Category Archives: Beary Artist

Cabaret Gold

We knew him as Eli Gould from The Good Wife. Then in 2015 we heard his interview with Margaret Throsby for the Sydney Writers Festival. On Tuesday night we saw Alan Cumming in his cabaret show Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, in Perth for the first time.

He opened the show with Eurythmics’ Tell Me Why and Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know, before pausing to introduce himself, his sappy songs and to suggest getting a hanky ready. He was joined onstage by his Emmy winning musical director, pianist and sometime collaborator, Lance Horne, cellist Eleanor Norton and drummer Chris Jego.

Alan Cumming has a tattoo on his arm saying: “Only connect”. A famous quote from E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, expressing Margaret’s longing for people to reach out and truly communicate with each other, it has become his mantra as a performer. In his cabaret show he does just that, delivering a magical evening with an eclectic mix of songs, hilariously naughty stories of real-life adventures and misadventures 🙂 and deeply revealing stories of family traumas addressed with warmth and insight. When it comes to tattoos, Cumming used to have another one, the story of which makes for a hysterically funny anecdote – just one of many in the show.

Radiating oodles of charm, with a twinkle in the eye that lights up the stage, Cumming is a natural showman and a consummate storyteller. Marrying a flirty-dirty sense of humour, a camp sensibility, an unashamed sentimentality and a raw emotional honesty, he has you laughing one minute and wiping a tear away the next – the perfect combo for a seductively entertaining cabaret show.

Alan Cumming has performed Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs in Australia before, to tears and standing ovations on the east coast. Though essentially the same, the show has changed a little since then. At one point, he reads a poem about Trump by Stephen Siddall, English scholar, writer and director, written in the style of Robert Burns, which begins “You eunuch of thought” and gets progressively more colourful from there. In the US the odd person has booed, Cumming told us. With an eloquently raised eyebrow, he expressed amazement that a Trump supporter would have come to see him in the first place (Cumming makes no bones about his political persuasion) before adding a tongue-in-cheek but lethal take-down. No boos in Australia, just unanimous cheering from the audience. And to keep things topical, there was a quick jab at Margaret Court as well.

The music ranged freely taking in everything from Avril Lavigne’s Complicated to a Scottish ode called Mother Glasgow, a snarling rendition of Song of the Insufficiency of Human Struggling from The Threepenny Opera, an Adele/Lady Gaga/Katy Perry mash-up and even a perky little jingle Ecstasy he and Lance Horne co-wrote for a condom commercial. Miley Cyrus’s The Climb elicited a few giggles from the audience, but these quickly subsided as Cumming made the song his own. With a new arrangement by Horne, and Cumming’s gentle Scottish burr, it was as if we were hearing the song afresh. Musical theatre fans whooped and cheered at a cheeky Sondheim medley, with which Cumming illustrated his argument that the revered composer/lyricist keeps recycling the same tune. Sondheim, he tells us, didn’t take offense and, to his surprise, gave him permission to include it on a recording of the show. No matter what he’s singing, Alan Cumming connects so intensely with the lyric that he finds the emotional heart of the song and draws you into his interpretation.

His stories covered plenty of emotional ground from his moving account of the discovery of his grandfather’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to a deliciously funny tale about Liza Minnelli. Unleashing his Eli Gold accent at one point when discussing The Good Wife, he sent people into paroxysms of delight. At the other end of the spectrum, after talking about his father’s violent, abusive nature, he launched into a blistering rendition of Dinner at Eight by Rufus Wainwright (who also had a difficult relationship with his father), which left Cumming himself teary – and he wasn’t alone.

After an amusing riff about encores, he ended the show with Noël Coward’s wistful If Love Were All and Sondheim’s acerbic The Ladies Who Lunch. By the end of the evening we felt that he’d shared enough of himself to have given us an insight into what makes him tick, and a taste of what it would be like to be a friend of his. Most people were probably wishing they could hang out with him in his dressing room club, Club Cumming – which, as he explained, was where the idea for this show began.

Interview with Alan Cumming in Limelight Magazine

Alan Cumming received a 2016 Helpmann Award nomination for Best Cabaret Performer for Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs.

Crystal-clear Acoustics and Breathtaking Architecture

Advances in acoustics, increasingly sophisticated computer modelling and a better understanding of the politics of concert hall design – how to resolve the inevitable tensions between client, architect and acoustician – have largely resolved the dichotomy between how a building looks and how it sounds.

Concert halls and opera houses are also learning how to behave better in their urban environments. The days of separating a new performance space, such as the Opera Bastille in Paris, from the city by busy roads and forbidding fortress-like facades are probably over, too. Cities, in large measure reborn by the cultural economy, are loath to invest in cultural venues that are open only for performances, and only to those who can afford a ticket. The Oslo Opera House, designed by the innovative Snøhetta firm and opened in 2008, seems to rise out of the waters of the Oslofjord. It was designed to be both architecturally striking and inviting to the general population. You don’t need a ticket to enjoy its views of the water. And skateboarders have been given rights to use part of its landscape. The new Herzog & de Meuron-designed Elbphiharmonie, rising atop an old warehouse on the waters of Hamburg, also has a public plaza, animating and giving glamour to one of the cities’ grittiest areas.

Walt Disney Concert Hall
Grand Avenue, Los Angeles
Architect: Gehry Partners, LLP
Acoustician: Yasuhisa Toyota, Nagata Acoustics
Date Opened: 24 October 2003

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1992 – 2009

The Walt Disney Concert Hall was the main goal of my entire tenure at the LA Philharmonic, the main focus from day one. The project was up and down, came to a halt a few times, finally got going again – there was not one day during that time when I wouldn’t have thought about it, or been doing something connected with it.

The miracle or masterpiece quality of that design is that wherever you sit in the hall you never have the feeling of being far from the performers. So despite the volume, which is huge, we have the feeling that we’re not playing to an anonymous mass but to a couple of thousand individuals.

Frank Gehry was very clear that he wanted to build the perfect concert hall, not an ego trip. We also talked a lot about what the role of a concert hall should be. I was a child of the ’60s and ’70s, when the idea of the concert hall was as a shrine, on a tall site, that you’d approach as if it were a cathedral or temple. There never was the feeling of such a building being approachable or accessible, and of concert-hall music, or classical music, being part of wider life. We felt the Walt Disney Concert Hall had to be different.

I remember walking in two months after it opened and seeing a newly-wed couple having photographs taken against the hall, and a fashion photoshoot going on elsewhere, and I thought: we have become part of the fabric of LA. For a town challenged by its geography and traffic, in which most of the architecture is private, and with a complex demographic structure, I felt the Walt Disney Hall had become a symbol of the forward-looking side of LA – the one that reflects the young, dynamic side of the city.

Not to mention the beary side!

Inside and out 🙂

On the stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Sitting in first row at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall – Blue Ribbon Garden

Walt Disney Concert Hall has windows that allow natural light into the auditorium during matinees. It’s a small detail but emblematic of the possibilities now available to designers. The hall has been symbolically reconnected to the outside world, without any loss to what most critics consider its admirable clarity and warmth of sound.

Chief acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota combined the best aspects of orchestral halls in Tokyo, Berlin, Amsterdam and Boston in a bid to provide aural warmth and clarity; the result of his endeavours is a virtually perfect acoustic that has been lauded by everyone from audience members to critics to musicians.

Parco Della Musica
Viate de Coubertin, Rome
Architect: Renzo Piano
Date Opened: 21 December 2002

Geoffrey Noris, former Chief Music Critic of The Telegraph (UK)

Renzo Piano’s Parco della Musica, opened in 2002, changed the face and focus of concert life in Rome, previously based at the much smaller and acoustically inadequate auditorium on the Via della Conciliazione, just down from St Peter’s.

Parco Della Musica, Rome
Outdoor auditorium at Parco Della Musica, Rome

The three halls that make up Piano’s complex – the Sala Santa Cecilia (2800 seats), Sala Sinopoli (1200 seats) and Sala Petrassi (700 seats) – revitalised the former Olympics site north of the Piazza del Popolo. Seen from above, they have been variously likened to beetles or computer mice, but inside they are light, airy and adaptable.

Main hall at Parco Della Musica, Rome

Drawbacks of the main hall: no organ, a “health and safety” barrier round the gallery obscuring vision; a stage so high that the view for front stalls patrons is primarily of the players’ feet. But the natural materials of the interiors make the acoustics almost ideal and the warm colour schemes induce a sense of well-being.

Oslo Opera House
Bjørvika, (central) Oslo
Architect: Snøhetta
Acoustician: Arup Associates
Date Opened: 12 April 2008

Adrian Mourby, award-winning writer and producer, journalist and novelist. With a sentimental and funny streak!

The Operahuset, or Oslo Opera House, has proved a remarkably successful building, although the general view remains that there is a lot of bloom to the sound and that the overall building is more visually stunning than its auditorium. The brief to architects Snøhetta was to create a new home for Norwegian National Opera and Ballet that would be ‘accessible’.

Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House’s Niiiiice Curtain

The location, Oslo’s Bjørvika neighbourhood, was chosen because it was in need of urban renewal. The building had a subsidiary role in spearheading dockland redevelopment. Snøhetta opted for a roofline that rose from up from the waterline and the structure has been likened both to an iceberg and a stealth bomber that crashed into Oslofjord. The edges of the building can be used as a diving platform where they meet the water, and visitors can also walk up its sloping walls to the very top to admire the view. Passers-by often find themselves wandering into this fun structure without realising they have entered a concert hall.

Marina Bay, Singapore
Architect: DP Architects Singapore; Michael Wilford & Partners UK
Acoustician: Russell Johnson, Artec Consultants
Date Opened: 12 October 2002

Charlotte Smith, author

Few concert venues can boast the impressive state-of-the-art acoustic of Singapore’s Esplanade Concert Hall. Part of a purpose-built centre for performing arts on Marina Bay, the hall can adjust sound resonance and brightness via an ‘acoustic canopy’ of mobile reflectors above the stage and a ‘reverberation chamber’, comprising 84 computer-operated doors and flaps hidden behind its walls. It is also soundproofed, giving visitors the disconcerting impression of walking into a vacuum when empty of musicians and audiences.

Esplanade, Singapore

With all its audio concern, one might expect a less than elegant visual impact. But the sophisticated acoustic technology is all the more impressive for its seamless integration into the hall’s circular design. On the outside, two glass domes covered in triangular aluminium shades enclose the space – often described as giant insect eyes.

Esplanade, Singapore
HafenCity, Hamburg
Architect: Herzog & de Meuron
Acoustician: Yasuhisa Toyot, Nagata Acoustics
Date Opened: 11 January 2017

Michael Hammond, co-founder and Editor in Chief of World Architecture News

Ever since Jørn Utzon transformed Sydney forever with his boundary-pushing opera house in the ’60s, harbourside sites have been favourite with city planners anxious to capitalise on the wider impact of iconic architecture.

The Elbphilharmonie Hamburg is an inevitable result when engaging architects of the calibre of Herzog & de Meuron to design a concert hall on such a prominent waterside site. Drawing on their extraordinary success with London’s Tate Modern, one of the world’s most visited cultural venue, the architects have pushed further and provided a dramatic addition to the cityscape.

Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg

Accommodated inside the building are two concert halls, a hotel, restaurants, a gym and residential apartments, further morphing the traditional topology of a concert hall with the demands of a 21st century city. Between the old warehouse and the glass structure is the Plaza – a public viewing area that extends around the whole building.

Main hall, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
Main Hall, view from the stage, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg

Harpa Reykjavík

Harpa Reykjavík
Architect: Henning Larsen Architects
Acoustician: Artec Consultants
Date Opened: 2 August 2008

Michael Hammond, co-founder and Editor in Chief of World Architecture News

The magnificent Harpa concert hall, located on Reykjavík harbourside, is unusually defined by its facade. It’s a powerful statement created by fusing the creative visions of Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects and internationally acclaimed artist, Olafur Eliasson. The sparkling glazed fenestrations transform the public areas, which are now often seen as being almost as important as the performing spaces themselves.

Harpa, Reykjavík

It is probably no coincidence that although Eliasson is Danish, his parents are Icelandic, allowing the citizens of Iceland to have at least part ownership in this world-class success at a difficult time in their history.

Seen from the foyer, the halls form a mountain-like massif that similar to basalt rock on the coast forms a stark contrast to the expressive and open facade. At the core of the rock, the largest hall of the building, the main concert hall, reveals its interior as a red-hot centre of force.

Harpa, Reykjavík
Main hall, Harpa, Reykjavík
Töölönlahti Bay, Helsinki
Architect: Marko Kivistö, LPR Architects
Acoustician: Yasuhisa Toyota, Nagata Acoustics
Date Opened: 31 August 2011

Manuel Brug, Music Editor, Die Welt

Helsinki already has two halls by Alvar Aalto – the brickstone House of Culture and the Finlandia Hall, looking like a marmorial cliff. Both of them are more famous for their design than for their acoustic. It took 20 years of planning, some diplomacy and a significant budget to finally open the Musiikkitalo in August 2011.

Prominently situated between the bay, Parliament, park and National Museum, it is the new home of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Sibelius Academy.

Lobby, Musiikkitalo, Helsinki
Lobby, Musiikkitalo, Helsinki
Musiikkitalo, Helsinki

The democratic Musiikkitalo deliberately reveals its treasures only after one actually enters the building. In the lobby huge panoramic windows look into the dark stained concert hall. Not only does the rather understated building have an auditorium with 1700 seats and five smaller halls – there are also three saunas.

Main auditorium, Musiikkitalo, Helsinki

The stairs and stand of the auditorium are dazzling; the asymmetrical seats remind one of jammed rafts. The big hall resonates richly, but at the same time transparently; acoustics guru Yasuhisa Toyota was involved in the planning process from the start and did a great job here, where it is all about communication and not worship.

DR Concert Hall Copenhagen
Architect: Jean Nouvel
Acoustician: Yasuhisa Toyota, Nagata Acoustics
Date Opened: 17 January 2009

Andrew Mellor

In marked contrast to the masculine, ordered browns and blacks of Helsinki’s Musiikkitalo, Danish Broadcasting’s new concert hall in Copenhagen is assuredly female inside; sultry, curvaceous and clothed in aromatic reds and oranges. It is also spatially deceptive – a dreamlike melting of the vineyard terraces that plays as much with expected architectural biorhythms as the new Elbphilharmonie auditorium in Hamburg does.

Main auditorium, DR Concert Hall, Copenhagen

When the Koncerthuset opened in 2009, people spoke of a disappointing acoustic, but in truth it was probably more that the orchestra hadn’t had time to get used to playing here. These days the hall sounds clear and lively, but controversies remain: its out-of-town position and extortionate cost have had repercussions throughout Denmark’s musical and broadcasting communities, but they’ll be outlived by the boldness and wonder of Nouvel’s interior.

The Sage Gateshead
Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, UK
Architect: Foster and Partners
Acoustician: Arup Associates
Date Opened: 17 December 2004

Adrian Mourby, award-winning writer and producer, journalist and novelist

Viewed from Newcastle, The Sage Gateshead looks like a glass chrysalis abandoned on the shores of the river Tyne. This curved structure is a carapace enclosing three performance spaces, an increasingly common venue concept. The 1700-seater main hall has a warm and enveloping acoustic that offers clarity with reverberance. There’s good support for chamber orchestras yet the hall is never too loud for a large symphony orchestra. Modelled on the Musikverein in Vienna, Sage 1 has ceiling panels and curtains that can be raised and lowered to change the sound-profile of the hall.

The glass carapace makes good use of the view over the river Tyne and has made the building very popular. For too many years both Newcastle and Gateshead seemed to turn their backs on the river that had nurtured them. The Sage is a real step forward.

New World Centre
Miami Beach, Florida
Architect: Gehry Partners, LLP
Acoustician: Yasuhisa Toyota, Nagata Acoustics
Date Opened: 25 January 2011

Michael Tilson Thomas, Artistic Director of the New World Symphony and Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony

I’ve known Frank Gehry since I was a kid and he has a great love of classical music. We had talked over the years about what a concert hall could do. In this case, the hall at the New World Centre is the campus of the New World Symphony, ‘America’s Orchestral Academy’, so the building had to reflect that with lots of practice and ensemble rooms, and places to carry on all our long-distance learning. The hall itself is small – it only seats 750 people – but it’s appropriate for serving the purposes of the Academy. There’s also a large rehearsal room and other ensemble rooms, so lots of rehearsals can go on simultaneously.

I originally knew Yasu (Yasuhisa Toyota, acoustician) back in Japan where I ran the Pacific Music Festival. We had a warm relationship, and I was able to say to him, “I want an acoustic where you can float the note but still have clarity”. When the building was opened, by design it was quite reverberant – after two months we undertook the first of several tweaks to turn it down, and I’m now very happy with it. A real test for the hall was when we performed Janacek’s Sinfonietta, for which we used the hall’s multiple stages – it was breathtaking. Soon afterwards, Jordi Savall did a solo gamba recital and it was fabulous – so intimate and focused. We have a certain control over acoustics, but that’s only necessary during rehearsals – for performances, the acoustic just adapts itself to the music that’s being performed.

New World Centre, Miami Beach
New World Centre, Miami Beach

The mission when we started as to encourage the fellows [students] to be music communicators. To that end, a lot of thought went into how the building looks. When you approach it, you can see through the glass and you’re compelled to go in. Once inside, you see all these fantastically shaped structures – unmistakably Frank Gehry. We’re exploring a more impulsive approach to concert-going – there are some concerts that are only half an hour long so that, if people are in the area, they can just drop in. In the same way, thousands of people come to see our concerts projected live on the screen outside the building.

New World Centre, Miami Beach

The Centre has been transformative to Miami – it has created a whole new feeling of a city centre. To have this magnificent building and a park given over nearly all the time to very sophisticated things – our concerts, a whole array of video art that’s exhibited – is a wonderful thing.

Melbourne Recital Centre
Architect: Ashton Raggatt McDougall
Acoustician: Arup Associates
Date Opened: February 2009

The concert halls of Australia may be more famous for their defects than for their virtues, the Sydney Opera House being the iconic example of grand designs with poor acoustics. That all changed in 2009 when Melbourne Recital Centre opened its doors, eliciting praise from musicians and concert goers alike. It’s a hall everyone seems to enjoy being in. In a survey conducted by Limelight magazine of acoustics in halls across Australia, performance, critics, industry experts and audience members voted MRC best for Chamber Music and second-best overall. (Most outstanding acoustics in Australia, according to the survey, belong to the Perth Concert Hall. On the outside it may be on the ugly side, an example of Brutalist architecture, but musicians who tour nationally know that beauty and great acoustics come from within! Sydney Opera House’s 1,507-seat Opera Theatre was voted the worst of 20 major classical music venues around the country.)

Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre

Part of the MRC success is the no-bells-and-whistles shoebox shape of the main hall, which architects Ashton Raggatt McDougall modelled deliberately on the great halls of Europe – the Wigmore (London), Musikverein (Vienna) and Concertgebouw (Amsterdam). The MRC’s undulations of Hoop Pine plywood cleverly imitate the 19th century halls’ complex surfaces of caryatids, dentils, coffers and what-have-you. The only geometrical deviation from the shoebox model was made to provide sightlines for the entire audience. The principal Elizabeth Murdoch Hall (named for its benefactress) contains no proscenium, just a stage, and can extend to house orchestras (of up to 45 musicians).

Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre

The hall’s sound? Rich and reverberant with plenty of detail. The MRC has made the Melbourne public more pernickety when it comes to sound, as they now possess a truly audiophile venue. A concert venue must be a beautiful instrument in its own right; and the wood panelling of the MRC makes it sound, not just look, like one.

Melbourne Recital Centre

Little Puffles and Honey have only visited one of these eleven amazing concert halls! Not a good record! I can see a whole lot of suggestions coming my way 🙂 Luckily by the end of the year, they will visit another five!! Busy little bears 🙂

Original article in March 2012 issue of Limelight magazine.

The Genius of Camille Claudel

An hour by train from Paris, and a 5 minute walk from the train station in Nogent-sur-Seine, is the new Musée Camille Claudel.

Musée Camille Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, designed by Adelfo Scaranello

The museum was founded in 1902 with donations from Paul Dubois (1829–1905) and Alfred Boucher (1850–1934), two accomplished sculptors who lived and worked in Nogent-sur-Seine. In 2013, the municipality decided to relocate and rename the museum from Musée Dubois-Boucher to Musée Camille Claudel in honour of Claudel, and to focus the new display around 43 pieces by the artist, many of which were acquired in 2008 from Reine-Marie Paris, the artist’s great-niece and biographer.

This is the largest public collection of works by Claudel; it is shown here alongside more than 150 works by other 19th century sculptors, a combination of the municipal museum’s existing holdings, and pieces on long-term loan from 15 other French institutions. The Claudel family lived in Nogent-sur-Seine, a small town south-east of Paris, for only three years during Camille’s adolescence. In a sense, the Musée Camille Claudel is unlike other museums set in ‘birthplace’ towns, where the landscape, people and economy relate to an artist’s early work: the Musée Matisse in the weaving town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis, for example, or the Musée Courbet in Ornans, in the farming and riverfishing Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region.

The Musée Camille Claudel is designed by Adelfo Scaranello, who has inserted simple, light-filled rooms into the brick shell of the former home of the Claudel family, and designed an extension. The upper floor boasts a panoramic view of the attractive small town, its wealth derived from processing cereals and making sophisticated fire-fighting equipment as well as from the nuclear power plant, the towers of which are visible in the distance. The original collection contains enormous plasters, some rather bland, that have subjects related to historical, allegorical and classical themes – such as Gabriel Jules Thomas’s Man Fighting a Serpent (1893) and Paul Dubois’s Equestrian Statue of Joan of Arc (1889). Claudel’s more intense work is well-placed in five modest-scaled galleries, in which the emphasis is on the evolution of her skills and voice, and on her variations of a single model in terracotta, bronze, marble, and onyx. These displays of her work are wisely not encumbered by too much biographical information, since this would defeat the purpose of understanding the artist’s legacy in its own terms.

Camille Claudel in 1884 (20 years old)

Born in 1864, Claudel began modelling as a young girl and, at her father’s request, she was given occasional tutorials by Boucher. When she moved to Paris, along with her mother and siblings, Claudel attended art classes at the Académie Colarossi, a studio run by an Italian sculptor. This private way of studying art was the only way open to women, since they were denied access to the École des Beaux-Arts, the ultimate goal being the Prix de Rome. Claudel rented a studio for herself at 117 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, which she shared with three English women artists: Amy Singer, Emily Fawcett and Jessie Lipscomb. On occasion, Boucher would visit the young women to offer his advice. He continued to visit her until he went to Rome in 1882, at which point he asked Rodin to take his place.

Camille Claudel and Jessie Lipscomb in their studio, 117 de la rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Paris, 1887

Claudel met Rodin, probably in 1883, when he was working in a studio at 182, rue de l’Université. Camille soon left her studio to become an habitué of Rodin’s. Camille the habitué soon became Camille the student, the mode, the collaborator, the composer, the companion, the lover, the mistress and the muse of Rodin. After a visit to the Salon in early 1883, the painter Léon Lhermitte wrote to Rodin: ‘It was with great pleasure that I saw Mlle Claudel’s figure of a man. It reflects the greatest credit on your teaching.’

Claudel’s relationship with Rodin developed quickly and they embarked on an intense affair that lasted for more than 10 years. The complex story of how the pair overlapped in this period – both personally and professionally – and the years after, is sympathetically told in Claudel & Rodin: Fateful Encounter, the well-researched catalogue to the touring exhibition organised by the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and the Musée Rodin in 2005–06. As sculptors, their lives were conditioned by the need to show new work in the annual Salon, to finance an expensive vocation by attracting potential buyers and good critical notices, and to endure the frustrations of protracted negotiations and cancelled or rejected commissions with fortitude and self-belief. From the research presented in this, and other publications, we can be certain that Rodin was beside himself with love. Camille was wilful, possessive and jealous, demanding that he sign a bizarre contract in October 1886; the conditions included a promise to renounce other women, including favourite models and prospective students, to bring her along on his travels, and to marry her in 1887. In return she agreed to receive him in her studio four times a month.

From the outset, Claudel absorbed the method Rodin advocated, to ‘model solely by profiles’ and to pay close attention to the individual model as they moved freely. Adèle Abbruzzesi, one of Rodin’s favourite models, posed in a squatting position, head turned, hand on breast, for his radical work Crouching Woman (c. 1881–82) – which is displayed in the museum next to Claudel’s work of the same name from around 1884–85. Octave Mirbeau referred to Rodin’s cast as ‘the frog’; Claudel’s work, however, is more realistic and believable. The young figure is fuller, and the breasts drop with gravity as she shields her bowed head with her arm. It is just as much a sculptural breakthrough as Rodin’s Crouching Woman.

Camille Claudel, Crouching Woman (c. 1884–85)
Auguste Rodin, Crouching Woman (c. 1881–82)
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC

The photograph taken in April 1887 by the fiancé of a fellow pupil (above) shows Claudel working on the large standing sculpture, Sakountala, and it suggests something of her competitive spirit. The two-person group loosely describes the final scene in the story by a Sanskrit poet, in which Prince Douchanta decides not to marry the maiden Sakountala, and his ensuing regret and return. The male figure kneels to embrace the female and ask forgiveness; Claudel’s first title was L’Abandon (The Abandonment). The contact between the couple seems sweaty and tense, and more human compared to Rodin’s lyrical couples in Eternal Idol and Fugit Amor, dating to the same period.

Camille Claudel, L’Abandon (The Abandonment) (c. 1886–1905)

One interpretation of Claudel’s masterpiece L’Âge mûr (The Age of Maturity), begun in 1893, is that it represents a male figure being drawn away by a personification of old age, while simultaneously being held back by a figure of youth. But, when linked to a group of angry drawings by Camille, one of which caricatures Rose Beuret, Rodin’s long-term companion, as a witch with a broom, and another showing her glued by her backside to Rodin, the three-figure sculpture, so disturbing and unforgettable, clearly seems autobiographical. Beuret is wrapped in Rodin’s embrace, and Claudel is on her knees, begging him to choose her. The bronze version includes a sweeping backdrop that goes from undergrowth to canopy, fashioned with deep recesses; it was described by the artist’s brother, Paul Claudel, as related to ‘the Wagnerian melopoeia’ – an example of how he projected his own poetic sensibility on to her work while overlooking its message of desperation. The young female figure is known as The Implorer; Claudel’s variation of the older woman, Clotho (1893), loops skeins of stringy hair around her emaciated body in an image that invites parallels with Donatello’s wooden Mary Magdalene (c. 1455).

Camille Claudel, L’Âge mûr (The Age of Maturity) (1890–1907)

Claudel felt that there was much to be learned in Rodin’s studio. And by all accounts, she worked long and hard and not just on beginner’s exercises, but on works of great quality. What became intolerable to Claudel was the fact that Rodin continued to exploit her, or. as she said in a letter to her brother in 1907, “uses me in all sorts of ways”. The conflict between her and Rose Beuret continued, but more telling, perhaps, was the anger or frustration she felt over the fact that her vision of art as expression of something silent in nature did not coincide with Rodin’s vision. By 1888, the relationship between Claudel and Rodin had already deteriorated; leading to their final separation in 1893.

During these same years, Claudel met the young composer Claude Debussy and she realised that she was not alone in her preoccupation with the mysterious and the unspoken. With Debussy, Camille acquired a taste for sonatas in solitude, in utter quiet. Consequently, Camille Claudel began to distance herself from Rodin; she began to see her art more and more as antithetical to the art of Rodin. She saw her art as an art of the unspoken, of inner solitude, of intimacy, of the ideal of beauty and truth that differed from the art of Rodin. No words can express more clearly the essence of Claudel’s art at this time and, by implication, point to its difference with Rodin’s art, than the words of Debussy himself:

In the works sculpted by Camille Claudel there is a fixed kind of beauty that her gestures already sketched.. This kind of beauty realised by a woman… has plastic eloquence of an extraordinary power blended with a deep accent of intimacy, as an echo of secret or familiar emotions sprung from a strong interior where they can sing at mid-voice.

Camille Claudel, La Valse (The Waltz) (1889–before 1895)

In the late 1890s Claudel changed artistic direction in her experiments with groups of small-scale figures placed within sculptural environments, which were inspired by watching people on the street or in a train carriage. The Gossips (1893–1905) depicts an animated huddle of four nude yet perfectly coiffured women, while the introspective Deep Thought (c. 1898), sees an ordinary woman wearing a long dress kneel before a fireplace, her arms raised to the mantelpiece. Combining bronze and marble, one version features logs in the hearth, the other leaves the setting empty. Addressing mental frailty from a female perspective, as so many of her works do, marks Claudel’s art as unusually courageous. This candour, and the quality of her art, have rightly earned her dedicated fans, just as Frida Kahlo’s paintings have by communicating her physical pain and similar loneliness.

Claudel’s creativity came to an end when she was 41, following years of growing paranoia. Persée et la Gorgone (Perseus and the Gorgon) (1902), commissioned by Countess Arthur de Maigret and carved by François Pompon, is a large marble endowed by Claudel with frightening neoclassical overtones; one assumes that the raised trophy head of Medusa is a self-portrait. By this point in her career, Claudel was convinced that she was being persecuted, especially by Rodin; in her letters she complains of his ‘malevolent hand working behind the scenes to divest me of all my friendships’. Rodin, like her parents and supporters – among them Mathias Morhardt and Eugène Blot – sent Claudel regular stipends to help ward off impoverishment and continually tried to arrange sales and opportunities for her to show her work. Rodin wanted a room devoted to Claudel’s work in the future Musée Rodin, and one eventually opened in 1952.

Camille Claudel, Persée et la Gorgone (c. 1897–1902)

The last portrait Claudel made was of her younger brother Paul, a writer and diplomat. Paul Claudel à 37 ans (1905) captures his unwavering look; by this point he was a public figure who disapproved of his sister’s affair.

Camille Claudel, Paul Claudel à 37 ans (1905)

Camille’s father died on March 2, 1913. As soon as this last support was gone, the Claudel family quickly moved to have Camille committed. On March 10 Camille was forcibly interned in an asylum near Paris. Her diagnosis was paranoid psychosis. Some of her supporters voiced objections, but these came to naught. When the war began Camille was transferred to the Montdevergues asylum in the south of France, where she remained until she died in 1943.

In 1929, Camille’s old friend and colleague, Jessie Lipscomb, who had returned to England and married, found out where Camille was hospitalized. She and her husband then visited her in Montdevergues. Jessie insisted after their reunion that Camille had shown no signs of madness. Jessie’s, husband, William Elborne, took two photographs. One shows Camille alone, seated with her arms folded. The other shows Camille and Jessie seated together.

With her arms folded around herself, Camille does not seem to see Jessie’s hand softly reaching out to her. The long years of isolation have taken their toll; Camille looks empty and withdrawn.

Social isolation is probably the worst approach to treating paranoia. The asylum in Montdevergues did not provide adequate or any treatment. So Camille Claudel lived in a veritable hell.

Camille’s rejection by her family reflected the way mental disorders were considered at the time – mad relatives were hidden away from society and ignored. Camille’s mother was so scandalized by her daughter’s behaviour and so constrained by her rigid religion that she never once visited her in hospital. Louise also could not bring herself to have anything to do with her wayward sister. Paul, despite their closeness as children and despite his enthusiasm for her art, had little to do with Camille after she was admitted to Montdevergues. He visited her only a few times, and refused all of her requests to be released or transferred closer to the family.

In a photograph taken in 1951, the elderly Paul Claudel holds onto a bust Camille made of him when he was young. The photograph is imbued with regret. Yet it is not clear whether it is for himself or his sister.

My guess is that his regret is for himself.

One of the most insightful impressions of Camille is a plaster cast by Rodin, aptly entitled The Farewell, created the year before their final separation. Both the hands and the face are exquisitely moulded. The sculpture is ambiguous. Are the hands reaching up to stop the tears, to shut out the world, or to gather something in?

Based on articles in the Apollo Magazine and on Creature and Creator.

Thinking, Thinking…

He’s still thinking!

I know! Cupcakes are the best!

Only a handful of sculptures are sufficiently famous to achieve the dubious honour of reproduction on T-shirts and fridge magnets. Michelangelo’s David probably leads this pack but close behind must be Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. Much parodied – the pose seems to invite mocking emulation – the work features in the exhibition in Paris’ Grand Palais which marks the 100th anniversary of the sculptor’s death.

Rodin was the pre-eminent sculptor of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist era, and The Thinker and The Kiss are among the most instantly recognizable sculptures in the world.

Yet Rodin did not win recognition easily: he was already 36 when his life-size figure The Age of Bronze was accepted by the Paris Salon. Even then accusations were made that it had not been sculpted but cast from a living figure. The charge was a foretaste of the hostile criticism that was to greet most of his work, and which at first caused him much distress.

Auguste Rodin was born in 1840, the second child and only son of Jean-Baptiste Rodin and Marie Cheffer, first-generation Parisians of modest means. Nothing in his family background or situation suggested that he might become an artist. At age thirteen, however, Rodin decided to enrol in the Ecole Spèciale de Dessin et de Mathématique, a school with the mission to educate the designers and the artisans of the French nation. In the course of his studies, young Rodin articulated larger goals for himself, specifically to become a sculptor. He entered the competition for admission to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts three times, but each time met with failure.

Rodin escaped the rigid Neoclassical training that still dominated its curriculum in the mid 1850s, but forfeited the early success that École graduates were ordinarily assured. Having failed to enter the elite track, a solitary Rodin plied two paths, one to pay his bills, the other to bring him to the attention of the great world of art in Paris. Neither worked well. Although he was engaged in the studio of Albert Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887), one of the most visible and productive sculptors in Paris during the Second Empire, Rodin remained quite poor; and though he produced a work in 1863-1864, The Man with the Broken Nose, that he considered an excellent work of sculpture, surely worthy of entry to the Salon, twice it was refused. During this period of ill-starred beginnings, when Rodin was in his twenties, he also assumed family responsibilities. In 1864 he began living with Rose Beuret, who became his lifelong companion. In the same year she gave birth to their only son, Auguste Beuret. It was a period marked by struggle, discontent, and poverty, only brought to an end by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

The war created a situation in which sculptors could hardly hope to find work in Paris. Fortunately for Rodin, Carrier-Belleuse had a major commission in Brussels, where the city was building a new Bourse. Rodin’s Brussels residency began in March 1871. Although his employ with Carrier-Belleuse soon ended, he found a Belgian partner, Joseph Van Rasbourgh (1831-1902), with whom he was able to continue working at the Bourse. The work with Van Rasbourgh developed into a real partnership, with Rodin as the primary administrator responsible for the day-to-day operations of a studio from which some fine public commissions were brought to completion between 1872 and 1874.

Brussels Stock Exchange
Sculpture detail on Brussels Stock Exchange

Rodin’s most notable single figure of his Brussels period, however, was the one he undertook on his own in 1875. His desire to understand the male body combined with his ambition to create an outstanding work that would establish his reputation led Rodin to embark on a month-long trip to Italy between February and March 1876. There he would study the figures of antiquity, of Donatello, and especially those of Michelangelo. The following winter Rodin exhibited this figure in plaster in the rooms of the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire in Brussels, calling it Le Vainçu (The Vanquished One). It became his ticket back to Paris, where it was accepted for the Salon of 1877 under the title The Age of Bronze. It is Rodin’s first recognized masterpiece.

The Age of Bronze

The Age of Bronze was a controversial figure, mostly because it looked so close to life that critics raised the question if it might not be a cast from life. One man who admired it unreservedly, however, was Edmund Turquet, a liberal politician serving in the Chambre des Députés, who, in 1879 became Undersecretary of State for fine arts. Turquet was ambitious and hoped to be the commissioner for many public works of art. One of his most unusual ideas was to commission a bronze door for the Musée des Arts Décoratifs – unusual because no such museum existed, although there was much talk about creating one. Turquet offered his strange commission to Rodin. The museum was never built and the door was never cast in Rodin’s lifetime, but The Gates of Hell – as we now call it – was Rodin most important work. It was the canvas across which would pass the totality of his imagination; it was the surface from which he would draw the creations of an entire career.

The Gates of Hell

The decade of the 1880s, when Rodin was in his forties, was the most intense and productive of his entire life. It was the time when he modelled the majority of the figures for his “doors”, as he called them. The title, The Gates of Hell, was one that began to appear in the writing of several critics around 1886-1889.

The Gates of Hell detail

The Gates of Hell feature hundreds of figures modelled in low- to high-relief and even nearly in-the-round. The imagery in Rodin’s Gates was inspired by Dante’s Inferno. With Dante as his inspiration, Rodin created a mash pit of tormented souls; it presented not only the underworld but also the suffering of humankind in general.

The composition of The Gates was inspired by the long tradition of compartmentalized church doors, specifically the doors to the Baptistery in Florence. These, called The Gates of Paradise, were designed between 1425 and 1452 by the Italian Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti. In his Gates of Hell, however, Rodin abandoned the stacked-box-like, linear narration seen in Ghiberti’s traditionally-composed doors and instead created a free-form environment in which tormented souls float and weave in a surging arrangement.

When the commission for The Gates was cancelled (the government built a train station — the Gare d’Orsay, now the Musée d’Orsay — on the site instead of the decorative arts museum), Rodin began to exhibit the figures that populated The Gates as independent sculptures, sometimes reduced and/or enlarged in size. These pieces, separated from the original Gates, took on new meaning. Among the most well-known of these independent pieces are The Thinker, The Kiss and The Three Shades. This practice of re-using pieces from one project in another and of producing casts in various sizes, was part of Rodin’s studio practice from 1880 onward.

The Thinker

Resting on the tympanum (the horizontal panel above the double doors), The Thinker is the focal point of The Gates and subsequently has become perhaps the most well-known sculpture of all time. The athletic-looking figure is a man in sombre meditation yet also one whose muscles strain with effort – possibly to signify a powerful internal struggle. Rodin initially referred to the figure as Dante, but it has evolved into a more symbolic representation of creativity, intellect, and perhaps above all, the act of thinking.

The Thinker
The Kiss, bronze

The Kiss is one of Rodin’s most widely admired works. Originally conceived as part of The Gates of Hell, it did not appear as such in the final version. The lovers in The Kiss are Paolo and Francesca, who Dante placed in the Second Circle of Hell in his Inferno. Their story was a popular subject of painting and sculpture during the 19th century: While reading the tale of Camelot’s Lancelot and Guinevere, Paolo and Francesca exchange glances and realize their mutual lust. Just like Camelot’s lovers, Paolo and Francesca succumb to desire and passionately embrace. Immediately discovered, the couple is slain by Francesca’s husband, who was also Paolo’s brother.

Rodin captured the moment when the doomed pair realized their passion. His sculpture defied tradition by showing them unclothed instead of in Florentine dress. First exhibited in 1887, initially this hungry depiction of erotic love shocked viewers, primarily because of Francesca’s shameless awareness of her sexuality. Within a year, however, the sculpture was accepted and admired by the French. Indeed, the piece was in great demand in all of its four sizes, and as there was no tradition then of limiting the number of casts that could be made, between 1898 and 1918 one foundry alone produced 319 casts. The government of France even commissioned a marble version for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 (now in the Musée Rodin).

The Kiss, marble
The Three Shades

Standing at the very top of The Gates of Hell, The Three Shades (a shade is a ghost or phantom) gesture downward, with heads lowered and arms extended, appearing despondent and weary. Rodin’s contemporaries believed The Three Shades spoke Dante’s warning, inscribed above the gate to Hell in the Inferno: “Abandon every hope, ye who enters here.”

After an 1875 visit to Michelangelo’s work in Italy, Rodin began a piece of sculpture that was greatly influenced by Michelangelo’s painting of the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Rodin altered the pose of Michelangelo’s reclining figure, making his own Adam upright with his hand gesturing downward instead of outward. Eventually Rodin’s Shade emerged as a variation of his Adam. Here are three identical casts of the same figure, each positioned at a slightly different angle. In using three figures together, Rodin knew they would each lose their identity as Adam and would instead become Shades – shadows of the living dead. Perhaps to symbolize their powerlessness, Rodin also deprived the shades of their right hands and represented their left hands as simply modeled fists. (The enlarged version of The Three Shades, however, does have the right hands intact and the left hands modeled in greater detail.)

The figures for the doors were far from being the extent of Rodin’s activity in the eighties. He created a series of brilliant realistic portraits which he showed in the Salons of the 1880s. It was in connection with these portraits that critics began to describe him as a great artist, perhaps even the best young sculptor in modern France. The eighties was also the decade of The Burghers of Calais, probably Rodin’s most satisfactory and successful public monument.

The Burghers of Calais

The Burghers of Calais, commemorating an episode during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, is probably the best and the most successful of Rodin’s public monuments. Rodin followed the recounting of Jean Froissart, a 14th century French chronicler, who wrote of the war. According to Froissart, King Edward III made a deal with the citizens of Calais: if they wished to save their lives and their beloved city, then not only must they surrender the keys to the city, but six prominent members of the city council must volunteer to give up their lives. The leader of the group was Eustache de Saint-Pierre, who Rodin depicted with a bowed head and bearded face towards the middle of the gathering. To Saint-Pierre’s left, with his mouth closed in a tight line and carrying a giant set of keys, is Jean d’Aire. The remaining men are identified as Andrieu d’Andres, Jean de Fiennes, and Pierre and Jacques de Wissant.

The Burghers of Calais

Unbeknownst to the six burghers, at the time of their departure, their lives would eventually be spared. However, here Rodin made the decision to capture these men not when they were finally released, but in the moment that they gathered to leave the city to go to their deaths. Instead of depicting the elation of victory, the threat of death is very real. Furthermore, Rodin stretched his composition into a circle causing no one man to be the focal point which allows the sculpture to be viewed in-the-round from multiple perspectives with no clear leader.

By the end of the decade, when the sculptor joined Claude Monet (1840-1926) in a large exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, Rodin was clearly a major presence in the world of modern art, a man from whom much could be expected. In the coming decade he would spend much of his time on two of the most coveted commissions a French sculptor could hope to achieve: the Monument to Victor Hugo for the Panthéon and the Monument to Balzac for the Société des Gens de Lettres. They went badly, however. Neither work was accepted as originally commissioned.

Monument to Balzac

In 1891, Rodin was commissioned by the Societé des Gens de Lettres (Society of Men of Letters) to create a monument to Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), one of France’s most influential and beloved writers. For the next seven years Rodin struggled to find a way to portray Balzac that would be accurate physically and would also symbolize the writer’s creative genius. Balzac had been dead for forty years, so Rodin also faced the challenge of creating a likeness of a man he had never seen. He consulted photographs, a medium in its infancy in Balzac’s time, and did other research. For instance, he ordered a suit from Balzac’s tailor in the writer’s measurements in order to visualize his considerable size and girth.

During Rodin’s struggle to devise a compelling likeness of Balzac, he completed at least fifty studies; some convey Balzac’s actual appearance and others are more subjective and abstract.

In 1898 Rodin presented the final model for the Balzac monument to the Society of Men of Letters. The nine-foot plaster, modern in its abstraction, was met with outrage, disbelief, and ridicule, and as a result the Society rejected it. Deeply hurt by the criticism, Rodin refused to allow the sculpture to be cast in bronze during his lifetime.

Monument to Victor Hugo

After Victor Hugo’s death in 1885, it was decided to erect a monument in his honour in the Panthéon as a pendant to Injalbert’s statue of Mirabeau. Rodin was awarded the commission in 1889. The sculptor chose to depict Victor Hugo in exile, seated amongst the rocks of Guernsey, his arm outstretched as if to calm the waves. It was an image both of the poet lost in contemplation and of the champion of the Republican cause. This first project, “which lacked clarity and whose silhouette was muddled”, was unanimously rejected. In 1891, the Ministry of Fine Arts found another site for it. It would eventually be erected in the gardens of Palais-Royal. From 1890 onwards, Rodin therefore worked simultaneously on two projects: the first, representing a seated Victor Hugo; the second, for the Panthéon, showing the poet standing. It was also a nude portrait of Victor Hugo, with none of the artifice or idealization usually seen in statues of great men. The body Rodin modelled attested to the writer’s advancing years, which did not fail to shock his contemporaries. The plaster of Seated Victor Hugo was shown at the Salon in Paris in 1897, alongside two of the inspirational muses, The Tragic Muse and Meditation or The Inner Voice, which had already accompanied the poet in the early sketches, but which were excluded from the final marble version.

Claude Lorrain (from The Monument to Claude Lorrain)

Claude Gellée, known as Claude Lorrain, was perhaps the most important 17th century French-born painter. He was a landscape painter when painting landscapes was not considered to be of great importance. Accordingly, he disguised his landscapes by inserting figures, and he gave his finished paintings historical or narrative titles – thus providing his work with the “moral weight” required at the time. Two hundred years after Claude’s death, his native city of Nancy invited Rodin to participate in a competition for a monument to the painter. For inspiration Rodin went to what he perceived to be Claude’s greatest interest, the landscape of light.

The figure was meant to be set high atop a pedestal that was unconventionally enlivened at its base by the figure of Apollo, the sun god, driving his chariot across the sky each day, creating the passage from dawn to sunset. Accordingly the figure of Claude is caught in mid-step, rotating his body to glimpse the rising sun, the source of his delight in nature. A viewer standing below would see Claude twisting and turning, his face in awe at the sight. In this illusion of movement, the painter’s serpentine figure itself would capture light and thus emulate the intentions of the painter.

Rodin had other preoccupations in the 20th century as well, especially collecting and writing. He acquired an impressive collection of ancient sculpture, also purchasing medieval, Indian and Far Eastern work in a way that was adventurous. He enjoyed making his views on these works known both through his own writing and through interviews. Rodin came to be seen as the culmination of all that was great in Western sculpture, or as Camille Mauclair put it: “his reference points are Puget, Goujon, the sculptors of the Middle Ages, of Greece, and the rules for decoration established on the Lion Gate of Mycenae as well as the Serapeum of Memphis.” His reputation and influence extended beyond Europe – to the Far East and to North and South America, and it is safe to say no artist was more famous than Rodin at the beginning of the 20th century.

By the time Rodin’s will was executed, the movements of Cubism, Futurism, and Dada, as well as the new “truth to materials” movement in sculpture, had been established. The attention of the art world moved on and Rodin’s work went into eclipse until after the end of World War II. Then, slowly, in the 1950s and 1960s, with artists and their audience giving a fresh look at fragmentation, assemblage, the figure, and the expressive gesture, Rodin’s sculpture came back into fashion. By the end of the twentieth century, with new Rodin museums in Japan, Korea, and Mexico City, and Rodin shows opening in great profusion, he became once again, perhaps, the most exhibited and collected sculptor in world.

It’s ten years since we visited Musée Rodin. We’ll have to go again. It’s been renovated! And there are newly restored, previously unseen sculptures by Rodin on display.

Musée Rodin reopened on November 12, 2015 following a three-year, €16 million renovation, on what would have been Auguste Rodin’s 175th birthday.

Musée Rodin

The 18th century Parisian mansion which Rodin used as his studio was already in a bad state of disrepair when the artist bequeathed the building – along with his entire estate – to the French state after his death in 1917.

I give the State all my works in marble, bronze and stone, together with my drawings and the collection of antiquities that I had such pleasure in assembling […] And I ask the state to keep all these collections in the Hôtel Biron, which will become the Musée Rodin, preserving the right to reside there for the rest of my life.

Musée Rodin

Built in 1732, the mansion housed a wealthy wig maker and financial speculator, then waves of aristocrats until 1820 when it was turned into a Catholic boarding school before the French state took possession. After it was put up for sale in 1905, the building was ultimately rented out to artists and became a refuge for tenants like Rodin; his lover, Camille Claudel; Henri Matisse; and the dancer Isadora Duncan, among others.

Rodin in His Studio

Rodin began renting studio space there in 1908 and worked there until the end of his life. Before he died in 1917, he negotiated the agreement with the French state, which still owned the building, to turn it into a museum.

In August 1919, 10 years after Auguste Rodin had this document drafted by his lawyer – and just two years after his death – the Hôtel Biron opened its doors as the Musée Rodin. Few changes needed to be made, as it was already a museum of sorts. In the last years of his life the sculptor had used the elegant 18th century property as a showroom and sculpture garden, as well as a studio; it was the public face of an essentially private man who retired every evening to the Villa des Brillants in suburban Meudon, home to his casting studios, his collection of antiquities, and his reclusive lifelong companion Rose Beuret.

By the time it closed in 2012 for its first ever refurbishment, the 700,000 annual visitors had damaged the museum such that it was on the verge of destruction.

Musée Rodin

The severely damaged original parquet flooring – parts of which had been patched up with plywood – was copied, replaced, and reinforced. Half of the doors and window frames were beyond repair and had to be completely reconstructed. The lighting fixtures were swapped for a state-of-the-art system that reacts automatically to natural light levels and can be programmed individually. The new layout and different lighting on some displays allows visitors to get very close to the sculptures.

Musée Rodin

Over 100 antiquities and several plasters have been transferred from Meudon to the Hôtel Biron. In other ways the three-year refurbishment has been so sensitive that its former tenant would have no trouble recognising the place. True, he might be surprised to see the rotundas redecorated with the original 18th century ornamental woodcarvings stripped out and sold by his predecessors as tenants, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to pay for the chapel that now houses temporary exhibitions. He would almost certainly welcome the repainting of the whitewashed walls in a range of mid-toned greys pitched to set off white marble, plaster and bronze to equal effect, and be impressed by the colour temperature-controlled LED lighting system that tops up natural light falling through the windows. And he would appreciate the lift and cleverly concealed toilets, though perhaps not the modernist look of the new oak sculpture stands introduced to unify the displays.

The mark the centenary of the death of Auguste Rodin, the Musée Rodin and the cultural umbrella organization Réunion des Musées Nationaux have combined to mount a retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris that opened March 22. It includes more than 200 of Rodin’s works, as well as sculptures and drawings by later artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, Georg Baselitz, Antony Gormley, Antoine Bourdelle, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti and Joseph Beuys, giving a wider context for his legacy.

Grand Palais Rodin Exhibition
Grand Palais Rodin Exhibition

The Science of Genius

Identifying genius is a dicey adventure. Consider, for example, this ranking of “The Top 10 Geniuses” listed once on From first to last place, here are the honorees: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Leonardo da Vinci, Emanuel Swedenborg, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Stuart Mill, Blaise Pascal, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bobby Fischer, Galileo Galilei and Madame de Staël.

What about Albert Einstein instead of Swedenborg? Some of the living might also deserve this appellation — Stephen Hawking comes to mind. Another female genius or two might make the cut, perhaps Marie Curie or Toni Morrison. And if a chess champion, Fischer, is deemed worthy, other geniuses outside the arts and sciences ought to deserve consideration — Napoleon Bonaparte as a military genius, Nelson Mandela as a political genius or Bill Gates as an entrepreneurial genius, to name a few candidates.

All these questions and their potential answers can make for some lively beary party conversations. What they reveal is how little we understand about the origins of intellectual and creative eminence. Explorations of this age-old debate have long sought to tease out the common features of geniuses working in disparate domains. The existence of unifying threads — including genetic factors, unusually broad interests and a link with psychopathy — suggests that the mind of a genius has a discernible shape and disposition.

Ultimately the goal is to explain how an eminent thinker arrives at his or her world-changing moment, or moments, of insight. Although such breakthroughs often seem to appear in a flash, the underlying mechanisms are likely to be much more orderly. According to one theory, a genius hunts widely — almost blindly — for a solution to a problem, exploring dead ends and backtracking repeatedly before arriving at the ideal answer. This line of research is helping to investigate whether genius can be cultivated, unleashing a wealth of new ideas for the benefit of all.

The first hurdle in the study of genius is to settle on a working definition. The word itself harks back to ancient Roman mythology, according to which every male was born with a unique genius that served as a kind of guardian angel, and every female had a juno. Much later, after the Renaissance, the word became more exclusive in its application, with only a few people showing genius. Philosopher Immanuel Kant believed, for example, that a genius was someone who produced works that were both original and exemplary. The term did not acquire scientific meaning until the late 19th century, when psychologists came to define genius in two distinct ways.

The first approach was to identify genius with exceptional achievement, as Kant did. These accomplishments elicit admiration and emulation from other experts in that field and often the world at large. Unquestioned examples of such works include Newton’s Principia, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Even though this definition can be extended to encompass extraordinary leadership, such as military brilliance, and prodigious performance, including some chess grandmasters, most scientific research concentrates on outstanding creativity within the sciences or the arts, which is the focus of this article.

Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel ceiling

The second definition of genius coincided with the emergence of intelligence tests in the first half of the 20th century. A genius was someone who scored sufficiently high on a standard IQ test — usually landing in the top 1 percent, with a score above 140, as proposed by psychologist Lewis Terman, the formulator of one of the original intelligence tests. These two definitions have little in common. Many persons with superlative IQs do not produce original and exemplary accomplishments. One example is Marilyn vos Savant, who was once certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest recorded IQ of any living person. Her weekly Ask Marilyn column for a Sunday newspaper supplement did not inspire a new genre of science, art or even journalism. And many exceptional achievers do not attain genius-level IQs. William Shockley, for example, received a Nobel Prize in Physics for co-inventing the transistor yet had an IQ score well below 140. Exceptional achievement, then, seems the more useful measure.

In 1926, Catharine Cox estimated the IQs of 301 eminent individuals. Using biographical data on early intellectual development, she and her collaborators calculated IQ using the formula IQ=100xMA/CA, where MA=mental age and CA=chronological age. These rankings illustrate the value of using achieved eminence, rather than intelligence scores, as a measure of genius. Philosopher George Berkeley, for example, did not leave a greater mark on the world than Newton or Leonardo. Further, eight of these creative geniuses have IQs below the “genius threshold” of 140.

Too often in popular writing, genius is conceived as a discrete category — this person is a genius, but that person is not. Yet just as people can vary in IQ, they can also differ in the magnitude of their creative achievements, with either a single notable contribution or a lifetime of prolific work. One such “one-hit wonder” is Gregor Mendel, who attained lasting fame for a single paper that reported his classic experiments in genetics. Had Mendel never taken an interest in breeding peas, his name would be unknown today. Charles Darwin’s fame, in contrast, rests on far more than On the Origin of Species. Nobel laureate Max Born once said that Einstein “would be one of the greatest theoretical physicists of all time even if he had not written a single line on relativity.” Hence, Darwin and Einstein exhibited greater genius than did Mendel. Accordingly, much research is devoted to assessing relative degrees of genius — most often gauged by creative productivity.

Finding the sources of consummate creativity has occupied the minds of philosophers and scientists for centuries. In 1693 English poet John Dryden wrote, “Genius must be born, and never can be taught.” Two and a half centuries later French author Simone de Beauvoir countered, “One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius.” The first scientific investigation devoted exclusively to genius
concerned this precise issue. In 1869 Francis Galton published Hereditary Genius, in which he argued that genius is innate, based on his observations that geniuses tend to emerge from lineages that included other brilliant individuals. In response to criticisms, Galton later introduced the well-known nature-nurture issue. He conducted a survey of famous English scientists to discover some of the environmental variables involved in nurturing brilliance, and he examined factors such as birth order and education.

By the second half of the 20th century psychologists had moved to an extreme nurture position, in which creative genius rested solely on the acquisition of domain expertise. This idea was frequently expressed as the “10-year rule”. Nobody can expect to reach the heights of creativity without mastering the necessary knowledge and skill because only experts can create — or so the thinking went. Indeed, Einstein learned lots of physics before he commenced his creative career.

This explanation cannot account for all the details, however. First, geniuses often spend less time acquiring domain expertise than their less creative colleagues. Studies have linked accelerated acquisition with long, prolific and high-impact careers. The 10-year rule is an average with tremendous variation around the mean. Further, major breakthroughs often occur in areas where the genius must create the necessary expertise from scratch. Telescopic astronomy did not exist until Galileo pointed his new instrument toward the night sky to discover what had never been seen before nor even expected. The moon had mountains, Jupiter had moons and the sun had spots!

To build the two-lens telescope he used to survey the skies, Galileo had to first learn how to grind his own lenses and discover the optimal lens combination.

Second, geniuses are more likely to exhibit unusually wide interests and hobbies and to display exceptional versatility, often contributing to more than one domain of expertise. This tendency not only was true in the era of Renaissance men but also is evident today. According to a 2008 study, Nobel laureates in science are more involved in the arts than less eminent scientists. Given that geniuses might not sleep any less than the rest of us, these extraneous activities would seem to distract from a dogged focus on a narrow field of interest. Einstein slept even more hours than the norm, but he still took time off to play Bach, Mozart and Schubert on his violin. At times these avocational activities inspire major insights. Galileo was probably able to identify the lunar mountains because of his training in the visual arts, particularly in the use of chiaroscuro to depict light and shadow.

The expertise acquisition theory also undervalues the genetic components that underlie a large number of cognitive abilities and personality traits that correlate with genius. In a 2008 meta-analysis, the finding was that at least 20 percent of the variation in creativity could be attributed to nature. For example, creative achievement is strongly associated with the personality trait of openness to experience, a highly heritable characteristic. The broad interests in art and music of many geniuses are clear manifestations of this trait. Many other predictors of achievement also have high heritabilities, such as cognitive and behavioural flexibility, along with a tolerance of ambiguity and change.

Nurture may still account for the lion’s share of genius, and mastering a domain remains central. At the same time, genetics contributes heavily to the rate at which someone acquires the necessary skills and knowledge. Those with more innate talent can improve faster, launch their careers earlier and be more productive. In addition, genetics may help explain the different trajectories of equally well-trained individuals. Einstein did not know as much physics as many of his contemporary theoretical physicists, but what he did know went a long way. He could honestly say, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Researchers have long been tantalized by the question of whether the biological endowment of a genius also confers great setbacks. Greek philosopher Aristotle is reputed to have said, “Those who have become eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.”

This idea received wide currency in the 19th and 20th centuries at the hands of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. Among the great writers, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath all committed suicide. Vincent van Gogh did as well, and earlier he had cut off part of his ear to give to a prostitute. Newton sometimes suffered from extreme paranoia, and Galileo, possibly an alcoholic, was often bedridden with depression. Nevertheless, many psychologists have argued that such cases are the exceptions, not the rule. Some positive psychologists today consider creative genius a human strength or virtue.

A 2005 review of the literature, which summarized studies with varied methodologies, indicates that the association between genius and mental illness has considerable strength. Very creative writers tend to obtain higher scores on the psychopathology-related parts of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a widely accepted personality test. A study using another instrument, the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, found that extremely creative artists — and high-impact psychologists, for that matter — tend to receive elevated scores on the test’s psychoticism scale, meaning that they are, among other things, egocentric, cold, impulsive, aggressive and tough-minded. Last, highly eminent scientists tend to score higher on sections of the Cattell 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire that signify they are withdrawn, solemn, internally preoccupied, precise and critical. All told, top performers are not a very normal bunch.

Psychiatric studies bolster these results. The rate and intensity of certain psychopathic symptoms, such as depression and alcoholism, are noticeably higher in very creative individuals than in the general population. Research also suggests that these divergent thinkers are more likely to come from family lines that are at higher risk for psychopathology. Even if an extraordinary innovator is “normal”, his or her family members may not be.

In line with these findings, in 2009 psychiatrist Szabolcs Kéri, then at Semmelweis University in Hungary, found a genetic basis for both creativity and psychosis in a variant of the neuregulin 1 gene. In this study, Kéri recruited a group of highly creative individuals and found that the participants who had this specific gene variant, which is linked with an increased risk of developing a mental disorder, also scored higher on measures of creativity.

Out-and-out psychosis, however, can shut down creative genius. This tragic reality was dramatically illustrated in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, the biopic about the late Nobel laureate John Nash and his struggles with schizophrenia. The costs and burdens of psychological dysfunction are also immediately apparent in the art of the mentally ill, such as the works preserved in the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg, Germany, done by psychiatric patients in the early 20th century. Few if any of these artworks show signs of genius. To quote Dryden again, “wits are sure to madness near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Research conducted by psychologist Shelley Carson of Harvard University and her colleagues sought to identify these thin partitions. Creative achievement is positively associated both with cognitive disinhibition — openness to supposedly extraneous ideas, images or stimuli — and higher intelligence and greater working memory. These mental capacities can potentially ameliorate the negative effects of cognitive disinhibition and even channel them to more useful ends. This synergy may well constitute the cognitive basis for serendipity. Not everybody would be able to work out the profound implications of such humdrum events as water overflowing a bathtub or an apple falling from a tree. But Archimedes and Newton did.

Archimedes and Newton both worked in scientific fields, raising the possibility that their brands of creativity may have been similar. A more revealing question might be to investigate how their route to original thought compares with that of a superlative writer or musician. A physicist’s way of thinking has little, if anything, in common with that of a painter. For example, learning how to solve a differential equation has as much utility for a painter as learning linear perspective has for a physicist — zero in most cases. Yet the themes uniting geniuses suggest that a common creative principle may exist. Domain expertise, such as the knowledge of advanced problem-solving strategies, supports thinking that is routine, even algorithmic — it does not inherently lead to the generation of novel, useful and surprising ideas. Something else must permit a person to go beyond tradition and training to reach the summit of genius.

According to a theory proposed in 1960 by psychologist Donald Campbell, creative thought emerges through a process or procedure he termed blind variation and selective retention (BVSR). In short, a creator must try out ideas that might fail before hitting on a breakthrough. Campbell did not precisely define what counts as a blind variation, nor did he discuss in any detail the psychological underpinnings of this process. As a result, his ideas were left open to criticism.

Using a mixture of historical analyses, laboratory experiments, computer simulations, mathematical models and case studies, Professor Simonton from the University of California, has developed BVSR into a comprehensive theory of creative genius in all domains. The blindness of BVSR merely means that ideas are produced without foresight into their eventual utility. The creator must engage in trial-and-error or generate-and-test procedures to determine the worth of an idea. Two common phenomena characterize BVSR thinking: superfluity and backtracking. Superfluity means that the creator generates a variety of ideas, one or more of which turn out to be useless. Backtracking signifies that the creator must often return to an earlier approach after blindly going off in the wrong direction. Superfluity and backtracking are often found together in the same creative episode. Exploring the wrong track obliges a return to options that had been originally cast aside.

The reflections of Hermann von Helmholtz, a prolific physicist with numerous creative breakthroughs to his name, capture this process of discovery:

I had to compare myself with an Alpine climber, who, not knowing the way, ascends slowly and with toil, and is often compelled to retrace his steps because his progress is stopped; sometimes by reasoning, and sometimes by accident, he hits upon traces of a fresh path, which again leads him a little further; and finally, when he has reached the goal, he finds to his annoyance a royal road on which he might have ridden up if he had been clever enough to find the right starting point at the outset.

This account of venturing blindly into uncharted territory and retracing steps resonates with evidence from other eminent creators. As Einstein once said, “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.”

To see superfluity and backtracking in practice, consider the sketches that Pablo Picasso produced in preparation for his 1937 Guernica painting.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937)
Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 19
Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 22

Among them are clearly “superfluous” sketches, which have a human head on a bull’s body (for example, sketches 19 and 22 — using Picasso’s original numbering). Picasso soon discovered that this was a dead-end and backtracked to an earlier bull’s head drawing (15), before continuing to the final two sketches (26 and 27). Notice that the artist went too far in one direction in the last sketch, from which he backtracked yet again.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 15
In dozens of sketches for his painting Guernica, Picasso explored numerous styles.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 26
A sampling of his drawings of the bull (shown here with Picasso’s original numbering) reveals the breath of his exploration.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 27
Hunting widely for answers, abandoning some ideas and backtracking to earlier concepts are hallmarks of a theory of creativity known as blind variation and selective retention (BVSR).

Even more telling, after that last sketch Picasso largely reversed himself to a much earlier formulation (11), which shares the most unique features with the final version: the widely separated eyes, the thin-lipped open mouth with tongue, the menacing rather than inert visage and the Cubist rather than neoclassic style. These sketches are typical of blind variations both in the arts and in the sciences.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 11

Only further research can expand the theory into a comprehensive, predictive model whose claims can be thoroughly tested. Even so, BVSR can help us make sense of certain quirks of creative geniuses, including their personality traits and developmental experiences. Although they devote considerable time to achieving expertise, they also pursue other hobbies. Their openness to new ideas and their breadth of interests infuse them with seemingly irrelevant stimulation that can enrich blind variations.

As 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” Exceptional thinkers, it turns out, stand on common ground when they launch their arrows into the unknown.

Original article by Dean Keith Simonton (Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California) from the special edition of Scientific American Mind – The Mad Science of Creativity, March 2017. Because today is World Creativity and Innovation Day.

The Bach Passions

This goes very well with the passion!

Hmmm, not sure Bach had Singapore Sling for Easter, but he would have had plenty of food and drink, maybe even Easter bread. He certainly liked his food and drink; if friends wanted to get into his good books, they’s send him either a good joint of meat or a good bottle of brandy or wine. In fact, for some of his early jobs, part of his yearly salary would be paid in beer.

This music doesn’t hip hop much… Maybe we should have put on Brandenburg Concerto No 3.

It was St Matthew Passion he played in Leipzig for Easter in 1727, not the Brandenburg Concertos.

St Matthew Passion is the larger, later and more famous of the two passions that survives out of the five Bach composed.

St Matthew Passion is for orchestra, double choir, children’s choir and soloists. It was first performed in 1727, but received relatively few hearings from this time until its famous 1829 revival in Berlin with the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. The huge interest which Mendelssohn’s performance sparked was a key factor in the resurgence of interest in Bach’s music generally, which grew throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. And as Bach has become more and more revered and loved over the years, the St Matthew Passion’s status as one of music’s masterpieces has only been confirmed; as a large-scale Baroque work it has few competitors in terms of fame or popularity.

The St. Matthew text was arranged by the poet Picander, whose sacred texts Bach also often used for cantatas. In it, verses from Matthew’s Gospel are interspersed with original, so-called ‘madrigal’ pieces set by Bach as arias and ariosos. There is also an element of dialogue in the text, which Bach exploits to great effect through use of the double choir.

The story is told by the Evangelist, as well as Biblical characters including Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Between these narrative sections are interspersed a combination of reflective ‘numbers’ (sung not by the characters but by various soloists) and chorales, with which the congregation would originally have joined in. Despite the fragmentary nature of its form, there is a fluentness to the piece, and a sense of energy runs through it all.

The part of Jesus is distinguished from the others by a particularly original effect: his music is given an accompanying group of strings which endows it with what is often described as a ‘halo’ (the musicologist Richard Taruskin has used ‘aureole’). It is only when Jesus is on the cross and declares ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ that this halo is withdrawn.

Particular highlights of the St. Matthew Passion include two incredible alto arias: ‘Erbarme dich’, an exquisitely touching piece with a solo violin part which provides a moment of reflection after Peter’s third betrayal of Jesus; and ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’, whose impassioned broken chords reference the shape of the cross, with which Jesus is then beginning his journey. The duet ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’, with its angry interjections from the choir, portrays the capturing of Jesus with amazing force at the end of Part 1. But picking out individual moments from a work of such overwhelming intensity is to miss the point: this is a piece whose scale and seriousness reflect its subject sincerely, and an experience of anything less than the whole cannot convey the sense of Passion integral to this work.

Bach continued to revise the St Matthew Passion for a good 10 or 15 years after it was first performed at Leipzig on Good Friday 1727.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner uses one of the later reworkings with an approach to the St Matthew Passion is fervent and contains a vivid sense of theatre. He does not seek an approximation to the performing conditions that Bach had at his disposal at various times. We are far from certain about what they were, but we know that they must often have been less than ideal.

Richard Egarr with the Academy of Ancient Music and the choir of the AAM (the version little bears are listening to) follows the original 1727 version.

The Academy of Ancient Music is considered one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world. With its roots tracing back to 1726, it consistently produces some of the finest recordings in the world of classical music. Performing on period instruments, its interpretations are always flavoured with intense musicianship as well as that particular sound that cannot be found when these works are recorded on modern instruments. Richard Egarr and AAM convey St Matthew Passion’s reflection, meditation and devotional calm in this interpretation.

A smaller piece than the 1727 St. Matthew Passion, Bach’s St. John Passion was first performed in 1724. Bach revised this piece considerably several times, but the final performance during his lifetime, in 1749, was similar in form to the first version. St. John Passion tells John’s account of the crucifixion through Biblical passages and poetry from a variety of sources (the compiler of the text is unknown). As in St. Matthew Passion, the story is told by an Evangelist and solo singers, and arias and chorales fit between the dramatic action. This work is somehow less unified, less ‘finished’ than its larger relative, but such views should not detract from the obvious high quality of the piece.

The passions of John and Matthew were the first two to gain a place in the liturgical canon, though this was a good twelve centuries before Bach’s settings materialised: Pope Leo the Great established that these two accounts of the events leading to the crucifixion should be presented during Holy Week as early as the 5th century. The tradition of setting the Passion story to music is older than that again, and is almost as old as the gospels themselves. From the earliest times of formalized church music, the Passions were chanted by the priests.

Later, composers wrote Gregorian chants to the texts of the Passion. Since the Passion is read several times during Holy Week, there were and are numerous occasions for musical and dramatic re-tellings of the tale. In fact, as time passed, the Passion productions became more and more elaborate, and increasingly more dramatic, sometimes so much so that they had to be moved out of the church, since these productions involved the use of the vernacular, props, costumes, and acting. The Church likes the dramatic productions of Passions, even when they involved laymen (not clergy), since the church was not only a place of worship, but also a common meeting place and the center for the community.

On the Origin of Art

We need art. But for what? Can we view art as adaptive? Is it a by-product of our evolution, or just a bunch of pretty pictures?

Little bears are quite partial to pretty and fun pictures 🙂

David Walsh, Mona’s founder, asked some of his scientist buddies these questions. The result was four answers and four exhibitions. Or one exhibition in four parts.

On the Origin of Art, at the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart, is a unique attempt to take a look at the evolution and biology of a human practice many people view as entirely based in culture.

According to David Walsh, the museum was always “about learning, not indoctrinating”. He has been wondering about the origins and purpose of art since before the museum was even created, and now that Mona has been around for six years, the museum team are finally delving deeper into the topic.

A fan of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Walsh believes that the postmodern art world, much to its detriment, pays insufficient attention to science, and art academics choose to avoid learning “things that are hard”, such as biology.

To ‘invoke evolution’ in the origins of art, Mona turned to academics with a track record of exploring this idea in their previous works. A wish list of ten people was whittled down to four accomplished writers and thinkers – Steven Pinker (cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist and popular science author), Geoffrey Miller (evolutionary psychologist), Brian Boyd (professor of literature), and Mark Changizi (evolutionary neurobiologist, science writer and author). They were invited to curate four individual exhibitions that together form the larger whole of On the Origin of Art, accompanied by a hefty hardcover book that serves both as the exhibition catalogue and a presentation of their ideas in an essay format.

After nearly three years!!! of intensive labour, the end result is not just a curious intersection of art and science, it’s a dazzling display – 234 objects from 35 countries, spanning millennia; some drawn from the gallery’s collection, others on loan; some in Australia for the first time, and nine commissioned specifically for the exhibition.

Shaped almost like a labyrinth, the exhibition consists of four discrete pathways through disorienting rooms peppered with classical paintings, installations, artefacts and sculptures that span thousands of years and go across many cultures, from the stone age to the Ottoman Empire and Italian Renaissance. Characteristically to Mona, there are no plaques or essays on the walls – instead, visitors are guided through the rooms accompanied by the voices and words of the curators themselves via the museum’s proprietary app, the O.

The exhibition begins in a foyer space on the underground floor known as “the void”, with four identical doors leading to four very different spaces. Four experts in science, psychology and language – four men who, in line with Mona’s philosophy of rethinking how we understand art, are outsiders to the art world – have curated their own exhibitions to present their theories of where art comes from. Each expert asks and answers a different question about art, science and evolution – some more successfully than others, and some in direct opposition to others – for an overall experience that’s as fun to think about as it is to look at.

The first door leads to evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi’s art selection that resembles the natural world – evocative but also grotesque “uncanny valley” sculptures by Patricia Piccinini, a commissioned installation by Brigita Ozolins exploring the resemblance of alphabet letters to the contours of nature – to show us that art is shaped to fit preferences our brains have already developed.

The Lovers, by Patricia Piccinini, 2011
Mark Changizi exhibition
Graphos, by Brigita Ozolins, 2016
Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art
Mark Changizi exhibition

Mark Changizi’s exhibition aims to capture an elusive idea. To him, aspects of human culture – including art – mimic nature, giving humans the kinds of stimuli that our brains have evolved to process. For Changizi, we don’t have instincts for art and other ‘stimulus artefacts’ like music, language and design. These are inventions of civilisation; but crucially, they persist in (and possibly define) our species because they have been shaped to fit the preferences of our ancient brains. This is ‘nature harnessing’: the process wherein aspects of our culture mimic nature ‘so as to harness evolutionarily ancient brain mechanisms for a new purpose’. Speech, for instance, mimics the sound structures of the environment in which we evolved; alphabet letters, at the deep, unconscious processing level of our brains, resemble the contour combinations characteristic of our natural habitat. Music, arguably the pinnacle of artistic expression, is structured according to the sounds of people moving; we respond with emotion, and movement of our own.

Indeed, says Changizi, the highly evocative aspects of our culture most likely can be traced to the most powerful natural source of all our woe and joy, that which on our prosperity depends: other humans. Herein lies his hypothesis for art: that it exists not because we have an instinct for it, but because it responds to—harnesses—our instinct to engage with other people.

Daft Dank Space, by Aaron Curry, 2013
Mark Changizi exhibition
Daft Dank Space, by Aaron Curry, 2013
Mark Changizi exhibition

The second door leads to Brian Boyd’s exhibit. Of the four academic curators, Brian Boyd stands closest to the arts, with a career spanning both English literature as well as evolution and cognition. He argues that humans, like many other animals, engage in play behaviour that helps them succeed in their environment. And to him, art comes about through a human impulse to play with patterns. So Boyd homes in on patterns – in nature, in Shakespeare, in Indigenous art, in comics – which help humans make sense of, and play with, the information around them.

6 doubles trames 0°-15°-30°-45°-60°-75°, by François Morellet, 1958
Brian Boyd exhibition
Hau Fa’o, by Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi, 2009
Brian Boyd exhibition
Kulasi, by Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi, 2003-12
Brian Boyd exhibition

Boyd argues that to understand the origin of art, you need to look to the ‘signalling systems’ that all kinds of plants and animals use to convey information to each other. Think of the relationship between flowers and the birds and insects that pollinate them: flowers have adapted to reflect and amplify the preference of their ‘audience’. This interplay between audience preference and the artist’s desire to satisfy and expand those preferences creates a kind of a feedback loop that propels the trajectory of art history, and that can be seen in the diverse styles and techniques different groups use to express their identity.

Orchids: Phalaenopsis, or Moth Orchids
Brian Boyd exhibition

Underpinning this diversity, however, is the status of art as a form of cognitive play. Play, widespread through the animal kingdom, is a mechanism that evolved to help us practice important life-saving skills in a safe circumstance. Because humans gain most of their advantages via intelligence, they are inclined towards cognitive play, and in particular, cognitive play with pattern. Humans are natural-born pattern-extractors: reading regularities in the environment is crucial to ensure our survival and prosperity. Art of all kinds uses pattern—on multiple levels, in intersecting, locally relevant ways—to engage the attention of its audience; the audience is rewarded with the opportunity to fine-tune cognitive skills needed to understand the world, and gain mastery over it.

Dots Obsession – Tasmania, by Yayoi Kusama, 2016
Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art
Brian Boyd exhibition

Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller presents a much more Darwinian picture, arguing that the creation of art is one of many ways we signal our general fitness to mates in order to win the sexual selection game. “There’s a lot of sexual content in my exhibition; I’m not making the argument that there’s a direct link between the sexual selection theory of why people make art and depicting sex or nudity,” Miller explains.

Definitely a lot of sexual content in Miller’s exhibition and definitely not suitable for little bears!

The Centrifugal Soul, by Mat Collishaw, 2016
Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art
Geoffrey Miller exhibition

Miller agrees with Brian Boyd that art is a signalling system—like a bee’s dance, a bird’s song, or a gorilla thumping its chest—but reaches a very different conclusion about the purpose and function of that system. It’s easy to explain the ‘receiver’ end of art, says Miller; we consume it like ‘eye candy’, in the sense that it stimulates our pleasure-responses to certain stimuli, the shapes, colours and patterns for which we have a ‘sensory bias’. But on the ‘sender’ side: why bother? Why invest ‘limited time, energy, and risk in growing ornaments, making sounds, or creating works that receivers might enjoy,’ when such efforts might be better put to more practical ends? The answer, says Miller, lies in Darwin’s explanation of art more than a century ago: that it arose—long before humans—as a mechanism for attracting mates. Art making is one of the many ways animals ‘signal their health, resourcefulness, intelligence, and / or general fitness’ to potential mates, in the same manner as do the splendid (but otherwise useless) feathers on a peacock.

Stephen Pinker, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author, makes perhaps the most compelling argument. He believes artistic drive has not evolved as a trait but arrived as a byproduct, piggy-backing on other adaptive aesthetics – our appreciation of “good” bodies (for reproduction), high status (for security) and pretty landscapes (for safety). For Steven Pinker art is not adaptive, in the sense that it’s not a heritable trait that enhances human reproductive rate; put simply, making and looking at art in Pinker’s view doesn’t result in more successful baby-making. Instead, the creation of art is a by-product of human tendency to seek out aesthetic pleasures in the same way that junk food is a by-product of human tendency to seek out sweet and fatty flavours.

Who Says Your Feelings Have to Make Sense, by Aspassio Haronitaki, 2016
Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art
Steven Pinker exhibition
Who Says Your Feelings Have to Make Sense (detail), by Aspassio Haronitaki, 2016
Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art
Steven Pinker exhibition

Pinker takes issue with ‘lame and flabby’ theories for art that confuse questions about its worth and value at a social level, with questions about its function in a Darwinian sense. The proper question to ask is: ‘Is art a heritable trait that enhanced the reproductive rate of our ancestors?’ The answer, he finds, is that art is a by-product, a kind of side effect of other adaptations, such as the desire to obtain status via ‘conspicuous consumption’ (Veblen) of sumptuous goods, and to identify oneself as a member of the fashionable elite.

Who Says Your Feelings Have to Make Sense (detail), by Aspassio Haronitaki, 2016
Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art
Steven Pinker exhibition

Art is also a vehicle for engagement with our evolved aesthetic sense. There are adaptive explanations why certain faces, bodies, patterns and habitats give humans aesthetic pleasure: ‘they are cues to understandable, safe, productive, nutritious, or fertile things in the world.’ Artists can choose to play with or flout the audience’s preference for such sensory stimulus, or to create ‘supernormal’ doses of it. Art is, in this way, akin to cheesecake: a ‘pleasure technology’ we have invented for no other reason than our own enjoyment and satisfaction.

Who Says Your Feelings Have to Make Sense (detail), by Aspassio Haronitaki, 2016
Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art
Steven Pinker exhibition
Who Says Your Feelings Have to Make Sense (detail), by Aspassio Haronitaki, 2016
Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art
Steven Pinker exhibition

On the Origin of Art doesn’t look to answer these evolutionary questions directly but prompts visitors to reflect on their assumptions and to be open to alternative ways of thinking about art.