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August 19 2012

Martine Franck obituary

Photographer whose work ranged from portraits of the famous to pictures of the poor

Martine Franck, who has died aged 74, was a photographer of great contrasts. She started out by taking pictures in Asia, a continent she revisited for weeks at a time, but she also devoted herself to documenting daily life close to her homes in Paris and the Luberon, Provence. Her work is characterised by a fascination with the little intimacies and interactions in the lives of anonymous poor, marginalised and elderly people, yet she also assembled a matchless portfolio of portraits of famous authors and artists, including Seamus Heaney, Marc Chagall and Diego Giacometti.

Franck never adhered to the opinion professed by her fellow Magnum agency photographer Eve Arnold that all photographers are obliged to be intrusive. Ever modest, she said: "I think I was shy as a young woman and realised that photography was an ideal way of expressing myself, of telling people what was going on without having to talk." In 1970, she married the celebrated French photographer and co-founder of the Magnum agency, Henri Cartier-Bresson. The couple collaborated on a series of portraits of the artist Balthus, as retiring by temperament as Franck herself.

She was born to a Belgian banker, Louis Franck, and his British wife, Evelyn, in Antwerp. With the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, her father, who made his career in London, joined the British army. The rest of the family was evacuated to the US and spent the war on Long Island and in Arizona. She was educated in Europe, and studied history of art at Madrid University and the Ecole du Louvre in Paris.

Writing her thesis (on Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and the influence of cubism on sculpture) convinced Franck that she did not wish to be an academic or a curator, but a photographer. Her father had moved in artistic circles and one of her first portraits was of the sculptor Etienne Martin emerging from a cave smeared with clay. In 1963, she went to China, taking her cousin's Leica camera with her, and discovered the joys of documenting other cultures. Returning home via Hong Kong, Cambodia, India, Afghanistan and Turkey, she paused to visit the theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine and bought her first camera in Japan. She kept to a Leica, and predominantly used black-and-white film, throughout her career.

Returning to France, she worked as a photographic assistant at Time-Life while developing her own technique. Her early mentors were Eliot Elisofon and Gjon Mili, yet she also cited dramatically different female photographers as influences: Julia Margaret Cameron, for her portraits, and Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White. Lange's social conscience was reflected in Franck's project on old people's homes for the Petits Frères des Pauvres association. Bourke-White's love for play of light and geometric shapes is embedded in arguably Franck's single most perfect image, that of the bathers at the poolside at Le Brusc (Provence), taken in 1976. She described her experience of capturing it: "I remember running to get the image while changing the film, quickly closing down the lens as the sunlight was so intense. That's what makes photography so exciting." A moment later the positions of all five figures and their shadows on the white tiles would have irrevocably altered. The image has stood the test of time and was used as the cover shot for her book in the series I Grandi Fotografi in 2003.

Franck's work was used in Life, Fortune and Vogue, for which she shot portraits of women in public life, including her fellow photographer Sarah Moon and Mnouchkine, who made Franck the official photographer to her Théâtre du Soleil. Franck's fascination with masks and disguises found an outlet in Mnouchkine's ambitious deployment of kathakali, kabuki and commedia dell'arte. Their collaboration led to Franck experimenting with colour photography, which she used to capture theatrical productions such as Robert Wilson's ethereal version of Fables de la Fontaine at the Comédie Française in 2004. Franck's love of the theatrical could transform her quiet unobtrusiveness.

In 1966, Franck met Cartier-Bresson, who epitomised Magnum's tradition of humanitarian photography. Franck was adamant that she would neither bask in his reflection nor disappear in his shadow and she joined the Vu agency in 1970. Her first solo exhibition was planned for the ICA in London that year; when she saw that the invitations were embossed with the information that her husband would be present at the launch, she cancelled the show.

With Vu's demise, Franck co-founded the Viva agency in 1972. It also collapsed and it was not until 1980 that Franck joined Magnum, becoming a full member in 1983. She was one of the few women to be accepted into the agency and served as vice-president from 1998 to 2000. Eschewing the war/human tragedy reportage that characterised Magnum's reputation, Franck continued her projects on marginal or isolated lives. When I first met her, in the 1990s, she had just completed her book on Tory Island, a "small rock" off the northern Irish coast with a population of around 130 Gaelic-speakers, where she lived in order to document their way of life.

Always a feminist, Franck was not above picking a grandiose book title – such as Des Femmes et la Création. It is typical that one of her final projects involved three weeks spent visiting small villages in Gujerat, western India, documenting young girls embroidering their own dowries.

As well as their homage to Balthus, Franck and Cartier-Bresson undertook a joint project in the Soviet Union. Franck also created a small book of portraits of her husband. Among the most memorable of this similarly shy and elusive character is that taken from behind, showing the back of his head. His reflection in the square mirror before him is repeated in the self-portrait he is sketching: a reflection on a reflection. Franck never used him as mentor or protector but warmly concluded: "Henri was both critical and inspirational as well as warmly supportive of me as a photographer". They had one daughter, Melanie, another reason for Franck to operate close to home when possible.

Franck's brother, the photographic curator and collector Eric Franck, affirms: "Henri was always very generous in encouraging her work, something she respected greatly." Franck's sister-in-law, Louise Baring, adds: "What was so extraordinary about Martine was that with subtlety and grace she could both be a great photographer herself and at the same time honour her husband's tradition."

She worked hard to launch the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in 2002. In 2005, she was made a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. After her diagnosis with bone marrow cancer in 2010, she continued showing her work, and had exhibitions earlier this year at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York and at the Claude Bernard Gallery in Paris.

She is survived by Melanie, three grandchildren and her brother, Eric.

• Martine Franck, photographer, born 3 April 1928; died 16 August 2012


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August 18 2012

Guernica, the town that inspired Picasso, is having fun – 75 years after being bombed to hell

It's fiesta time in the Basque country as bitter memories of Hitler and Eta give way to rioja, battered cod and cross-dressing

A large cannon fires into the town square of the Basque town of Guernica, scattering small children. Fortunately, in a place tragically famous as Hitler's testing ground for the bombing of civilian targets, this is just part of the entertainment at the summer fiestas. The shiny weapon shoots watery bubbles at delighted children dressed in swimwear and goggles.

But clues to Guernica's tragic past abound in a market town levelled 75 years ago during an almost non-stop four-hour bombardment in which Luftwaffe units loaned to Spain's Nazi-backed future dictator General Franco practised aerial blitzkrieg.

Buildings across the town currently display two dozen peace posters painted by children from around the world on massive hoardings sized to match the world's most famous anti-war painting – Pablo Picasso's tortured, terrible depiction of the bombardment. His disturbing tableau of screaming women, dismembered bodies, crazed animals and dead children is pinned to walls in shops and bars.

As the Basque country slowly gets used to a peace denied it for almost four decades by the armed separatist group Eta, Guernica is preparing to return to the spotlight in a film starring Antonio Banderas and Gwyneth Paltrow that will depict the 33 days of furious creativity in which Picasso created one of his greatest works.

Banderas and Paltrow, playing the Spanish painter and his photographer muse Dora Maar, will be filming in the town in a specially built replica of Picasso's Paris studio. "Maar is the protagonist and not just because she was his lover and confidante, but because her photographs are the only proof of how the picture evolved," director Carlos Saura explains. "Guernica was an extraordinary synthesis of Picasso's creativity," agrees art historian Gijs van Hensbergen, author of a book on the painting. "Dora was both participant and witness to the creation of the 20th century's most iconic work of art."

Tourists come in search of the old quarter. "We have to tell them there isn't one, that it was bombed to the ground," explained Luis Iriondo, an 89-year-old artist who lived through the bombing as a child. Iriondo recalls how incendiary bombs sent fire sweeping through the town, killing those in bomb shelters and destroying four out of every five buildings. "Each explosion was followed by a blast of air," he said, recalling that it was a busy market day in a town already packed with refugees. "They were horridly warm, as if they tasted of death."

"I spent four hours staring up terrified at the sky," recalled Iriondo's friend Enrique Aranzábal. "After the Spanish civil war I went to sea and ended up working with a German who had flown in those planes. He told me they treated it as a training mission."

Three-quarters of a century later, Guernica is perhaps freer of tension than at any time in its modern history. As the town parties, Iriondo and Aranzábal are dressed in Basque peasant outfits, celebrating the patron saint of San Roque with midday gulps of rioja, slabs of battered cod and thin slices of ham. An accordionist and tambourine player, hired every year by this slowly dwindling circle of elderly friends, play as we sit at a long table under the arches of the postwar town centre.

This year's fiestas are peaceful, untroubled by tensions with Eta supporters or baton charges by twitchy police. "It hasn't always been like that," admitted mayor José María Gorroño. "On the opening day I stood on the town hall balcony and just saw thousands of happy people."

Guernica is naturally, comfortably euskera-speaking – typical of the country and fishing towns east of Bilbao. "Long live ETA," scribbled in marker-pen on a noticeboard, is a reminder that these sorts of places were traditional recruiting grounds for the all-but-defeated terrorist group that announced a definitive end to its 40 years of violence last October. Occasional banners on balconies calling for Eta prisoners to be moved to jails nearer to home show where some sympathies lie.

The historic roots of Basque exceptionalism are visible at one of the few spots to survive the bombardments – the provincial parliament. The ancient oak tree where Spanish monarchs once swore to respect local rights dried out a few years ago, though a younger one sprouts hopefully in its place.

The Basque country's special system that allows it to gather tax and send a portion to Madrid, rather than the other away around, is an inheritance – much envied in Catalonia – of those rights.

The town's peace museum displays a telegram sent the day after Hitler's Junkers 52s and Heinkel 111s joined with Savoia 79s sent by Mussolini to drop almost 40 tons of explosives and incendiary bombs. "Today Guernica is nothing more than burning coals and cinder ... It is still burning," it says.

Guernica's museum, like its hotels and restaurants, is enjoying a peace dividend this year. "There are noticeably more people visiting from other parts of Spain," says the museum's Idoia Orbe.

Fear of Eta violence, and prejudice, used to keep them away, says Gorroño. He represents a new separatist coalition called Bildu that includes some traditional Eta supporters who harbour a visceral hatred for what they call "the Spanish state".

At the town hall Gorroño brings out the Guernica Agreement, signed two years ago, in which leaders of Eta's banned front party finally called for the laying down of arms. "I am proud of that," he says, explaining that his own non-violent Eusko Alkartasuna party, formed 25 years ago, seeks an amicable break with Spain. "My party has always been peaceful."

For the past few decades Guernica has busily been putting the record straight about what really happened on 26 April 1937. "Franco claimed it was burned to the ground by 'separatist reds', but that was a lie," says Gorroño. "Part of what we had to do to begin with was allow historians to tell the true story," explains opposition leader Luis Ortúzar as we pass a bust of George Steer, the Times correspondent who alerted the world to the devastating bombardment. The call for the Guernica picture to be moved here from Madrid's Reina Sofía museum is unlikely to be answered – experts say the vast canvas is too delicate has already travelled too much. The painting has toured Europe twice and went to the US in 1939 to raise funds for civil war refugees. It did not come to Spain until 1981, following Picasso's wishes, when democracy had been restored.

The number of dead from the bombing has been put at 1,654. The town's registered population was just 5,630 inhabitants. The fact that the town's arms factories and main bridge were spared shows that civilians were targeted before more obvious military objectives.

William Smallwood, an American author who learned euskera from Basque shepherds in Idaho, has finally published a book of interviews he did secretly in 1970 – when memories were fresher than today but Franco's police ensured tongues were silenced in public. "There was a fear among the people of discussing politics," he writes in The Day Guernica Was Bombed. "Even a total stranger could experience the chilling effect of seeing sullen pairs of the Guardia Civil walking the street."

But while people in Guernica learned to talk about the bombing only after Franco's death in 1975, they soon found themselves battling another sort of silence, this time enforced by Eta, which killed seven people here. "Victims' families had to hide their grief," explains a board in the peace museum. "Society saw them as collateral damage, a lesser form of evil."

"It is great to live the fiestas without the added tension that the violence somehow created," agreed Ortúzar. "I was in a peace group that protested silently whenever someone was killed. Often there was a counter-demonstration. That sort of tension between neighbours in a small town like this can be unbearable."

But this weekend the town is in fancy dress. Glittery Abba suits, Scottish kilts and bearded women compete to raise a laugh. "I'd ask you out, darling, but I bet you are all booked up," a carefully coiffured señora quips to a cross-dressing middle-aged man, as her friends squawk in delight.

Guernica is having fun. As the wounds – both recent and past – begin to heal, Basques are relaxing. After so many years of bloodshed, it is an uplifting thing to see in the town that inspired Picasso.


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August 17 2012

Lost Matisse inspires topless protest in Caracas

More than a dozen women wearing nothing but red genie pants demand return of art work to Venezuela

The guards in front of Caracas's Museum of Contemporary Art did not appear to feel too threatened by the protest taking place on their doorstep.

Early one recent morning more than a dozen women wearing nothing but red genie pants gathered at the doors of the institution from where Henri Matisse's Odalisque in Red Trousers went missing, to ask for the prompt return of the painting they were emulating.

The women were photographed by the Venezuelan artist Violette Bule in poses reminiscent of the 1925 post-impressionist work that was replaced with a fake over a decade ago.

"My main goal is to have the original returned but I also want to call attention to the irony behind the way the art market works," said Bule, who masterminded the ensemble. "After this scandal, the Odalisque will surely be worth much more," she added.

Though the painting is said to have been recovered by FBI agents in Miami, details of the operation or the exact whereabouts of the Odalisque – valued at well over $3m (£2m) – have yet to be revealed. Two weeks ago, the Venezuelan attorney general, Luisa Ortega, declared to the press that her two attempts to contact US officials regarding the painting had gone unanswered. No other announcements have been made since.

In the meantime, the mystery behind the theft of the semi-naked woman is leading some to doubt whether the oil painting allegedly offered to the undercover agents is not in fact another copy.

"I am fascinated about how art works are reproduced. At the end of the day, it turns out, that it doesn't really matter if you are looking at the original or at the fake," Bule said.

But for Wanda de Guébriant, who directs the Archive Matisse in France, telling the original from the fake is central to her role. "The FBI called me shortly after the operation happened. They said they'd call again but they haven't. Who knows?" said Guébriant. "Depending on who is involved, sometimes we never find out what happens," she added.

For Guillermo Barrios, an expert in museum studies, the irony is twofold. He said: "After all the attention this has garnered the fake too will worth a lot of money. It's become a cult figure".


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Return of lost Matisse revives questioning of Caracas museum

Auditor found 14 works unaccounted for in checks following discovery that Odalisque in Red Trousers had been stolen

For the curators of Venezuela's most prestigious modern art museum, the recent reappearance of a Matisse that was stolen from their collection more than a decade ago ought to have been cause for joy and relief.

But the FBI sting operation that recovered the French painter's 1925 work Odalisque in Red Trousers in Miami last month has also resurrected awkward questions about more than a dozen other valuable pieces said to be "unaccounted for" at the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art (MACCSI), including works by Jasper Johns, Henry Moore, Lucian Freud and Jesús Soto.

A former director and an investigative journalist have raised concerns about the works that may be missing, some of which are estimated to be worth as much as $3m (£2m). They claim these are signs of deeper problems, including a lack of transparency, inadequate supervision and personal animosities at an institution that was once deemed among the leading contemporary art centres in Latin America, but has struggled since its founder, Sofía Imber, was sacked by the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, live on public television.

The theft of the Odalisque was the biggest indication of problems at the museum, which was founded in 1973 and became a symbol of the country's oil wealth. Matisse's depiction of a semi-nude, dark-haired woman, which hung in a place of honour, was stolen at some point and replaced by a fake that was discovered in 2002.

It remained missing until last month, when the FBI arrested two suspects – Cuban Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman and Mexican María Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo– who had allegedly been trying to sell the picture to undercover FBI agents for $740,000.

For the former director of the museum, Rita Salvestrini, the investigation in Miami has brought back doubts she raised in 2002 about the running of the museum that she took over after Imber was fired.

After discovering the Matisse hanging on the walls was a fake, Salvestrini ordered a series of full inventory checks. When she realised several pieces were missing, she called in an external auditor, who reported that 14 works – including Jasper Johns's Brooms and a piece by Soto that once hung behind her predecessor's desk – were unaccounted for. In addition, close to 200 other works were uncatalogued. "Both instances were equally alarming because they reflect that none of the controls were being followed," Salvestrini said.

"To me the findings [of the auditor] should have been used to correct a situation but the museum became a place where people's answers were designed to confuse and not to clarify," she said.

It was unclear whether the 14 pieces were temporarily misplaced or stolen, but efforts to track them down came to little.

One work, an etching by Freud, was purchased from the Timothy Taylor gallery in London, but appears not to have arrived at the museum. The London gallery said it had sold 55 Freud etchings to the Caracas museum between 1998 and 2001, "all of which were invoiced to the museum and shipped directly as per instruction".

Marinela Balbi, author of The Kidnap of the Odalisque, said there were 365 discrepancies in the number of works catalogued and accounted for at the museum. "These were institutions that were managed as if they were private, even though they are public. There was no accountability, or controls," said Balbi, who added that the tumult caused by the sacking of the founder also created a period of confusion that thieves may have exploited. After the sacking of Imber "there was a lot of institutional uncertainty coupled with a certain carelessness in inventory practices and a permissiveness in moving works to and from the museum", she said.

The museum denies any of its works are missing.

"Works of art get stolen all the time … Until the FBI reports its findings it would be irresponsible to speculate," said Adriana Meneses Imber, former director of the Jacobo Borges Museum and the daughter of the MACCSI founder. She said: "With the change in administration from my mother to the other person, an inventory was conducted and they said several pieces were missing. That is completely untrue."

The museum did not respond to repeated requests by the Guardian to be shown the works said to be "unaccounted for". On a recent visit there were very few pieces from its permanent collection on display – although Picasso's Suite Vollard etchings were among them.


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August 13 2012

Jerusalem exhibition lifts the veil on Hasidic Jewish culture

A World Apart Next Door exhibition at city's Israel Museum proves an unexpected hit, attracting secular and religious visitors

The crowd standing in front of the video projected on to the museum wall was unusual. A young woman with loose curls tumbling over her bare shoulders and clad in tiny denim shorts craned to get a better view; just behind her stood two ultra-Orthodox Jews in customary heavy black overcoats and wide-brimmed hats.

This sight, rarely seen in Jerusalem, was an illustration of the remarkable success of an exhibition examining the life and culture of the 250-year-old Hasidic Jewish movement. In a city where ultra-Orthodox Jews have become such a visible and influential presence, their way of life is a mystery to most outsiders.

A World Apart Next Door, the aptly titled exhibition at the Israel Museum, has become an unexpected success since opening two months ago. It is attracting round 1,300 visitors each day – big numbers for a city with a population about a tenth of London's. Half the visitors are from the ultra-Orthodox community.

"It's a phenomenon – a kind of a blockbuster. It's definitely exceeded expectations," said James Snyder, the museum's director. "For the ultra-Orthodox, it's the first opportunity to see their communal culture elevated and celebrated in a museum setting. For everyone else who sees members of the community on the streets, it's an opportunity to learn about a culture of which you can't help but be aware, but about which you know little."

The exhibition displays historic and contemporary photographs and artefacts, with separate sections focusing on the lives of men, women, children and rabbis. Clothing and headwear, some bought especially for the show and some borrowed from members of the community, are accompanied by explanations of different dress codes and requirements.

Most compelling are the videos, around which crowds gather throughout the day. Some, projected on to big display spaces on the walls, show religious gatherings and festivals, dancing and singing. An extraordinary wedding scene shows an apparently tense masked bride being led around a big arena by a dancing rabbi as male guests, dressed in customary monochrome, ecstatically and rhythmically sway and stomp. The women – forbidden from dancing in the presence of men – appear subdued.

Smaller screens show interviews with Hasidic Jews: a young mother explaining the role of women in the community; a hatmaker describing his trade and displaying his skill; a boy having his first ritual haircut at the age of three. All are presented with empathy, and many show not just devotion and reverence, but joy and exuberance.

Curator Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, who spent 18 months assembling the exhibition after five years of research, said there was some co-operation from the community, but she also encountered anxiety and hesitation. "I spent a lot of time building relationships of trust," she said. Photographers and videographers were careful to observe religious and cultural mores.

She is delighted with the exhibition's reception. "I expected it to be a success, but not to this extent. I didn't dream of it. It has created dialogue between groups that otherwise would never meet."

The museum, aware that the ultra-Orthodox may be unwilling to visit the exhibition in mixed-sex groups or in the company of those outside their communities, ensured that rabbis knew that special after-hours group sessions could be arranged. "There has not been a single request," said Snyder. "It's extraordinary to see all these people side by side, and talking to one another."

He was also prepared for tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and other Jews to surface in the context of the exhibition. Many Israeli Jews, both secular and religious, are deeply resentful of the ultra-Orthodox communities over their exemption from compulsory military service. They also complain of an unfair economic and social burden, given that many ultra-Orthodox men spend their lives in full-time subsidised religious study while fathering very large families.

"These issues have not come up. The abrasion that exists on the street is not present at the museum," said Snyder.

The exhibition, which runs until 1 December, contributed to a record July for the museum, with 84,000 visitors. It is expected to travel abroad next year, following requests from museums in Europe and North America.


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August 12 2012

Chavela Vargas obituary

Hard-drinking, pistol-packing, taboo-breaking singer of Mexican rancheras, revolutionary ballads and tangos

Gut-wrenching renditions of Mexican popular classics combined with a taboo-breaking personality and an iron liver ensured that Chavela Vargas, who has died aged 93, lived her own legend to the full. Vargas's raw, rasping voice and intimate arrangements stripped down well-known rancheras, boleros, revolutionary ballads and tangos to leave them as haunting laments, punctuated by waves of tenderness and bitter irony.

In the 1990s, the Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodóvar, whom Vargas described as her "soulmate", included her music in his films and championed her work, thus ensuring that she will be remembered not only as a tequila-soaked cantina singer from Latin America, but also an international artist who could sell out the most formal venues. "Chavela Vargas turned abandon and desolation into a cathedral within which we all fit," Almodóvar wrote after her death. "She emerged reconciled with the errors she had made and ready to make them again."

Vargas was born in Costa Rica. By her own account, she hardly knew her parents and was brought up by relatives in the countryside, dreaming of the day she would escape to bigger things. Vargas left for Mexico as a teenager and, after a while singing on the streets, became a fixture of the effervescent artistic scene of the post-revolution years. Even in that context, she stood out. She not only slept with women, but also sang love songs about them, wore trousers, smoked cigars, drank heavily, carried a loaded pistol and credited her recovery from polio to shamans.

"Chavela carries with her an aura of grace, charm and a legend," the writer and journalist Paco Ignacio Taibo said in a 2009 television documentary about his friend's life, "but she is also an emotionally possessed earthquake."

Vargas was particularly close to the painter Frida Kahlo. "I admired her deeply," the singer said, "but my love was much bigger than my admiration." She lived for a couple of years with Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, whom she described as "a bit amphibian in his ways".

Vargas was also inextricably associated with José Alfredo Jiménez, the singer and composer of many of the best known ranchera songs. The title of her 2002 autobiography Y Si Quieres Saber de Mi Pasado (And If You Want to Know About My Past) comes from a line from a Jiménez song that continues "... it will be necessary to tell a lie".

Vargas and Jiménez would go on drinking binges together that lasted for days at a time and included helping each other serenade the different women they desired. But while Jiménez died young, Vargas continued to drink bars dry until she was in her 60s. She then stopped, abruptly. "Life offered me the most beautiful things that a human being can have," she said, "and I preferred to sink into alcohol."

Vargas suffered deeply from the homophobic atmosphere that enveloped Mexico and helped ensure she was not fully embraced by her adopted homeland until after Spain had elevated her to stardom. "I opened my arms and I said to the world: 'Come here, let's talk.' And the world and I talked every night and sometimes it rejected me," she said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País in 2009. "It required tears of blood for me to get ahead."

In her final years, for all the talk of pain, she was also notably satisfied with her achievements. She continued to travel and perform, making the last of her 80 albums, La Luna Grande, in 2011 – a homage to the poetry of Federico García Lorca, with whose spirit she said she chatted regularly.

"I am proud that I do not owe anybody anything, and it is wonderful to feel free," she said in 2009. "Now I have the desire to lie down in death's lap, and I am sure that will be quite beautiful."

• Isabel "Chavela" Vargas Lizano, singer, born 17 April 1919; died 5 August 2012


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Eyewitness: Rostock, Germany

Photographs from the Guardian Eyewitness series





August 08 2012

Clashes in the Syrian city of Aleppo – in pictures

Award-winning photographer Goran Tomasevic has been covering clashes in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where fighting between rival factions appears to have reached a stalemate



August 07 2012

Obama pictured with baseball bat: a big hit with voters? | Martin Argles

US politicians are routinely snapped with sporting trophies but it pays to be cautious about the objects you're associated with

What's Obama doing fooling around with a baseball bat signed by Hank Aaron anyway? Hank Aaron, who surpassed Babe Ruth's total of 714 home runs, didn't even play for the White Sox – Obama's favourite team. That bat should be in a museum, not annoying the Turkish opposition.

It's something of a mystery as to why the White House press office thought it a good idea to have Obama photographed by one of their many resident photographers with a sporting trophy. What's the symbolism here? "Listen Recep, Putin may do that weird judo thing, but I can come at you with a 42-inch pole of solid American hickory. So just let the CIA in".

All US presidents are routinely photographed playing golf or jogging, but Obama the ex-smoker-lawyer-from-Chicago is a man for the people's game. Meanwhile, Michelle does her gardening, chats to small children and cheers on the Olympic team from the safety of the stands. It's doubtful if it would work in the UK, even in a post-Olympic glow. Was John Major ever snapped with a cricket bat in the cabinet office, or Gordon Brown with a rugby ball? Does Cameron bring a horse with him to G20 conferences? Politicians in the UK generally stay away from sporting props, and their counterparts down under sometimes share their caution: I once shared a golf course in Sydney with the then-leader of the Australian opposition, John Hewson. A golf buggy was offered and turned down. "I can't be photographed in that", he said. Why? "Makes me look like a wimp". Sport, a vote winner … or loser.

The study of politicians' association with objects is a generally unexplored aspect of political science. Caution is to be recommended. For example if you are Clinton (but not Churchill), stay well away from cigars. But if you are Margaret Thatcher, hold on to your handbag. And if you're Harold Wilson, keep gripping your pipe. I was not surprised to find that Tony Blair had one of those fish in his office that sings "Don't Worry, Be Happy" on demand. Did he ever, even in fun, play that down the line to George Bush?

It's true that one might conclude from the picture that there's nothing Obama wants to do more than to get off the phone and get back to a baseball game with his security men on the White House lawn, but should the Turkish opposition be so frazzled? Baseball isn't even a particularly popular sport over there. One could understand it if the president had been snapped lounging beside the pool in Michael Phelps' briefs, but he hasn't.

Maybe the Turks should get their revenge. How about a return phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdogan pictured in the costume of a Greco-Roman wrestler? Soon enough, heads of states would all be at it. Now that could be interesting.


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Bussy-Saint-Georges, the town with built-in religious harmony

Planners hope construction of a multi-faith district will bring together the citizens of a new town near Paris

Hugues Rondeau is the Radical party mayor of Bussy-Saint-Georges, a new town in the Paris suburbs. His taste for "ordered urban space" has led to an innovation: the multi-faith district. On a plot of land just beyond the built-up area, he has authorised the construction of several places of worship.

"Here there will be two Buddhist temples, a mosque, a synagogue, a Chinese evangelical church and an Armenian cultural centre," said the mayor, a practising Catholic who is convinced that in a secular state the government should not turn a blind eye to religious fact. "Our 30,000 inhabitants are mostly of foreign origin with 45% from Asia," he said. "We couldn't deprive them of their religious practice."

To date only the Taiwanese temple, a prestige €15m ($19m) project, has been completed. The shaven-headed nuns in traditional brown robes worked hard to make every flower, lantern and stone Buddha look perfect for the inauguration of the European headquarters of Fo Guang Shan, a Chinese Buddhist order, last month.

There is nothing exotic about the temple, built on what used to be agricultural land. The mayor insisted that the architects blend the buildings into the landscape to avoid creating a religious Disneyland, just 10km from the real thing. The elegant wood and glass building covers 7,000 sq metres. A five-metre-tall jade Buddha towers over a prayer room for 400. The monastery has 36 bedrooms in addition to exhibition space, classrooms for Chinese, French, English, calligraphy and cookery lessons, and a restaurant. More than 80% of the cost came from the Fo Guang Shan headquarters in Taiwan. The 300 faithful in the Paris region also contributed.

The centre, mainly geared to its international followers, is one that least meets the needs of the local community. "But it's a project that has been put on hold for years," said the venerable Miao Da, who leads Fo Guang Shan and profited from the mayor's open policy. The organisation acquired the land at an attractive "agricultural land" price of €50 a square metre.

Just a few dozen metres away, a more modest Laotian temple is nearing completion. A common parking lot separates the buildings, while a large plot of land is earmarked for a Jewish centre, a Chinese evangelical church and the Muslim cultural centre adjoining the 2,000-square-metre mosque, which will include a tearoom and a library. Its curved roofs are already visible, and behind them the walls of the prayer room for 400 faithful.

"We've been praying in a pre-fab since 2010, and before that we had to go to neighbouring towns. The town hall lent us their functions room for Eid," explained Farid Chaoui, vice-president of Tawba, a Muslim association that is sponsoring the project for town's estimated 400 Muslim families. They are still one third short of the €1.5m required to finish the mosque but Chaoui has given himself to the end of the year to raise it "without foreign donations".

The mosque project is the one that caused the most controversy. "I've been accused of handing Bussy over to the Mullahs," said the mayor, who had to do some "educational work" and explain that he preferred to put a mosque in this open district with identified partners, rather than have people pray in a garage. He believes that people's reservations will disappear once they explore the neighbourhood for themselves. Ultimately it will also house the town's cultural centre complete with theatres and cafes.

The mayor's "living together" project is supported by most of the people involved but the town's Catholic priest, Pierrick Lemaître, is rather more sceptical. His church was built 13 years ago and falls just outside the municipal zone. "It's important that every religion has a place of worship," he agreed, "but it's not enough to place pretty buildings side by side for people to actually get together."

"The mayor started this process ... He asked us to sign a charter committing us to mutual respect. Now it's up to us to make the project work," said Chaoui. "Live and let live is the only solution if you want to avoid stigmatisation," agreed Guy Benarousse, from the town's small Jewish community, whose project is delayed due to lack of funds.

The mayor sees his concept as "an attempt" but not necessarily one that would work everywhere. A new town "where you start from scratch" is a good template for such experiments, "And I was dealing with tolerant communities, not tense ones," he added. Unlike some of his critics, he does not see this concentration as a "religious supermarket", but rather as an opportunity for people of different faiths to share resources, promote dialogue and enrich the town's cultural life.

This article originally appeared in Le Monde


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August 03 2012

European arts cuts: Rome's Maxxi maxes out the ministerial funding

Management of Zaha Hadid-designed hub for modern artists replaced by culture ministry commissioner

When the Maxxi opened in Rome in 2010 it aspired to become a hub for 21st-century artists. The management of the imposing museum - designed by the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid - was replaced with a commissioner appointed by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, due to an €11m (£8.6m) budget projection deficit.

Former director Pio Baldi blamed the progressive reduction in ministerial funding. Public funding was cut from €7m in 2010 to €2m by 2012.

The ministerial commissioner Antonia Pasqua Recchia said the initial funds earmarked for the museum were to be considered "extraordinary" as their purpose was to give an initial push to the institution. From 2012, the foundation was intended to rely on ordinary funding. The previous management blamed the ministry for mismanaging resources and setting the self-funding bar too high.


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European arts cuts: the death of a Greek gallery

'Art becomes the least priority,' says Elizabeth Louizou, who has been forced to close her formerly popular gallery in a prime Athens location

The Greek economic crisis has inevitably affected the country's commercial art market. Elizabeth Louizou founded Harma Gallery in Athens in 2007. It sold contemporary painting, sculpture, jewellery, drawing and decorative objects. Despite a strong presence on the Greek art scene and a prominent location in Plaka, the old Athens neighbourhood beneath the Acropolis, Louizou was forced to close down the space in March last year because of financial difficulties.

"Since its very first exhibition in 2007, Harma Gallery has known great recognition, overcome visitors' expectations and gained popularity and customer loyalty very rapidly. Its market share increased until the last quarter of 2009, when its number of visitors and moreover, sales, gradually started declining," says Louizou.

Louizou set up the gallery at the age of 22 without any financial assistance. "I tried to support it by working a second job but the economy and tourism only got worse. As business is business, all the sentimental part had to be taken aside. A negative balance shows an unhealthy business and I could not support a gallery just for a hobby at the age of 26."

While a few collectors invested in art as prices decreased, the revival was short-lived, says Louizou. "Art is a luxury good. When people are struggling to pay for necessity goods – electricity and taxes – they have to set their priorities accordingly. This has a knock-on effect on the Greek art scene. Art becomes the least priority."


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August 01 2012

Roy Lichtenstein's Electric Cord resurfaces after 42 years

Painting by pop art pioneer found in a New York city warehouse

A Roy Lichtenstein painting missing since 1970 has surfaced at a New York City warehouse – and a judge has ordered that it stay put until rightful ownership can be determined, according to court documents.

Lichtenstein's Electric Cord was created in 1961. It depicts a coiled cord in black and white on a 28 by 18 inch (71 by 46 cm) canvas. It was bought for $750 in the 1960s by art collector Leo Castelli, but disappeared in 1970 after the Castelli gallery sent it out for cleaning.

In 2007, Barbara Castelli, who inherited the art gallery when her husband Leo died in 1999, listed Electric Cord with a registry of missing and stolen artwork.

Castelli learned last week that an art dealer named James Goodman had contacted the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation seeking assistance authenticating the artwork, which was sitting at a storage facility on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

The painting had been shipped from a gallery in Bogota, Colombia, court records show.

Lawyers for Castelli claim the painting is worth $4m (£2.6m). New York State judge Peter Sherwood issued a temporary restraining order on Tuesday barring the painting from being removed from the warehouse.

Lichtenstein was a pioneer in pop art who died at age 73 in 1997. In May, one of Lichtenstein's works, Sleeping Girl, sold at the auction house Sotheby's for $44.8m.


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Former queen of Iran on assembling Tehran's art collection

The rarely shown collection includes works by giants such as Pollock, Warhol and Bacon

Situated in the heart of the Iranian capital, Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art is home to the world's most valuable collection of western modern art outside Europe and the United States. The rarely shown collection, which includes works by giants such as Pollock, Warhol and Bacon, was bought under the supervision of Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran who fled the country along with the late Shah during the turbulent events of the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Guardian has spoken to the former empress about the museum and its remarkable collection on the occasion of an exhibition showing some of the art pieces for the first time.

Q. Where did the idea for the collection come from?

I have always been fascinated with the arts. When I was in Iran in that position I was constantly concerned with promoting our Iranian traditional art but, at the same time, with introducing contemporary and modern art. I was particularly interested in modern paintings and sculptures. A number of private galleries were open at the time and the ministry of culture had a biennial of art and I was always involved in the inaugurations and the ceremonies.

I was interested in buying contemporary works and encouraged public offices to buy them at all times. Our curators and collectors at that time were mostly interested in the traditional art and not so much in the modern art. This is why I encouraged our private and public figures to buy modern works.

There was an exhibition which I participated in and there Mrs Iran Darroudi [an Iranian artist] had put some of her works on display. It was an exhibition held in a place between Pahlavi Street and Shahreza Street, the place where City Theatre was built, there was an old building in a place called Municipal Gardens. I remember Mrs Darroudi telling me she wished we had a place where we could put our works on show permanently, that was how the idea for Tehran's museum of contemporary art came up. I thought how good it would be to have a museum where we could put the works of our contemporary artists. Later I thought, why shouldn't we include foreign works, this is how it all started, as far as I remember. I spoke to Mr Kamran Diba [a prominent architect and a cousin of Farah Pahlavi] to design the museum.

It was the early 1970s, our oil revenue had significantly increased and I spoke to His Majesty [the Shah] and [the then prime minister] Mr Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, and told them that it was the best time to buy some of our ancient works both internally and from outside. They agreed. The museum was supposed to be built in Farah park which is now called Laleh park. I wanted it to be built in a park so that people could have better and easier access to the museum. I remember they intended to build houses in Farah park and His Majesty was away from Iran, I contacted him and wrote to him asking them to stop the construction which they did. The Museum of Contemporary Art and Museum of Carpets were built there. I wanted the museum's building to be both inspired by our ancient architecture and have modern elements and Mr Diba did it so well, the museum's rooms were designed in a way that the light came in through windows similar to the wind-catchers of Yazd's deserts.

Q. Who actually selected the art pieces?

Both Iranian and foreign works were bought under the supervision of my office. We provided the budget from NIOC [National Iranian Oil Company] and the budget planning office. Of the people involved, two were Americans, Donna Stein and David Galloway, and Mr Diba, who was the director of the museum, and Mr Karimpasha Bahadori, who was the chief of staff of the cabinet. Most of the paintings were bought under the direct supervision of my office with help from Mr Bahadori. He had met the president of Christie's and Sotheby's and the [Ernst] Beyeler art gallery in Switzerland. When Mr Bahadori left the office, Mr Diba became more involved with selecting the works.

Q. How do you feel now to see the collection gathering dust in the basement of the museum?

I hope these works are not buried in the museum's basement aimlessly. I was very worried for the fate of those paintings during those events [at the time of the revolution], I was worried that the revolutionaries would destroy them but fortunately the museum staff protected them in the basement and Mehdi Kowsar, the head of Tehran University architecture faculty, made a list of all the works and helped to protect them in that basement. He later became the director of the museum when Mr Diba left.

I hope the collection is protected well there. I have seen some of them in films and I'm happy that some years ago the director of the museum showed some of the works and made a catalogue listing the works, I'm happy that people have realised what was hidden there. I hope, too, that they make a catalogue of the Iranian art collection that was bought during my time so that people can realise what we bought from the Iranian art at the same time. It is a national asset and I hope they preserve it well. It's the most valuable collection of western modern art outside Europe and the US.

It was 1977 when it was inaugurated and we put them on display, His Majesty was there, also some foreign reporters and I remember that some of the reporters were thinking Iranians don't deserve to have these paintings, it was insulting, but they were not only foreign works, we had Iranian art, films, photography too. I am happy they are still there.

Q. What is your reaction to see some of the works censured?

As long as they don't destroy them and they keep them safe, I'm happy. If they don't want to show them, let them not show them, but I'm happy as far as they are safe. Is everything that is happening in Iran now Islamic? Is it only Degas's painting [Ballet Dancers] that is un-Islamic? I heard that they sent some Francis Bacon works to London and showed them there. Recently some Max Ernst paintings were shown in the Pompidou Centre in Paris including the one belonging to Tehran's museum as part of the surrealist exhibition. The Ernst painting that we have in Iran is his most beautiful painting, even better than those now on show in Germany.

Q. And your reaction to the work that was swapped?

To be honest, I don't dare to speak about those paintings freely, because I know some people have their eyes on these works or want to make Iran exchange them and I want the collection to stay in Iran. Jackson Pollock's painting, which has an unbelievable price, was sent to Japan recently but confiscated on its return to Tehran in customs. When the director of the museum inquired, he was told the painting had been taken as ransom for the money that the ministry of culture owed to the customs. I instantly issued a statement in protest.

There was a painting that they exchanged some years ago, it was a painting by Willem de Kooning, which was deemed un-Islamic. They exchanged it for the Shahnameh owned by the American art collector Houghton. It's the Shahnameh that originally belonged to Shah Tahmasb [of the Safavid dynasty] and it's the most beautiful ever. In 1970, we wanted to buy it but it cost some $20m which we couldn't pay at the time. The owner printed them and gave some of its miniatures to the Metropolitan museum in New York and put some on sale. What was left apparently cost only $6m and the Islamic republic exchanged de Kooning's painting for that. If they were really interested in the Shahnameh, couldn't they pay $6m and keep de Kooning's painting? The US businessman David Geffen, who bought the painting for some $20m, sold it for some $110m few years ago. The de Kooning exchange is the sole exchange they've done so far and I hope it remains the last one.

I follow the works of Iranian artists even now, sometimes in Paris or in New York and I am happy Iranian artists are still great. Whether they are men or women, they have always been great. Despite all the pressure and censorship inside the country, they haven't been able to stop the creativity of our artists. Some have to work underground, like in cinema, and sometimes their work has political messages, but the number of our artists now has definitely grown in comparison to the past. In reality, I admire all the new groups that exist, because in the beginning they had even banned the traditional Iranian music and some artists were practicing underground. I admire the film directors including those who have recently won international recognition, but I particularly regret that Iranian musicians are not allowed to show their instruments on national TV and the fact that lady singers cannot sign individually.

The picture of today's Iran in the world is terrible, comparing the past and now. I'm happy that few years ago at the time of Tehran's post-election unrest in 2009, the world for the first time in many years saw the true face of Iranians and both people inside the country and foreigners once again reminded themselves of Iran's glorious civilisation, history and art. I hope the situation changes and they can have the regime they deserve.

Q. Anything to you want to add about the museum's collection?

In one of the films shown in the US from that basement, I saw that the painting Andy Warhol drew of me was cut by knives and a sculpture of Bahman Moases that they didn't like was broken. I had the chance to meet some of these artists in person, like Marc Chagall, whom I met in southern France, Dali in Paris, Henry Moore in the suburbs of London, Paul Jenkins in the US and the Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, who we had commissioned to make three bronze columns for the museum's entrance, a project that was disrupted by the revolution. When I was in the US few years ago on a flight to Connecticut, I realised they had been bought by the Pepsi company.


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Tehran exhibition reveals city's hidden Warhol and Hockney treasures

Paintings collected with help of Iran's last queen, Farah Pahlavi, and safeguarded in museum basement, on show for first time

It is the finest collection of modern art anywhere outside Europe and the US, boasting works by Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, René Magritte and Mark Rothko.

But the pieces have been stacked in the basement of Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art for more than 30 years, gathering dust in storage. Censors in Iran classed some as un-Islamic, pornographic or too gay, and they have never been shown in public. Others have been displayed only once or twice.

But now a number of the collection's paintings are on show for the first time in Tehran as part of the museum's Pop Art & Op Art exhibition, featuring works by Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Victor Vasarely, Richard Hamilton and Jasper Johns.

"Many of the works in the exhibition are shown for the first time," Hasan Noferesti, the museum's director for art programmes, told the Mehr news agency. "The exhibition aims to show the evolution of these artistic movements."

More than 100 pieces from the museum's remarkable collection are on display, according to Mehr, along with a series of works from Mexico that have been dedicated to the museum in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution and the 200th anniversary of the country's independence.

James Rosenquist, Jim Dine, Larry Rivers and RB Kitaj are among other artists whose works are in the exhibition, which runs until mid-August.

Iran's unique hidden treasure was bought before the Islamic revolution, under the supervision of Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran, who fled the country with the late shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

The 38-year reign of the shah, self-proclaimed kings of kings, came to an end after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to Tehran receiving a hero's welcome and founded the Islamic republic.

The collection includes Pollock's Mural on Indian Red Ground, considered to be one of his most important works and estimated to be worth more than $250m, as well as important pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Whistler and Marcel Duchamp.

There are even pieces by artists whom the former empress met in person, including the Russian-French painter Marc Chagall and the English sculptor Henry Moore. The collection is thought to be worth more than $2.5bn.

Speaking to the Guardian, Pahlavi explained that the collection was bought during Iran's 1970s oil boom. "Our oil revenue had significantly increased and I spoke to [the shah] and Amir-Abbas Hoveyda [then prime minister], and told them that it was the best time to buy some of our ancient works both internally and from outside.

"I thought how good it would be to have a museum where we could put the works of our contemporary artists. Later I thought, why shouldn't we include foreign works. This is how it all started … at that time our curators and collectors were mostly interested in traditional art and not so much in the modern art."

Pahlavi's interest in western art is believed to derive from her education in France.

Kamran Diba, an Iranian architect and a cousin of the queen, was commissioned to design the museum in the heart of the capital and later selected the works with help from various people, including the presidents of Christie's and Sotheby's.

Pahlavi said: "I was very worried for the fate of those paintings during those events [at the time of the revolution], I was worried that the revolutionaries would destroy them. But fortunately the museum staff protected them in the basement.

"Some years ago the director of the museum showed some of the pieces and made a catalogue listing the works. I'm happy that people have realised what was hidden there for years."

Between 1997 and 2005, during the mandate of the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, when restrictions on art were temporarily relaxed, Alireza Samiazar, then head of the museum, struggled to secure permission for the first display of some of the works.

In 2005, to the dismay of the regime's hardliners, a large number of the paintings were brought out for an exhibition. That show sparked controversy. Francis Bacon's Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants, with seeming homosexual content, was deemed inappropriate and removed from the exhibition. However, many contentious works survived the censors. Andy Warhol's portraits of Mick Jagger and Marilyn Monroe are in Tehran and his paintings of Mao Zedong have been put on display in full for the first time in the pop art exhibition.

Despite the contempt of Tehran's rulers for western art, the collection has been safely guarded – bar a Warhol portrait of Pahlavi herself, which, she said, had been cut with a knife.

In 1994 the museum exchanged one of its many remarkable paintings – Woman III, by the Dutch-American expressionist Willem de Kooning – for a rare illuminated volume of Shahnameh, an ancient Persian poetry book, which belonged to the American art collector Arthur Houghton, because the painting had shown too much nudity in the eyes of the authorities.

The swap infuriated many, including Pahlavi. "If they were really interested in Shahnameh, couldn't they pay $6m and keep De Kooning's painting? The US businessman David Geffen, who bought the painting for some $20m, sold it for $110m few years ago. The De Kooning exchange is the sole exchange they've done so far and I hope it remains the last one."

Of the many ironies surrounding the artwork is the fact that Iran's powerful Guardian Council, a group of clerics, intervened a decade ago to forbid the selling or exchange of the works because, they said, trade in un-Islamic and pornographic works was prohibited.

Ali Amini Najafi, an Iranian art critic based in Germany, said: "The works in the collection are not randomly or arbitrarily chosen, it is clear that people involved in selecting them had a consistent plan to pick relevant and significant samples to depict the evolution of modern art and also to make sure that all movements from impressionists to pop art are represented.

"This collection was gathered at a defining moment of our history when Iranians were taking distance from their traditional past and were showing curiosity with modern art."


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July 27 2012

Athens arts scene flourishes in midst of economic crisis

Art collectives, touring exhibitions and pop-ups are thriving in the tough economic climate

Despite the economic crisis in Greece – or perhaps because of it – the art scene in Athens is flourishing. The city is seeing a turn towards touring exhibitions and ephemeral performances, events and discussions more suited to the tough economic climate than commercially driven work catering to rich buyers.

Today, Athens boasts more than 50 non-profit, non-hierarchical and self-organised art collectives. Many of the groups occupy spaces temporarily, collaborating with other institutions and groups.

The collective Filopappou has shown work in major galleries such as Beton 7, Gazonrouge and the Museum of Cycladic Art, while other groups choose to use Athens as their stage.

The Nomadic Architecture Network recently organised Il Camino Commune, a mapping project using songs, poems and writing as an alternative cartography to plot the city.

Reconstruction Community, a collective of architects, artists and theorists, also supports ongoing research and projects related to the metropolis.

One innovative work produced by the group is a sound-map of Athens, which is available online along with essays and project outlines commissioned by the group.

Artists are taking the visible signs of economic downturn and appropriating them for creative ends, with empty shops often becoming home to pop-up exhibitions.

Other unusual spaces have been used as exhibition venues too: in spring, the gallery Camp (Contemporary Art Meeting Point) produced Back to Athens, a festival in the city centre where artwork was installed within shops, offices and restaurants.

Earlier in the year, Kappatos gallery arranged a three-week event showcasing the work of emerging artists across 30 rooms in a hotel in the Kolonaki district.

As well as exhibiting works such as Tout va Bien, Camp also schedules events that encourage further networking and sharing ideas.

Last month it organised Systems, which invited all the independent art groups in the city to come together and debate their viability at a time of crisis.

There has also been a notable influx of international artists, further helping regenerate the scene.

Last month, students at Athens and Madrid schools of art organised an exhibition called Thermopolis. One student was mummified in red and white tape on a street corner near Syntagma Square, while "welcome home" mats were laid across the pavements nearby.

In April, the Greek artist Augustus Veinoglou, who lives and works in Edinburgh, set up Snehta, an international residency programme for young British artists.

Selected artists are invited to spend up to three months in the Greek capital, where they are asked to create pieces in response to the city and exhibit them in Kypseli, the suburb where the scheme is based.


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July 25 2012

Ai Weiwei: power games

Ai Weiwei withdrew from the Beijing 2008 Olympics opening ceremony and was declared a threat to the police state. Here he explains why he hopes the London Games will be different

The Olympic Games are highly commercialised. They purport to follow the traditions of an ancient athletics competition, but today it is the commercial aspect that is most apparent. I have seen how, through sport, cities and corporations compete against each other for financial gain. The Olympics are beholden to the wishes of various commercial operations, which in turn shape our understanding of the event and of the world. They are no longer connected to the idea that humanity can be expressed through athletics.

In China, the Olympics have always served as a tool for propaganda. China uses its gold-medal count to affirm its position in the world order and its strength as a nation. Many other countries have the same attitude. But flaunting gold medals, in the guise of fighting for a country's glory, is done at the expense of many lives. For one, athletes sacrifice their physical and emotional wellbeing for this vanity. This is a tragedy in itself.

I don't believe in the so-called Olympic spirit. I speak from personal experience. When China hosted the Games, it failed to include the people. The event was constructed without regard for their joy. The state and the Olympic committee failed to take a position on many major social and political issues. Afterwards, the state tightened its controls; China became a police state. "Friendship, fair play, glory, honour and peace": the Olympic slogan is an empty one.

My memory of the Beijing Olympics has not changed. It is a fake smile, an elaborate costume party with the sole intention of glorifying the country. From the opening to the closing ceremony, from the torch relay to the cheers for gold medals – these all displayed the might, and the desperation, of a totalitarian regime. Through authoritarian power a country can possess many things, but it cannot bring joy or happiness to its people.

I see the Beijing National Stadium as an architectural project. I accepted Herzog and De Meuron's invitation to collaborate on the design, and our proposal won the competition. From beginning to end, I stayed with the project. I am committed to fostering relationships between a city and its architecture. I am also keen on encouraging participation and exchange during mass events that are meaningful for humankind.

I have no regrets about the role I played; the stadium is a work of great quality and design. I only withdrew from participating in fake performances laden with propaganda. I disagreed with the approach, and did not want my name associated with it. The Beijing opening ceremony had no sensitivity for the Chinese people; it even had the police force dancing on the fields. This is the fantasy of a totalitarian society. It was a nightmare.

By publicly announcing that I would not participate in the opening ceremony, I became a minority, an alternative voice. To the media, I have become a symbolic figure, critical of China. According to the government, I am a dangerous threat. I only expressed my personal opinion of an occasion that many people are passionate about. Unfortunately, such an occasion has no room for differing stances. Mine posed a challenge to the Games themselves. What did I say? Only that I didn't like the government propaganda. I don't feel obliged to approve of it.

I don't watch TV. I did not watch the Olympics last time; I am not very interested in watching it this time, either. I have no interest in activities that are dissociated from the emotions and struggles of everyday people. I enjoy watching any kind of competition – but it must be carried out in fairness, adhering strictly to the established rules. Any competition that cannot demonstrate fairness and abide by a set of openly acknowledged regulations violates civil society. It is also in conflict with the principles of human, social and legal rights.

I have visited London two or three times. I have good impressions of the city. It has a strong and natural continuity with its traditions. At the same time, people enjoy their lives and the city is full of culture. It was a pleasant experience to work with the Serpentine gallery, as well as Herzog and de Meuron, on this summer's pavilion. From the response, I can see that Londoners are very savvy about art and architecture. Tate Modern is also a unique cultural institution, a standard-bearer for quality contemporary art and activities.

I am interested in seeing what the 2012 Olympics has done to London, but I am not free to travel. If I were free, I'd like to see how people will respond to the event, and how members of a different society, living in different social conditions, will participate in the Games. I don't know how London will cope, but I believe it will be more relaxed than Beijing. In London, the people will be able to participate in and celebrate the joy of the Games.


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July 24 2012

Monsieur Hollande's holiday looks set to pass normality test

Staycation at no-frills traditional summer residence would please austerity-hit French after Sarkozy's ostentatious jet-setting

Gone, it seems, are the heady summer days when a French president could spend his holidays on a billionaire friend's luxury yacht or jet off to New Hampshire for a couple of weeks; gone, too, the possibility of enjoying the five-star hospitality of a friendly dictator, generous African autocrat or wealthy industrialist.

The choice of holiday destination has become somewhat limited for the French president, François Hollande, having sold himself as Monsieur Normal, once declared "I don't like the rich", and draw up a "morality code" for his administration.

Add the constraints of security and the austerity required in an economic crisis, and even Hollande's second home, near Cannes, is too risky and too "showbiz".

With time and options running out, it has been revealed that Hollande's partner, Valérie Trierweiler, visited the traditional presidential summer residence of Fort de Brégançon, on the French Riviera.

Trierweiler made a trip down south to the 11th-century fortress with a security officer last week, claimed Le Parisien, to check it out as a suitable spot for the couple's two-week holiday at the beginning of August.

A magnificent edifice atop a rock in the Mediterranean may not be everyone's idea of a "normal" spot for a holiday. But the fort, connected by jetty to the mainland and the nearby village of Bormes-les-Mimosas, on the western edge of the Côte Varoise, has been the property of the French state and a presidential summer residence for over four decades.

In the past leaders have tended to love or hate Brégançon, with its cramped rooms, cold stone walls and austere interior. Charles de Gaulle was said to have been so uncomfortable during a sleepless night in a too-small bed at the fort in 1964 that he never set foot in the place again.

Some in Hollande's entourage have suggested that even Brégançon, with its private beach – albeit one on which it is impossible to avoid the prying lenses of the paparazzi – may be too grand for a French leader seeking to prove his normality. But, like the holidays of the British prime minister, David Cameron, in Cornwall, the choice shows a certain patriotism.

Marc Concas, the head of the regional council and a Socialist party member, thought it unlikely Hollande would spend many holidays at Brégançon, however.

"It's too ostentations," he said. "Personally, I can imagine that François Hollande will come and visit the place. I'm sure he will: not to stay there but to see if it would be useful to get rid of it so it at least so it's no longer a cost to the taxpayer."

Hollande will be mindful that it was Nicolas Sarkozy's penchant for expensive holidays that contributed to his damaging "bling-bling" image. Days after his election victory in 2007 Hollande's predecessor and his then wife, Cécilia, were in the Mediterranean, off Malta, on a yacht belonging to the billionaire French businessman Vincent Bolloré.

Despite the criticism, a few months later the Sarkozys flew to the United States to holiday in a €22,000 (£17,000) a week luxury villa at Wolfeboro, where the president had brunch with his US counterpart, George W Bush. Later, with his third wife, Carla Bruni, Sarkozy flew to Egypt in Bolloré's Falcon 900 private jet to stay in an apartment belonging to an Abu Dhabi sheikh. Holidays in Jordan, Mexico and Brazil followed.

After his defeat, in May, the Sarkozys were in Marrakech staying in a luxury apartment belonging to King Mohammed. Shortly afterwards, they were in Canada holidaying at the home of a wealthy media, insurance and investment tycoon.

Apart from a few days in 2007 near Tangiers, in Morocco, where he was photographed on a public beach with "no towels and no frills", according to journalists, Hollande has chosen to spend most of his holidays in France.

He is a familiar face at Mougins, near Cannes, where Picasso lived and where he has a second home. But he spent last summer with Trierweiler at Hossegor, in the Landes, on the south-western coast, where they were photographed cycling and enjoying the local oysters.

When approached by reporters Hollande told them he was on holiday "like everyone else". The local paper was quick to point out the contrast with Sarkozy: "Two men, two styles", it wrote.


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July 23 2012

Chief Joseph's shirt auctioned for $900,000

Native American war shirt that appears in Smithsonian painting had only recently resurfaced

A war shirt worn by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe that can be seen in a painting hanging in the Smithsonian Institution sold on Saturday for $877,500 (£562,000) at auction, organisers said.

Mike Overby, an organiser of the annual Coeur d'Alene Art Auction, said the shirt that sold in Reno is considered to be one of the most important Native American artifacts ever to come to auction. It had been expected to raise from $800,000 to $1.2m, he said.

"Anything associated with Chief Joseph is highly desirable, and that's a pretty special shirt," he told Associated Press.

Chief Joseph wore the shirt in 1877 in the earliest known photo of him, and again while posing for a portrait by Cyrenius Hall in 1878. That painting, which was used for a US postage stamp, now hangs in the Smithsonian.

The poncho-style war shirt was made of two soft skins, probably deerskin. It features beadwork with bold geometric designs and bright colors. Warriors kept such prestigious garments clean in a saddlebag on their horse or carefully stored while in camp, to be worn only on special occasions.

The shirt surfaced at an Indian relic show in the 1990s and was sold without any knowledge of its link to the photo and portrait. It changed hands again before the connection was discovered.

Its quality makes it desirable for collectors, but it is the "surprising discovery of the shirt's role in history that reveals its true importance", said Brasser, a former curator of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Netherlands, and at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa.

The photo and portrait showing the war shirt were made shortly after Chief Joseph led 750 Nez Perce tribal members on an epic 1,700-mile journey from Oregon to Montana in an unsuccessful bid to reach Canada and avoid being confined to a reservation. They were forced to surrender in 1877 after US troops stopped them about 40 miles south of the Canadian border.

"It was a wild-card piece. We're real happy where it ended up," Overby said. The sale involved private collectors.

Despite its price, the shirt was not the top-selling piece at the auction. The painting Scout's Report, by Howard Terpning, fetched $994,500, and Cowboys Roping the Bear by Frank Tenny Johnson was bought for $965,250.

Some 400 bidders took part in what was billed as the world's largest Western art sale. About 300 works were sold for a total of $17.2m, up from $16.9m last year.


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