Category: Visual Arts

PoliticsVisual Arts

Celebrating Berlin’s East Side Gallery

A mural on Berlin’s outdoor East Side Gallery. International artists have created more than 118 murals on a section of the former Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany during the decade’s long Cold War. Photo: Henry Lewis

This week Berliners have been celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This concrete barrier, which split the city into a West Berlin – controlled by the USA and its allies, and an East Berlin- where the Soviet Union dictated all aspects of daily life, was one of the most poignant symbols of the decades-long Cold War.

A series of events across Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe earlier in 1989 led to the eventual breaching of the Wall in central Berlin, allowing throngs of East Berliners to stream freely through the broken barrier and into the streets of West Berlin on the evening of November 9th, 1989. It was a pivotal moment in history that sent shock waves around the world and set the stage for peaceful revolutions all across Eastern Europe, finally leading to the break-up and decline of the Soviet Union.

Berlin’s open-air East Side Gallery has become a huge draw for tourists visiting the reunified German capital. Photo: Henry Lewis

A young Iranian immigrant and artist, Kani Alavi, watched that evening’s jubilant chaos in the streets from his apartment window, just opposite the famous central Berlin border crossing known as Checkpoint Charlie. What the young artist witnessed that night, and on those that followed, moved him to spear-head an effort to preserve a portion of the wall in order to create an open air gallery where artists could celebrate the triumph of freedom over oppression.

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ArchitectureVisual Arts

Mosaics of the Byzantine Empire

My journey to learn the secrets of mosaics began while I was working in Los Angeles in 1990. At the time, a contemporary revival of mosaic art was taking place in LA due to its creative vibe, great number of artists and the dry Mediterranean climate which is perfect for the preservation of outdoor mosaics.

I began creating my own mosaic works as I delved more deeply into the materials and techniques used in producing traditional mosaics, an art form that stretches back to ancient Greece and Rome. Like any poor artist, I collected materials wherever I could afford–asking inside retail tile stores and dumpster-diving near design centers. Having always had an affinity for the beauty, luster and durability of tile, I fell in love with this medium as a means of creative expression.

Byzantine mosaic artists built upon the mosaic traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. Two gladiators (c. 1st century CE) are depicted in this mosaic from the Roman archaeological site of Kourion on the island of Cyprus. Photo: Henry Lewis

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CultureTravelVisual Arts

Amazing Bogotá Street Art #2

As I wrote in The Amazing Street Art Scene in Bogotá, Colombia’s sprawling, high-altitude capital is a veritable feast for the eyes of those who love exploring streetscapes lined with beautiful–as well as sobering–images, painted by some of the world’s top street artists. The fact that this scene is constantly expanding and changing has been confirmed during my current visit, my fourth to the city.

Street art might be viewed as a metaphor for our lives, since the only thing assured for us, and street art, is change. As the paints and top layers of a wall or building begin to fade and crumble due to the inevitable weathering process, so too does the image that was once so vivid. While a painting may be more vibrant, crisp and colorful when it’s young (or freshly painted), aging often instills an image with more character and depth as the layers of paint, plaster, brick or concrete–once hidden beneath the fresh paint–begin to reveal themselves. While I appreciate vibrant colors and sharp outlines, I savor texture and depth of perspective even more.

These street paintings are in no meaningful order. They’re simply a selection I recently shot in the La Candelaria and Chapinero neighborhoods of Bogotá. While most of the images are to be enjoyed without comment, I’ve made notes on a few. I also wish to apologize to the artists who aren’t credited–those whose signatures don’t appear on their work. I’m just not organized enough to do the research at the moment. Enjoy!

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TravelVisual Arts

North Carolina’s Fresco Trail

The story of North Carolina’s Fresco Trail began in 1973 with the serendipitous meeting of a newly minted Episcopal priest, Father Faulton Hodge, and an ambitious young artist, Benjamin F. Long IV.

At the time, Father Hodge was working tirelessly to rebuild his parish and its two small historic churches, located in isolated areas of Ashe and Allegheny counties in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Long, who had recently returned from a multi-year apprenticeship with the noted Italian portrait and fresco painter, Pietro Annigoni, was in search of a church in his home state that would grant him permission to produce a fresco on an interior sanctuary wall.

As relationships are often built on mutual needs, the two men quickly struck a bargain. Despite the fact that Father Hodge had no money to pay Long for materials or labor, the artist was content with simply having his first fresco commission in his home state. Long created a fresco entitled Mary, Great with Child on a panel that would hang in Saint Mary’s Church at Beaver Creek.

Detail of artist Ben Long’s Mary, Great with Child (1974), one of three frescoes which can be seen in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, just outside West Jefferson, North Carolina. The artist presents a pregnant Mary in a very human style, rather than the often idealized form seen in many religious paintings. Photo: Henry Lewis

The work was well-received by parishioners, and soon Long added two more frescoes to the main sanctuary wall inside St. Mary’s that beautifully filled the space directly behind the alter. Local and international media followed, bringing Father Hodge more parishioners and artist Ben Long quite a degree of renown as a realist painter who was also skilled in the ancient art of fresco.

Long would go on to paint his interpretation of The Last Supper in Father Hodge’s second church, Holy Trinity, in Glendale Springs. By this time, word of the painter’s frescoes had spread to the extent that Long ended up with a team of twenty student-artists from around the USA and abroad to assist him.

Ben Long’s fresco of The Last Supper (1980) which covers the wall behind the altar in Holy Trinity Episcopal Church near Glendale Springs, North Carolina. Long was the model for Thomas, who is seen sitting on Jesus’ right side. Photo: Henry Lewis

Between 1974 and 1980, Long achieved notoriety by completing the first frescoes (four) in this region of the country, while Father Hodge became famous in his own right and grew his flock many fold from its humble beginnings. The serendipity of their meeting had been sweet indeed.

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Human RightsVisual Arts

Oswaldo Guayasamín: Ecuadorian Painter, Sculptor and Humanitarian

According to Pablo ‎Guayasamín, the artist’s son, Mestizaje, is a painting that ‎represents a young woman with great strength and spirit, a mixture of Spanish and the ‎indigenous Indian races. She further represents the ‎resurrection of a new race that is more humanitarian, has a better comprehension of its times, has values different from the ones we have and that is much less confrontational. She has ‎better understanding and respects the thoughts of others.‎ Photo Credit: Henry Lewis

Oswaldo Guayasamín is an Ecuadorian painter and sculptor whose work tells the story of prejudice, abuse and the suffering of indigenous peoples all across Latin America. His personal observations of institutionalized poverty, the horrors of war and violent revolutions during the 20th century all had a profound influence on his work.

Madre y Niño, 1985. The theme of motherhood is repeated in many of Guayasamín’s paintings. He had a deep reverence for his own mother and for the major role indigenous women play within their families and communities. Photo Credit: Henry Lewis

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CulturePoliticsVisual Arts

Art and Ideology in Hitler’s Third Reich

Before the Masked Ball by Max Beckmann, 1922. Photo: Henry Lewis, courtesy of Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Traditionally artists have provided a mirror image of the societies in which they lived, often being at the forefront of social change and either propagating or protesting against the dominate political ideologies of a given period. Such was the case following the rise to power of the Nazi party (Third Reich) in pre-World War II Germany when artists both fought against and worked hand in hand with the German government to influence public opinion.

Adolph Hitler and other party leaders rejected ‘modernism’ in the arts and sought to create a world of art and literature that celebrated the purity and goodness of the German people and the soil on which they lived (Blood and Soil). While lifting up the idea of German purity, the Third Reich simultaneously aimed to show the ‘sickness’ of the modern art movements of Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Symbolism, Post-impressionism and Germany’s own Expressionism.

Joseph Goebbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda from 1933-1945, views the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1937. Goebbels was one of Adolph Hitler’s closest allies and sought the harshest possible punishments for Jews. He promoted and fully supported the annihilation of millions of Jews and other ‘undesirables’. Photo Credit: Wiki

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CultureVisual Arts

Madonnas as Symbols of Devotion

Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer.
― Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

I love the way this Madonna and Child are placed ‘inside’ the living space.

Shrines to the Virgin Mary (often simply called a Madonna—and not of the singing variety😉) are as ubiquitous in Latin America as statues of Buddha are in Southeast Asia. Some Madonnas are culture-specific such as the Virgin of Guadalupe who can be seen adorning myriad spaces in many areas of Mexico. Outside the normal church setting, Madonnas can be spotted on street corners, in neighborhood parks and at the entrance to apartment buildings and individual houses.

Madonna and Child situated in a cozy nook just outside the front door of this house.

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CultureVisual Arts

Rediscovering Legendary Artist Frida Kahlo

Frida With Flowers in Her Hair, c. 1940. By Photographer Bernard Sliberstein.

I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.
– Frida Kahlo

It’s impossible to write about the life and work of Diego Rivera (as I did last week) without also discussing the life and work of his wife and companion Frida Kahlo who lived from 1907 to 1954. Though their work was very different in style—Rivera’s larger than life murals of Mexican history and Kahlo’s often quite discomforting gaze from her intimate self-portraits—their sense of dedication to commoners in general and Mexico’s indigenous people in particular was reflected in the art they created.

While Rivera was honored as a painter and master muralist of international renown during his lifetime, Kahlo was often simply seen as Diego’s wife–a woman who just happened to dabble in paints. By the time of her death, Kahlo had exhibited her paintings in her native Mexico City as well as in both New York and Paris. Her works were present in the private collections of some of the art world’s most prestigious patrons. Still, in her New York Times obituary, she was identified as, “Frida Kahlo, Artist, Diego Rivera’s Wife.”

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CultureVisual Arts

Diego Rivera: Master Muralist and Defender of Worker’s and Indigenous Rights

Avowed atheist, proud communist, tempestuous lover and principled artist—Diego Rivera was all of these and much, much more. The Mexican painter and muralist, who lived from 1886-1957, became one of Mexico’s most well-known painters during a career that bridged multiple styles and brought the artist international acclaim.

Along with his now equally famous 3rd wife, the painter Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s boisterous life and works of historical narrative have taken on legendary status. However, Rivera was far from being a mere celebrity. According to Lynn Zelevansky, American art historian and noted curator, “Rivera was one of the great innovators of 20th century art.”

Diego Rivera and his artist wife Frida Kahlo, c. 1931. This photograph was taken in New York while Rivera was organizing a retrospective exhibition of his works at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

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CultureVisual Arts

Street Art in Manizales, Colombia

“Art is something that makes you breathe with a different kind of happiness.”

~ Anni Albers

Manizales is a city of approximately 500,000 people  located high in the mountains above Colombia’s Eje Cafetero (coffee-growing region) in the west central part of the country. It’s known mainly for its many universities and colleges, its position as the business center for Colombia’s economically important coffee exports and for its steep hills–

heavy breathing here–

Manizales’ rather short list of attractions and cultural offerings can’t compete with those found in the capital Bogotá or Colombia’s  second-city of Medellín. However, as I discovered on a recent visit, it does have a street art scene that–while smaller in scope–compares favorably with its bigger sisters in quality.

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