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November 29 2010

Germany wins in the art world

Is Germany the greatest European art nation of the 20th century?

Which country leads Europe in contemporary art? Britain, of course, you answer. Look at all those people flocking to Tate Modern. Wrong. The best artists in Europe today are German. The towering geniuses Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer radically contrast in how they conceive art yet both, from their divergent perspectives, one super-cool, the other romantic, achieve a profundity that makes most British art look trite.

But to widen the question – which was the greatest European art nation of the 20th century? France? Wrong again. It was Germany. Only Germany has been at the forefront of modern art from the early 20th century right up until today. Paris declined as a creative capital after 1939, but German artists have been revolutionary for 100 years without missing a beat. The passion of expressionist painting and cinema, the fragmentation grenades of Dada, the idealism of the Bauhaus and realism of Neue Sachlichkeit – these German art movements of the early 20th century did not give way, as in France, to cultural decline but instead burned on into the 1960s and 70s, when Joseph Beuys showed that art can still reach into myth and memory to renew the world. Beuys and his legacy – continued by Kiefer, rejected by Richter – coincided with a great renewal of German cinema: for one aspect of the German genius is that fine art and film have merged there since the days of Murnau.

And a final question – who created the Renaissance? Well, Italy did, but Germany was the first northern country to adapt Renaissance ideas to its own culture, and the only land north of the Alps to produce one of the masters of the High Renaissance – the towering figure of Albrecht Dürer, whose genius is celebrated in a timely new book by Norbert Wolf. It was Dürer whose readiness to embrace the new technology of the printing press – his prints are as great as his paintings, or greater – set the modernising, forward-looking, and productive tone of German art right down to today, when new art flourishes in a Berlin that is the worthy heir to the cosmopolis portrayed in Kirchner's painting Potsdamer Platz. Anyone who spends a couple of days in Berlin's museums and galleries will come to the conclusion that the Germans really are better at art.


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July 11 2010

New Wave photographs to go on show

Glimpses of life on set of films such as Lola and Jules et Jim to be displayed at the James Hyman Gallery

His name is hardly known, even in his native France, but for almost 10 years Raymond Cauchetier chronicled one of the most exciting and revolutionary film decades. Now his photographs of the French New Wave are to go on display together for the first time.

It will be London not Paris which exhibits Cauchetier's behind the scenes glimpses of life on the set of films such as Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, Jacques Demy's Lola and Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim.

The images will be included in a selling exhibition and all are very French. Lots of brooding, flirting, pouting and kissing. They include Jean Seberg looking sultry behind a plume of Chesterfield cigarette smoke; Anouk Aimee living it up in a top hat as the eponymous Nantes cabaret star in Lola, and Jeanne Moreau racing her two lovers on a bridge. Cauchetier became the French New Wave's photographic chronicler after getting a job on Jean Luc Godard's Breathless, a landmark film, which this year has its 50th anniversary.

Cauchetier recalled his first day when Godard was trying to explain his working methods to the actors. "An absolutely terrified Jean Seberg wanted to leave the set immediately and go straight back to Iowa. She did not yet know that the role would bring her such international fame. Godard was very cold. Nobody thought that the film would be presentable... And then the miracle happened. The rest is history."

La Nouvelle Vague. Iconic New Wave Photographs by Raymond Cauchetier. At the James Hyman Gallery in London from July 14 to August 28.


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June 13 2010

Shirin Neshat: A long way from home

Exiled artist Shirin Neshat's first film is about the lives of four women in her native Iran – but it won't get past the country's censors

Shirin Neshat sits in the cafe of a London park enthusing about pirate DVDs. The artist and first-time film director is unconcerned with the effect on ticket sales, instead praising the ingenuity of black market sellers who have made illegal copies of her film, Women Without Men.

"My sister managed to buy five copies in a store, with a new cover and everything," she tells me. "She sent someone to buy some more, but the guy said, 'Lady, we have already sold 500.' I was really happy." The store was in Iran, where the film is set, and the DVDs are likely to be the only way anyone in the country will see her film. Neshat is confident it will never get past the censors. "Every Iranian artist dreams of the black market," she laughs. "We don't care about making money."

Women Without Men took Neshat six years to make and won her a best director award at last year's Venice film festival. Best known for the arresting black-and-white photographs in her Women of Allah series (pictures of armed, veiled women, their bodies inscribed with Farsi poetry), the film is based on the magical realist novel by feminist author and former political prisoner Shahrnush Parsipur. The story, banned in Iran since 1989, follows four women: a young religious woman in love, her politically conscious friend, a prostitute and an unhappily married middle-aged housewife – taking in their lives, deaths and the odd resurrection. Set in 1953, the film has all the hallmarks of Neshat's gallery work, with its focus on women's bodies, beauty and political violence. Each scene recalls her photographs or is a homage to a painting: when Zarin, the anorexic prostitute, almost drowns, it is in a pool as overgrown as the stream in which John Everett Millais' Ophelia lies.

Neshat, 53, says she was trying, with her husband and collaborator Shoja Azari, to "pioneer our own way of storytelling. It was about not following patterns or models within cinema, but following the conceptual art and poetic traditions of Iran." Small and slim in an embroidered black jacket, huge hooped earrings and her trademark pharaoh-like eyeliner, she is nervous about the film's UK premiere on the day we meet. Critical reaction has been mixed, with the New York Times raving about its "fierce beauty" while the Washington Post dismissed it as "relentlessly dark". Writing in this paper, Peter Bradshaw called it "a quietly tremendous film which ensnares both the heart and the mind"; the Financial Times, however, was not alone in complaining that the film "is a series of tableaux to which no one brought the vivants".

Neshat, who left Iran at 17 to study in the US, and now lives in New York, worries that the style may be difficult for a western audience to follow. "It is rooted in Iranian heritage. We have been censored for so long that the only way we can express ourselves is through the use of metaphors and allegory. So for a western audience to understand it, they have to read between the lines – the way Iranians express themselves – when they are used to people being very direct."

Neshat is learning to be more direct, too. She once told Time magazine that "I'm an artist, I'm not an activist", but the protests in Iran sparked by the 2009 elections, in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government was accused of rigging a landslide victory, have shifted her position. "For a long time, I just let my work speak for itself and it was about ways of questioning – not answering, and not really taking sides," she says. "But since [last] June I did change [because] by not taking a position, by not showing solidarity to people who are risking their lives for something that is so positive, you are taking sides. There is nothing negative about a group of people crying out for democracy – and if my voice counts I will be vocal.

"Being political is an integral part of being Iranian," she adds. "Our lives are defined by politics. My own life – not being able to go to Iran, being separated from my family – has been ruled by those who have control, so the anger, bitterness and resentment is there in me, too. It's not just sympathising with the anger of the people on the street."

In memory of last year's protests

Although Women Without Men was completed before last year's protests, Neshat's decision to emphasise the political background of the story now seems prescient. (She added an unapologetically political dedication, in memory of "those who lost their lives fighting for freedom and democracy in Iran, from the constitutional revolution of 1906 to the Green Movement of 2009".) In 1953, the year the film is set, Iran's first – and only – democratic government was overthrown in a British-instigated, CIA-backed coup when the leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, made plans to nationalise its oil industry. Neshat believes the backlash against the west that the coup unleashed began the chain of events that led to the Iranian revolution and the present theocracy. "We Iranians have been fighting generation after generation for the same thing," she says. "This cycle keeps moving and the torch is passed on."

More recently, she helped organise a hunger strike and petitions to free political prisoners – including fellow director Jafar Panahi, released from prison at the end of May. His detention, she says, highlighted the extraordinary position of artists in Iran. "We have no freedom of expression, but we are central to the discourse. Artists are taken extremely seriously, to the point where we are considered a threat, which is really interesting in a government which doesn't care about culture." Yet she says she wouldn't have it any other way. "We are not just making work which demands the judgment of critics at an international level, but also the judgment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I love that – that people's imaginations can positively affect a society rather than just being collected and put in a museum."


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November 04 2009

Hot lips

Photographer Terry O'Neill recollects one of his most iconic images, a tousled portrait of film star Brigitte Bardot smoking on set



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