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Testament to the Art of Finding your Own Way – Miro

Laying bare the soul…poetry and painting are done in the same way you make love; with an exchange of blood, a passionate embrace – without restraint, without any thought of protecting yourself. The picture is born…of an overflow of emotions and feelings.

– Joan Miro, Conversations with Georges Duthuit the French art critic 1936

Chinese Character Strokes

When writing Chinese characters, each stroke has a correct start and finish direction and each character a precise stroke order

My first encounter with the works of the Spanish artist, Joan Miro, occurred in the most unlikely of settings — at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) in Beijing. The exhibit was entitled, “Oriental Spirit: Art Exhibition of Joan Miro.”

Miro Exhibition Visitors on a Saturday afternoon in Vienna's Albertina

Miro Exhibition visitors on a Saturday afternoon in Vienna’s Albertina

After months of intense Chinese studies, I was craving a good excuse to give my cramped fingers a break from relentless hours of practicing Chinese character strokes. Classes at the Beijing Language and Cultural Institute began each day with a drill of the 30 vocab words assigned the afternoon before. One lucky student of our class of 20 was randomly chosen to demonstrate the characters on the board while the others struggled to write them in their notebooks.

Me and my bike in China

Me and my bike in China in front of the Kempinsky Hotel

Since I had the good fortune of living 2 hours away from the institute at the charming last stop of the Beijing subway in a town ironically called Ping Guo Yuan (Apple Orchard supposedly existing somewhere beneath the shadow of a huge smoke billowing factory) and since a commute which entails a bike ride, a subway ride, a bus ride and then another bike ride, is often subject to various unforeseen delays, I was often a minute or two late for class. Which also meant that the Chinese-ified version of my name, which sounded particularly brutal at 8:03 am, was often the one called out for the daily public drill. Fortunately, the class consisted of every nationality possible and my French, German, Canadian and New Zealand colleagues tended to be far less judgmental of any errors than the three Japanese businessmen who always seemed to get everything perfect (the rest of us accused them of having an unfair language advantage).

Chinese is a tough language to learn. Unless you’re a Japanese businessman. At least for me it was. First there is the whole Ting Dong stuff with the four tones. Assuming you manage to get those right – and let’s hope you do because a horse-mother mix up could cause quite a bit of awkwardness – you can move on to the next really tough part of Hanyu — writing.

Practicing Chinese Characters

Practicing Chinese Characters

To get the characters right, you have to get the strokes right. One Chinese word can have several characters and each character several strokes. Each stroke starts and ends in a very specific direction and are put together in a very specific order. All of this must be memorized and practiced, practiced, practiced. Any sign of rebellion – starting a stroke in the bottom right hand corner and moving upward and to the left, for example, is swiftly quelled by a stern reprimand by the Laoshi. Heck. I was even put in my place by a sweet looking but very strict schoolboy in a uniform seated beside me on the subway one morning. No doubt exasperated by the big nose lady (all foreigners in China have big noses, not just me) attempting a proper language that uses both sides of the brain, he gave me a vigorous head shake and stern look as he swiped away my homework notebook from me to demonstrate what I was doing wrong (and no, I wasn’t doing the homework the morning before class, it was the evening after, of course – just in case you were wondering. You believe me, don’t you? And just for the record, the English homework he was working on, wasn’t perfect either).

Needless to say, the art of learning Chinese is rigid. Very rigid. And after awhile, you start to feel a bit stifled. (Or maybe the mandatory start of every sentence with Tóng zhì (Comrade) causes that feeling.) Whatever the reason, Miro entered my life at a time when I needed him most.

The works must be conceived with fire in the soul but executed with clinical coolness.
– Joan Miro

Oh the complete and utter awe to stand before his paintings in a place so rigid with rules. Bold lines, incomplete forms, and off-set shapes. Yes, “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” Strokes going right to left, up to down, sideways and through figures. Eyes of different colors, hand prints here and there and chickens afloat. Nothing conformed. Nothing matched. Every painting was free. Rebellious. Without restraint. Fire in the soul.

Miro Exhibition Visitors admiring Miro's painting, The Farm, which Hemingway scraped together 5000 Francs to purchase

Miro Exhibition visitors admiring Miro’s painting, The Farm, which Hemingway scraped together 5000 Francs to purchase

This past Saturday, as I visited Miro’s masterpieces once again, years after my first encounter, I learned about the Spanish artist’s past and close encounter with a missed fate. How his family had pressured him to work as an accountant for two years before he had a nervous breakdown and retreated back to his family’s farmhouse to paint. I learned that he spent nine months in Paris, poor as a church mouse, working endless hours on a painting entitled, The Farm, that Hemingway insisted on buying (after going bar to bar to scrape together enough money to do so). What if he hadn’t had that breakdown? What if he hadn’t gotten through the rough times and kept painting? What if the world never got to see Miro’s paintings because he kept accounting or because he gave up and did something other than slave over a Farm painting for 9 months?

At the Language Institute we had a tone teacher who marched into our class and for an hour each day, she pressed the button on her cassette player, played a phrase and had us repeat. Played a phrase and had us repeat. Played a phrase…. The first phrase she taught us was the one we would use over and over again during our time in China: 我听不懂 wo ting bu dong – which literally translates to mean, “I hear but I don’t understand.”

 Joan Miro could hear the voices telling him what to do but thankfully they made no sense to him. A stronger, clearer inner voice spoke louder and truer to his artist soul.  Tóng zhì ta ting bu dong.

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More on Miro:

Miro Exhibit at Vienna’s Albertina Museum – September 12, 2014 – January 15, 2015

Adam, Tim,s Joan Miró: A life in paintings Guardian Article, March 11, 2011


Stairs of Albertina leading to Miro Exhibition

Stairs of Albertina leading to Miro Exhibition

Miro From Earth to Heaven Albertina Exhibition Poster

Miro From the Earth to the Sky Albertina Exhibition Poster

Albertina Museum Opening Times

Albertina Museum Opening Times


Napoleon, Jesus and the Free Masons: The Last Supper in Vienna

…it should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which, if you consider them well, you may find really marvellous ideas.
Leonardo daVinci Quoted in Irma  A Richter (ed) Selections from the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (1977)

I’ve been dying to share a little secret with you. It’s time. And you deserve it. (Shh! Even if you don’t, pretend you do, I’m bursting to let you in on this). In fact, let me surprise you and let’s make it a day. First we’ll go for lunch at Café Central and as we are walking over to Freud’s old hang out for a großer Brauner and an Apfelstrudel (Café Landtmann), I’ll share with you one of Vienna’s very best wonderfully amazing secrets. As we walk up the Leopold Figl Gasse from Café Central, you’ll happen to remark on how hot the city can get in summer and on cue, I’ll pull you into the cool Italian National Church of Mary of the Snows. Then you’ll close your eyes while I guide you to your surprise. No peeking until I put the 50 cent piece into the box on the marble column by the pews to activate the spotlights. Okay. Now! A life-sized 1816 replica of Leonardo Da Vinci’s 1495 painting, Last Supper!

Minoriten Church, aka Italian National Church of Mary of the Snows , Vienna Austria

Minoriten Church, aka Italian National Church of Mary of the Snows , Vienna, Austria

I know what you’re thinking. ‘We’re in Europe. Let’s hop the train to Milan and see the real thing. Why the copy?’


Top five reasons:
1) No entrance fee or need to reserve a spot on a tour weeks in advance. And let’s face it, you probably don’t have endless vacation days and enjoy the Austrian legally required 5 weeks a year vacation (yes, we do, we really all do get (at least) 5 weeks (!) here)

In Giacomo Rafaelli's mosaic copy of Da Vinci's Last Supper, completed for Napoleon, the feet of the disciples are visible

In Giacomo Raffaelli’s mosaic copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, completed for Napoleon, the feet of the disciples are visible and one can ask — is that Mary Magdalene at his side?

2) This copy is far better preserved than the original, which is a mural that was painted on dry wall rather than wet plaster and since 1517 (only 30 years after it was made) already started to show signs of wear and tear. The Milan painting is cracking and has had the bottom cut off with its fragile paint fading from light exposure and elements. Groups of 25 have to pass through a climate controlled room before entering and only get to look for 15 minutes max.
3) But here in Minoriten Church, we’re alone and you have plenty of time to look closely and admire a piece of artwork made up of 10,000 (!) hand-painted mosaic tiles (and you thought your flower pot project was demanding). Imagine such a puzzle!
4) You are looking at a piece of art that is testament to the thrilling tales of history, love, war, intrigue and unsolved mysteries
5) And the best reason? We’ll probably be completely alone in the cool quiet expanse of the French Gothic cathedral while we take in the wonderment. And when is the last time you can claim you actually stood in awe and wonder of something, dumbfounded and thrilled, inspired by art?

The Last Supper / Communion / The Covenant / The Betrayal / The Crucifixion

Side Entrance at end of hall into Minoriten Church

Side Entrance at end of hall into Minoriten Church

According to the Bible passage, Matthew 26:17-30, Jesus and his disciples ate Passover together. During the dinner, he sat at a table with all 12 disciples. And while they ate, he told them that one of them would betray him and it would be the one who dipped his hand into the bowl

Rafaelli's mosaic copy of Da Vinci's Last Supper in Vienna's Minoriten Church

Raffaelli’s mosaic copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Vienna’s Minoriten Church

with him. (Click on the picture above left to the left to enlarge it. You see Judas and Jesus reaching for the same bowl and Judas clenching a bag of money – indicating that he will betray Jesus. You see the disciples reacting to the betrayal of Jesus – which was a ground-breaking portrayal at the time). Jesus took the bread, gave thanks for it, broke it and said to his disciples, “Take and eat, this is my body.” And then he took a cup, gave thanks and gave it to his disciples and said, “Drink, all of you. This is my blood and the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” He said he would not drink it again until he shared the drink with the disciples in his Father’s kingdom.

From there Jesus went to the Mount of Olives and shortly thereafter he was crucified.

The Original Portrait and Leonardo Da Vinci

I highly recommend the Khan Academy material and this short video will tell you everything you need to know (to be sufficiently impressive to those who know nothing) about Da Vinci’s Last Supper: Khan Academy, The Last Supper

Interesting blog post by Lisa Shea about the original painting

Interior of the Italian National Church of Mary of Snows, aka Minoriten Church, Vienna, Austria

Interior of the Italian National Church of Mary of Snows, aka Minoriten Church, Vienna, Austria

Dan Brown and the Intrigue Behind the Portrait

See the passage “The Secret of the Holy Grail” in this Dan Brown Da Vinci Code Wikipedia entry.

Napoleon and This Last Supper

In 1805 Napoleon ordered the original to be transferred to Paris. Fortunately, it couldn’t be removed so he ordered a copy. Giacomo Raffaelli began working on the masterpiece in 1806 and completed it eight years later. By then, however, Napoleon was in exile in Elba. So his son-in-law, Kaiser Franz I, wanted to put it in Schloss Belvedere but the mosaic didn’t fit there so it ended up here.

And now that you’ve had your surprise, it’s time for some Apfelstrudel at Landtmann (or maybe a wine in the Augustiner Keller?) — or both? — the day is young and there are so many things left to explore!

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Raefaelli's mosaic copy of Da Vinci's Last Supper in Vienna's Minoriten Church

Raffaelli’s mosaic copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Vienna’s Minoriten Church

More Interesting Links:

Da Vinci’s Last Supper: New Conspiracy Theory”, The Telegraph newspaper, 30 June 2007

Clip from Movie on Wiki Clip:

Downloadable Image of Giacomo Raffaelli’s Last Supper from Wiki Commons

Wikipedia on Last Supper


Before War Photographers – Vermeyen Battle Cartoons in Vienna Museum of Art History


War is first the hope that things will get better and the expectation that for the others, it will get worse, then the gratification that it is also not getting better for the others and then afterwards, the surprise that both are worse off.” – Karl Kraus

Writers are told again and again “show don’t tell” and that’s exactly what artists throughout the ages have been doing and what photographers still do. But sometimes images can be so intensely disturbing, that we long for someone, a voice of reason, to accompany us on our journey into the disturbing, chaotic world depicted.

That’s exactly why I highly recommend the 1543 tapestry cartoons currently on exhibition in the Museum of Art History in Vienna but you must also get the audio tour along with it.

Vermeyen's graphic depiction of a beheaded corpse and bloodied sword.

Vermeyen’s graphic depiction of a beheaded corpse and bloodied sword.

In 1535 court painter, Flemish artist Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, was thrust into battle as part of Emperor Charles V’s campaign to reconquer the Kingdom of Tunis from the Ottomans. Eleven years later Vermeyen completed his larger-than-life 10 tiled tapestry cartoons (pronounced in the French manner with a nasal silence at the end, not like Bugs Bunny’s cartoon). These can (and should) be viewed today, 473 years later (!) (until March 2015) on the top floor (2) of the Vienna Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum).

Confession – I bet you and I are a lot alike. We prefer to mosey through museums, from one room to the next, with a strained but contemplative look in our eyes, without the distracting drones of some snobby British gentleman explaining light shades, painting techniques and historical periods. Yaaawn. Right? Exactly. Which is why, when you beeline straight past the audio guides, thankful not to have to stand in yet another queue, I am right there behind you. And together the two of us can navigate our way around the audio victims while touring the museum in our very cultured contemplative silence (indeed!). But no more. I am now a recovering audio-guides

Vermeyen's graphic depiction of soldiers collecting heads of the enemy in battle.

Vermeyen shows soldiers collecting heads of the enemy in battle.

objector and you should be too.

Here’s the thing. I am the proud owner of a Vienna Museum Annual Pass, which I purchased in an elated frenzy one afternoon convinced I would be spending every other day touring the museums in lunch breaks, weekend outings, what have you. Well, I’m not. But you still can’t beat 7 museums all year for a mere 34 € AND audio guides for a mere 2 €. So I tried out the audio guide one afternoon (peer pressured). And I was not disappointed. In fact, I immediately started scribbling Ramsay’s profound observations into my pink moleskin just so I could share them with you.

Go to this exhibit and get the audio tour with it. I went through once without listening, observed the pictures and thought, ‘Mmm…Tja, interesting.’ But then Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay’s spirit whispered into my ear, “Look Pittsburgh girl, turn on the headphones. There’s tons here you’re not seeing. Open your ears and I’ll open yours eyes.”

What a man. With questions like, “What can a historical painting tell us about the world nearly 500 years after it’s been painted?” and

Description of "Mille Regretz" audio tour of Flemish artist, Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen's Tapestry Cartoons

Description of Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay’s “Mille Regretz” audio tour of Flemish artist, Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen’s Tapestry Cartoons of “Emperor Charles V Conquers Tunis” from 1543.

“Is it possible to truly know a work of art without knowing the historical factors that influenced its creation?” (like a big ol emperor ordering you to do so). And other statements like, “While these cartoons sought to immortalize a moment in time for all eternity, the cultural and political context in which they were created is not eternal.” He’s telling us the obvious but wow! Is all art always temporary? How’s that for a bite to chew while tanking up a little culture for an hour on a Saturday afternoon?

Vermeyen’s paintings show every possible act of a people at war – from the most horrific to the most banal activities, all the more riveting for their starkly contrasting realities. Ramsay’s audio tour will help you put the larger-than-life depictions into perspective.

Want to impress a date? Go do the tour with the audio guide. Then just so happen to stop by the museum with your date, impress upon Date the uselessness of audio guides, and then take Date to the Vermeyen tapestry cartoons and spew forth all the profound, contemplative thoughts you heard. Show you’re a sensitive guy (or girl) who noticed the details of the paintings. I guarantee you, Date will be impressed. Very impressed. And if Date’s not? Red flag.

Artist Vermeyen paints himself into the tapestry cartoon.

Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen — court painter of Emperor Charles V and artist of the tapestry cartoons painted himself in to piece — pictured here sketching in his book in the middle of the battleground.

But Ramsay does fail to pose one question that I kept asking myself. What if these were from today? Ten larger than life tiles with photos of a war photographer on the front line?

You can see in the images I have included here — one of the artist, who discreetly placed himself in the middle of painting. I challenge you to find him without the audio guide. It took me a good five minutes with the audio guide. But there he is. Sketching away. The battle rages on. And I have to think of all those war photographers out there who aren’t sitting so contently in the midst of their motifs. And I have to admire what they do. And wonder if a photographer did do such an exhibition, what would we think of it today? And if someone 500 years from now would perhaps view it, would they wonder about humankind the same kind of things Vermeyen contemplated while painting, the tapestry makers thought while weaving and I thought lost for an hour in the Vienna National Museum of Art this past Saturday afternoon?

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Vienna Museum of Art History about Tapestry Cartoons

Audio guide info:
Get your audio guide at the audio guide desk at the entrance (Be  sure to get the audio guide!):
Per Person: € 4,-
Take 2: € 7,-
Family (2 ad. + 3 child.): € 8,-
Group (10 pers or more): € 3,-
Annual ticket holders: € 2,-

Original Karl Kraus quote: “Krieg ist zuerst die Hoffnung, daß es einem besser gehen wird, hierauf die Erwartung, daß es dem anderen schlechter gehen wird, dann die Genugtuung, daß es dem anderen auch nicht besser geht, und hernach die Überraschung, daß es beiden schlechter geht.“

Website of Canadian Artist and Diarist Benny Ramsay Nemerofsky.


Are you are Lebenskünstler? Or just a Connoisseur of the Art of Living?

= Wer seinen Sommer so erlebt, daß er ihm noch den Winter wärmt.
(He who experiences the summer in such a way that it still warms him through the winter)
– Definition of Lebenskünstler from Alfred Polgar (1873 – 1955), Austrian writer and critic

Esther statue adorning front porch of Ernst Fuchs' Museum / Otto Wagner Villa in Vienna

Esther statue adorning front porch of Ernst Fuchs’ Museum / Otto Wagner Villa in Vienna

Last week a group of friends and I were given a private tour of the Vienna villa / museum of Austrian artist of fantastic realism, Ernst Fuchs. As the tour guide enlightened us on the WWII atrocities that inspired Ernst Fuchs’ earliest horrific works, the feminine endowments that gave rise to his later sensual pieces distracted our attention. “Definitely a butt man.” Someone felt compelled to utter the obvious. And somewhere along the way, between the Jesus self-portraits and the Esther statue that towered from the front porch like the flying lady on a hood of a Rolls Royce (without the wings, standing tall with a big bosom and even bigger buttocks), the tour guide mentioned Ernst Fuchs’ wives and lovers and other lady friends.

Ernst Fuchs Room in Villa with Paintings and Designs

Ernst Fuchs Room in Villa with Paintings and Designs

Three wives? Or four? And sixteen children with seven women? Or is it seventeen? If you include the one he adopted from yet another woman. And grandchildren? Well in his mid-eighties, how many is that per decade? We were all doing the math in our heads. I could see it on my friends’ faces. I could also see when they reached the result.

But the prim and proper tour guide was definitely smitten and a Ernst Fuchs connoisseur. Enamored or simply in awe? That too was discussed at length afterwards but we couldn’t agree. Afterall, who can know what lies in the depths of a woman’s heart. Perhaps not even she will admit the obvious.

In any case, either while expounding on yet another posterior perspective or answering yet another question about private pursuits (When was the first child born? How many by the same woman? How many when he left to live as a monk in Israel?), the loyal guide inevitably just shook her head and smiled, “He’s simply a Lebenskünstler.”

A Lebenskünstler. Of course. Her description was predictable. In fact I had used the exact same word on our way to the villa. A German woman had commented, “But I always thought the Austrians were so conservative” and I had piped in, “Have you seen Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Hundertwasser? Austrians make quite an exception for their Lebenskünstler – the exotic animals in the zoo of society.”

Ernst Fuchs Photo

Ernst Fuchs Photo

Oh those adorable untamable Lebenskünstler. Sixteen children but who’s counting (except those of us in the tour group). As long as they’re also producing art and having fun.

Lebenskünstler. What a word. With no proper English translation. Just the kind of word a secret word junkie like me can adore. Joining the ranks of Zeitgeist and Schadenfreude. Of course the concepts are universal but the English version of the word remains uninvented, as if refusal to give birth to its physical form could stymie its higher existence.

It is what it is.

One translator of Lebenskünstler recommended the French word bon vivant. I was hopeful until I translated it back into German again (a way to test if you have really nailed a translation). Unfortunately bon vivant is apparently a Lebemann which is more a playboy. And while a Lebenskünstler can indeed be a playboy (see Ernst Fuchs though I think he would deny being a playboy), that doesn’t quite fit.

Jesus Ernst Fuchs Painting

Jesus Ernst Fuchs Painting

So we move to other possible translations. Here are some: hedonist (someone who sees the goal of life as being the pursuit of pleasure). This is close but still not quite right. Bohemian also doesn’t cut it. Neither does eccentric; enjoyer of the good life; master in the art of living; artist of life; pleasure-seeker – none of which are to be outdone by my personal favorite — connoisseur of the art of living.

Next time we attend a writing conference, promise me you’ll make them write, “KC Blau, Connoisseur of the Art of Living” on my name tag. You can be the master in the art of living.

God forbid we’d dare to write Lebenskünstlerin because there are no female Lebenskünstlers. In German the female version would be a Lebenskünstlerin and that just doesn’t seem to exist. Nope. It seems that Lebenskünstlerei is preserved for men alone.

So maybe one translation was closer than I originally thought. It described Lebenskünstler as – “special individuals.” Almost makes it sound like the Society of Lebenskünstler lobbied for politically correct treatment. Special individuals.

Ernst Fuch Jesus Painting

Ernst Fuchs Jesus Painting

So who are these “special individuals” exactly?

Perhaps a direct translation would shed some light on the matter. Lebenskünstler is a compound word of the word Leben (life) and Künstler (artist). Life artist. But that doesn’t really tell you what it is either.

Hauntingly accurate portrait by teenage Ernst Fuchs of himself as old man

Hauntingly accurate portrait by teenage Ernst Fuchs of himself as an old man

Remember the 2002 Leonardo Di Caprio film, Catch Me if You Can? It was based on the life of Frank William Abagnale, Jr.. That character is the perfect example of a Lebenskünstler. A Lebenskünstler is a man who treats life like a game with rules meant to be bent (or ignored or cheated) in order to successfully squeeze what he wants out of it. So while Lebenskünstler are usually artists who don’t follow the social norms but manage to get by and along with others just fine, nevertheless, they can also be others (like the Frank Abagnale guy). And a big part of what makes a Lebenskünstler a Lebenskünstler is the fact that the rest of society kind of just finds the behavior charming rather than condemnable.

Room in Ernst Fuchs' Villa / Museum in Vienna, Austria (villa originally designed by Otto Wagner)

Room in Ernst Fuchs’ Villa / Museum in Vienna, Austria (villa originally designed by Otto Wagner)

Silly you. Living under the bridge? Whiling away your days drawing in Parisian cafes? Fathered another child? Well you are a Lebenskünstler.

What about you? A Lebenskünstler? Or just a connoisseur of life?

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