Archive for the ‘Aesthetics’ Category

I went to see an exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair at Tate Modern. Born in Beirut in 1916, she trained for a brief time in Paris under the tutelage of Ferdinand Leger. Her life and career has been however spent in Lebanon, working in a cultural and political enviornment that was difficult for artists, even more so for women artists. She isn’t well known outside the Middle East, and whilst it’s a shame that this is being redressed when her career is over (she is now very infirm), at least her work is finally being exhibited internationally.
She started her career with painting (the self-portrait that advertised the exhibition is beautiful but the least representative work in the collection). There was some early figurative work, and her women in the Les Peintres Celebres series are a response to Leger’s Le Grand Dejeuner. Her women are funny, educated and whilst not unaware of their effect on the viewer, unconcerned by it. Our judgements are our problem. As they look directly at the viewer, they are comfortable in their own skin.
The foundation of her work is to harmonise non-representational Middle Eastern art and European abstraction. Her later gouaches are entirely abstract, using the curve and the straight line of Islamic design in a repetition that feels very musical, like beats in a bar. Her canvases are the nearest I’ve come to experiencing music as a visual medium. There is of course a beautiful harmony in Islamic art, but her paintings feel also modern, syncopated.
It is in sculpture that she truly finds self expression. She was fascinated by architecture, and said that in another life, she’d have trained as an architect. Some of her sculptures are like models for modular housing, all have a relationship with space and light that feels architectural as much as artistic. More than any exhibition I’ve been to, I wanted to touch her sculptures. The space inside them allows a sense of great freedom and kinesis, even in a small work. But it also allows the viewers’ imagination to operate, to move into the work and respond very immediately and very personally to it.
She made a series of sculptures inspired by the structure of Sufi poetry, modules which interconnect but which also stand alone, to be as stanzas which compose the work. They are beautiful, sensuous structures which clearly hold within them both the economy and the expansiveness of poetry and of Sufi thought. The lyricism is manifest, and yet open to individual interpretation. Some of the dual sculptures are erotically charged and deeply tender, there is also a familial quality to several pieces.
Choucair’s latter years have been a continuation of her preoccupations – the curve and the line, light and space. Nylon wires stretched inside frames create sculptures of great delicacy and purity, which also have movement and strength. The tension in the structures hold infinite potentialities as the viewer moves round the twisting, sensuous lines and curves.
Choucair is not a ‘great’ artist, she is too small perhaps, both in terms of output and influence. Yet this exhibition moved me and inspired me more than any other I can think of. Hers is a body of work that is not about grand gestures or directional pieces. She makes art that is compact, and yet full of space and energy and light and possibility. Her non-representational abstraction is utterly humane, full of sensuality and familiarity. There will be no more work by her, so I am profoundly grateful that I have seen this collection.


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12 years ago I was in Madrid working as an au pair for a family with a bi-lingual father.  The father had an eclectic selection of English language books, which I worked my way through.  One of these books was a short story collection, The Seventh Horse and Other Tales by Leonora Carrington.  It was a battered Virago copy, and I have no idea how it came to be on the bookshelves.  I fell in love with the surreal tales, a collection of sensual, imaginative tales which disturbed and beguiled me.  When the time came for me to leave Madrid, this book ‘found its way’ into my luggage, and has been with me ever since.  Carrington remained an obsession of mine, this little-known English-born surrealist artist who, still alive, has lived in Mexico for many years. 

When I read that there was going to be a retrospective of her work at Pallant House in Chichester I didn’t hesitate.  I caught the train from London and went to see her work that I’d only ever seen in reproduction on the internet.  The exhibition ‘Surreal Friends – Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna’  covered the work of three women who had lived and worked together in Mexico, all Europeans fleeing war-torn Europe.  The women shared a surrealist aesthetic, and a belief in the value of women’s lives.  Domestic images, particularly scenes from the kitchen, are central to their work.

It felt like a homecoming.  Carrington’s work was as strange, disturbing, sensual and playful as her prose.  Remedios Varo’s work, which I’d been unfamiliar with, was similar in its concerns but subtly different in execution.  I didn’t want to leave the gallery, I wanted to stay in their world.  They overlapped with Frida Kahlo, and were friends, but their work is more subtle and has more depth.  After a long wait to see Carrington’s art, I felt inspired and comforted by her work and her life.


From Chichester I went to Hastings and to an exhibition called Outsider Art.  The artists were all amateurs, most of whom had mental health problems and had had no exposure to the mainstream art world.  Their stories were moving, but this wasn’t an exercise in patronisation.  The work was powerful and of high quality, and took a look at the world from unusual perspectives. 


On Yom Kippur, my mother and I were taking a break from the synagogue.  We were walking around Stoke Newington, when a man approached us.  I stiffened, immediately expecting the London request for money.  Shame on me.  The man explained that his son was an artist and had an exhibition in a tiny gallery off the main street.  As a proud father, he wanted to tell people to go and see his son’s work.  My mother and I went to see the exhibition, and it was stunning.  Joshua Bloom had a science undergraduate degree, but clearly had an a strong artistic sensibility that has been influenced by his scientific training.  His photos, particularly of landscapes, are almost abstract in their perspectives, but never without humanity.  It felt like a very special, and unexpectedly aposite experience to be seeing his work with my mother, because his father had stopped us on the street and wanted to share his paternal pride with strangers.


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Wabi-sabi represents a Japanese world view or aesthetic centred on the acceptance of transience.  The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete (thanks Wikipedia).  With this blog I intend to write about things that are on my mind, ask questions about life, always with the reassuring thought that all beauty is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.

Thanks to LS for telling me about wabi-sabi, and for clarifying it’s not an accompaniment to sushi.

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