A matter of contrasting fortunes?

Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger, when will we see this work again?

Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, when will we see this work again?

There are occasions when the juxtaposition of articles in a newspaper gives me cause for thought. Such was the situation yesterday evening as I sat with a cup of tea and perused the pages of The Guardian. On page three, there covering almost half of the page was a colourful reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s painting Les Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers). Painted in 1955, this picture captures the essence of the 19th century artist Delacroix’s painting of the same title, bringing it into the twentieth century through modernist representation and the bold use of colour. It is a truly magnificent work, and as someone who is an admirer of the Spanish painter’s work, I was pleased to see it presented in my daily newspaper.

The reason for the presentation of Picasso’s image were not related to its quality as a work of art, though it is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Indeed the accompanying article told the reader little about the painting’s history, the techniques deployed by the artist or its place in relation to other works from this period. Instead, the piece written by journalist Mark Brown was wholly focused on the astounding fact that Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger sold at Christie’s auction rooms in New York for a staggering £114 million pounds ($179,365,000), a record for any work of art. Both the seller of this work and the purchaser remain anonymous, but I suspect that their pulse rates quickened at the announcement of the astounding monetary figures involved.

By contrast, on page 40 of the same Guardian edition, Patrick Butler, the newspaper’s social policy editor, always a thought provoking writer, presented a piece in which he discussed the situation of children and families living in poverty in the UK. Just to be clear, the definition of a family in poverty used in this country, is those living on less than 60% of median national family income. In a well considered article, Butler suggests that the UK government target of reducing child poverty to less than 10% of the overall population by 2020, is unlikely to be met. The  government policy of austerity, which is set to continue following the recent general election,  appears likely to make this target unrealistic and may well exacerbate the situation to previously unrecorded levels. Indeed, he reports that the well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that child poverty, currently recorded at 17% is likely to rise to 21% by the end of the decade. A figure that should make anyone who has a concern for the welfare of children stop and think (or better still protest against this appalling situation).

In contrasting the two articles, I must make clear that I have no difficulties in accepting that an anonymous purchaser can afford to pay such an eye watering sum of money for a painting. (Though I do hope that we will all have the opportunity to see Les Femmes d’Alger hanging in a public gallery and that it will not simply linger in a secure bank vault from now on). The reporting that we have such wealthy individuals in society is simply a fact of life that we have recognised for many centuries. I do however, have major concerns that whilst the sale of a work of art for a huge amount of money is celebrated and features high on the world’s media agenda, we confine the report on child poverty to a few column inches at the foot of page forty in a single newspaper.

In considering the two articles in the same edition of the Guardian, there was one word that remained in my mind for some time after reading both. Anonymity appears to be a feature of both pieces. The vendor and buyer of the great Picasso picture both remain unknown. They have presumably chosen to remain anonymous, shunning personal publicity in part for their own protection from the media and possibly those who might target their wealth. In Patrick Butler’s article, those children who are currently living in poverty, and those likely to be in this situation in the very near future, are also unnamed. This is not a criticism of the journalist, who can do no more than report the facts as he has obtained them. I suspect that many such children and families would also wish to retain anonymity in order to maintain their personal dignity and in the hope that their circumstances might change.

It seems to me strange that what I would see as excessive wealth, and abject poverty are both seen as a legitimate cause for anonymity. I wonder what the underlying purpose of this secrecy may be? Could it be that there  are elements of guilt or shame associated with these situations? Might it be that anonymity ensures that we do not see these phenomena in personal terms and therefore feel more distanced from them? Certainly I find it difficult to relate to a situation in which I could spend £114 million on a painting (or anything else for that matter!), but I am sure that I probably also have only a vague understanding of what it must be like to live in poverty. By anonymising these situations I am protected from having to understand the personal experiences of others.

Perhaps it is one of the great virtues of newspapers that they can provoke this kind of thinking by publishing such contrasting articles on the same day. Both Mark Brown and Patrick Butler have presented us with facts, but it is for us to determine how we interpret these and to consider our emotional responses. I do hope that the new owner of Les Femmes d’Alger enjoys this Picasso masterpiece, and that he enables us to share in his pleasure. I also hope that Patrick Butler and the Institute for Fiscal Studies are proven wrong in their predictions and that life will improve for the many families suffering hardship and penury.

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Celebrating a sharing of cultural influences

Adivasi artists have adorned some of the walls of the Valley school with their paintings.

Adivasi artists have adorned some of the walls of the Valley school with their paintings.

When visiting the Valley School as a guest of my good friend Satish, trading a little teaching for the quiet and comfort of a forest life, I am always pleased to find myself amongst creative people. The Valley acts as a magnet to artists, musicians, dancers and poets and my stay this time coincided with that of a Dutch musician and sculptor who was giving some remediation to a work he installed in the grounds a few years ago. Also in attendance were an English story teller, who entertained a willing audience beneath the stars late into an evening, and two classical Indian percussionist who were working with groups of enthusiastic children.

The Valley school staff are committed to celebrating and disseminating the art and culture of India as well as exposing their pupils and the adult community to that from elsewhere in the world. Whenever I walk through the extensive arboreal grounds of the Valley there is evidence of the work of local and tribal artists, potters and sculptors. This sits comfortably alongside the work of children and staff from the school community and that produced by visiting artisans.

The regional variations of tribal art, examples of which can be found on the walls of this environment are a fascination that I have acquired in recent years. At home, a beautiful black and white depiction of birds in a forest, skillfully produced by a Madhubani artist from Bihar hangs in our lounge. My interest in these works meant that I was particularly delighted following my session at the CISCE conference for  school principals, to be presented with a Pithora painting by a tribal artist Rathya Najroo Shekla Bhai from Gujarat.

There is a childlike quality to this work which may understandably be categorised as naive. Yet the picture tells a clear and moving story, depicting life in a tribal community entered through the gateway at the foot of the picture. Here are portrayals of people, animals, birds and activities that typify and shape the culture of these distinctive and dignified people. All of this is surrounded by an intricate border formed by a filigree of patterns and shapes.

A Gujerati tribal painting on canvas portrays the bustle of village life

A Gujarati Pithora tribal painting on canvas portrays the bustle of village life

In enjoying this work and others like it I am aware of how this, and similar tribal art from around the world has influenced that of European artists. The Russian painter Marc Chagall projects a similar naivety in his depiction of animals such as the donkey in his painting “L’Ane Vert” (the Green Donkey) as is achieved in the creation of camels and horses in the Gujarati picture. The tiger in Rousseau’s famous “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” is not so far removed in his simplicity from those magnificent felines at the gates of this work.  Other artists, including Picasso and Matisse were openly influenced by tribal patterns and motifs and could see the underlying spirit of their apparent simplicity and the importance of the stories that they tell.

Just in case you should believe that artistic influences have travelled in only one direction, it is evident in the works of many of today’s Indian painters that they have drawn inspiration from the west. Jaii Deolalkar a talented artist who also works at the Valley spoke to me of her association with the works of Paul Klee, which is evident in a series of her paintings produced in recent years. Her works are untitled, enabling the viewer to see what they may in her art. Her work below with its furious reds and ochres and a depth of field created by brush strokes and shadows, demonstrates how the work of modern Europeans has shaped the thinking of an artist here in Bangalore.

Bangalore artist Jaii Deolalkar draws inspiration from, amongst others, Paul Klee

Bangalore artist Jaii Deolalkar draws inspiration from, amongst others, Paul Klee

This sharing of artistic styles and traditions must surely play a part in helping those of us who are devoid of creative talent, to understand the cultural influences and interpretations of those who have such gifts. The children who learn in this environment are certainly placed in a position of advantage.

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To be childlike may be a work of genius

L'Ane Vert by Marc Chagall. Childlike genius with a broad appeal

L’Ane Vert by Marc Chagall. Childlike genius with a broad appeal

I was in a school staff room briefly this morning and noticed a postcard pinned to a noticeboard depicting a painting with which I am familiar from the Tate Britain Gallery in London. As I was looking at the picture one of the teachers commented that it had been sent to the staff by a colleague who had recently retired, and that when it had arrived several of the teaching staff thought that the picture was of a painting done by a child. The picture “L’Ane vert” (The Green Donkey) was in fact painted by Marc Chagall the Russian artist who spent much of his life in France, where he died in 1985. Looking at the card I could see how someone may describe the picture with its somewhat naïve depiction of people, flowers and centre stage a sea green donkey, as somewhat childlike. However, I am sure that anyone looking closely at the original would have to agree, that it has been superbly crafted and composed and that it would take a child with real genius to produce work of this quality. Perhaps this creative genius is less easily seen on a postcard reproduction.

The conversation with this teacher was on my mind this evening and I found myself pondering a number of questions. Not least, about what it means to produce work that in its apparent simplicity achieves a childlike quality. I use the term childlike, as opposed to childish, because as I said, I cannot imagine “L’Ane vert” being produced by a child. One of the beauties of work such as this, is that children can often relate to the simple meaning of the picture and appreciate the way in which the artist has imagined and portrayed his subject.

When thinking about this encounter in the school this morning, I was reminded of a recent visit to the New Walk Museum and Gallery in Leicester with our good friends Tina and Philip. The museum houses a magnificent collection of ceramics produced by Pablo Picasso and donated to the gallery by Lord Richard Attenborough the actor and film director who won an Oscar for his direction of Gandhi. From 1954 Richard Attenborough along with his wife Sheila, became regular visitors to the Madoura pottery in Vallauris Southern France, where Picasso was based and worked for a number of years. Gradually over the years they built a collection of Picasso’s pottery and in 2007 as a memorial to their daughter and granddaughter tragically killed in the Tsunami of December 2004, they donated the collection to Leicester, the city in which Richard Attenborough was brought up as a child. The exhibition features plates, figures and jugs made by Picasso many of which feature simple designs depicting fish, birds or animals, or childlike human faces. As with Chagall’s painting, there is a directness and simplicity about many of these works, a playfulness that could be described as childlike.

This view of Picasso’s pottery was reinforced by a small collection of letters and drawings sent to the Leicester museum and gallery, from children who had recently visited as part of a school excursion. Amongst them was a simple crayon drawing on paper produced by a child under the heading “This is what I found out about their work.” Presumably the children had been asked to look at the work of various artists in the gallery and write something about these. This particular child’s work provided a charming representation of one of the Picasso plates “The pipe player.” Beneath the drawing the child had written:-

“I thought that Pablo Picasso painting was filled with different colours and it was like a little child had made the picture.”

Another childlike work of art exhibited at Leicester's New Walk Art Gallery and celebrating a child's appreciation of Pablo Picasso

Another childlike work of art exhibited at Leicester’s New Walk Art Gallery and celebrating a child’s appreciation of Pablo Picasso

This young artist had clearly related to Picasso’s “picture on a plate” and could see in its simplicity something to which he could relate as a creative force that is innate in most children. Far from being overawed by the undoubted genius of Picasso, the child viewed this masterpiece as familiar and well within his own compass.

Perhaps what we should take from artists like Chagall and Picasso is the recognition that expression and creativity can, even in the most apparently simple forms communicate to a broad audience. Picasso’s face on a plate had clearly impressed this child, and I suspect many others. Maybe this effect was different from that which the same work had upon myself and any one of the tens of thousands of other visitors who have seen this work of art in Leicester. Maybe that is one of the important contributions that art can make to our lives in reaching out to all of us in different ways and on different levels.

That Picasso and Chagall and many other artists retained a playful childlike quality in some of their work is perhaps an indication of the importance of play and the contribution it could make to all of our lives. Just as art does not need to be solemn and austere, (though at times it can and perhaps should be), neither should the lives of children be wholly controlled by formality and regulation. Those of us working in education would do well to remember this if we hope to see more Chagalls and Picassos in the future.

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