Archives for category: Art


Last night’s viewing of Museum Hours inspired me to re-read Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts today:

‘About suffering, they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…’

‘In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling from the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly by.’


I have just seen this film by the acclaimed director Jem Cohen.

I loved it. I already have a strong sense that this film will linger and haunt me for some time.

It is not a happening film. A story of sorts is gently weaved, but this is not a narrative that feels plot driven.

Amazingly, the production of this Museum Hours involved only seven people, and mostly non-professional actors. Even more amazingly, no artificial light was used throughout, all of which help to explain the authenticity that the work emanates.

The story centres around Anne, who travels from her home in Montreal to visit a dying (and comatose) cousin in Vienna, and Johann, a guard in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, who Anne befriends during her frequent visits to view the art in the museum in between hospital visits. The film interweaves various narrative threads, including those of loneliness, aloneness, friendship, life, living, and death. There is much to interest any art lover, and I particularly loved how the camera shifted seamlessly from people to art. In terms of the latter, insights into works within the museum, for example Rembrandt and Brueghel, were fascinating and illuminating.

To some extent, not being plot-driven, the film goes nowhere, and yet everywhere. It is a life journey of sorts, and as such offers much to consider, especially the possibility of a new ‘way of seeing’, both in relation to art, and to its mirror image, life.

I was not surprised to see John Berger acknowledged in the credits.

I was uplifted by this film, moved by its optimism in terms of how we might see things anew, particularly if we choose to truly pay attention to what we are actually observing. Yet Museum Hours is also suffused by melancholy, of which it is aware but does not force, and in turn does not overwhelm. In the final moments, Johann reminds us of the transience of things, which may at first seem to contradict the lasting impact of the works of art we have seen throughout the film.

What is really transient is us, the ever-changing population of viewers.

All the more reason to ‘see’ what we can, and while we can…


I just saw this absolute gem of a film at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) London (

Created by the animator Don Hertzfeldt in 2012, It’s Such a Beautiful Life is actually an edited feature length version of an earlier trilogy of chapters: Everything will be OK, I Am So Proud of You, and It’s Such a Beautiful Life. The 65 minute film tells the story of the stick man character Bill, from the everyday mundane happenings in his life, to mental illness, and to coping with being told he is soon to die (which serves to awaken Bill to the wonders of life: ‘clumsy, beautiful and new’ ‘Isn’t it amazing?’).

It is difficult to categorise this film, a fact that probably adds to its value. It explores much of what it means to be human and to be alive, and as you leave the auditorium, you cannot help but feel uplifted and grateful for such a cinematic treat.



Modern neuroscience first emerged in the late 1800s, and our interest, both lay and scientific, on how our brains work has increased exponentially since.

George W Bush declared the 1990s the ‘Decade of the Brain’.

This month, the current US President Barack Obama unveiled a plan to map the human brain.

It is not surprising that we humans are so fascinated by the workings of our most invisible organ. Our brains are unique to our selves, and largely define who we are. Yet, an understanding of how they work, what the relationship is between the brain and the mind, continues to elude. Much public and scientific consideration is ongoing, however, snippets of which now regularly appear in the press, whetting our appetites with the tantalising prospect of answering questions on who we are, and what makes us think and behave as we do.

One such journalistic piece appeared in The New York Times this month- What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art (

The writer of the article, Eric R. Kandel, challenges us to consider what we can learn about the mind by examining how we view art.

Kandel focuses on the modernist school of art in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, and the three defining artists of the school, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, who ‘sought to depict the unconscious, instinctual strivings of the people in their portraits, but each painter developed a distinctive way of using facial expressions and hand and body gestures to communicate those mental processes.’

These artistic efforts – explorations of the idea that truth lies beneath the surface – were mirrored at the time in the world of psychoanalysis. Freud, who trained at the Vienna School of Medicine pioneered the practice of using psychoanalysis to explore the subconscious, which ran in parallel with similar explorations by the Austrian modernist painters in their portraits.

Kandel draws our attention to this era in terms of how it addressed the question of how art and science might be brought together. The importance of the viewer in the artistic process arises, and with it the notion that art is by definition incomplete without the observer’s involvement and contribution.

‘Art is inherently ambiguous’, and thus we all have different interpretations of the same image. We interpret as individuals because the brain is ‘a creativity machine, which obtains incomplete information from the outside world and completes it.’

How we respond to art depends on our own previous and unique experiences, and what our brains remember and store, and also what connections they make. As we look at a picture, we use several interacting systems to analyse and experience what we ‘see’.

Our brain’s representation of faces is particularly important when we see and respond to portraits, as our brains devote more space to reading faces than to any other visual analysis.

We may ‘see’ with our eyes, but we experience, and each of us differently and uniquely, with our brains…


I have been acquainted with the artist Susan Aldworth’s work for some time, originally through her exploration of the nature of consciousness in Scribing The Soul.

Scribing The Soul (2008) was triggered by Aldworth’s experience of having a brain scan in 1999. Observing her brain ‘live’ on a monitor fascinated her: ‘You are seeing the inside of your brain with your brain…But where is the ‘me’ in all this? Since then, the artist has collaborated with doctors, neuroscientists, neuropsychologists and other artists, exploring the relationship between our physical brain and our sense of self.

The current exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery is titled The Portrait Anatomised, and presents portraits that may at first appear out of place amongst the other more ‘traditional’ portraits on display.

The exhibition consists of three works (which actually felt just the right number, as there is so much to consider in each) that were produced as part of a commission for Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital. The portraits are those of three individuals with epilepsy, Max, Elisabeth and Fiona.

As with her previous work, Aldworth here again questions the relationship between mind and body. The works contain adapted images from scans and EEGs, but also include images of the bodily self, thus combining elements of the physical workings of the brain (in this case those of someone with epilepsy), with more classical notions of portraiture.


Susan Aldworth, Fiona, 2012, monotype installation, 210 x 180cm. Photograph Peter Abraham. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art, London


Susan Aldworth, Elisabeth (detail 1), 2012, monotype installation. Photograph Peter Abraham. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art, London


Susan Aldworth, Fiona (detail 5), 2012, monotype installation. Photograph Peter Abraham. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art, London


Susan Aldworth, Fiona (detail 6), 2012, monotype installation. Photograph Peter Abraham. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art, London

One person in a hundred suffers from epilepsy in the UK. Yet it remains a hidden condition, with sufferers often stigmatised, and thereby feeling alienated and isolated.

I have always been fascinated by portraits, by what we see when we see the other, and ourselves, and what it might say, or not, about who we really are. Portraits traditionally depict the face, and facial expression, which is undoubtedly the first thing you ‘see’ when encountering the other. But we are also more than this, which Aldworth’s work so beautifully challenges us to consider. As humans, we can share much with the other, yet as individuals it is often difficult to be truly seen. Even more so if one is afflicted by conditions such as epilepsy, which can so easily deflect and distract from the totality of the self.

Aldworth’s work challenges us to look at the individual as a whole, and thereby points to a much more meaningful notion of portraiture and how it can be presented to others. Her work, as always, leaves much to reflect on, not least who ‘I’ am, how might ‘I’ be depicted, and ultimately seen…


Susan Hiller’s work has long intrigued me, particularly The J. Street Project, in which the artist sought out and photographed all street signs that incorporated the word Jude (Jew) in Germany, finding a total of 303. The work has been described as an ‘expedition into the heartland of loss’ (

In the introduction to The J. Street Project, Hiller states that ‘All my work deals with ghosts.’

This rings especially true on visiting Hiller’s current exhibition Channels.


An audio-sculptural installation, Channels is comprised of TV screens, very many screens, stacked on top of each other, displaying mostly monochrome blue or brown colours, occasionally interrupted by static or flickering lines.

I sat at the other end of the large white space, initially observing the silent though changing screens. Voices then enter the space, many voices, all speaking at the same time, and in different languages, so that it is almost impossible to decipher the words.

The ‘disembodied voices’ are those of people from all over the world as they recount their ‘near-death’ experiences (NDEs).

The whole effect is very powerful, not in the sense that it made me consider NDEs in any depth (I have no idea what I feel about them, but whatever anyone experiences must be ‘true’, for them, in some way).

What I really value in Hiller’s work, and particularly in Channels, is how she attempts to address issues that we do not understand and therefore often choose to ignore or to dismiss. What I also respect, is how she, like the best documentarists, remains in the background so to speak, allowing her art to facilitate the expression of words and experiences of those who may not otherwise be heard.


I love happening upon something or someone in the world of art that I have never encountered before.
Living in London facilitates such creative discoveries…
Such was my experience today, when I visited The Jewish Museum, which I have visited on a number of occasions. This time, I set out specifically to explore the life and art of RB Kitaj.

The current exhibition, ‘The Art of Identity’, runs in parallel with ‘Analyst for Our Time’ at Pallant House Chichester, both together constituting the ‘R.B. Kitaj: Obsessions’ retrospective.

Kitaj’s work was last seen in London in 1994, when the Tate Gallery held a large retrospective of the artist’s work. The event was one that the artist believed would be the pinnacle of his career, his crowning glory, but instead, art critics almost universally slammed it, apparently with much vitriol at the time.

Kitaj was deeply hurt and incensed by the reaction the exhibition generated, but matters only got worse when his beloved wife Sandra Fisher died from a brain aneurysm two weeks after the Tate exhibition ended. The artist blamed the critics and the press for her death: ‘They were aiming for me, but they got her instead.’

As a result, Kitaj abandoned his adopted England in 1997, and settled in Los Angeles.

He never recovered from Fisher’s death. A photograph in the foyer of the exhibition area of Kitaj and Fisher is palpably tender and moving. Kitaj’s first wife committed suicide, leaving him with two children. With Fisher, he had a third child, Max, who was 10 when his mother died.

In LA, Kitaj surrounded himself with his sons and later grandsons, but otherwise became increasingly reclusive as he aged.

With age too, he became preoccupied by his deteriorating health. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease. and his frailty and consequent difficulty painting affected him profoundly. He was found dead in 2007, with suicide the presumed cause of death.

The current exhibition at The Jewish Museum looks at Kitaj’s obsession with his Jewish identity. He grew up in a left-wing intellectual home, with his mother Jeanne Brooks and stepfather Walter Kitaj. Neither practiced Judaism. Kitaj’s interest in his Jewish identity began in the 1970s, when he had read Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial.

Included in the current exhibition is Desk Murder (1970-1984), which appears to have been influenced by Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, where the author coined the term ‘desk murderer’ for the SS officer Walther Rauff who was responsible for the development of mobile gas vans. In Kitaj’s painting, the outline takes the shape of a van, and features a tap with a cloud of gas streaming from it.

In 1989 Kitaj wrote his First Diasporist Manifesto, in which he laid out his theory of a Diasporic existence, ‘bound by neither national not religious constraints’ (from the accompanying exhibition notes). Also included in the exhibition is a quote from the manifesto:

‘After almost a

lifetime as a painter,

my painting thoughts

begin to dwell

on whether or not

the Jews are a nation,

or a state of mind.’

The Second Diasporist Manifesto was published a week after Kitaj’s death in 2007:

‘The Jewish Quest is my


my romance, my neurosis,

my war, my pleasure-principle,

my death drive.’

The exhibition is small and contained, yet there is much to consider here, from The Listener, which metaphorically depicts the Diasporist Jew, to The Wedding, reminiscent of his marriage to Fisher in a Sephardic Synagogue. I particularly liked some of the portraits of the artist’s friends, for example A Jew in Love (Philip Roth), a charcoal drawing of Kitaj’s writer friend, and Isaiah Berlin.

I am not sure I understand much more about Kitaj and his work following my visit, but perhaps the point is not to explain, but to experience what is presented before one’s eyes, and to let the art speak for itself.


It feels appropriate to return to Munch as we approach 2013, the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth.

Munch has dominated the arts world for much of this year, and he has been in the news again this week (

Apparently the artist, despite wide acclaim globally and record numbers this year viewing his iconic work The Scream, is less acclaimed in his native Norway.

Munch bequeathed much of his work to the city of Oslo. There has been a dedicated museum in the city since the 1940s, but one which attracts relatively few visitors, despite housing two versions of The Scream. There have been plans to build a more appropriate setting for the artist’s work, but as yet none of the plans have come to fruition.

The house that Munch bequeathed to the city of Oslo has since been demolished.

Perhaps 2013 will witness a resurgence of interest in the life and works of the artist in his homeland…


A self-portrait, which was partially destroyed by its creator, the Scottish artist Craigie Aitchison, has been bought by the National Portrait Gallery. (

The artist apparently slashed the work when a friend commented that the portrait was ‘flattering’. Aitchison was persuaded by Martin Wyld, Head of Conservation at the National Gallery, to allow restoration of the painting, yet at the same time retaining the laceration markings. The relined painting, with the slashings clearly visible, remained in the artist’s possession until his death in 2009.

Aitchison’s large body of work is very distinctive. He tended to zone in on specific elements, for example animals and birds, portraying them in ‘simplified’ depictions, which were vibrantly coloured.

He was particularly interested in the Crucifixion, which is the focus of many of his works. These paintings tend to focus on Christ on the Cross as the sole element in the piece, and, perhaps unusually, the colours remain vivid and bright, far from the sombre tones that more usually define works of art on this theme.

Aitchison viewed the Crucifixion as pivotal to human experience:

“The Crucifixion is the most horrific story I’ve ever heard,” he said. “They were all ganging up against one person. As long as the world exists one should attempt to record that. It was so unfair.” (


I have just spent the weekend at my Alma Mater, UCC, Cork (

The event was a thought provoking and enthralling symposium, which covered many diverse aspects of potential interactions between Illness and the Arts.

Music and poetry, including live performances and readings, visual art, fiction, social media and film, in the context of the experience of illness, were all explored in innovative and refreshing ways. Personal stories of the experience of illness were shared, and were both moving and enriching. We also heard about new models for exposing medical undergraduates to the humanities.

A very imaginatively curated art exhibition Living/Loss: The Experience of Illness in Art is currently on at The Glucksman Gallery, UCC (until March 2013). It is so worth seeing.

Much to consider, and hopefully to follow on from the symposium, including a book in 2013.

I was particularly proud that, firstly, I was able to contribute to this landmark event, and secondly, that it took place where many years ago I first set off on the road that has led me here.