Compared to the US, everything in Europe seems so close. It took me less than an hour to get from Antwerp to Amsterdam by speed train. As a custom, my first stop there is the Rijksmuseum, where I like to pay homage to Rembrandt. This time, I wanted to check out how Anselm Kiefer, the famous contemporary German painter, managed a near impossible task. He was commissioned to create a new artwork in response to The Night Watch, the most famous and biggest painting by Rembrandt, now at the Rijksmuseum. What Kiefer has done has created controversy.
Instead of evoking the multi-figure composition of Rembrandt's painting, Kiefer chose to suspend in large, glass vitrines several sculptures of gigantic dried sunflowers, which inevitably evoke the spirit of Van Gogh. As a result, critics claim that Kiefer failed to respond directly to Rembrandt, but I dare to disagree. There's very interesting information about Van Gogh, who was one of the first visitors to the Rijksmuseum when it opened in its current building in 1885. That's why I find it so smart and challenging that this German artist — instead of competing with Rembrandt directly, which would be totally insane — chose to make Van Gogh his ally. In the end, Kiefer has poetically and provocatively juxtaposed the spirits of two geniuses of Dutch art, one from the 17th century and another from the 19th century.
Another one-hour trip, this time by plane, brought me from Amsterdam to Barcelona. My first duty of the day there, of course, was to pay homage to the genius of Antoni Gaudí, especially to his Casa Milà La Pedrera, the famous apartment building designed by him. I have been in love with it since I saw Antonioni's 1975 movie, The Passenger. Do yourself a favor: see this movie, particularly the scene where young Jack Nicholson walks through this building and finds himself on its spellbindingly magnificent roof with its stunning view of Barcelona.
The only thing that could make me forget about Gaudí was a visit to the Catalonia National Museum of Art with its real showstopper of an exhibition, Realism(s). The Mark of Courbet. A number of great works by this famous 19th Century French painter were paired with works by various Catalan artists of the same period.
However, the biggest surprise was the juxtaposition of Courbet's The Origin of the World, once scandalous and even now, 150 years later, still notorious depiction of female genitals, with a new painting by famous Spanish artist Anthoni Tàpies mustered enough chutzpah and wit to go mano a mano with Courbet's gorgeous rendition of female anatomy. Take a look at the pictures on KCRW's website. In my opinion, the Old Boy totally rose to the occasion.
Kiefer & Rembrandt
May 4 – July 2, 2011
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Realism(s). The Mark of Courbet
Museu Nacional D'Art de Catalunya
April 8 – July 10, 2011 Barcelona, Spain
To see images discussed in Art Talk, go to KCRW.com/ArtTalk.
Banner image: La Pedrera roof architecture, designed by Antoni Gaudí and built between 1905-1910