Contemporary Art

Mingling Gothic Architecture and Contemporary Art by Jeannine Cook

One of the delights of finding kindred spirits is that when they suggest a place to visit, you know that there is a very good chance that you too will find the place to be special.

This happened again to me the other day, during my artist-in-residence stay at DRAWinternational in Caylus, France.

John and Grete McNorton, who established DRAWinternational as a centre for artistic investigation, research and practice, are two very special people, along with their lovely daughter, with whom I rapidly felt deliciously at home. They told me of the Abbey of Beaulieu, a Cistercian abbey decommissioned during the French Revolution and now a National Monument and contemporary art centre.

Nestled in a green winding, wooded valley just north of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, in Ginals, in the Tarn et Garonne Department, this is indeed a magical place to visit.

Abbaye de Beaulieu (artist's photograph)

Abbaye de Beaulieu (artist's photograph)

Originally founded as an abbey in 1144, the church was destroyed during the religious wars against the Cathars at the beginning of the 13th century. It was rebuilt from 1275 onwards, but was destroyed and rebuilt during the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in the second half of the 16th century. From then on, until the French Revolution, the Cistercians had a difficult time surviving as their abbots were appointed directly by the King, as opposed to the Cistercian way of selecting an abbot.

Politics seem to enter every facet of life!

Then absurd hubris nearly destroyed the building as the new owners, after the Revolution, from the town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val; they wanted to move the whole structure, stone by stone, to their town. Luckily, the noted Prosper Merimee, one of the first Inspectors of National Monuments, stepped in and the building was saved by being classified a National Monument in 1875.

Rightly so, because after a joint restoration by the State and two enlightened citizens, Pierre Brache and Genevieve Bonnefoi, the abbey became a Centre for Contemporary Art, with the couple’s art collection left to the State as well. It is a wonderful, soaring, light-filled space in which to show art.

The day I visited, there was an exhibition of paintings and “boxes” by Montauban artist, Odile Cariteau, “Deambulations”. “Deambulation” in French means a strolling or a wandering, in this case a symbolic movement in time and space, linking an artistic and a monastic way of life.

Both modes of existence encompass realities other than the visible, experienced in solitude. Prayer and an artistic practice both dictate a particular way of life in their gentle unfolding of activity.

Interior of Abbaye de Beaulieu, with  Odile Cariteau's work displayed (artist's photograph)

Interior of Abbaye de Beaulieu, with  Odile Cariteau's work displayed (artist's photograph)

The big black and white acrylic canvases held up well, if repetitively, in the high Gothic-arched, quite narrow simple nave, transept and choir. Niches were filled with boxes, “Interior Spaces” filled with divers material, alluding to alchemy. A little too claustrophobic for my taste, but interesting. Perhaps the most arresting were the “Primordial Walking Sticks”, complex ensembles of wooden twisted branches adorned with ceramic beads and threads.

In the cool 13th century Gothic cellar, apparently intact since it was constructed (a comment on French priorities when it comes to wine and wine-making!), Cariteau had echoed, to a degree, the convoluted forms of these walking sticks in huge kakemono paintings hung in staggered rows. “Writings from Afar”, some were elegant.

Vine outside Gothic Cellar, Abbaye de Beaulieu (artist's photograph)

Vine outside Gothic Cellar, Abbaye de Beaulieu (artist's photograph)

The Abbey ensemble itself was far more compelling. The grassy lawn demarcated where the cloister had once been, and off it was the wonderful small Chapter House, with early 13th century, still polychromed massive arches and a feeling of great antiquity. It was a delight simply to sit quietly in the cool of this House and draw, somehow connecting with the monks of yore in their strict observance of an orderly, simple life.

Chapter House, Abbaye de Beaulieu (artist's photograph)

Chapter House, Abbaye de Beaulieu (artist's photograph)

There is also a current exhibition of modern art in the upstairs former dormitory, a beautiful wooden structure with high, high ceilings. “Supports/Surfaces et Apres” examines this movement that started in the 60s and 70s in France, when artists wanted to break with painting as pure painting. Whatever the art exhibition currently on at the Abbey of Beaulieu, it is well worth a visit to this peaceful remnant of another way of life, still timeless and serene in feel.

Around, the grounds still offer beautiful walks, with flowers to gladden the heart and magnificent giant trees to shade one’s path.

A special place indeed.

Art that remains "Bang up to date" by Jeannine Cook

That perspicacious genius, Pablo Picasso, once said, about his art, "All I have ever made was made for the present, with the hope that it will always remain in the present."

His work has just been tested again from this point of view, with an exhibition, Picasso by Picasso, on show at Zurich's Kunsthaus, until the 30th January, 2011. This is a semi-repeat of an exhibition that Picasso himself selected in 1932; he chose 225 of his works from different periods and styles, and the show was very successful.

This time, one hundred of the original works selected have been reunited, and according to William Cook, writing in The Spectator on October 30th, 2010, the exhibition is again very successful. Since the works are all pre-1932, there is not the political element that appeared in Picasso's work after Guernica, and apparently, the works appear far more optimistic than later paintings. Most importantly, the exhibition passed the acid test of Picasso's work remaining relevant, present and with impact for today's viewers. In William Cook's words, the show still seems "bang up to date".

For art to remain in the present, what does it need? I am sure everyone has a different answer, but for me, it boils down to art that contains a passionate message about human values, aspirations, emotions... The great art that has come down to us from past centuries and from different cultures all touches a cord in us, reminding us of universal bonds. The art can tell us of people, places, plants and trees, animals - in stylised or realistic fashion - but there is always a depth of emotion in the overt or subliminal messages.

Think of a Rembrandt portrait with its psychological impact, such as this masterpiece from the Frick Collection

Rembrandt Self-Portrait, 1658 (Image courtesy of Frick Collection. New York.)

Rembrandt Self-Portrait, 1658 (Image courtesy of Frick Collection. New York.)

Or a Vermeer with the heart-stopping clarity and elegant stillness that nonetheless manages to encompass complex human moments. His Music Lesson is a wonderful example

A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman,   1762, Johannes Vermeer,  (Image courtesy of the Royal Collection in 1762

A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman,  1762, Johannes Vermeer,  (Image courtesy of the Royal Collection in 1762

Go back some six to seven thousand years to the  Man from Cernavoda,  the Romanian clay man seated with his elbows on his knees, who conveys just as much deep introspection today as when he was made - we can all relate to his pensive, eloquent melancholy. In this image, he is shown with his companion Woman.

"Thinker of Cernavoda" and "Woman of Hamangia"; Romania, 5000 BC, (Image courtesy of the National History Museum, Bucharest.)

"Thinker of Cernavoda" and "Woman of Hamangia"; Romania, 5000 BC, (Image courtesy of the National History Museum, Bucharest.)

Remember, too, Rodin's The Kiss, with its utterly memorable evocation of romantic love.

The Kiss, 1901-04, Auguste Rodin, Pentelican marble, (Image courtesy of the Tate)

The Kiss, 1901-04, Auguste Rodin, Pentelican marble, (Image courtesy of the Tate)

When one thinks of the innumerable works of art that bring joy, compassion, delight, insights and understanding, they all touch those cords that bind one to the present. William Cook, in the review to which I referred to above, also alluded to modern art as having become "introverted, a reflection of our times". This brought me up short, but then I remembered the works so prized today - of  Damien Hirst, Andy Wahol, or even Jeff Koons,  for instance - and I do rather wonder where many modern works will be in fifty years' time... In the basements or still in pride of place on display? Time is not kind to superficial art. Each century proves that out, with scores of now-forgotten artists who were lionised in their time.

For an artist to find a voice that talks of the universal "now" is truly a gift. It is a goal to which every artist aspires, for, in a way, that is the overwhelming "raison d'être" of making art - to remain in the present.

The Power of Images by Jeannine Cook

The power and influence of images is a huge and fascinating subject, over which countless experts pore. Professor Georges Didi-Huberman, who teaches social sciences at the Paris School of Advanced Studies, specialises in this subject. He claims that images only possess power when they are being used, and since their juxtaposition to something else inevitably alters them each time, all is relative. Carrying on this line of logic, he asserts that art history has been too lineal and monolithic (and he will be advising a fresh presentation of the art at the Reina Sofia Contemporary Art Museum in Madrid in keeping with this thesis).

Instead of art becoming ossified, he asserts that we should all draw on our past to create our present, like Picasso always remembering El Greco or Malevich being nourished by Russian icons. Interestingly, Didi-Huberman, in a long article in El Pais ( of June 2nd, 2009, talks of expecting very little from contemporary art, since it is predicated on money-making and networking in galleries and the art market, an "academic system". He contrasts it to the world of flamenco, where an enthusiast expects a great deal - "at a minimum, that flamenco talks of life and death."

Kazimir Malevich -  Black Cross, 1915, Oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm, Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Kazimir Malevich - Black Cross, 1915, Oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm, Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

That art should ideally talk of passion and "life and death" goes back to my belief that in as many instances as one can manage, an artist should listen to his or her inner voice and be true to it. It is not always possible, of course, but when passion has driven the creation of an artwork, people know it. And they respond to it, even if they don't really know why. Things can go in and out of fashion, but good art rings "true". Dean Valentino, a television executive in Los Angles, was being interviewed in January 2009 in Art + Auction magazine and talked of today being a "time of connoisseurship" where every piece of art created needed to "justify itself" to art that had been created previously, in the same way as Didi-Huberman described Picasso, for instance, drawing on the heritage of El Greco.

Another expert art dealer, New Yorker Jack Gilgore, specialising in Dutch, Flemish and 19th century French paintings, put it more succinctly in a June interview in Art + Auction, ( : "Art is a form of communication and the pictures must have a soul. They have to have something special. You know it when you see it."

How to create an image of integrity, passion and power? That is the eternal challenge and goal for each of us artists!