New York, 28 December 2015

I’ve described in a previous post the beautiful, and really very unique, High Line Park in New York. On our first visit to the park, we heard that the Whitney museum was planning to relocate from uptown to new premises bang on the High Line. Now, two years later, the plans have come to fruition, and since we are once again in town to celebrate Christmas and New Year with the children we decided to go and visit.

The building itself was designed by the architect Renzo Piano, he of the Centre Pompidou in Paris (along with fellow architect Richard Rogers)
and, less felicitously, of the Shard in London
along with a string of projects in between. The new Whitney is not as spectacular as these two, giving the impression of being more of a workmanlike project – how to give the museum lots of exhibition space – and blending in quite well with its surroundings.
One also gets beautiful views across the Hudson River from its windows.
Perhaps it’s just as well. I mean, the main purpose of going to a museum is not so much to see the container as to see what is contained (I grant, though, that a handsome packaging can add lustre to what’s in the package). So let me focus on the contents.

Actually, I don’t really want to focus on the contents as such, but rather use them to meditate on something which gets under my skin when it comes to really modern art – let’s say, stuff produced in the last sixty years i.e., during my lifetime.

I happen to think that the primary purpose of any piece of art should be to adorn one’s abode in a way that gladdens the heart and puts a spring in one’s step. The key, though, is that the piece of art should fit through the door of one’s abode and, once in, should fit on a wall of that abode (or, if a sculpture, on a small table or shelf). The core of the Whitney’s collection, from the ’30s and ’40s, would do this admirably. For instance, there was a lovely Hopper on view which would could be passed through the door of our apartment quite easily and would fit quite nicely on one of its walls.
It’s one of several delectable Hoppers in the collection. Or I wouldn’t mind at all putting this painting by Charles Demuth on our wall.
Getting it into the apartment would be a breeze – I think it could probably even fit it into the small elevator we have in our building, thus avoiding us having to carry it up three flights of stairs.

But as we get into the late ’50s, early ’60s, the pieces begin to grow. We would just about be able to manhandle this Pollock which the Whitney has through our apartment door, but I think we would have difficulty finding a place for it on the wall.
And this painting by his wife Lee Krasner would be impossible to hang in our apartment, it’s just too damned big let alone of a size to get through the door.
The pieces in the Frank Stella show which the Whitney is currently organizing were even worse. They were huge lumbering monsters, which would not even fit through the front doors of our apartment building, leave alone through the door of our apartment.

And even if by some miracle we got them into the apartment, many of his pieces jut out, making it hard to have any furniture around them.
Of course, given the stellar prices for modern art, only plutocrats can afford to buy these pieces. But do even they live in such palatial abodes as to make it possible for such a piece to fit snugly in the living room, say? I find it hard to believe.

I can only assume that much modern art is either made for large and powerful multinational corporations, whose huge atriums or corporate boardrooms in their Headquarters have enough space for such pieces


or it is made for museums such as the Whitney which have large exhibition spaces. Either way, art for the people it is not. And that’s a pity, because at the end of the day art should be for us, something which we can hang on our wall and admire for decades or even centuries before perhaps donating it to a museum.

I think it’s time for a new art movement, the FOTS (“Fits Over The Sofa”) movement.


Centre Pompidou:
The Shard:
The Whitney (both views):
View across the Hudson:
Edward Hopper “Early Sunday Morning”:
Charles Demuth “My Egypt”:
Jackson Pollock “Number 27, 1950”:
Lee Krasner “The Seasons”:
Frank Stella:
Frank Stella:
Headquarter atrium art:
Corporate boardroom art:
Space over sofa:


Bangkok, 19 December 2015

I don’t know what it was, it seems to be happening to me more and more often as I near retirement, but a few days ago my mind wandered off the Worthy but Very Boring Thing I was working on and, light as feather, drifted away on the winds of memory to finally alight in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, which is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter.

Yes, I know, very strange. What can I say, that’s where my mind went that day.

My wife and I had visited the chapel some nine-ten years ago. For those of my readers who have never been there, I throw in a photo that gives a generalized view of the chapel’s interior.
I could chirrup on about the age of the chapel, its architecture, its history. But I won’t. I invite readers who are interested in these details to go to the relevant websites. Instead, I will focus on the one thing that immediately strikes any sentient being who crosses the chapel’s threshold: the flags hanging from its walls.
I need to explain these flags, which in turn requires me to give a brief background to the Order of the Garter. As any English child of my generation will know, if they didn’t spend all their history classes snoozing, the Order of the Garter was created by King Edward III one evening back in the early 1300s, during a dance, when the Countess of Salisbury lost her garter. As the King picked it up, someone sniggered, and the King pronounced (in French; the English kings didn’t speak English yet) “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, which can be loosely translated as “Only dirty buggers would see anything wrong in my simply picking up a garter”. Now, why this story should have led to the creation of an Order of Chivalry (basically, a club of aristocrats), with the reigning monarchs at its head and the original kingly utterance as its motto, was not clear to me when I was a ten year old boy and is still not clear to me as a sixty-one year old adult. But there you go, it did.

The important point as far as the flags are concerned is that the members of the Order were originally all aristocrats, and as we all know one of the many things which distinguished aristocrats from the vulgar hoi polloi like us was the fact that they had the right to a coat of arms. So what we have hanging from the walls are the heraldic banners of the members of the order (which of course means that when the Order began to let in representatives of the vulgar hoi polloi these vulgar persons had to get themselves double quick a title and a coat of arms).

For the purpose of my story, there is another important point to make about the Order’s membership. From the start, there could only be 24 members in addition to the sovereign and the Prince of Wales, and of course the members were only English (and later British). But George III started adding “supernumerary” members, to deal with the pressing problem of him having a whole bunch of sons who all wanted to be members. Then he had the bright idea of adding the Emperor of Russia as a supernumerary member, after which various other members of European royal families got added, then more exotic royalty like the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the King of Persia, to finish – importantly for this story – this march to the East with the Emperor of Japan in 1903. The Emperors of Japan have been members ever since (barring, understandably, the World War II years and several decades thereafter when spirits were still bruised by Japanese atrocities).

OK, so what, I hear my readers say. Well, all this allows me to vault onto one of my favourite hobby horses, my insistence that design should be simple. In this case, I am referring to the design of the members’ heraldic banners. To see what I mean, please see below the coat of arms of one of the British members, that of Gerald Grosvenor, 6th Duke of Westminster (I choose him for no other reason than he is stinking rich due to his property holdings around Grosvenor Square in London and elsewhere).
So complicated! So fussy! So busy! The formal heraldic description of the shield, which is what is on the banner, says it all:
“Quarterly, 1st and 4th, Azure a Portcullis with chains pendant Or on a Chief of the last between two united Roses of York and Lancaster a Pale charged with the Arms of King Edward the Confessor; 2nd and 3rd, Azure a Garb Or”.

Aïe! Contorted! Confusing! And this is not the most complicated of the Order’s members’ banners. I mean, look at the one of the good Prince of Wales
with its heraldic description of the shield “Quarterly 1st and 4th Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or armed and langed Azure 2nd Or a lion rampant Gules armed and langued Azure within a double tressure flory counterflory 3rd Azure a harp Or stringed Argent overall an inescutcheon of the Royal Badge of Wales”. It hurts my eyes just to read this.

Consider, now, the banner of the Emperor of Japan, which responds to the same original need – signaling who you are on the battlefield – but adopts a completely different design principle:

So simple! And simply so beautiful!

The beautiful, essential simplicity of the Japanese banner immediately leapt out at me that summer morning years ago when we visited the chapel. The second photo I’ve inserted shows this, where the Emperor’s banner shines out among all the surrounding fussiness. And I have kept that memory with me ever since, as a vivid reminder of the KISS design principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid (a principle originally enunciated, interestingly enough, by the US Navy in 1960).

It must have been some fussy design which set my mind wandering those few days ago …

St. George’s Chapel interior:
The flags:,_Windsor_Castle
Duke of Westminster’s coat of arms:
Prince of Wales’s coat of arms:
Emperor of Japan’s standard:


Bangkok, 13 December 2015

I’m not a great fan of Thai religious art. Much of it seems to be made up of endlessly repeated and very dense geometricized forms, like on this temple door

Vine Pattern Door

or on this one, where the temple guardians or whatever they are have been surrounded by dense geometricized foliage

temple door-2

or here on a temple’s roof gable, where it is now a representation of the Buddha that is surrounded by endless curlicues


and which often in Bangkok are terrifically bling, being made with reflecting coloured mosaic tesserae (I understand that only temples with royal connections can use these reflecting tesserae).

Or on the so-called bargeboards which run along the gables


the designs often representing, as is clearly the case here, a naga snake; the naga snake design is less obvious in this next photo.


The interiors of the temples are not much better, with the walls normally being densely carpeted either with an endlessly repeating series of Bodhisattvas or some such, or with very dense scenes of the life of the Buddha or some similarly holy personage.

temple interior-1

As I’ve mentioned in at least one previous posting, I’m not a great fan of busy artwork, so I generally feel uncomfortable in Thai temples. The one exception is my feelings for the chofah. Chofahs are the very distinctive finials added to the end of temple roofs, and which are quite striking, especially from a distance. Here are two views of Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, showing that temple’s chofahs, this one from a certain distance

Wat Phra Kaew from a distance

and this one from closer up.

Wat Phra Kaew - chofahs

What exactly are they? What do they represent? Well, the literal meaning of chofah is “bunch of air” although someone has given it the more poetic translation of “sky tassel”. The name may be poetic but I don’t feel it helps much, since I don’t see any obvious connection between what I see before me and bunches of air or tassels, skywise or otherwise. More helpfully, they are generally considered to be representations of the Garuda, the half-bird, half-man which the Indian God Vishnu is said to fly on (and which is now the national emblem of Thailand), although there is a competing theory that actually they represent the hamsa, which is a goose, or a gander, or maybe even a swan, which in Hindu mythology is the mount of the God Brahma. Whichever it is, there is a definite resemblance to a bird. Looking at the last picture, I think it’s easy to see a head, a beak, a neck, and a breast of a bird (what’s a little less birdlike is the long tuft-like extension on the head; we’ll come back to that in a minute). Contrary to the baroque ornateness of everything else in Thai temples, we have here a simple ornament, where resemblance is implied with a few graceful strokes chiseled into wood.

Just to make the bird connection a bit stronger, I throw in a picture here of a brahminy kite sitting on a stone.

Brahminy Kite

I choose this particular bird because it is currently considered the contemporary representation of the Garuda. More irreverently, I also throw in a picture of the cover page from one of Lucky Luke’s comic books, where the reader will note another raptor, the vulture.

Lucky Luke vulture

Vultures are always hovering around in Lucky Luke’s stories, waiting for their next meal in the form of a dead Lucky Luke or other dead meat; note the drop of saliva falling from the beak – it’s looking forward to that meal of dead meat …

If I introduce comic books, it’s because that tuft-like extension on the chofah stirs a vague memory in me of some comic-book bird with a long tuft on its head. Maybe I’m thinking of Woody Woodpecker.

woody woodpecker

But Thai temple builders definitely weren’t thinking of Woody or anyone else when they added that long tuft to their chofah design. They originally believed that the tuft would actually act as a skewer and protect the temple from flying demons by impaling them should they get too close.

So maybe the chofah is a sort of lightning conductor before its time.


Temple door-1: (in
Temple door-2: (in
Roof gable: (in
Bargeboards-1: (in
Bargeboards-2: (in
Temple interior: my wife’s pic
Chofahs – Wat Phra Kaew from a distance: (in
Chofahs – Wat Phra Kaew: (in
Brahminy kite:×822.jpg (in
Vulture in Lucky Luke: (in
Woody Woodpecker: (in


Phnom Penh, 7 December 2015

My wife and I have just come back from a trip to Vienna. I had to be there for work, but luckily we also got to stay over a weekend. This allowed us to taste once more the artistic delights of the city. Wonderful, truly wonderful … Enough to give one heart palpitations.

We had first tasted the artistic glories of the city back in March of 1985 (I am certain of the date, because I was in Vienna to witness the signing of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer). That time too we had had a weekend to ourselves, which we used to first visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria’s national Museum of Fine Arts. I have to tell you, we were gobsmacked – that’s the only word – as we walked from room to room and saw one marvel after another hanging on the walls. It was one of those cases of “Really? They have this painting here? Wow …” I just can’t stop myself from showing you some of my favourites; there are many, many more, for all tastes.

Here’s Raphael’s “Madonna del Prato”
Lotto’s “Portrait of a Young Man with a Lamp”
Arcimboldo’s “Summer”
Canaletto’s “Vienna, seen from the Belvedere”
A whole slew of Titians, most of which are of disagreeably sucrose blondes, but which also include this powerful portrait of Johann Frederich, Elector of Saxony
Caravaggio’s “Madonna of the Rosary”
as well as one of his several versions of “David with the head of Goliath” (another of which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post)
A wondrous collection of Peter Bruegel the Elder, of which I throw in only his “Hunters in the Snow (Winter)”


and his “Peasant Wedding”


A magisterial self-portrait by Rembrandt
Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting”
Cranach the Elder’s “Judith with the Head of Holophernes” (although I still prefer the same scene which I came across years ago in the Queen’s Gallery in London)
Dürer’s “Kaiser Maximilian I”
as well his “Portrait of a Venetian Lady”
I stop, otherwise I will bore my readers. But, without wanting to sound too much like an advert for Vienna, I would really urge any of them who are lovers of art but have somehow never made it to Vienna to hurry on over, if only to visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum. As the Michelin Guides would say, it alone “is worth the trip”.

But Vienna has much, much more. That same weekend back in 1985 we discovered Egon Schiele. We saw an exhibition of his paintings somewhere in the Grinzing area of Vienna, and I was just blown away. This particular painting of his, “The Embrace”, has remained imprinted in my memory ever since.
The most extensive collection in the world of Egon Schiele’s work is in the Leopold Museum, part of Vienna’s Museums Quartier, MQ. MQ opened when we were living in Vienna, some 20 years after our first visit. Along with the Leopold Museum, MQ houses MUMOK, the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien. Personally, I always preferred the Leopold Museum; MUMOK was a little too aggressively modern for my tastes. So I suppose it comes as no surprise to hear that after visiting the Kunsthistorisches Museum last week we visited the Leopold. The Egon Schieles are wonderful. This one painting of his, “Seated Male Nude”, can stand in for the whole collection.
You cannot go to the Leopold just for the Schieles, wonderful as they are. You must visit the whole collection. This is where I discovered a host of Austrian artists from the late 1800s up to World War II: Gustav Klimt of course, but also Richard Gerstl, Koloman Moser, Oskar Kokoschka, Albin Egger-Lienz, Anton Kolig, and many others. The Leopold holds the painting of Gustav Klimt which I adopted as my gravatar for this blog. Those who are interested to see it can visit my Home Page. Here, I will insert another of his paintings in the museum’s collection, a beautiful painting of early morning on Lake Attersee
and I add to this, as a stand-in for all the others, a painting by Richard Gerstl, “Semi-Nude Self-Portrait” with its hypnotic eyes.
It’s not finished! Vienna also has the Belvedere Museum. We wanted to visit it too last week – they were holding an Exhibition on “The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka”, which included Schiele’s “Embrace” – but we ran out of time. The Belvedere has a collection which stretches all the way from the Middle Ages to the present day. It competes strongly with the Ludwig Museum, having an excellent collection of paintings from the late 19th Century to the Second World War (the Klimts and Schieles are not to be missed), but it also has interesting paintings from the Baroque to the Biedermeier period. I will not show any of these, however. Instead, I will throw in a picture of a piece from its Medieval collection, a statue of St. Leonhard, from South Tyrol.
I chose this picture because the Belvedere has some beautiful pieces of that most Germanic of art forms, religious sculpture made of wood, originally painted in bright polychrome. The picture also gives me an excuse to cycle back to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Because that museum is more, much more, than a gallery of paintings! There’s the collection of arms and armour, which one has to visit simply to gawp at the brilliant metalworking skills of past armourers. There’s the collection of historical musical instruments, which my mother-in-law, a lover of music, frothed at the mouth about. And then there’s the collection of sculpture and decorative arts, a disparate collection of artifacts, ranging from the seriously bling to the exquisite. Probably the most well-known piece in this collection is Benvenuto Cellini’s salt cellar, currently famous because it was recently stolen dramatically, only to dramatically reappear, unharmed, a few years later.
I prefer, though, this “Vanitas”, made, like St. Leonhard above, of wood and beautifully polychromed.
It reminds us that while we may be beautiful now, and well-toned, one day we will be old and sag in all directions (in my case, I’m already at that point, so I suppose the piece reminds me regretfully of what I once was).

I like these two ivory pieces even more. The first shows Gregory the Great feverishly scribbling away (he was a very prolific writer, this Pope), with scribes below him feverishly joining in.
The second shows the Ascension of Jesus, with the disciples weeping bitterly below. But rather than having Jesus levitate, which is the way this scene is normally depicted, Jesus is being swept up by God (note His hand), rather like a gymnast being elegantly swept up by a trapeze artist.
If readers were to think that it finishes there, they would be wrong! The Kunsthistorisches also runs the Imperial Treasury, another smorgasbord of golden baubles smothered in precious stones. Because of my fondness of cabochon stones, I only show here the Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, of the 10th-11th Centuries
and St. Stephan’s  Purse, actually a reliquary, from the 9th Century.
Along with various other items, these were taken in the early 1800s from Aachen, Charlemagne’s original Imperial capital, to keep them from falling into the hands of the revolutionary French, and somehow they never made it back.

I suspect that my readers’ attention might be beginning to drift, so I quickly throw in two other wonders to be found in Vienna. One, located in the Museum für Völkerkunde or the Museum of Ethnology, is the so-called headdress of Montezuma, an exquisite piece from Mexico made of the feathers of quetzals and other birds mounted in a base of gold studded with precious stones.
As we once heard from Austria’s Ambassador to Mexico (whose apartment we were renting at the time), the piece is a source of continuing friction between the two countries, Mexico claiming that it was somehow stolen and Austria claiming that it was legitimately purchased (by the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in at least 1575 and maybe before, i.e., no more than 90 years after Columbus discovered America – how did our good Archduke lay his hands on it?).

The second piece is actually to be found a little outside Vienna, in the imperial abbey of Klosteneuburg. It is the 12th Century Verdun altar, so called because it was made by Nicholas of Verdun, one of the most famous goldsmiths and enamelists of the Middle Ages.


The altar consists of 45 beautifully enameled panels, telling the biblical story. This one, for instance, relates the kiss of Judas (a theme I have mentioned in a previous post, in this case in a painting by Caravaggio).
If any of my readers have finished visiting the altar and still feel ready for more, they can always consider visiting the Samlung Essl, a museum of (very) modern art in Klosteneuburg, which, like the MQ, opened while we were living in Vienna. On the other hand, if like me they find this museum’s art too aggressively modern, or if they are simply too tired, they can just head back into town and with a bit of luck they will sight a most interesting piece of art, the municipal incinerator of Spittelau, decorated by the Austrian artist Hundertwasser.
I’ve seen many municipal incinerators in my time, and I must say this is definitely one of the prettiest; it certainly helped to gain its acceptance by the local population.

There’s more, much more art to visit in Vienna, but I’ll leave it at that. Like I’ve already said, I don’t want to sound like an advert for Vienna, but really it’s a wonderful destination for lovers of art.

And don’t get me started on the music …

Paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum:
Egon Schiele “The Embrace”:
Egon Schiele “Seated Male Nude”:
Gustav Klimt, “Attersee”:
Richard Gerstl “Semi-Nude Self-Portrait”:
St. Leonhard, Belvedere:
KHM, Collection of Sculpture and Decorative Arts:
Imperial Treasury:
Moctezuma’s crown: (in
Verdun altar:
Verdun altar – detail:
Spittelau Incinerator: