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Art and Life

This year, as lines form outside thousands of art museums across the globe, one cannot help but be struck by our continuing appreciation of an activity that began some 30,000 years ago. Last year in Europe, over a million people attended "Matisse Picasso," a side-by-side exhibition of the 20th century artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. As New York's Museum of Modern Art in Queens prepared to show the exhibit, museum officials anticipated as many as 4,000 visitors a day. Matisse, Picasso, and the Paleolithic people who painted the walls of caves in Lascaux and Chauvet are all part of the same artistic lineage, yet it seems a little far fetched to attribute Matisse's "The Red Studio" to the same impulse that instigated our ancestors' illustrations of horses and buffalo.

The Red Studio -- by Henri Matisse (1911)
"The Red Studio" by Henri Matisse (1911)
Kirk Varnedoe, co-curator of "Matisse Picasso," and a faculty member of the Institute of Advanced Study, discusses "The Red Studio": "The picture's celebration is of intimate pleasures, the kind of things of everyday possession. The objects that he had made; the small vase of flowers with the tendril vine that wraps around his own sculpture." More than just an attack on turn-of-the-century artistic conventions, the painting's massive, enveloping red field conceals "a scene which is actually very intimate and has to do with private middle class life."

Paintings, of course, tell us about more than just the artistic context from which they emerge. They inform us about the lives of the artists who created them; about their lifestyles and their values, and, thus, also a bit about those of the people in the artist's society and time period. And while there may be a limit to how much can be gleaned about a particular culture by looking at self-portraits and still lifes, the practice of using art as a form of historical interpretation can be enlightening. If the passing ages erode the mythical stature of a painter like Matisse, "The Red Studio" may, like cave paintings of pre-historic buffalo hunts, continue to inform our descendents about middle class life in early twentieth century Europe.

Paintings aren't the only art form that may provide insight into the past. Classical historian Dr. Glen Bowersock of the Institute for Advanced Study feels mosaics constitute an important and sometimes underutilized form of historical documentation. A collection of 6th century mosaics from Madaba, Jordan, for instance, date from the time of the Christian Empire. In addition to depictions of day to day rural life, the mosaics employ images of Greek gods. "It used to be thought that the Christians would not tolerate pagan images or pagan myths or pagan stories or paganism," says Bowersock. "One of the things these mosaics have taught us is that this is simply not true. These images continued. The Christians seem to have formed a perfectly comfortable relationship with the pagan tradition, with the pagan myths, the pagan images that they inherited."

Still, there is a difference between a decorative mosaic or a cave painting and a multi-million dollar work of art. Though we may surround ourselves with elaborately designed ornaments and accessories -- the wallpaper in our bedrooms, the patterned carpet beneath our feet, the fabric that makes up our clothing, the furniture that we sit on -- most of this stuff will never make it into a museum. The creations of Matisse and Picasso constitute a different kind of art than the artistry evident in the craftwork of a carpenter or a graphic designer. Moreover, our celebration of these people who, like Picasso or Matisse, consider themselves to be artists signifies the modern cultural significance of intentional artistic creation. The deliberate act of creation in the context of artistic tradition and our admiration of the results is a custom that, most likely, sets our society apart from that of the cave-dweller.

"It isn't up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words!" Picasso said. "The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them." This sort of interplay between an artwork and its audience implies that, once that act of creation has been completed, art takes on a life of its own. Its meaning will shift according to the people who interpret it. In this way, art has the ability to transcend the circumstances of its conception.

On January 27, the U.N. Security Council covered up a tapestry reproduction of Picasso's mural painting "Guernica." In anticipation of Colin Powell's presentation on Iraqi possession of banned weapons, the tapestry, which has hung outside the Security Council entrance since 1985, was concealed with a baby-blue curtain and a U.N. logo. The 1937 painting depicts an incident from the Spanish Civil War in which the German air force was allowed to bomb a small Basque village in northern Spain. U.N. press secretary Fred Eckhard claimed the tapestry's portrayal of dying villagers and farm animals would not be an appropriate "background for the cameras."

As the world commenced the debate on whether or not to enforce Security Council resolutions with the use of military force in Iraq, Picasso's black and white rendering of the objectively hideous nature of warfare proved too powerful be ignored. Whether those who decided to hide the painting from the cameras did so on behalf of the U.S. government, the public image of the Security Council, or the Iraqi people who would be affected by a military campaign is of less consequence than the fact that that action couldn't change that "Guernica" was, in fact, hanging on the wall behind that blue curtain. Debate about the censoring of the image took place in the media. War protestors made signs employing images from the mural. I'm writing about "Guernica" right now.

The controversy, seemingly over the mere existence of "Guernica," reveals the power of art to speak about something less tangible than its subject, war, or its artist, Picasso, his life or the context of his work. It says something about the urgency and irrepressible nature of human expression. And if that doesn't deserve to be enshrined and admired and wondered at by our society and those of the future, I don't know what does.

-- John Uhl


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