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Van Gogh: my Japan

“I’m in Japan here” Vincent, letter to his sister Willemien, Arles, 14 September 1888   Every exhibition or catalogue on the Japanese artists of The Floating World mentions Vincent van Gogh as one of the figures who, more so than his contemporaries, was inspired by the charm of the first ukiyo-e images that reached the Parisian market in the mid-late Nineteenth Century. But how did Van Gogh imagine ‘his’ Japan?   From his first celebrated paintings after Hiroshige, The Plum Tree and The Bridge in the Rain, from Père Tanguy to the Shoes, from the Parisian self-portraits to the Self-portrait as a Bonze painted in Arles, so many of Van Gogh’s paintings were inspired by the Orient. A look behind the scenes of these pictures draws us into the exhibition Van Gogh: my Japan, at Palazzo Sormani in Milan (until 4 December 2017). Here we are presented with a series of surprising encounters – the literature that inspired the artist, the publishing context of the period, the illustrations, the magnetic covers of Le Japon Illustré, the artworks that Van Gogh himself hung on the walls of his studio in the South. On show are a fascinating array of prints by the Japanese masters of the ukiyo...

Neuhaus’ Time

Devoted to the work of Max Neuhaus (1939-2009), Max Feed. Œuvre et héritage de Max Neuhaus at Frac Franche-Comté, Besançon, the first retrospective since the death of this major figure, brought together an important documentation as well as the only non-site specific of his sound works. As a way of looking for Max and make his thinking resonates, works from today’s artists have been cautiously selected by the curator Daniele Balit, working for years on Neuhaus work and  preparing (together with Mathieu Saladin) an edition of collected writings and interviews*.   The work of Max Neuhaus largely deserves a new examination, not only for its intrinsic quality, but also as a way to measure some changes in the appreciation of sounds in the art world (from field recordings to narrative sound editing, to music as a topic). Sound artists, one they accept such a name or label, usually find a legitimacy through their previous or parallel activity in the music scene. Any sound recorded by a famous artist receives more recognition than an ambitious sound installation from a historical figure. We, the public of art, have usually not so much time to listen carefully and what is usually...

The remains of landscape. Camille Pissarro in the fields

Persistent in the canon of art history, the equation Nature=Impressionism survives today. At the turn of the twentieth century, French critics already claimed that the Impressionists’ attention to perception was a route to come closer to Nature – a strive for perfect mimesis. Historiography, moreover, has placed the essence of impressionism in the consonance between the use of a free brush and the impermanence of Nature. Soon enough, Seurat’s geometrical marks would have brought to an end the phase of pictorial spontaneity and experiment, moving the potential of expression towards optical rules. Beyond these, only abstraction remained to the painter of Nature. This narrative of Impressionism as an unsurpassed milestone in the representation of Nature is stronger than ever, and attracts masses of tourists in museums from Paris to Washington and Tokyo, such narrative. Yet, the world of Pissarro, Monet, and Seurat remains opaque if one persists in reading the history Impressionism as one of mimesis and style. Instead, we should think perhaps about Nature as the unresolved subject of representation. Consider the first of the Impressionists, Camille Pissarro: what to make of the...

Contemporary patrons / A conversation with Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu

“The success of a museum is not measured by the number of visitors the museum welcomes, but by the number of visitors to whom it has taught something. Also, the success of a museum is not measured by the number of objects the museum shows, but by the number of objects that people might perceive in their human environment. The success of a museum is not measured by its extension, but by the amount of space the public will be able to reasonably cover in order to benefit from it. This is the museum.” Thus, in 1978, the French museologist Georges Henri Rivière identified the characteristics a museum should have in order to be defined with this name (La Muséologie selon Georges Henri Rivière, Paris: Dunod 1989, 7, the translation from the French is mine). Rivière passed away in 1985, but if he could visit Magazzino Italian Art today, he would consider it as an exemplary application of his teaching. Magazzino Italian Art is an exhibition center dedicated to Italian art, strongly wanted, conceived and built by spouses Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu in Cold Spring, about 60 miles North of New York, which opened on June 28th, 2017.   Nancy Olnick, a New Yorker, is from a real estate...

Echoes of Pasts, Inscribing the Present

In an elegantly frescoed salon at New York University’s Florence estate, Villa La Pietra, stands an artifact of beauty, her light brown tunic adorned with brushes of gold fig leaves, a golden collar, and buttons and boots to match. An expansive smile is etched into her ebony face as her body strikes a semi genuflecting pose. Her outstretched arms beckon visitors with an invitation to be served: “give me your gloves, your scarves, your coats, they seem to say.” A similar sculpture but male, is positioned across the room from her. He is made in the likeness of an 18th century page.  With the stem of a horn or trumpet tucked under his right shoulder, this African-looking boy, resplendent in rich curls, and brown and gold heraldry, is perched on a descending platform in a posture of obeisance to observers.   These figures constitute a broad genre of Western European decorative art – furniture, sculptures, paintings, and tapestries – that portray African bodies in service, as domestic workers, soldiers, porters, and custodians of palatial properties. Known in common parlance as “Blackamoors,” models of this tradition in the Villa’s art collections date mostly...

Contemporary photography in Benin

The first edition of the Mois de la Photographie, held at the Institut Français of Cotonou, has showcased the work of four Beninese and French photographers – Laeïla Adjovi, Léonce Agbodjelou, Jean-Jacques Moles, and Catherine Laurent – all focusing on contemporary Benin. The exhibition shed light on a little-known scenario, less established and thriving than that of other countries, such as neighboring Nigeria, but increasingly aware of its striking potential (as clearly emerges from the pictures showcased and other projects). Art and culture in Benin are significantly supported by the Institut Français, the French government agency for the promotion of French culture overseas , and Fondation Zinsou, a local foundation operating in the visual arts field and committed to broadening access to reading through a network of mini-libraries spread across the country.   Placed next to each other, the works of these four photographers – exhibited in Cotonou from January to March, 2016 – sketch out the image of a country caught between past and future, between the certainties of traditional community life and the challenges of individual freedom, between the remnants of a long and...

Santu Mofokeng: A Silent Solitude

“A gift is the evidence of an act, a symbolic gesture that is at once free and obligatory,” writes Katia Anguelova, curator of AtWork Dakar 2012. “Considered in terms of a give-and-take relationship, the work of art can therefore be regarded as a gift or a representation of a gift.” This is the central idea of AtWork, the educational format created by lettera27 and Simon Njami. Its key element is a workshop during which participants produce a personalized notebook, which they can choose to donate to lettera27, thus becoming part of AtWork Community. The workshop that has recently taken place in Italy, in partnership with Fondazione Fotografia Modena, was entirely dedicated to the photographic image and was attended, among others, by the young Ivorian aspiring photographer Mohamed Keita. The notebooks produced during the workshop were displayed in an exhibition co-curated by the students at the Fondazione Fotografia Modena’s atelier in Via Giardini. Drawing on Foucault’s idea of heterotopy, Simon Njami chose “heterochrony” as the main theme of the workshop, describing it as “a break with real-time that introduces multiple time-spaces from which it is possible to reconsider...

Thinking for yourself and within yourself

On April 27th upon the invitation by Art Basel for Non-Profit Visual Arts Organizations, we have launched our first crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to implement the sixth chapter of our itinerant educational artistic format AtWork. The campaign is aimed to fund AtWork Addis Ababa, consisting of: a 5-day workshop for young Ethiopian art students and creative talents led by international curator Simon Njami and an exhibition of the created artworks at Addis Foto Fest in December 2016. With your support, we can continue to offer AtWork experience to the students for free. Join our crowdfunding campaign on Art Basel Kickstarter and contribute to nourishing a new generation of creative thinkers that can build the future we are all longing for!     lettera27   On the occasion of the campaign’s launch we are publishing Simon Njami’s text that poetically describes the vision behind our educational approach.  Enjoy the reading and support our campaign here!   Thinking for yourself and within yourself   We, however, start from the beginning. We are poor, we have unlearned how to play. We have forgotten it, our hands have unlearned how to dabble. (Ernst Bloch)   What Ernst...

Asmarina: post colonial heritages

Italian Version   Asmarina, a 2015 documentary by Alan Maglio and Medhin Paolos, follows what they call “voices and images of a postcolonial heritage.” This beautiful documentary (with an absolutely riveting soundtrack) tells the story of Milan’s habesha community, integral to the Porta Venezia neighborhood since the mid-twentieth century. Weaving together the experiences and identities of those who have lived in Italy for generations with those of newly arrived refugees, Asmarina traces the complex networks of colonial legacies, transnational migrations, family ties, and diasporic politics. And through these stories, which can only be understood from a spatially extended and transhistorical perspective, it also forces a serious reconsideration of what we mean when we talk about “Italy” and “Italians.”   Still from Asmarina (2015).    Diasporic photography   Asmarina begins with a montage of photographs: a hand gently moving a magnifying glass over photo slides on a light table; an aging, black-and-white photo; a well-worn family album; crisp pages from the 1983 work of photojournalism Stranieri a Milano. Pictures are laid out on a table, ejected from a printer,...

The Nationless Pavilion

Political crisis of today is dictated by outdated nation state model of mapping the world. While all the other systems already spilled over with economy, art, science going global, nation state still draws the lines on the geographical map.   Political power and it’s redistribution is the heart of the issue. Advancement of human civilization, apart of providing technological leaps, also demanded more transparency and visibility from power. It has always been ‘catch and run’ game - with new strategies of mystification of political power into institutional forms of different kinds. Authority redistribution mechanisms always tend to appear impersonal as their function is to communicate idea of being ‘detached’ from the matter of defining good and bad, right and wrong. Ethical, moral and aesthetic judgment seem to appear to naked eye as something defined and proved by centuries of common societal work, where standards of normal are the result of careful, almost Darwinist selection of what is better for all. The mythology of this process was first supported by the narratives of religious dogma and power, while today it’s mostly relies on fear and ignorance. Ulrich Beck[1] rightly...

Not nostalgic. The Italian Transavantgarde

More than 30 years after its early stirrings, the Transavantgarde is the elephant on the Italian art scene. There is a paradox here. The Italian movement, represented by Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Francesco Clemente, Nicola De Maria and Mimmo Paladino, was highly influential. The ‘brand’ was a huge success internationally in the 1980s, when pieces were snapped up by museums on the spot, and the five artists became an instant phenomenon (which has not yet been historically contextualized). And yet, the critical debate over the last twenty years has marginalized them. The movement has become a background feature, like faded, unfashionable wallpaper, an easy target for criticism. Nicolas Bourriaud, in a 2002 essay, claimed that the Transavantgarde exploit – epitomized, in his view, by Enzo Cucchi’s paintings and, slightly incongruously, by Julian Schnabel’s work – brought back the idea of eclectic, extreme authorship. The movement, Bourriaud argued, represented the triumph of cynicism where “ the history of art becomes a giant landfill piled high with empty forms, their meaning severed from them.” The group was engaged in “a far-reaching endeavor to reify”[1] forms which were then...

A Return to the Middle Ages?

In these days of decapitations, tragic exoduses, impaled effigies, and new epidemics, media forums and the gurus of geopolitics lament the fact that western civilization is on its way back to a period that could be defined as the ‘New Middle Ages’. The definition was created in the last century by the Russian Philosopher, Nikolay Berdyaev, in the context of the First World War, published in Russian in a book by the same name in 1924. (The English version was entitled, ‘The End of Our Time’, Sheed and Ward, 1933). The same label was also commonly applied to the period of the oil price shocks and energy crises of the 1970s. At that time, a fascinating debate developed in the art world along the same lines, claiming that there had been a marked return to the past in the visual arts.   Before embarking on our virtual tour of these art works, however, a premise is necessary. This can be summed up in the title of the piece by Maurizio Nannucci: “All Art Has Been Contemporary”. According to this thesis, any work of art from the past is also part of our present. At the same time it interacts with our view of what is contemporary. Philosophers, moreover, have cast doubt on the existence...

Giulio Paolini and Sgt. Pepper

Giulio Paolini has often stated that in his work the end repeats the beginning, and that everything is there in the first sketch. Is this really the case? Why do artists so often represent their work as a perfect circle?   First, an answer to the second question. The narrative shape of artists’ biographies follow the eighteenth or nineteenth-century model imposed by the natural sciences. In the eyes of pre-Romantic and Romantic historians, events in individual lives and the entire history of art evolve in the same way as organisms, following the same steps. Birth, growth, maturity, decay (or decomposition) and death follow from one another ineluctably, at a given rhythm. Goethe believed a genius (if artists are geniuses) imitates nature without meaning to. The seed of creativity lies in the obscure evolutionary processes of the monad. It is not advisable to look too carefully into what is seen as being unintentional or involuntary. Everything, in this view, is self-produced, with no external contribution.   Giulio Paolini, Self-Portrait with Henri Rousseau le Douanier (1968)   Modernist autobiographies tend to reproduce Goethe’s organic myth of creativity. Klee’s...

Gabriele Basilico: a Slow Gaze

I presented Gabriele Basilico’s last book, Lezioni di fotografia (Rizzoli, 2012), at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan at the end of 2012. Looking tired, but with all his lucidity intact, Basilico spoke about his photography, his choice of themes, his travels, his thirty-year career, and some of his most famous photographs. He also contributed his views on urban landscapes, and on photography as a daily habit and as a life choice.   I have never really believed that the photographic medium has its own specificity. Rather, as I have studied the endless variety of their characters, grammars, functions, vocabularies and themes, I have always seen in photographs as images a deeply uncanny element; in things portrayed are “as they are”, whether they are famous or anonymous, I sense a ghost-like quality, an unexpected hardness, an alien gaze can suddenly transfix me: the darker side of things revealed as a further possibility, a jetty from which to cast off.   In their apparent objectivity, their masterly teasing with metaphysical suspension, Gabriele Basilico’s photographs, in my view, express the turmoil of a sudden recognition – “this is it, it is here, it is this place” – at the...

Farewell Luca Ronconi, Master of Utopias

Luca Ronconi, one of Italy’s greatest theater directors, died on February 21, 2015, just before turning 82. His last productions touched on the theme of death, which he probably felt breathing down his neck during his countless sessions on the dialysis machine, during those innumerable hours of immobility. A man who was constantly boiling over with new ideas was forced to face up to the ghosts of his mind, the same ghosts that were represented on stage. Suspended deaths, like in his recent production of ‘Celestina’ that opened with the body of Melibea. Doors on set opened to reveal pulsating worlds of sex and intrigue, then led back into emptiness before returning, at the end of the play, to the lifeless corpse of the young protagonist. Ronconi’s rendering of  Spregelburd’s ‘Panic’ comes to mind, as well as his final production, Stefano Massini’s ‘Lehman Trilogy’ performed at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan after his death. In this play, the world of the living - thanks to further doors designed by Marco Rossi, which were more ethereal and minimalist than those in ‘Celestina’ - intermingled with the world of the dead. In the case of the Lehman Brothers saga, people who had no desire...

Escher in Medieval Siena

Maurits Cornelis Escher visited Italy for the first time in 1922. The master of perspective and transformation, whose trade mark was to create deceptive images by making his subjects one with their backgrounds, arrived from his home town of Haarlem with two friends on the traditional Grand Tour. The three young artists, Escher, Jan van der Does de Willebois and Bas Kist, were all pupils at the well-established School of Architecture and Decorative Arts, where they were apprenticed under Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, who introduced them to the art of woodcutting. The itinerary of their Tour was linked mainly to the ‘old masters’ who were so popular back home. Their work served as a model for the remarkable paintings of Jan Verkade (the subject of a magnificent portrait by Giovanni Papini), who, in his turn, had studied with Gauguin before taking orders and retiring to a monastery. The Tour left Escher with an indelible impression of Siena, and San Gimignano in particular. His prints of these cityscapes show the extent to which the artist was engaged by the unexpected verticality of the architecture and the city’s surprising chiaroscuro, both of which represented such a marked...

Jeff Wall: Reportage Readymade

Retrospectives of contemporary photographers have only been hosted in contemporary art galleries in the past ten years, on a par with monographs of other visual artists. One of the better known examples was the retrospective of the Canadian photographer, Jeff Wall, held at Tate Modern and MoMA in 2006 and 2007, and later on show at Milan’s PAC art space with a smaller selection of works.            Thanks to the efforts of Stefano Graziani, Italians can now read Wall’s most important writings, collected in an anthology he edited, published by Quodlibet (Gestus. Scritti sull’arte e la fotografie, 2013). Personally I would have added Depiction, Object, Event, published by Afterall in 2007, but nevertheless the anthology contains some of the most important and influential texts on contemporary photography in the last thirty years. These include Dan Graham’s  Kammerspiel (1982), and Signs of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in (and as) Conceptual Art (1995). In Sign of Indifference, Wall offers both a photographer’s and a critic’s interpretation of photographic practice in the 1960s, which has been much debated both because it is regularly cited by historians of art and...