Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Letter from Venice: Mikhail Roginsky

Detail from Pink Interior I by Mikhail Roginsky

Mikhail Roginsky, Ca' Foscari Esposizoni, Mostra Internazionale di Architettura.

This month saw the opening at Ca' Foscari of an important exhibition of works by the Russian painter Mikhail Roginsky (1931-2004). It is a collateral event in this year's Architecture Biennale and in a way it is a pity that the project could not have been held over until the Art Biennale next year. Nevertheless, the show has already attracted a great deal of attention and will run until 28 September.

Roginsky is variously described as a leading Soviet Nonconformist and/or the founder of Soviet Pop-Art. However it soon becomes clear, when one see the great masterpieces on show here in Venice, that he was far more than that. His work defies easy categorization but it is fair to say that he is one of the great painters of the twentieth century, on a par with Bacon, De Kooning, Rothko and Hopper. There are powerful echoes of the past too. The brushwork, particularly in the medium and large-scale paintings, unmistakeably recalls that of Goya and Velasquez. In short, he is a painter for all time and it is a mistake to regard him merely as an influential 'Russian' painter and leave it at that.

The work exhibited at Ca' Foscari falls into four categories. First there is a selection of small-scale still lifes of bottles, kettles, stoves, beakers and clothing. An obvious but interesting comparison might be made with the work of Giorgio Morandi, but whereas Morandi's vessels and objects project an air of serenity, Roginsky's are bursting with energy and, at times, humour. The common ground is that both Morandi and Roginsky breathe a kind of supernatural life into these unconsidered domestic objects, thereby transforming them into household gods - or at the very least, agreeable companions. Second there are scenes of life in Moscow: courtyards, subways, art exhibitions, street scenes and so on. Despite what we know to have been the chilly depression of life in Soviet Russia, the pictures are painted with compelling love and compassion. One feels feels the urge to visit the dusty old tenement, wait in line at the subway or endure the chatter of a vernissage. The third group of paintings is inspired by Soviet public information posters that exhorted people to eat well, keep clean and (a favourite of Roginsky's) brush their teeth thoroughly every day. The paintings are decorated with text, though not in the slick, typographical, comic-strip sense you find in the work of Liechtenstein and other Pop-Artists. Roginsky's lettering is painterly - very much woven into, rather then detachable from, the composition as a whole. In these sophisticated parodies and meditations, the nightmare world of Soviet prescription and proscription comes across in all its deadening banality. Leaving aside the political implications of these works and looking for artistic comparisons, the darker paintings of the series call to mind Goya's great cycle of masterpieces, the Black Paintings. They too dwelt, in part, on the progressive brutalization of the human spirit by forces beyond its control - war, tyranny, inescapable poverty, disease. Finally there is the large-scale work, in particular three great masterpieces: Pink Interior I and II (a diptych, 1981), Room with Lampshade (1981) and Bathroom (1981). These represent the fullest and finest flowering of Roginsky's art - and they alone would serve to establish his reputation as a great master. The diptych is at first sight nothing more than a decidedly static and shabby interior containing a ladder, ceiling lights, a small table and a chair. But it is alive with energy, so much so that it provokes (at least for me) a physical reaction, a kind of instant recoil and galvanization. The life-giving alchemy witnessed in the early paintings of bottles and stoves is practised here on a grand scale. Who else has shown such mastery? Very few. Bacon, Velasquez, Piero della Francesca, Tintoretto perhaps. Comparisons are helpful only in that they may serve to place Roginsky in the first rank.

The three videos featuring Roginsky (pictured left) that accompany the exhibition are intriguing and informative. We see him at work in his studio; delivering a masterclass to group of students; taking his dogs for a walk; visiting a museum; riding the Paris Metro. Illuminating utterances about art and life are delivered quietly and confidently with an agreeable undercurrent of Russian dottiness. He doesn't like the get-me works of tricksters like Picasso and Miro, favouring instead the self-effacing and contemplative approach of Cezanne. He agrees with Bob Rauschenberg that painting occupies the space between art and life. He resists the notion that he be classified as a Pop-Artist. He is a painter because it is something he knows how to do; he supposes he could have been a priest or a bank robber, but doubts he would have been any good in either calling. He says that conceptualists can "fuck off". He can't understand all the fuss about Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe; they are not to his taste. Nevertheless, he praises Warhol for the famous Marilyn image; it was an achievement to create such a masterpiece given Monroe's poor acting and brassy appearance. He thinks he is truly a 'bourgeois' man at heart. He always kept two dogs. The latest pair, who still live in Paris with his widow, Liana, are Stephane and Georges. "Do you like dogs?" asks his companion as they walk the creatures in the Bois de Boulogne. "Yes, I suppose I must. At least I empathise with them. See, here is a stick. Fetch it! See how they rush about..." He finds the French "incomprehensible" - an interesting remark given his self-imposed exile in Paris (Stephane and Georges may have had a greater influence on his life and work than the pooches could ever know: Liana Roginsky told me that had it not been for the USA's draconian quarantine regulations for pets, the Roginskys might well have ended up in New York rather than Paris). In another video we hear the maestro warbling the popular Russian song, 'Blue Trolleybus', the subject of one his paintings. We see him scrutinise a terrifying Bruegel depiction of disease and poverty: "What he was trying to convey was beyond painting...", he muses, an utterance that echoes a remark he made about his own work: "...a painting is nothing for me. The basic meaning of my paintings lies 'beyond' painting."

Turning to the dark side, the curators of this exhibition have not served Roginsky and his widow well. The many glaring faults reinforce my view that we should found a new school of art criticism, devoted principally to the praise or damnation of curators who do their best and worst to enhance or contaminate the work entrusted to their care. First, in this show, there is the deplorable design. The exhibition space at Ca'Foscari is far from ideal, but the rambling palace nevertheless presents promising opportunities. There are high ceilings on the piano nobile and an expanse of white-washable walls. There is natural light filtering in from the Grand Canal - and where natural light is scarce there is ample opportunity for setting up appropriate light rigs. The curators, however, chose the fashionable fad of constructing rooms within rooms, and oddly-shaped rooms at that: sharp angles, dark corners, dim lighting, partitions painted in drab, duck-egg non-colours - and dead, wasted space between the partitions. The result is vertiginous, claustrophobic, depressing and deeply provincial. It is as though the chi-chi paint manufacturers Farrow & Ball had sponsored the set design for an amateur dramatics production of Alice Through the Looking Glass. The layout is an affront to the oeuvre, particularly the large-scale works which are very nearly suffocated in the cramped environment. Then there is the text, both in the catalogue and stencilled on the walls. With the exception of unimpeachable essays by Yevgeny Barabanov and Richard Leydier, much of the writing is indescribably banal, coming across as the work of clueless and ill-prepared art history students, scraping the meagre barrel for whatever scraps of supposed erudition they can salvage in an attempt to disguise their lack of insight: "the structure of Mikhail Roginsky's still lifes, when interpreted as a semiotic system, is exemplary." and "...his regular trips to the newly-accessible Moscow served as a tuning fork for the accuracy of his artistic vision." Then, "...the mastery of his painting compels the spectator to perceive two-dimensional canvases as an equivalent of veracity." And, "The artist subconsciously literalises the concept of 'fabric', beginning the path from the object of representation - jackets, shorts and trousers." Further, "Roginsky subconsciously endeavours to liberate consciousness and purify to the point of emphasis, thereby introducing an element of the unconscious to the writing." The best howler is this: "As we know, painting is best understood by those directly involved, but the majority of artists, including Roginsky, do not possess the useful skill of self-commentary." What nonsense: few modern artists, with the possible of exception of Francis Bacon, have spoken as eloquently and succinctly as Roginsky about intention and method of work. It is hard to say what is worst in this collage of pseudo-intellectual nonsense: the woolly writing itself; the insolent presumption that one can second-guess the inner workings of an artist's subconscious; the arrogant proposition that we are entitled to more from an artist than the - let's call it "useful skill" - of painting a cluster of masterpieces; the sense in which texts like these run the fatal risk of distancing the viewer from the image rather than drawing him in. Still, I suppose the team as a whole have done us a service by liberating the work of this great master from the confines of Moscow and bringing it to the international stage. That is where he belongs - and one hopes that soon there will be major exhibitions of his work in London and New York. Perhaps it is best to see this exhibition armed with little more than Roginsky's most memorable comment: "My work is nothing more than a response to what I see and know." One might also recall Francis Bacon's definition of great art: "Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence — a reconcentration — tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time."

PS: No letter from Venice would be complete without a light-hearted look at behind-the-scenes politics. There is an interesting back story to the Roginsky exhibition, well worth relating. On the opening night the Russian artist Katia Margolis was denied entry to the vernissage, despite having been invited as the personal guest of the artist's widow, Liana Roginsky. Margolis was one of several hundred people - Venetians and expatriates - who had spoken out against Ca' Foscari's decision to award an honorary doctorate to Putin's Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky. Margolis's comments were more closely-reasoned and persuasive than most - and they clearly ruffled the feathers of Silvia Burini, babushka-in-chief at Ca' Foscari's Centre for the Study of Russian Art. Burini, who resigned after the Medinsky award, was furious to hear that Margolis had turned up at the opening - so much so that despite the personal intervention of Liana Roginsky herself, she resolutely refused to let Margolis in. This is ironic, given that Burini is as a great an admirer of Margolis as she is of Roginsky. Here is Burini writing on Margolis in 2007 (eSamizdat, 2007 (V) 3, p.266): "From this concept flows Katia Margolis's special vision of the world of objects, an animated and wonderful world, a real universe in which objects interact and communicate in the language of objects." Here she is again, commenting on Roginsky (p.31, Ca' Foscari's Mikhail Roginsky catalogue, 2014): "Roginsky's world of objects is an actual universe, a separate world with its own inner life, in which objects interact and communicate in the language of objects."

Friday, 16 May 2014

Letter from Venice: Poveglia sold to Luigi Brugnaro

The island of Poveglia in the Venice Lagoon was finally sold in an online auction earlier this week. There were only two bidders in the final round on Tuesday and the winner was the Italian businessman Luigi Brugnaro. His bid of 513,000 euros conclusively beat that of a local collective, the Poveglia Per Tutti Association, that had raised 440,000 euros in an heroic fundraising effort conducted on Facebook and in a series of meetings in the city over the last few weeks. The thousands of participants who comprise Poveglia Per Tutti were understandably disappointed, but the good news is that Brugnaro shares their views on how the derelict island should or shouldn't be restored and preserved.  He was keen to rescue it from foreign developers in the form of hoteliers or conference centre entrepreneurs. Furthermore Brugnaro, unlike the Association, has ready access to the considerable funds needed to restore Poveglia. He has earmarked 20 million euros for the restoration of its 18 derelict buildings. In a press conference immediately following the auction he made it clear that he would hold open public consulations to assess the feasibility of the many ideas locals have put forward for the use and preservation of the site. All good news one would have thought - but life is rarely if ever simple in the Serenissima.

In the run-up to the auction Brugnaro was simply identified as Mister X, a mysterious bidder from who-knew-where. Predictably, there was a flurry of lurid speculation as to who or what the mystery bidder might be: an inscrutable Chinese, Arab or Russian potentate; a Mafia consortium; an American hotel chain, Vladimir Putin, Bill Gates and so on. When he was eventually revealed as a white knight intent on rescuing a prime chunk of Venetian real estate for the Venetians, local reactions were (again predictably) mixed. Some see his bid as a miracle to be embraced. Others see it as an unfair outcome whereby a well-heeled individual has succeeded in overturning the unimpeachable bid of a valiant and stout-hearted people's collective, in this case Poveglia Per Tutti: yet again, the thinking goes, the man in the street (or on the canals in this case) has been thwarted by market forces. Venice is a small town with a rich and ever-increasing demonology - and Brugnaro is now firmly (and many would say unfairly) the target of those who would have him seen as an opportunist rather than a benefactor.

Leaving the aside the debate as to whether or not Brugnaro is a 'suitable' person to undertake the stewardship of the island, there are several further complications. Following the auction, we have now entered a thirty-day cool-off period during which all comers can challenge the 'fairness' of the sale. The Italian government instigated the sale of Poveglia and many other similar sites throughout Italy in an effort to reduce Italy's debts. The more money they make from this enterprise, the better for the state coffers. The less they make, the more they will be perceived to have screwed up and flogged the family silver for a pittance. Already there are rumblings in local and national government that Brugnaro's 513,000 euro bid is too 'low' and that the sale should be cancelled. Lorenzo Pesola, a spokesman for the Poveglia Per Tutti Association, described Brugnaro's bid as 'surreal', adding that every attempt should be made to block it. (So far there has been no comment as to whether the Association's bid of 440,000 euros is more or less 'surreal' than Brugnaro's of 513,000 euros. Presumably, if I've got the maths right, the 440K bid is 14.23% more 'surreal'.) In addition, many of Brugnaro's detractors have failed to grasp the huge difference between buying an unencumbered freehold and buying what Brugnaro has actually bought: a 99-year lease with a raft of restrictions attached to it. Why, say many, should a chap be able to buy an 18-acre island for the same price as an unprepossessing flat on the outskirts of Venice? The reality, of course, is that the 513,000 euros he has paid for the 'keys' is small change compared to the many tens of millions of euros that the island will demand of him during its restoration and throughout its upkeep. Some might say an entrepreneur should be paid for taking on a public-spirited committment of this sort rather than having to shell out for the privilege. But that approach would not have fitted in with the Italian government's determination to dispose of state property in a bid to reduce debt...

Any further squabbles could, if the worst came to the worst, scupper the sale once and for all and again put Poveglia at the mercy of the international open market. Next time round, Venice might not be so lucky: renewed interest in the island and the promise of a further auction might well result in the worst possible outcome. The city might lose the island for good to a foreign consortium. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Ideally, Venetians should embrace Brugnaro's promise of open consultation. Ideally, the Italian government should respect the fundamental principal of sale at auction to the highest bidder: the highest bid wins the day. After all they, as vendors, could perfectly easily have placed a reserve price on the island. Indeed, it might have been the 'responsible' thing to do. As it stands, if the government succeeds in blocking the sale, it will lay itself open to the usual (and unhelpful) accusations of incompetence and underhandedness that are a regular feature of Italian political life.

Turning to the island itself, it is a gift to any sensible developer with deep pockets and firm commitment to conservation. Despite its lurid past as a haunted plague burial ground - and the site more recently of a sinister retirement home presided over by a sadistic doctor - it is a place of considerable natural beauty. For over half a century, since the retirement home was closed, Venetians have regularly visited the island on family picnic outings or with their girlfriends and boyfriends. Moreover (see the helicopter flyover video), the island falls conveniently into three discrete sectors, each of which could accomodate a project completely in tune with the ideas already suggested by local groups and individuals. The northern sector of the island might easily be transformed into a world heritage conservation zone along the lines of nearby Alberoni on the Lido. The southern sector of the island, with its 18 derelict buildings, could accomodate a range of projects including an arts centre, a boating and sailing project for young people, a charitable foundation and conservation museum. The octagon fort might easily form the basis of a manageable and sustainable tourist attraction that would, if appropriately managed, have no adverse impact on other projects within the island. None of these proposals, or any minor modification of them, would limit public access to the island in any way. In a ideal world, the locals should join forces with Brugnaro and take advantage of the offer of public consultation. Let's see what happens over the next thirty days.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Letter from Venice: Tchaikovsky not Gay shock

Was Tchaikovsky gay? St Petersburg's best known bear
deliberates with his Minister for Culture
in their tasteful, pastel-themed, office.

Fur and feathers are flying at Ca' Foscari, Venice's principal university, following the award of an honorary doctorate to the Russian Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, a clean-cut Putin creature who loathes Dostoyevsky and would have us believe that Tchaikovsky was 'probably not' gay.

The Rector of Ca' Foscari, Carlo Carraro, finds himself in an increasingly embarrassing position, constantly called upon by faculty members, staff and the general public to justify the award. Over a hundred members of the university signed an open letter deploring the honorary docorate which was to have been awarded on Monday, 12 May. At first, Medinsky's detractors thought they had won the day when the award was 'cancelled' on account of 'previous engagements'. Not so. The ceremony will go ahead tomorrow, but with a significant twist. Silvia Burini, a Russian specialist at Ca' Foscari, will fly quietly to Moscow tonight and present the Minister with a gown and scroll tomorrow. No danger of an unseemly demonstration in the Serenissima.

Why all the fuss? After all, Medinsky's appointment is certain to unlock further and much-needed Russian funding for the appropriately named CSAR, the university's Centro Studi sulle Arti della Russia (Centre for the Study of Russian Art/Culture). Universities the world over are no longer shy of overlooking a few ideological barriers when it comes to fundraising in a worthy cause. Russian has been kind to CSAR and Silvia Burini, the babushka-in-chief of Venice's Russia project, no doubt felt she was doing the right thing by supporting Medinsky's award. Her colleagues, however, have very different views.

The resolutely sensitive Italian/Venetian intelligenstia is deeply riled by the appearance of Medinsky in Venice. Most of them think that the Minister of Culture's approach to 'Culture' is a ludicrous mish-mash of kindergarten nationalism and breathtakingly absurd revisionism. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, he says, have nothing to offer the Russian people. Tchaikovsky, he famously claimed, was 'probably not' gay (the composer, a queen of the first order, is too valuable a Russian cultural asset to dispose of, even in Putin's staunchly anti-gay administration). Medinsky's views on Serge Diaghilev are unrecorded, but many Venetians think the honorary doctorate is an insult to the great (and gay) choreographer's memory, especially since he died in Venice and is buried in the city's island cemetery, San Michele.

It is impossible now to assess the extent to which further Russian funding for CSAR - if it comes - might prove to be a Faustian pact. Would a condition of further funding be that the Putin/Medinsky party line on literature is the guiding light of the syllabus? Or would the university's Russian project remain its own master? Only time will tell.

Thank God for lovely old England, where the lunatic fringe is kept on the outer borders of politics where it belongs. In comparatively 'raw', 'new' and relatively unsophisticated countries like modern Russia and the USA, the voice of the redneck right is heard and tolerated as a natural condition of life. We're very lucky.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Withnail and I - in Venice at the Excelsior

Robin Saikia with Richard E Grant at the Grand Hotel Excelsior, Venice Lido.

On the one hand you have the exquisite jewel-case of the Gothic city, but only fifteen minutes away you find this unbuttoned paradise of plutocratic hedonism.

Venice, July 2013. Filming the Venice episode of Richard E Grant's Hotel Secrets, due to be broadcast on Sky Atlantic in summer 2014. The most recent episode in the series was devoted to the hotels of the French Riviera. Previous episodes explored the (often breathtakingly opulent) hotels of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Paris and Dublin. In this episode REG focuses on the grand old hotels of Venice, including the Excelsior, the Cipriani and the Gritti Palace. He asked me what had inspired me to write The Venice Lido (Blue Guides) - and I explained that the Grand Hotel Excelsior had played a great part.

REG and I discussed the enduring charm of the Grand Hotel Excelsior on the Venice Lido, completed in 1908 and still going strong. The first Venice Film Festival took place here in 1932 and the hotel is still a focal point of the Biennale, stars and their entourages descending in the first week of September during the festival. A vast Venetian-Moorish-neo-Byzantine extravaganza, the Excelsior gives guests a wonderful sense of space and luxury and was built directly next to the beach overlooking the Adriatic. Unlike many of the grand hotels it has an agreeably informal atmosphere - which is possibly why it was the favoured retreat of Winston Churchill who could often be seen here on the beach, huddled in a white robe, puffing a cigar and painting watercolours. I have always loved the Excelsior and have stayed here regularly since early childhood. In my view it is one of two hotels in Venice (the other is the Gritti) that one can safely recommend without any hesitation or qualification. One of the key defining features is, I think, that despite the hotel's proximity to central Venice it seems - in atmosphere and spirit -  a million miles away. On the one hand you have the exquisite jewel-case of the Gothic city, but only fifteen minutes away you find this unbuttoned paradise of plutocratic hedonism. As Thomas Mann very aptly put it, 'the warm sea in the morning and the ambiguous city in the afternoon...'. Another major point is that they like, rather than tolerate, children here - and the place is so vast that children can happily mess around on the beach or by the pool without impacting on the romantic ambience.

The hotel has recently undergone a major refurbishment from which the rooms and suites in particular have benefited. Tented ceilings, moorish filigrees and fabrics that recall Fortuny are very much the order of the day. There are two major parties given here every year, one in July and another in August to mark the major Italian summer holiday, the Ferragosto. This year's summer party will be held on the terrace, overlooking the beach, on Friday 26 July. At other times the hotel is a splendid place for non-residents to hang out. The Blue Bar is expertly managed by Tony Micelotta, formerly capo of the cocktail bar of the Duke's Hotel in St James's, London. Tony was recently awarded the Italian equivalent of the OBE for his services to hospitality. Such is his unflappable skill as a mixologist that he is regularly drafted in by the Italian diplomatic corps. He also perfected my own cocktail, the Death in Venice, a seductive and potentially lethal vodka martini.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Churchill and the Fascist Plot

Robin in Peter Nicholson's superb drama documentary, Churchill and the Fascist Plot (Channel 4). Click here to watch the documentary. It tells the story of how MI5, Special Branch and Winston Churchill foiled a right wing establishment plot to undermine Britain's war effort in WW2.

The best busker in Venice