Tag Archives: Sydney Ideas

Talking about looking at painting about bombing Guernica

In my 20s, on my first trip overseas, Picasso’s Guernica and I happened to be in New York at the same time. It had a room to itself in the Museum of Modern Art. I wandered in and admired it with pretty much the same undifferentiated awe as I’d brought to pretty much everything else in MOMA. I suppose I was suffering a kind of low-grade colonial Stendhalism (you know, the condition where visitors to Florence grow faint from exposure  to too much beauty). The only other person in the room, a young man about my own age, spoke: ‘I’ve been wanting to see this all my life. Isn’t it amazing?’ I thought he was some kind of weirdo, either that or an art student.

I saw Guernica again in Madrid five years ago, this time in the context of a major Picasso exhibition, and, having read Alice Miller’s essay on Picasso in The Untouched Key, I saw it a little better.

Last night the Art Student and I caught a bus to town to hear a Sydney Ideas talk by Professor Timothy J Clark, art historian from the University of York in England: ‘Looking again at Picasso’s Guernica’. I came away feeling that when it comes to looking at something like this painting, I’m not much better than a day old kitten.

As the fast-talking professor who introduced the speaker said, we mostly hear Picasso spoken of in connection with erotic adventures and high auction prices. CJ Clark’s interest lies elsewhere. Guernica, he said, is a history painting, already an anachronism when it was painted in 1937, but a history painting that refuses to die: it crops up again and again in anti-war demonstrations. A tapestry at the United Nations building was covered with black felt at the insistence of Colin Powell when the US was bombing civilians somewhere. How to account for its enduring power?

His stab at answering this question took focused on Picasso’s relationship to space. Picasso for him, he said, ‘is a history painter’, and the main history he painted was ‘the end of room space’, that is the traditional subject of paintings – a space built for human habitation, with a roof, walls, furniture and perhaps a window looking out onto external space. That subject would seem to be a long way from Franco’s bombing of the historic Basque town of Guernica. Yet, as far as I could understand the argument, CJ Clarke was saying that the struggle to resolve issues of space – both room space and public space – is at the heart of the painting’s success. The painting was completed in five weeks from its inception, and Picasso spent just 26 days working on the canvas. His ‘muse and lover’ (Wikipedia’s description) Dora Maar took a series of photographs of the work in progress, of which Clarke used slides to take us through his argument: we looked at the way classic motifs were introduced and then obscured, at the importance of the sheer scale of the painting, at the role of geometry, etc etc. We didn’t touch on Alice Miller’s key (she locates the painting’s emotional force in its connection to major childhood trauma) and the erotics of the painting, we were told in an aside, is a story yet to be told.  That is to say, a lot was said about the painting, but there is so many more important things that can be said from so many other valid perspectives, so much more to be discovered in this one painting.

Such close looking may be commonplace for art students – for me it was breathtakingly interesting. I couldn’t see how, or even if, the discussion actually went any way towards explaining the painting’s enduring power, but I’ll leave that to people with better equipped eyes to answer.

Clarke’s next book is Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. I expect it will be a good read.

Sydney Ideas: Spirited Muslim Women

We headed off before dinner last night to another well attended Sydney Ideas talk in the new Law School building: Dr Amina Wadud on ‘Spirited Voices of Muslim Women in Islamic Reform Movements’.

We hadn’t read the fine print on the web site, and didn’t realise that the talk was part of a symposium, ‘Spirited Voices from the Muslim World: Islam, Democracy and Gender Rights’, or that the talk was preceded by a performance by the University of Sydney Gamelan Orchestra. So we were pleasantly surprised to arrive at a very full auditorium that sounded like a Balinese night. Marie Bashir, the Governor of NSW, who is also the Chancellor of the University and acting Governor General, launched the Symposium before Dr Wadud took the lectern. The last time I saw her launch anything it was a book published by South Sydney Youth Services, and she brought the same respectful gravitas to that room full of pierced and tattooed young people as to this gathering of distinguished academics.

Amina Wahud is at the forefront of the ‘gender jihad’ – the struggle for gender justice within the global Islamic community. Actually, I just re-read the blurb about her on Sydney Ideas website, and realised that it gives a very adequate summary of the talk:

Dr Wadud’s writings and vision for gender equality, within an Islamic ‘tawhidic paradigm’, incorporate the wider struggle against other forms of oppression such as racism, bigotry, religious intolerance, economic exploitation and the erasure of human dignity.

She described how at the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 the Muslim women met with the aim of coming up with a joint statement, but no agreement could be reached between those who talked in terms of a human rights agenda and those who talked in terms of Islam. She went away from that meeting determined to find a way of reconciling the two, of finding, as she said, epistemological, theological, and other kinds of logical grounds for a Muslim feminism. Like Professor Muhammad Abdel Hameen on the Book Show recently, she has a thoughtful, non-literalistic approach to the Qur’an and pretty much scorns the approach that would take isolated verses as prescriptions for living.  She takes the concept of ‘tahwid’, which is literally the notion that God is One, central to Islam, and argues from it that all humans are equal because each has a direct relationship to God the Transcendental.

I’m not at all engaged in Islamic theology, but it was a joy to hear this flexible alternative to the version of Islam that dominates the airwaves. Dr Wadud began her talk with an invocation of God in Arabic, and when she mentioned the Prophet she said something in Arabic, presumably the traditional ‘Upon him be peace and blessings’. It seems to me that to wage a feminist struggle from inside Islam in this way must be more fruitful in the long run than any number of feminist denunciations of Islam.

There were other, smaller joys. Dr Wadud, who was born in Maryland, USA, wore a shalwar kameez with an elaborate scarf tied over her hair, and a loose scarf over that. For the first quarter hour of the talk, this loose scarf kept trying to fall off. As we strove to follow her explanation of the background to her theoretical work, she had a struggle of her own, repeatedly hitching the back over her head. In the end, the scarf won. The other small joy only made itself known in the Q&A: Dr Wadud explained that some of her points would have been clearer if she had used her PowerPoint version of the talk, but she has moved to an iPad and wasn’t able to connect it to a projector. The joy: we had a person talking to us, instead of to a bunch of explanatory slides.

Sydney Ideas: Gregory Crewsdon

Sydney Ideas is a program of public lectures presented each year by Sydney University. The Art Student* and I have attended sporadically, always to our benefit. Tim Flannery on global warming, Sara Roy on Palestine and Margaret Levi on trade unions and social justice in the US and Australia, for instance, stand out. All of those lectures were at the Seymour Centre, on the edge of the university’s sprawl. This year, the program seems to have migrated across City Road into the grounds of the University itself. On Friday night we went to see US photographer Gregory Crewsdon in the new Law School building. At least it’s new to me, and as I approached it from the west, I was gobsmacked by the way it opens out onto a view of Victoria Park and the city.

This was probably the best attended talk that we’ve been to in the series., possibly because it was co-hosted by the Power Institute and attracted Fine Art students, possibly because Gregory Crewsdon is a celebrity among those students. Certainly, it was a young crowd.

The talk was interesting, with slides of Crewsdon’s work and books on sale in the foyer. His photographs were described in the publicity for the talk as ‘disturbingly beautiful, large-scale, small-town American landscape narratives’. He chatted interestingly about them to an Art Professor and then answered questions. We left  half way through the inevitable question using words like eidos and had an animated conversation over dinner about artists and entitlement.

You see, ‘large-scale, small-town’ images require enormous resources in the making. Crewsdon started out with what he called a ‘renegade’ process. Without any kind of permit, but with the cooperation of the local people, he took images from a high crane of people doing odd things: laying turf in the main street, planting flowers like traffic calmers and so on. He moved on to creating works on sound stages, that had David Lynch or Hitchcock–like neurosis hovering in the frame. And then, he took ‘the work’ outside again, and here’s where questions of entitlement came up for us. To create the image he wants, he might need to have a house on fire – the local fire brigade supplies him with a dozen houses they are willing to burn down for his purposes. He needs snow but not enough has fallen, so he brings in a snow machine. To create a single image, he has a huge crew, including a Director of Photography. The ‘renegade’ work involved engagement with a community. Once he had official status and access to more resources (no one said where the money came from, but he is a professor at Yale), the process looks much more like big business – all the paraphernalia of a movie set. The Art Student and I had been listening earlier in the day to Naomi Klein’s TED talk about advanced capitalism’s reckless plundering of resources. It was hard not to see Crewsdon’s artistic process as part of that recklessness: ‘I want this image to show a certain psychological state of alienation, and I’ll do whatever I need to do to make it.’ Carbon footprint? Social impact? Cost–benefit ratio? Not relevant. I remember Richard Wherrett saying decades ago – yes, I am a Baby Boomer – that theatrical productions like Jesus Christ Superstar were of dubious morality because of the human cost of mounting them: more than one person died building the sets of the Sydney production. As far as I know no one has died for  a Gregory Crewsdon photograph, but houses have been destroyed in a nation where homelessness is a significant problem. But then, how do you calculate the cultural benefit created?

Sadly, the Art Student, for whom these concerns were most vividly in mind, was too cranky to put them as a question rather than an attack.

* She insists that one journalist calling her an artist doesn’t change anything. She’s still a student, and arguably still in kindergarten.