The ‘Art’ of Susan Sontag

Vesuvius Erupting During the Day

So I’m on a retro reading binge at the moment, and this moment very much revolves around Susan Sontag.

Read. Her. Again.

While “The Volcano Lover” as a title sort of trends toward bodice-ripper, this is one of the most literary of the literary fiction I’ve read. And it involves art. And it plunges to the depths and crests of character development. It is based on the life of Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to the Neapolitan royal court in 1764 (“the Cavalier”). But it is really about his infatuation with collecting. Sculpture. Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts. Caravaggios. Anything and everything. He is driven by it. He even climbs into Mount Vesuvius and collects its lava rocks. He meets other collectors – but they are all different types of collectors than he. Some collect to show off their collections. Others collect Bellinis, golden candlesticks, reliquaries, Poussins,  but hide them from the world. Still others were more interested in the chase than staring at their newfound capture day in and day out – ”to find the xxxx!” they’d say. “On to something new!”

The Cavalier ponders the idea that art can either be temporary or eternal. War can torch the halls and massive buildings where artifacts are incinerated to dust. But other pieces live on eternally (e.g., relics from the ancient Greeks t hat have somehow survived centuries), and as humans we are just a fleeting image of life on earth. The holders, the caretakers, the admirers of these great objects have more of date with mortality than the artifacts themselves. He thinks that the reason we sometimes become beholden to certain objects is because they have no contract on life – there’s no predestined date with death like the one we have with another human.

Sontag is brilliant in “The Volcano Lover.” There’s so much more to savor. It definitely merits another read. But in a few years — I have so many other books on my list right now!


Budapest: Art’s Home Is Its Castle

Buda Castle

Buda Castle

Before I leave for a gluttonous trip to Budapest for a week (too short, I know) I wanted to research a few of Hungary’s more well-known artists of the past century. I was starstruck!

If a culture’s level of art appreciation is correlated with the architectural importance of the building in which its art is housed, Budapest must be madly in love with its art. The Hungarian National Gallery (HNG) is housed in Buda Castle — the historical castle of the Hungarian kings in Budapest — first completed in 1265. It’s undergone some rough times: during the siege of Budapest in 1945, it was the last major strongpoint of Budapest held by Axis forces, and artillery fire rendered the palace to ruins. It was subsequently rebuilt, and in 1959 the HNG moved in.

Currently on exhibit this summer is The “Művészház” 1909-1914. The exhibit tells the story of the turn-of-the-century organization of artists in Budapest called the Artists’ House (“Művészház”) which organized significant exhibitions of Hungarian and international modern artists, including classic Hungarian painting, impressionist works held by private collectors, and recent works by French, German, Japanese, and Hungarian artists (Austrian artists included Klimt). The organization introduced young artists by organizing jury-free exhibitions which provided an opportunity to artists rejected by other institutions. The Artists’ House also published a magazine and established a free art school.

The HNG features in its permanent collection many prominent Hungarian artists, including Margit Anna (1913 – 1991). Anna’s life tells an interesting story, perhaps one similarly embedded in the cultural fabric of the Hungarian people. In 1937, on a trip to Paris with her husband, Imre Amos (also a painter), she met Chagall and his influence became evident in her early work. After her husband died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944, Anna’s style became harsher and more elemental and a new motif appeared in her pictures: puppets symbolizing man exposed to history. After 1949, she stopped producing work for awhile, eventually starting to paint again in the 1960s. Her works at that point symbolized suppressed tragedy, with surreal metamorphoses of the puppet motif.

Margit Anna "The Thinker"
Margit Anna “The Thinker”

Meet you here with some (hopefully) magical stories when I get back! 

Art on War: Seesawing on a political playground

Another case in point that art is political. I’m wondering if all art is a reflection of the artist’s own personal political beliefs? Do political beliefs and composition run parallel? To be more specific, has an artist ever created a work that ran counter to their political persuasion? For example, would any artist who supported the Iraq war create a negative image of the war, like the work below? Or inversely, would someone who opposed the war create a positive view of it (discount the thousands of parodies)?

The invasion of Iraq, and the continuing occupation, is that kind of war, too. It has released something in art: a rage, a sense of purpose, or perhaps just an extreme nihilism. Two years ago, in a London gallery, I could have sworn I had travelled back to the dada protests that rocked Berlin in 1919. Cardboard figures of US soldiers paraded through a scene spliced together from images of Iraq’s war dead. These grotesque, but real, fragments had been found on websites and collaged into a furious installation by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn.

Jeremy Deller's It Is What It Is

This is all that remains of a car hit by a bomb in Iraq. Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller tells Jonathan Jones what happened when he took it on a tour of America.