal.

‘How good was the band!’ Glen exclaimed when the concert ended and the sated swarm of people were moving back out into the city night, twinkling with lights reflecting in the calm, black waters of the harbour.  Throughout the performance, PJ and the band emanated a sense of quiet and harmonious co-operation and camaraderie, she fading in and out to become one of them.  Three-quarters of the way through, PJ had introduced the musicians to the audience to applaud one by one, the drums, electronic keyboard, saxophone, guitars, before they all nonchalantly dipped into the last of the set for the night.  They had a standing ovation and after a while were back with two more great songs before they finally bowed out and filed quietly backstage and the lights went back on.

The lyrics of her new album are dark and pessimistic of human nature, echoing perhaps what she saw on a trip through third world countries, as well as the US she took with a photographer Seamus Murphy between 2011-2014, which appeared in The Guardian (never mind some of the rude reader comments).  Amid such wastelands as Afghanistan and also Washington DC (the US is a wasteland of a different kind), she appears to wonder whether humans have a future at all with lines like:  ‘…hey little children don’t disappear. (Heard it was 28,000)’ and ‘they’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic/And balanced sticks in human shit’.

The music she sets her lyrics to can be comforting, but only to remind us of what we’ve lost in the scramble for ‘advanced’ civilisation – as in the song ‘Medicinals’.  She juxtaposes the ancient healing herbs that grow wild in America that say ‘we are always here’ against the image of an indigenous woman in a wheelchair at a shopping mall drinking alcohol.  This song suggests that the loss of the natural environment is a loss to humanity, to culture and causes a mental sickness that nothing can cure.

Her occasional traditional tunefulness amidst broken but strong rhythms that veer between blues, reggae and rock and roll form a kind of unique and off-beat chaos that is PJ Harvey.  For instance, ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ has a compelling rhythm that changes tempo in odd ways and it is this rhythm that underlies the utter gravity of this anti-war song.  Her gentle, fay, but infallible voice rides above her music and in the drumming energy, there is a kind of fatalistic sadness and deep emotion, as in the chorus ‘…and watch them fade out…’ of ‘The Wheel’.

In an interview with the Irish Times, the eponymous man of science Professor Brian Cox wonders whether the human race may destroy itself before it gets any further:  ‘Cox believes it all hinges on “our ability to take global decisions”. Civilisations “get to the point where they can destroy themselves, they will get to the point where they can change the climate by industrialisation – and that requires your civilisation to be global in decision making. In 2016, we’ve gone backwards.”.

Perhaps we ultimately may not be able to reconcile our superior intellect, and complex reasoning and moral faculties with our essentially animal and warlike nature.  Are we doomed?  With the Doomsday Clock ticking another 30 seconds towards midnight, PJ Harvey just goes on making and playing music, underlining injustice, waste and inhumanity in the extraordinary energy of her songs.  There are many who are listening and over the megalomania and war and pollution roiling in the world today, our collective voice of reason may yet prevail.

Back in the 1970s when ‘The Bomb’ was a foreboding term echoing the cadence of the end of the world, I saw a cartoon with the caption:  ‘Man demonstrates his superiority over animals’.  Before an animal, a man with his great brain was in the act of detonating himself with a remarkable piece of technology that he had made.  The great artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci saw hundreds of years ago that mankind would one day hold the power of life or death over every living thing on earth.  That day has arrived.