Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Picasso, Michelangelo, Kentridge

Today, having visited Sigmund Freud's former house and office, I was blundering aimlessly about Vienna when I stumbled upon a gallery which was exhibiting both Picasso and Michelangelo. That's the kind of thing that happens in cultural capitals such as this. You walk around a corner and, hey, Picasso and Michelangelo! Well, why not pop in? Nothing better to do! Both exhibitions were excellent and extensive, but the real surprise, the show-stealer, was an exhibition of works by South African artist William Kentridge.

Kentridge is a combination of artist, filmmaker, animator and illusionist. On display were numerous of his stop-motion animated films, as well as traditional paintings, drawings and various 'multimedia' installations. I can only describe his work as brilliant.

It was interesting to compare Kentridge's political engagement - his works reflect on war, oppression and apartheid - with Picasso's. Picasso painted doves and bunches of flowers to express pacificist sentiment, or a lobster fighting a cat to allegorize the Cuban Missile Crisis. Which I applaud. There should be more feline-crustacean battles in our art. But whilst no-one can deny the power of 'Guernica', I can't help feeling that his later work slips into sentimentality. And allegory is not the most subtle way of interrogating political realities. Kentridge's work on the other hand, has all the power and mystery of dreaming about it. One of my favourite pieces was an animation projected from the ceiling onto a circular table in the middle of which was a steel cylinder. The projected image on the table was radically distorted, but the reflection in the cylinder reconstituted the image back into its correct proportions. The effect was stunning and mesmerising, as Kentridge's disturbing, surreal renderings of war seemed to glow from within the metal cylinder, like terrible dreams captured in a glass.

Viewing this art filled me with creative longing, and as I wandered through the seemingly endless exhibition space, new ideas for stories started popping in my head. I also saw in a flash how to fix my most recent story, which has caused me no end of pain. This in turn made me reflect on the importance of cultural 'food' for creative life. We have no shortage of cultural activity in Melbourne, but there is a qualitative difference to have these rich, deep wellsprings so close at hand, as one does in Europe. It helps. Connection to these traditions is immensely nourishing. Picasso 'fed' on other artists such as Velazquez and Manet, repainting and reimagining their works. But we don't need to be Picasso, or even European, to draw on the great inheritance that is the sum of human cultural endeavour. As artists we often, perhaps necessarily, believe ourselves alone, like Gods in miniature pressing out our own Adams from our own separate lumps of clay, but we never truly are. It is not only helpful and revitalising to draw sustenance from this great collective placenta of human culture, I think it is a flat out necessity if we're to avoid exhaustion, burn-out and the crippling effect of work in isolation.

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