The French Alps: winter photo gallery


This gallery contains 8 photos.

I took these photos on recent walks near my home in the French Alps. The first photo in the gallery, ‘Winter Sunset’, was included in Flickr Explore for January/February 2012. You can see more of my most ‘interesting’ and Explored … Continue reading

Art and ‘strangeness’: the Isenheim altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum

I went to Colmar looking for something else but found the Isenheim altarpiece.

Planning a visit to Colmar, a small town in France’s Alsace region a few miles outside the border with Germany, I came across a guide to the Unterlinden Museum where the altarpiece is on show. It jogged a memory: I remembered reading somewhere that the Isenheim altarpiece is widely regarded as one of the most important works of Western art.

The Isenheim altarpiece, in the Unterlinden Museum

The Isenheim altarpiece, in the Unterlinden Museum

Despite this, few appear to have heard of it and fewer have seen it. Colmar is not central to the conventional tourist trail, except perhaps during December, where it gives itself entirely to Christmas celebration. In a quiet corner away from the colourful markets, the processions and performances, is a beautiful museum, of which the altarpiece is the jewel in the crown.

The resurrection panel, perhaps the strangest of all

The resurrection panel, perhaps the strangest of all

The altarpiece, thought to be the work of Matthias Grünewald and painted between 1506 and 1515. It is tied to the history of the Antonite Monks and particularly to Saint Anthony’s Fire, now known as ergotism, an often fatal disease caused by poisoning. There are several accounts of the altarpiece, including elaborate praise from J.K. Huysman. The altarpiece was once a series of panels that were configured according to the Christian calendar. The following model shows how those panels were once assembled.

The altarpiece was a series of panels, now separated. This model shows how they were originally assembled

The altarpiece was a series of panels, now separated. This model shows how they were originally assembled

The paintings are some of the most striking I have ever seen. Upon entering the long room where the altarpiece is kept, one meets the remarkable ‘crucifixion’ first panel.

The crucifixion panel. This had special resonance for Antonite Monks and their followers

The crucifixion panel. This had special resonance for Antonite Monks and their followers

I was left with the feeling that the paintings were ‘strange’ and that I was witnessing something outside of my experience of art (such as it is). I meant this both as a way of describing the effect they had on me – the are awe-inspiring, as well as quite unsettling. But it also captures their provenance and their reputation: they appear to have been created outside of the normal limits of the human imagination, outside of arts history almost, especially the resurrection panel.

I thought, too,  how right Harold Bloom was when he said that the defining principle of the greatest works of art is that they could be considered ‘strange’. Bloom, writing about literature in his notorious Western Canon, had Dante and Shakespare in mind, but I think it equally appropriate for the Isenheim altarpiece:

One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies.

I will ‘never altogether assimilate’ the strangeness of effect, form and history that I found in the altarpiece.

Reuters: best photos of the year 2011

Given the turbulent times in which we live, a ‘best photos’ gallery online runs the risk of being dangerously premature – who knows what will happen tomorrow? Still, this collection from Reuters captures in pictures – and words, since the commentaries are often excellent – some of this year’s stories from around the world. Some of these photos are immensely powerful and moving, including some with graphic content or nudity.

Thanks to all those photographers and reporters whose photos such as these remind us what it has meant to live in 2011.

Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’, then and now

I visited the excellent exhibition of postmodernism (as opposed to a postmodernist exhibition, which could mean something entirely different) at the V&A recently. One of the most striking moments in a gallery full of amazing work was Laurie Anderson performing ‘O Superman’ on an enormous video wall.

I remembered this song from when I was younger (I was surprised to learn it reached number 2 in the UK pop charts in 1981) . It’s unforgettable; but I hadn’t really paid attention to its meaning. I had been mesmerised by the sound and Anderson’s voice. It seemed like a lullaby almost and entirely new to my ears. But something more sinister was being sung, something I was shocked to discover listening again 30 years later in the gallery. Here are the lyrics from the section of the song in the excerpt above:

So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. So hold me,
Mom, in your long arms.
In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms.
In your arms.
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.
Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms.
In your arms. In your electronic arms.

The idea of ‘mom’ has become something chilling and sinister by the end of the song, a source of safety and security inverted to suggest instead the military power and industrial might of the unnatural and dangerous contemporary world (more specifically, it’s more likely to refer to a modern America, which is the title of the performance piece in which ‘O Superman’ originally appears). I wonder if, all those years ago, it left its mark on me somehow, alongside films like ‘When the Wind Blows’, the ‘disaster’ novels of JG Ballard, and my growing awareness of the world’s troubles? In any case, it’s an amazing song with disturbing lyrics, and which says something as powerful now as when it was first written – although little did I know it then.

Quick review: “Picasso, Matisse, Dubuffet, Bacon…” musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon

The musee is a beautiful place, too

The musée is a beautiful place, too

I went to the new art exhibition at Lyon’s Musée des beaux-arts last weekend, on its first day of opening (by chance rather than through planning). Called ‘Picasso, Matisse, Dubuffet, Bacon… Les modernes s’exposent au musée des Beaux-Arts’ it is a chronologically organised history of modern painting and art objects, arranged in two dozen or so rooms.

The gallery itself is a beautiful space, full of clean and well-organised rooms with the work displayed well. Its floors don’t creak. It has lots of benches for sitting on and pondering. It has a cafe. What’s more, it has its fair share of the old masters and some fascinating ancient work, too. I was in love with the world when I wandered around – the city, the new experiences, the atmosphere on the streets, the food – had me besotted. Coupled with the fact that I’m no professional art critic, this could be an exuberant review.

But it’s hardly an exuberant exhibition – and is all the better for it.

Rather, it’s actually quite conservative in my estimate. On the whole, it’s a history of painting arranged chronologically and thematically. Artistic periods are linked with the era in which they appeared, or to which they referred. So, we have the ‘return to order’ grouping following World War II. In this room, history represents upheaval, to which the artists reacted by returning to order. Five or six paintings (and sometimes other art objects) represent this deliberately simplified approach.

The overall effect is to create an excellent historical primer, in which it makes it simpler to contextualise artists and their relationship with their wider world, to create connections, begin to make sense of those many movements, artworks, periods. It is as good as any art historical book I’ve read, and you do feel a sense of development both artistically and historically as you walk round.

Art as a mirrored reflection of society and its history is of course a very simplistic relationship and it’s one that is interrogated as the exhibition moves towards its final stages. In the final works of post-modernism, those very notions of a stable art, history and what they mean in relation are discussed in the artworks and the commentary that accompanies them. If you’re in Lyon – and why wouldn’t you be? – I’d highly recommend it.