art: 6 posts

Postcard from Brussels : Flemish Chiaroscuro

Among the things I missed the most during the lockdown was going to a museum. The soft light in the exhibition halls, the scent of wood polish, and the silence add as much to my experience of the museums as the art itself–and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels has plenty of it to admire. So when the restrictions were lifted, I headed to the museum and stood in front of my favorite paintings, greeting them like old friends. It was reassuring, a reminder that despite it all beauty will claim its own space.

The reason I feel this way rather acutely at museums is because they are testaments to historical events and traumas. Positioned though they are as shrines to art, wars, conquests, and colonialism have had their role to play in the riches that famous museums exhibit. It’s enough to make one ambivalent about the whole enterprise, and yet I still like museums. I still feel comforted by their ambiance. Art still inspires me to think differently, to push my boundaries, and to seek something new. The awakening of our curiosity is one of the greatest values of art, and deriving pleasure from finding things out is part of happiness as I see it.

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15 Years of Bois de Jasmin : The Essentials

What is the place of art in difficult times? The world has changed within a matter of weeks in a way that most of us couldn’t have envisioned as we celebrated the start of 2020, and it’s right that we recalibrate our priorities and ask complex questions. Most of my work these days involves research into health and science topics, but as a writer, I grapple with the same dilemmas that my fellow writers whose topics cover art and culture are facing. Where does it all fall on the priority scale?

Last year I traveled to India to research a story about Kashmiri shawl weaving. I knew about the situation in the region that has been under a lockdown since August 2019, and I had no illusions that my research would be easy. Truth be told, I wondered whether I should have written about something other than the making of pretty shawls. I could have written about Kashmir’s turbulent history, military conflict, economic problems or societal changes.

What I didn’t anticipate was how thrilled artisans would be that I was writing about their culture and their crafts. They insisted again and again on the paramount value of arts and crafts, despite the severity of the situation in the Kashmir Valley. “If we don’t preserve our culture, what is the point of anything?” Asaf Ali, the founder of a small artisan venture, Kashmir Loom, told me during our interview. When I finally wrote my story, I realized that it was about art, but also about Kashmir’s turbulent history, military conflict, economic problems and societal changes.

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Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath

This year marks 350 years since the death of Rembrandt (1606-1669), and many museums around the world are hosting exhibitions, lectures and other events dedicated to the master of Dutch baroque. For our art & scent series, I’ve selected one of my favorite paintings by Rembrandt, Bathsheba at Her Bath. It depicts the moment when Bathsheba receives a letter from King David, summoning her. Most other paintings cast Bathsheba as seductress and temptress, but Rembrandt portrays her as a woman facing a difficult moral dilemma, torn between loyalty to her husband and her obligation to obey the royal order.

Like in other paintings by Rembrandt, the play of light and shadows create a powerful dramatic effect. It’s baroque at its most dazzling and alluring.

So, what fragrance would you use to capture the mood of this painting? If none exists, please feel free to fantasize and invent your own.

Frida Kahlo and Shalimar

“They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality,” Frida Kahlo once said. An artist is inseparable from their art, and this idea is particularly dramatic in the case of Kahlo, whose body of work is based on the explorations of self. Of the 143 paintings Kahlo left behind, 55 are self-portraits, brutal, honest, startling. What’s more, Kahlo was conscious of the power of the image, and she also fashioned self through her choice of clothes, colors and accessories.

I admit that I didn’t appreciate the importance that Kahlo assigned to her clothes, jewelry and perfume until I saw the exhibit of the artist’s possessions at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The image of the Mexican artist—the colorful skirts, the flower-decorated braids, the unibrow—entered pop culture to the point that we risk forgetting the artist behind a fashion icon. In order to understand her art, is it necessary to know that Frida Kahlo wore Guerlain’s Shalimar and Schiaparelli’s Shocking and draped herself in Mexican dresses and Chinese silk?

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Niko Pirosmani : A Movable Feast

The paintings by Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918) throw me off balance. It may be a strange reaction to art, especially to the one depicting animals, people feasting, gathering grapes, or fishing, but Pirosmani is not an ordinary painter. Why are the deer’s eyes so much like human eyes? Why do the revelers raising their horns full of wine look so serious? What are they celebrating? What went through the artist’s mind as he sketched and what did he intend for us to see? What motivated him to paint?

Most likely–and we have so little information about Pirosmani’s life that we can only guess–it was hunger that prompted Pirosmani to take up the brush. Born in 1862, in a village in the Kakheti region of Georgia, he didn’t have any formal education, and his stints as a train conductor and cattle herder ended in failure. He learned painting from itinerant artists and he wanted to open a workshop producing signboards. It almost came to naught. The first order he painted for free, while the second one never came. He remained poor and hungry for the rest of his life, a vagabond and a pariah.

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