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Art & architecture blog

Painting the years in-between

[Exhibition]

A new exhibition opened at the Neue Galerie Graz on the 14th of June. It is entitled Art Controversies and spans the years 1945 to 1967, a period that often languishes unnoticed between the Second World War and the revolutions of ’68. I was interested to see what the gallery would make of this topic, so I headed to the opening night.

 

The exhibition is a whistle-stop tour through many different artistic tendencies. It starts off with traditional imagery, with only a few paintings reflecting the modernisation and change of the times. Some pieces seem to come straight out of the middle ages, with sculptures of the Virgin Mary that appear to ignore the centuries that have passed. It seems that many artists – at least the ones showcased in this exhibition – preferred to ignore the events of the past few years, with no trace of any critical engagement with Austria’s role in World War Two. Perhaps that topic was just too close for comfort.

 

Walking through the different rooms, you can find paintings influenced by Futurism or Fauvism. Over time, the artists can be seem to embrace modernist tendencies, becoming more abstract – by the sixties, op-art has reached Styria.

 

Universalmuseum Joanneum

This is an exhibition that showcases a wide variety of works – if you are interested in painting (this is the main focus of the exhibition) you will definitely find plenty to talk about. The sense of progression is particularly fascinating – there is a great deal of change in style and approach over the twenty years shown here.

 

The exhibition’s theme is, however, weaker than in Who are you (which has been adapted and relocated to the ground floor and can be seen until March 2019). So if a strong theme is a must, this may not be the exhibition for you. If, though, you want to find out what artists were up to between the end of the Second World War and the heyday of the sixties – and if you are looking for an exhibition showcasing a multitude of styles – this is definitely something for you to check out.

 


 

Curated by Peter Peer, Art Controversies – Styrian Positions 1945-1967, can be seen in the Neue Galerie Graz until 6th January 2020.

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Art & architecture blog

Exploring the border

[A day out]

This is a tip for anyone living in or visiting the south of Austria. It is a walk, an art exhibition and an exploration of history all in one. The trail, marked by red signposts, takes you along a section of the Austrian-Slovenian border, crossing it several times (so remember to take your passport, just in case!). You’re accompanied by an audio guide (available in German or Slovenian), which you can either borrow on MP3 player from a nearby restaurant, or listen to via an app. Although, audio guide is a bit of a misleading description – it has more in common with a radio drama or a play. Beginning with philosophical musings about the nature of borders, the following chapters are filled with stories told by and about local people living on and with the border. You hear about the farmers who continued to trade and communicate with each other despite the dangers. About groups of people who fled either north or south, crossing the border to make a better life for themselves and their family, or to escape persecution. And about just how arbitrary a border often is, imposed on the population by leaders gathered in a meeting room, hundreds of miles away.

Walking through woodland and fields and past vineyards, there is plenty of time to take in and enjoy this beautiful landscape. But this is a hike with depth. You learn about the lives and livelihoods behind the beauty – and the way that people have been forced to deal with and make use of borders. This is something that is as relevant today as it ever was – now, for EU citizens, the borders between EU countries are almost invisible, but this is far from being the case for everyone. Just because the dividing line is (at the moment) not marked by walls or barbed wire, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

 

As you follow the trial, you’ll find wooden picture frames highlighting views of buildings or trees that played an important role in the life of locals. Or that point out the randomness of demarcation. The landscape itself becomes the artwork – and as you step behind the frame, so do you.

After coming full circle and returning to the Guesthouse Vračko, where you borrowed the MP3 players, you’ll definitely be in need of some food – and probably also some local wine. Don’t try to resist temptation here – it is definitely worth stopping for a bit longer!

 

This walk is a project by an international artist’s collective named LJUD – its members focus on areas as diverse as cultural anthropology, music, history, architecture, acting and art. And they have very effectively combined all these elements to create a 4.5 kilometre exhibition that stays with you long after you have left it behind. Recommended for anyone interested in history and art – as well as for all lovers of beautiful landscape.

 

You can see the exhibition between 13th May and 31st October 2018.

Go to http://grenzlandgalerie.at/ or http://www.ljud.si/slo/?lang=en for more information.

 

 

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Art & architecture blog

Exploring the city

[Art in public spaces]

In Graz, art is not just found in museums. There is plenty to discover outside – some pieces more hidden than others. In the Joanneum Quarter in the centre of town, an escalator takes you down to the entrance below ground level. But before you step onto the moving staircase, walk to the other side of the square, in the direction of the Sparkasse bank. There you’ll find a circular cage, surrounding what was, when it was constructed, just bare earth. Now, it’s a small wilderness, with plants clambering upwards. Created by Lois Weinberger, the piece focuses on the connection between civilisation and nature. The plants growing in the cage weren’t sown – they simply appeared, the seeds brought by birds flying overhead or carried by the wind. The cage protects the work, keeping people out and leaving nature to do its thing. The piece reminds you of the speed at which nature is able to recapture its territories, of how quickly it could overrun us given half a chance.

 

When you’ve finished taking in this wilderness, walk towards the entrance. But before you turn to ride down the cocktail-glass facade, look right – and up. You’ll see a small metal pyramid mounted onto the traditional facade, a carbon fibre pole attached, with a small grey sphere at the end. This is one of those pieces where you definitely need to read the accompanying notice. Because this somewhat unassuming work by Thomas Baumann is interactive. There is a phone number to call – let it ring twice and the lights turn on in the sphere and the pole begins to move, drawing the symbol for infinity in the air.

 

Turning towards the escalator, look up and to the right again. Here you’ll discover a piece by Michael Schuster based on the concept of colour and light. Taking up two sides of a balcony, triangular elements rotate to show two of the three primary colours – as well as the colour that results when you combine them. Paint, and the mixing of colours, has always been a central aspect of art. Here, this topic steps into the spotlight, drawing attention to two of an artist’s most important tools.

 

The most well known example of art in public spaces in Graz is only a few minutes walk away, on the other side of the river: the BIX facade of the Kunsthaus gallery. It is made up of 930 fluorescent rings acting as pixels that can be programmed by a central computer and transformed into words and images. Every few months there is a new display or message being sent out into the city. In my opinion, this is a perfect example of art in public spaces – accessible and visible to all. You can look into the concept behind the displays – but you can also simply enjoy the spectacle for what it is.

 

And these are just a few of the art works displayed in the city – some temporary, some permanent, some analogue, some digital. Graz is a place to keep your eyes peeled – you can find art in the most surprising places.

 

 

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Art & architecture blog

Getting stuck in

[Workshop]

Through an unassuming wooden door, along a corridor and out into the courtyard. Kreativ Atelier is not a place you’ll stumble across accidentally. There isn’t even a sign on the door. But once you’ve found this hidden studio, you won’t forget it easily. Run by Caroline Groß, it’s a haven of creativity, open to everyone.

 

I took part in a workshop on painting by intuition – it was fun, creative and (maybe most important of all) totally relaxed. We started off with a creativity exercise, searching for shapes in photographs of pavements. I found a bear, a bat, two angels – everyone discovered something different. And every answer was interesting and valid – there was no wrong or right. It was a great way to get the participants into a creative mood and to encourage them to trust their instincts.

 

We then all chose an easel, were given a wide brush and told to pick a colour and paint until we felt we were finished. We then did the same with a second colour. Some pieces of paper were completely covered with paint, with others the paper was peeking through. One was still half naked. We all stood back and looked at our work – and at what the other participants had created. It was then time to do something I’d never done before – work on someone else’s painting. My immediate reaction was that of reluctance – was I going to ruin it? What if the person didn’t like what I’d done? But as soon as I’d chosen an easel and got started that feeling melted away and I concentrated on immersing myself in the painting. Caroline encouraged us to see our additions as gifts to the original painter, contributions that didn’t overwhelm or cancel out the other’s work, but rather complimented it. Over the next hour and a half, we swapped paintings three more times, until I felt more connected to the painting I was currently working on than to my own. Each time we swapped, we were given new tools to work with – thinner brushes, sponges, wax crayons. It wasn’t about creating the perfect picture, it was about letting the painting tell you what to do next, about immersing yourself in each in turn. Then it was time to return to the painting we’d started with – and to complete it. I added more of the two colours I’d used at the beginning, emphasising the original concept, but still keeping the aspects added by other participants, leaving some sections in their entirety, but making others subtler.

 

We then sat down on multi-coloured stools to look at the paintings and see what the original painters had made out of the artistic contributions. Some had kept much of what had been added, whereas others had almost created an entirely new painting.

 

This is a workshop that is perfect for anyone interested in exploring their creativity, whether you are an experienced painter, or are picking up a brush for the first time. And if you’ve caught the painting bug, but struggle to find the space or time for it, the Kreativ Atelier also provides a once-monthly artistic home for you to come to. You simply have to send Caroline an email and, as long as enough people register, there will be an open studio for you to come to. This place isn’t about perfection. It is there for anyone interested in art, who wants to learn more and improve their skills – whatever level you are at.

 

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Art & architecture blog

A new way of looking

[Book review] Ways of looking: how to experience contemporary art by Ossian Ward

This book is a guide to contemporary art. It doesn’t require any prior knowledge and aims to stay well away from any art jargon, instead providing a clear step-by-step guide the author calls a tabula rasa – a clean slate approach. There are six steps labelled “time”, “association”, “background”, “understanding”, “look again”, and “assessment”. Ossian Ward begins by explaining each step, then goes on to apply this method to numerous artworks split up into several different categories that prompt the reader to look at the works in a certain way – as entertainment, confrontation, an event, a message, a joke, a spectacle or meditation.

 

Entertainment and joke in particular are words that you wouldn’t expect a serious critic to attach to pieces of art – but Ward does just that, providing readers with a new way of tackling art that many people would look at with incomprehension. Sometimes, as with the entertainment category, the reader is simply encouraged to just enjoy the art for what it is – and have fun. This is a fresh and approachable book, interesting for anyone wanting to know more about contemporary art and how to gain meaning from it.

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Art & architecture blog

More than just faces

[Exhibition]

Stretching from the 19th century to the present day, Who are you? shows how portraits have developed and changed over the past two hundred years. The exhibition begins with very traditional examples of portraiture – oil paintings and busts. The focus here is on the Austrian aristocracy, with carefully composed pieces that portray the subjects as they wanted to be seen by society, projecting power, leadership and strength. These works are juxtaposed with modern portraits of Graz’s mayors and university rectors – showing that this way of communicating status is still relevant today. Despite the development of photography, which creates such detailed, true-to-life images, paintings have not lost their relevance when it comes to representing hierarchy and function.

 

But the exhibition also shows that by the 19th century, the aristocracy wasn’t the only social class interested in immortalising itself through portraiture. Industrialisation meant that the bourgeoisie had gained increased influence and wealth – and could also afford to commission oil paintings. Echoing the style of aristocratic portraits, many of these paintings make use of a classical background – this time using new symbols to represent new sources of income. But, for this social class, portraits weren’t only about representation in the public space – the bourgeoisie also commissioned smaller portraits, wax figures, silhouettes and photographs for their families and homes. By showing these pieces, the exhibition reveals how portraiture took on a second role – becoming a memory carrier in the private realm.

 

Up on the second floor, the exhibition shows the 20th century move away from pure representation – reactions to the development of photography, to the trauma of war, to the exploring of new options in art. A sculpture of an unidentified head is reduced to corners and flat surfaces; bloated heads populate an anonymous city, menacingly reminiscent of children’s drawings; a sculpture by British artist Tony Cragg carves out a revolving collection of heads that appear and disappear as you circle the work; body parts are separated and made abstract; the portrait is pulled apart and reassembled using photography and collage; digital prints of lines, letters and block colours depict fragments of genetic code.

 

In one room, visitors are confronted with a wall-sized photograph of a digital camera. Turning around, you see the same camera placed at head-height. Then you hear the sound of a clicking shutter and you find yourself featured on the screen to the left of the camera. You become part of the artwork, captured on camera, whether you want it or not. As well as reflecting the dominance of technology in self-portraiture today, the work reminds the viewer of both the permanence and impermanence of today’s images. The screen shows only a limited number of photos that are constantly being replaced. The part you played in the installation is soon no longer visible. And you don’t know where the images are saved, whether they will be reused or simply deleted. The portraits simply disappear and you are left to move on to the next space.

 

Throughout the exhibition, the gallery has also included the most 21st century of portraits – the selfie. Visitors are encouraged to take photos of themselves as they walk through the rooms and post their pictures on the gallery’s Instagram page – becoming part of the museum’s online presence. The nature of selfies provides a stark contrast to the other media in the exhibition – rather than being a unique item to be treasured, they record individual moments, can be taken in their dozens within a few minutes, then removed and forgotten in a click. 

 

This is an exhibition that encourages you to interact with the pieces while at the same time prompting you to think about where portraiture will go next. Greater abstraction? More technology? Whichever direction the discipline takes, one thing is clear – this is not a field that is going to stagnate any time soon.

 

 


You can see the exhibition Who are you? at the Neue Galerie in Graz from 25th May 2017 to 25th February 2018. Located right in the centre of town, the gallery is part of the Universalmuseum Joanneum which is made up of 12 different museums in the Graz area.

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Art & architecture blog

For glamorous bookworms

[A day out]

When I think of old libraries, I picture dark bookshelves lined up, sentry-like. Walls encased in wooden panelling, embellished with gold lettering commemorating the achievements of an endless list of names. A dark, be-quiet-the-books-are-sleeping atmosphere.

 

But my expectations (prejudices?) are as far from Admont Abbey Library as it is possible to get. Opening the door, I look straight down a bright, open hall, flooded with light. There is no dark panelling here, just the fresh white paint, curves and golden detailing of the Late Baroque, leading the eye upwards to the ceiling frescoes above, where marshmallow clouds and a permanent blue sky open the library up into infinite space.

 

Designed in 1764 and completed in 1776, the room was constructed by Austrian master builder Josef Hueber. He was a passionate believer in the ideals of the Enlightenment, saying: “Like our understanding, spaces too should be filled with light.” And this is exactly what his architecture created, a space that opens up towards the light at every opportunity, working with the paintings that complete it.

 

This is a place where it is impossible to separate art from architecture. The two flow into each other, creating a seamless whole. Decorative and solid pillars overlap; painted galleries and walls add an extra storey before marking out the picture plane of the ceiling frescoes above.

 

Looking at history paintings created on this sort of scale makes it easy to understand why this genre remained at the top of the artistic hierarchy for so long. Each cupola is home to around twenty allegorical figures and angels, representing different aspects of knowledge, from genealogy to medicine to architecture. They explore the relationship between religion and the arts and sciences (although – unsurprisingly – the theme of divine revelation is given precedence, decorating the largest and highest central cupola). The frescoes were painted by Bartolomeo Altomonte in the summers of 1775 and 1776. Especially impressive when you consider that the artist was already 80 years old when he started work. Creating thematic groups, he painted cupolas focussing on canonical and secular law, history, philosophy, theology, the natural sciences, arts and technology.

 

The figures remain obediently within the picture plane, keeping the viewer’s gaze directed upwards, looking into the skies.  They are spread evenly throughout the space, interacting only with their immediate neighbours, focussing purely on the aspect of knowledge they are to represent, linked by pathways of light pink cloud. The personifications of the natural sciences are probably the easiest to decipher. One figure draped in flowing blue cloth inspects the stars above through a telescope, representing astronomy. Her neighbour is Geography, who is using a pair of compasses to measure out distances on a globe. Turning a little, you can see Mathematics pointing to a list of numbers on a white tablet as well as Architecture holding a ground plan. Mineralogy on the opposite side is harder to identify (this is when I wish I’d brought binoculars) – she is carefully investigating a basket of rocks, brought to her by an angel. Physics is also more difficult to work out, holding a model of the celestial sphere. Turning again, you’re at the best position to admire the main figure group: Medicine is clothed in black, handing a prescription to Pharmacy, who glances up from a reference book on herbs, perhaps looking to identify the plants in the vases behind her. Opposite her, Chemistry uses distillation to separate chemicals to use in medicine, working bellows to build up the heat. There are further details too, emphasising the theme: a muscular statue representing anatomy, an angel behind Medicine holding the Staff of Asclepius, depicting the Greek god of healing, and a male figure wielding pestle and mortar, grinding herbs into fragments.

 

Surrounded by the library’s generous space, you turn automatically, dizzyingly, from one group to the next, immersed in the painted world above, working out the allegories. There may be no specific story being told here, but this makes the figures no less fascinating.

 

Before returning to the minimalist museum world beyond the wooden door, I stop and savour the whole again. The impression of effortlessness, of light and colour. This is a library without any sense of stuffiness, a space that welcomes you and wants you to stay.

 

 

 


Admont Abbey is located in the County of Styria, Austria, around 10 km away from Gesäuse, a stunning national park. The abbey also houses a Museum of Contemporary Art, a National History Museum and a Museum of Fine Arts, and is surrounded by themed gardens. There’s also a restaurant for hungry visitors selling deliciously made Austrian food.