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pictures at an exhibition

8th November 2003 permanent link

I went to an art exhibition today. This is something that happens a few times a year and not, in itself, particularly unusual. But this one wasn’t a public museum or art gallery - it was an art dealers’ trade fair, the Munich Kunstmesse. It was a great day out with far more interesting stuff to look at than in most of the galleries I’ve been to. Not comparable to, say, the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Kunstforum in Berlin; but I would say better than all but possibly one of the galleries here in Munich.

The variety and quality of the things there were to see was amazing. I counted two Picassos, three Joan Mirós and a Chagall - all with no prices shown, which I assume means they were firmly in the “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” range. Whereas a mere 16,000 euros buys you a five thousand year old Sumerian cuneiform tablet. Probably a shopping list or somebody’s tax return but still - a voice from the dawn of civilization. I had no idea it was possible even for rich people to just walk into a shop (or, in this case, a trade fair) and buy such things. I thought they were all long since locked away in museums and galleries.

16,000 euros also buys you an 11th century Ganesha from south India. Alternatively you could have (price not shown) a 10th century Pallava dynasty Vishnu. I’m not sure about that - I’m all for Indian sculpture but I prefer to see it where it belongs, on the walls of temples in India, not stolen by sacreligious British imperialists and shipped off to Europe.

Indian temple sculpture (Right) An Indian sculpture where it belongs - on the wall of the beautiful and fascinating Hoysala temple at Somnathpur, south India.

Also striking was how much better and more interesting the “modern art” (for want of a better term for the art of the first half of the last century - there was very little on display that was less than about forty years old) was than the older stuff. People who dismiss modern art can’t, I conclude, have spent much time looking at eighteenth and early nineteenth century European art, most of which is hideous. I doubt if even Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin has ever produced anything as ugly and ridiculous as a sparkly porcelain bundle of asparagus.

(I specify “eighteenth and early nineteenth century European art” here, because 7,000 euros buys you a stunningly beautiful 18th century Japanese landscape by Hokusai)

The only other commercial art experience I’ve had was the Dom Khudozhnika (House of ArtPainters) in Moscow - a former tea warehouse on the bank of the Moskva river that is now a huge emporium of contemporary Russian (and other ex-Soviet) art. I expected lots of kitsch, and there was, but there was also a huge amount of good stuff. It was actually even better than Munich because some of the things were affordable. I bought a marvellous self-portrait by a Georgian painter, Julia Pankrelidze, for a hundred bucks. Maria and I both loved a semi-abstract landscape by Ossetian artist Magrez Kelekhsaev; we didn’t buy it because we hadn’t gone with the intention of spending $1500, and have regretted the decision ever since.

Token education-plus-gratuitous-lilexia bit for Brian: Maria’s friend’s 12 year old son, my former English student, was bored senseless by the whole thing. Which prompted Maria to worry about how, in twelve years time, will we go about giving Jack the chance to have what we think are worthwhile cultural experiences without boring him senseless? No conclusions reached.

Updates & corrections: my editor says that I actually paid over $200 for the painting in Moscow and it isn’t a self-portrait. She can’t prove it, it’s just her recollection of what happened over a year ago against mine. What she can prove is that “Dom Khudozhnika” should be translated as “House of Painters” rather than “House of Art”.

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