Rescuing Palmyra: History’s lesson in how to save artefacts


Following the fall of Syria’s Palmyra to ISIL and the reports ‎about the damage done to parts of the historic city, this ‎article in the BBC is a good reminder on the need to protect ‎heritage in times of conflict. Lessons from Mali, ‎Afghanistan and Bosnia.‎

Rescuing Palmyra: History’s lesson in how to save ‎artefacts
By Roland Hughes BBC News
• ‎21 May 2015‎

Islamic State militants took control of Palmyra on Wednesday ‎With Islamic State militants now inside the historic town of Palmyra in Syria, the ‎question, inevitably, is whether they will destroy the ancient ruins. ‎
As IS continues to sweep through parts of Iraq and Syria, damage to centuries-old ‎artefacts – because IS sees statues and shrines as idolatrous – is plentiful.‎
But history has shown that, when culturally important sites are under threat, people will ‎find a way to rally round and save what they can.‎
Artefacts have been saved in the face of war, natural disaster and genocide – often with ‎seemingly insurmountable logistics and threats to overcome. ‎
Similar efforts have taken place in Palmyra, too.‎
But how straightforward is it to save what others are determined to destroy? And what are ‎the crucial factors that can help save artefacts?‎


In 2012, Islamists seized the historic Malian city of Timbuktu. They started to destroy ‎mausoleums, and banned singing, dancing and sport.‎
Valuable manuscripts dating back to the 13th Century were under threat – and they ended ‎up being smuggled out of the city right under the Islamists’ noses.‎
It took a group of determined Timbuktu residents, who raised money to pay for bribes ‎and worked out when the militants slept in order to move the papers, mainly by boat.‎
Staff from two museums provided a safe house for the manuscripts in the capital, Bamako, ‎and helped smuggle them out of Timbuktu in a complex operation.‎
For the Mali manuscripts to survive, it took co-ordination, planning, bravery and more than ‎a little luck – in that the Islamists did not try to destroy them immediately.‎


Years of conflict and Taliban rule saw Afghanistan’s national museum in Kabul bombed and ‎looted to such an extent it was feared that nothing valuable remained.‎
But, to very few people’s knowledge, the museum’s director and four other men stored ‎‎22,000 of the most valuable items in the vault.‎
It was locked by five keys, one of which went to each man – or to his eldest child if he ‎died. Neither of the men said where the objects were stored – even when threatened at ‎gunpoint.‎
Some objects were moved into the presidential palace on the orders of President ‎Mohammad Najibullah, whose government fell in 1992.‎
A curator at the British Museum, where the objects went on show in 2011, said the men ‎were “undoubtedly unsung heroes”.‎


During the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, the city’s National Library was deliberately hit by ‎shell fire, and at least two million books and documents were destroyed.‎
Many people rushed to the library to save what they could, despite sniper fire from ‎surrounding hills.‎
But the fire also spurred the head of another library to take action. Mustafa Jahic led ‎efforts to smuggle more than 100,000 books out of his building in banana crates, ‎moving them between safe houses.‎
He also smuggled equipment through a tunnel near Sarajevo’s airport that allowed him to ‎microfilm rare documents.‎

What hope for Palmyra – and Syria?‎
The advance of IS towards Palmyra gave authorities plenty of warning – a factor that is ‎crucial when it comes to saving priceless objects.‎
Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director general of Syria’s antiquities and museums, said that ‎hundreds of statues and other objects had been moved from Palmyra to safe-houses in ‎Damascus.‎
‎”But how do you save colonnades that weigh a ton?” he said. “How do you save temples ‎and cemeteries and, and, and?”‎
Similar work is being done elsewhere in Syria – largely to take objects out of looters’ ‎sights.‎
The 11th Century minaret of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo was destroyed in fighting ‎
Cheikmous Ali is an archaeology professor and founder of the Association for the ‎Protection of Syrian Archaeology (Apsa), that monitors damage done to Syrian ‎archaeological sites.‎
‎”In Aleppo, in particular, there are people who have done some amazing work to protect ‎monuments,” he said.‎
‎”There are laws that allow you to move artefacts abroad if they are under threat. You have ‎some areas, like Idlib and its museum, that aren’t under government control.‎
‎”But everything in its museum can’t be moved to, for example, Turkey, as anyone who ‎moves it would be considered a thief there and arrested. So everything is still there in ‎Idlib.”‎
The key to saving future archaeological sites is co-ordination, careful planning and an ‎assessment of the safety of the site and of safe houses, said Zaki Aslan, a director of ‎Iccrom, a UN-backed body that works to conserve cultural heritage.‎
He also urged anyone who wanted to protect rare objects to maintain contact with ‎authorities and to catalogue them thoroughly.‎
‎”One can feel helpless but we should try to do something,” he said.‎
‎”Unesco has called for people to co-operate, for even the people in the conflict to find ‎ways.‎
‎”It will be a great loss if even some of the parts of Palmyra are lost. Not just for Syria, but ‎for the world.”


A Weekend among the Volcanoes of Olot

Olot is a charming little city in Girona, Catalonia. More than anything, it is famous for its volcanic craters which form part of the Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park, the most important such park in Spain. On a visit a week ago, we started with the crater of the Motsacopa Volcano, now all green and serene. The hill commands great views of the city and the other volcanoes. After roaming around –and down- the crater for some time (the volcano has been extinct for 10,000 years), it was time to admire Olot’s modernist architecture (Art Nouveau), specially Casa Gaietà Vila (1901) with its clear medieval air, its rich colors and its fantastic animals and plants worked in iron. Casa Gassiot (1912) is another charming building with beautiful wrought iron and gothic inspiration, and so is Casa Solà-Morales (1916), whose romantic façade was reinvented by the Catalan genius Domènech i Montaner.

In front of the neo-classical Church of St. Esteve, we enjoyed some castellers (human towers, a Catalan tradition listed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List) before trying Olot’s interesting ‘volcanic food’. The city’s tree-lined promenades and parks, its labyrinthine alleys and pleasant squares all invite you to explore further, but the real deal was awaiting a few kilometers away: the splendid natural reserve of La Fageda d’en Jordà, with thick vegetation and a forest of beech trees that grow at an exceptional height on cool lava from the nearby Croscat Volcano. As green as it is, one can only wonder just how colorful all these leaves would be in autumn!

Enjoy the photos, and enjoy Olot if you get the chance!

كليلة ودمنة – مقتطفات

كليلة ودمنة هو عنوان لمجموعة من قصص الحيوان تم تدوينها في الهند. بعد أن قام الفرس بترجمة تلك القصص، قام ابن المقفع بنقلها للعربية في القرن الثامن الميلادي. كليلة ودمنة هما اثنان من الحيوانات المنتمية لبنات آوى

“إن الارتفاع إلى المنزِلة الشريفة شديد والانحطاط منها هَيِّن، كالحجَر الثقيل، رَفْعُهُ من الأرض إلى العاتِقِ عَسِر ووَضْعُهُ إلى الأرضِ هَيِّن.”

“بعض المحاسن آفة لصاحبها، فإن الشجرة الحسنة ربما كان فسادها في طيب ثمرتها فتجذب حتى تكسر وتفسد. والطاووس ربما صار ذنَبُه الذي هو حسنه وجماله وبالاً عليه، فإذا اختال إلى الخفة والنجاة ممن يطلبه شغله عن ذلك ذنَبُه. والفرس الجواد القوي ربما أهلكه ذلك فأُجهِد واستُعمِل لما عنده من الفضل حتى يهلك. وكذا الرجل ذو الفضل ربما كان فضله سبب هلاكه لكثرة من يحسده ويبغي عليه من أهل الشر.”

“ألا ترى أن الماء ألْيَنُ مِن القول، وأن الحَجَر أشدُّ من القلب؟ فالماء إذا دام انحداره على الحجر لم يلبث حتى يثْقُبَهُ ويؤثر فيه. وكذلك القول في الإنسان.”

“إن الرسول هو الذي يليِّن الصدور إذا رَفَقَ، ويُخَشِّنُ الصدور إذا خَرُقَ.”


The Wonders of Yemen: At the heart of Arabia Felix

I- Introduction

“Sana’a is a must, no matter how long the journey is” – Imam al-Shafa’i

Once I entered Old Sana’a by Bab al-Yaman, I remembered these words right away.

When you enter Fatimid Cairo by Bab Zuweila, you immediately feel the grandeur of huge monuments tightly packed. San’a gives you a different feel, luring you slowly into a scene reminiscent of One Thousand & One Nights…

First, there is a huge plaza with tower-houses of breathtaking beauty at the backdrop. This is the “zabur” architecture for which Old Sana’a is famous: The zabur (fired mud-bricks) are adorned with curvilinear motifs made of white gypsum, while the “takhreem” windows are adorned with colored glass, stucco and alabaster. Usually, a house would have a “diwan” for guests, and a “mafraj” or “manzar” on the top floor, which is a flat room with only pillows for chewing or “takhzeen” of qat.

Slowly losing myself into Old Sana’a, I experienced what was once described as “stepping into the middle of a vast pop-up picture book”…It’s easy to know why Old Sana’a was declared a UNESCO World Heritage City in 1984: It has over 6,000 traditional houses (many of them over 400 years old), tens of old mosques with fancy minarets, tens of hammams, souqs, and “samsara”, a building similar in structure and function to the Wikala (Caravanserai).

So, my excursion took me from Bab al-Yaman and right into the heart of action: Suq al-Milh, where they sell not only salt but also spice, food, jambiyya daggers, silk, copper and silverware, etc.

From the alleys of al-Abhar, al-Qasimi, al-Dar al-Jadid, Bustan Shirab, al-Tawashi, Khodeir and al-Zumar to the mosques of al-Jami’ al-Kabir, ‘Aqil, Qubbat al-Baqiriyya, al-Madrasa and Salah al-Din, strolling the markets of Suq al-Milh, Suq al-Henna, Suq al-‘Enab (Grapes), Suq al-Baz (Silk), as well as Samsarat al-Nahas (Copper) and Samsarat al-Mansura. Only my stinking t-shirt reminded me that I have been strolling for 7 hours nonstop! It forced me to go back to the hotel for a shower.

II: Enter Like a Stranger

Some say it was built be Shem, son of Noah…well, we know Sana’a dates back from the Saba Civilization (around 6th century BC), and that it was once the capital of the Hymiarites and was once the capital of…Ethiopia!

The best way to explore this city is to go with no map and no wristwatch, because this place defies the norms of place and time. Every twist and turn is worth admiring. Enter like a stranger, and you will walk out with many friends!

From young kids asking for “photo, photo”, through a labyrinth of winding alleys where buyers and sellers negotiate prices with cheeks stuffed to the fullest with qat, surprisingly, you eventually find yourself in neighborhoods that are strikingly quiet.

The mosques here, just like houses, are like nothing that you’ve ever seen before. On one of the minarets, instead of the typical crescent moon finial, or even the less common ‘ushara (boat), there is a metal bird! They say it is a cock, believed to be the earliest-riser that does “azan” or call for prayer at dawn before anyone else does.

Another interesting feature here is the absence of overly high buildings, for even though there are tower-houses; the landscape is spaced out nicely, allowing the eye to glide comfortably from one jewel to the next.

So, after much walking, I went for a traditional lunch at Suq al-Bulaidi, where I chose a fresh fish called “Jahsh” that they oven-baked for me. For the afternoon, I was invited for a “qat party” at the hotel’s “mafraj” or uppermost floor, but that’s another story.

First documented by al-Biruni in the 11th century, qat (ghat) was described as “a commodity from Turkistan, sour to eat”. Well, it grew to a phenomenal socio-cultural status in Yemen, where the evergreen shrub that grows only at high altitude consumes over 40% of the country’s water supply!

At the hotel’s “mafraj” (flat room at uppermost floor with only pillows and a nice view), I was invited to join 3 Yemenis in a “magyal qat” (qat party). The view of Old Sana’a with its elegant minarets against the gray backdrop of Nuqut Mountain and the relaxed quiet room made for just the right setting as the “sa3a solaymaniya” (Solomon’s Hour) was close. This is the name that many locals use to describe the hour between 6 pm and 7 pm, where they believe jinn roam among us after sunset (Prophet Solomon had control over Jinn, so, why not call it Solomon’s Hour?)

“Don’t worry if you feel sick, dizzy, insomniac or get an upset stomach, it’s only your first time,” said the man who stretched his hand full of qat to me…not at all an encouraging remark for a novice like myself!

I started chewing but he stopped me, saying “tayammanu” (Use your right hand) because God loves it! (Is this guy serious?) Anyways, I started chewing the fresh tender green and reddish leaves, leaving out the big and dry ones as instructed. You chew and chew till the leaves form a paste, and you use your tongue to push it up your cheek forming a slimy ball of paste. You keep it there, and chew a new bunch of leaves making the ball bigger, and so on. This is why they call it “takhzeen al-qat” (storing qat)…because you store what you chew up your cheek.

Looking at their over-stretched cheeks, I eventually felt frustrated because, after 30 minutes of focused chewing and storing, I felt nothing!

One of them gave me a stupid smile and told me I should chew not only the leaves; but the stems as well!

The stems taste bad, but I went on chewing zealously (like a sheep chewing cud) as they engaged in conversations about everything and anything: One of them talked about the execution of Saddam Hussein, the second; about the pleasures of sex and the third about his third wife.

After 90 minutes, I started feeling a bit sick, but my senses were sharp. I still didn’t feel much effect because, as they told me mockingly, I swallowed more paste than I should.

Obviously, qat parties are social events…expensive ones! On average, an average-salaried person consumes qat that costs him 5 to 10 dollars daily. Rich people can go up to 100 – 150 dollars worth of qat a day! Walking with a ball up your cheek is a sign of well-being, being able to “afford your qat”!

Usually, people start “takhzeen” of qat after lunch and could go all night long. Qat is believed to make them more focused yet more relaxed, and some use it as an aphrodisiac. The funny part is that everyone does it, from the traffic police to the state officials. There is even a municipal market for it.

Yemen is blessed not only with rich trade, vibrant history and an abundance of resources, but also with a charm that you can experience only when you move to the valleys and mounts.

III- Day Trips to Dar al-Hagar, Shibam and Kawkaban

My trip took me to the inevitable site of Dar al-Hagar, a spectacular palace of many floors erected on top of a most peculiar rock formation dominating the landscape. The palace, built for Imam Yahia around 1942, seems like a natural extension to the rock!

From man-made wonders to the splendors of nature at the picturesque Wadi Dhahr and all the way to the medieval feel of the village of Shibam. The Great Mosque has stones with Himyarite inscriptions. This comes as no surprise since the mosque was built on the remains of a Hymiarite temple.

Shibam makes for a pleasant walk in secluded and forgotten alleys, but the “real deal” was Kawkaban on top of the mountain.

My “climb” took me 90 minutes of hard labor, but the moment I reached the top, I realized it was worth every drop of sweat and every curse I mumbled along the way!

The views of Shibam at the valley below and Thilla on a mount top nearby are unforgettable, but so are the huge deep cisterns dug in the rocks and the silos next to them: Kawkaban is a living example of what a “fortified city” means: It was built to stand sieges as long as over a year!

Faraj, my 9 years-old guide, showed me around the Mosque of al-Mansur and al-Madrasa Mosque, and almost got me killed as I slid off a slimy cliff that he pointed out as a “nice photo-spot”!

It’s tough to paint it all in words, my photos will do a better job (I hope!).

IV- The Epic of Sayf Bin dhi Yazen

There are many “celebrities” in Yemeni history, some are famous (like Badhan, the Persian ruler who converted to Islam, and Balqis, Queen of Sheba and some notorious (like Zhi Nuwas, the Jewish king who persecuted the Christians, & whose tale is mentioned in Quran).

But nothing is as impressive as the “sirah” (folkloric epic) of Sayf bin dhi Yazen ÓíÝ Èä Ðì íÒä, who is ranked among the likes of al-Zahir Baybars and Abu Zayd al-Hilali …and his sirah becomes even more impressive when you listen to it as told by a roaming storyteller in the labyrinthine back-alleys of Old Sana’a at night!

I was so lucky to encounter one such storyteller at Suq al-Gumruk, and like everyone else, I joined the masses of people that gathered ’round, listening to his tale while sipping my hot “mfawwar” (Milk and tea brewed with cardamom):

Oh Sayf, son of a jinn mother
Your wife was taken by the Habash (Ethiopians)
Those sons of a whore…

Sayf was of a Hymiarite origin. He lived in the 6th century, and managed to free Yemen of the Ethiopians (al-Ahbash) who gave the Yemenis hell! His “sirah” portrays him as a legendary super-being whose mother is Jinn and whose religion is Islam. According to the sirah, al-Ahbash kidnapped Sayf’s wife, Minyat al-Nofous, and he managed to free her from al-Ahbash, who are described as pagans (but were Christians in reality).

In reality (even though it is debatable still), he seeked help from the Romans against the Ethiopians, but they wouldn’t help him because they were Christians, just like the Ethiopians. Sayf then seeked help from the Persians, who –initially- showed no interest in this “barren land” called Yemen. Their ruler gives him some golden coins and asks him to leave, but Sayf throws the coins on the ground, saying he needs no gold because the mountains of Yemen are made of silver and gold (in an attempt to motivate the Persians).

His trick works, and they send with him an army of ex-cons (so as to get rid of them in case of defeat), and Sayf manages to beat the Ethiopians with this army, and he frees Yemen from them once and for all.

V- Sana’a Again

One last night stroll in Old San’a…
The city reveals even more charms at night as lights shine through a million coloured glass windows, and yet, as you walk towards the outskirts, you can enjoy a starry night unheard of in our beloved Cairo…

Every once in a while, you come across a big plaza that is dead calm; yet safe and warm. It’s as if the city gives you one chance after another to take a break, take a deep breath, and absorb all the beauty that you’ve seen…

Going up to the rooftop of a 4 story samsara (wikala), I watch as the city sighs its last breath for the day before sleep takes over its souqs and streets.

These are the last sights of Old Sana’a…kids joyously chasing after a ball…old men collecting their commodities…the lively movement of people against the imposing stillness of countless splendid houses and tens of minarets…man and stone…present and history…simplicity and splendour…Old Sana’a.

VI- Ta’izz, Jewel of the Rasulids

Ibn Battutah visited Ta’izz in the 14th century; and described it as one of the largest and most beautiful cities of Yemen.
Today, following the footsteps of Ibn Battutah, after a 5 hour drive, I came face to face with the Rasulid architecture in the charming mountain city of Ta’izz, once the capital of the Rasulid Dynasty.

The Ayyubids invaded Yemen in 1173 under Turan Shah, brother of Saladin, and ruled till the Rasulids took over (1229 – 1454). Rasulids trace their origins to a Turkmen who served as “rasool” (messenger) for the Abbasid Caliph in Yemen, and hence the name Rasulids.

The city’s old souq is such an interesting place to stroll. A walk between Bab Musa and Bab al-Kabir helps you experience the feel of a mountain village souq, with the mountain itself at the background. But the Rasulid mosques here are the main attraction.

First came the al-Muzaffariyya Mosque, commissioned by Sultan al-Muzaffar Yusuf (1250 – 1295), then came the breathtakingly charming Mosque-Madrasa of al-Ashrafiyya, commissioned by Sultan al-Ashraf Umar (1295 – 1296).

Apart from its two elegant minarets rising high against a beautiful background formed by Qal’at al-Qahira on top of a mount, this mosque’s whitewashed walls and shallow cupolas are characteristic of Rasulid architecture. I walked into the mosque only to find my lips gaping in disbelief as I admired the carved stucco, the mashrabiyya screens at the mausoleums, and the colors used in ceiling designs. The carved wood door panels are another wonder.

Then came the Mu’tabiyya Mosque, built in 1392 (al-Mu’tab was the wife of al-Ashraf II). The recessed mihrab and the shell motif employed is reminiscent of Fatimid architecture, but the colored motifs adorning the arches and the ceiling are more reminiscent of Aya Sofia in Istanbul. Only two piers support the whole structure of this monumental mosque!

My Art Course in Cairo: Masterpieces of Islamic ‎Art (29 July)‎

Course Title:

Masterpieces of Islamic Art ‎

Date, Time and Venue:

Wednesday, 29 July 2015 – 8:00 pm (2.5 hours)‎

‎33 A, al-Meqias Street, Roda, Manial. 4th floor, apt. 9.‎




There came a time when Islam ruled territories that extended from western China, India, ‎Central Asia and Iran, and all the way to present-say Spain and Portugal. Characterized ‎by an exceptional ability to absorb and assimilate different cultures and art styles, ‎Islamic Art eventually became an umbrella term used to label a profusion of styles that ‎ranged from the Mughal Art to Andalusi Art: Umayyad mosaics, Fatimid lusterware, ‎Mamluk inlaid metalwork, Merinid and Nasrid zellige, Persian miniatures, Ottoman ‎tiles…to the end of the long, impressive list. ‎

This course starts with Pre-Islamic Art in the Arabian Peninsula and around, as well as ‎other art styles that helped shape the Early Islamic Art (Byzantine, Persian, Coptic, etc.). ‎It then proceeds to explore the development of a fully-fledged body of art, with a focus ‎on some of its most celebrated masterpieces. Architecture is not covered by this course.‎


EGP 300 / Person. The fees include handouts/readings that will be distributed online to the participants. ‎They do not include hard or soft copies of the PowerPoint Presentation.

Audio and video recording are not allowed.‎

Deadline for reservation/cancellation:

‎30 June 2015 (If the course is fully booked prior to that date, I will announce it).

Please reserve only if you are 100% sure you would attend. Prepayment will be required, ‎venue and date of payment points to be announced.‎


Mohammed Elrazzaz is Professor of Tools for Managing Culture at the Universitat ‎Internacional de Catalunya (UIC), Barcelona, since 2010. He holds an MA in Arts & ‎Cultural Management from the same university, and he has a vast experience in the field ‎as founder-moderator of Pen Temple Pilots (2002-2012). He is currently a PhD ‎candidate (Cultural Heritage).‎

Who should attend:‎

No background whatsoever is required for this course. Anyone with a passion for art ‎and/or history is more than welcome to attend. ‎

Reservations & Further Inquiries: ‎

Course Poster

Oran-Tlemcen: A Long Weekend in Algeria

Among the several wonders that the Central Maghreb has to offer, I settled on Oran and Tlemcen in northwestern Algeria for a long weekend of cultural travel, and I couldn’t be happier!

While the colonial past of Oran is still alive in the flesh and visible in the very tissue of the city, Tlemcen’s dynastic drama is carved in the memory of stone and is imprinted in the character of its people. In Oran, cosmopolitan ghosts still roam around the city’s French, Spanish and Ottoman houses, castles and mosques respectively. In the nearby Tlemcen, al-Andalus still lives on, and vestiges of Almoravid, Almohad, Merenid and Zayanid splendor are visible wherever you go. 

Whether contemplating the eternal Mediterranean from the Spanish Fortress of Santa Cruz in Oran or elbowing your way amid an ocean of faces in Tlemcen’s popular al-Kaissaria Souq, and whether you go for a stroll in the centre ville of Oran or as pilgrim to visit the mausoleum’s of Sidi Boumedien in Tlemcen, one thing holds true: it takes a lot of scratching beneath the surface to fully appreciate the charm of these two cities…one of them nostalgic and decadent; the other relaxed and confident.

I’ll let the photos do the talking:


Is Painting Dead?

An interesting view by Jason Farago:‎

‎“Is painting healthy or sick? And why is it so hard to tell? The Forever Now, a divisive ‎show of contemporary painting now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New ‎York, argues that painting is as healthy as it’s ever been – it just isn’t interested in being ‎novel anymore, and instead recycles or redeploys pre-existing styles for new purposes. ‎Whether or not that argument convinces you or not (it didn’t convince me), the very fact ‎that MoMA has organised a contemporary painting show for the first time since 1984 ‎attests that the stakes of painting are higher than they’ve been for a while.‎

Painting has been declared dead so many times over the past 150 years that it can be ‎hard to keep track. But in her introduction, Hudson pinpoints two developments in the ‎history of art that shook painting to its foundations, in both cases almost fatally. One ‎was the invention of photography in the 1830s. Photographs did more than just depict ‎the world better and faster than painting; they also made entire painterly languages ‎defunct, from military painting to academic portraiture. (“From today, painting is dead,” ‎the academic painter Paul Delaroche is purported to have said after seeing a ‎daguerreotype for the first time.) Ever since, painting has in some ways functioned in ‎dialogue with the camera. In some cases that dialogue takes the form of rejecting ‎photographic realism, such as in the unnatural colour of Van Gogh. Or the dialogue is ‎between equal partners. That can be via the use of silkscreened imagery, most famously ‎by Andy Warhol; via a hyperrealism of Richard Estes or Franz Gertsch, whose paintings ‎are ‘more photographic’ than photographs; or via more painterly effects that nevertheless ‎advertise their photographic source, as in the art of Gerhard Richter and Chuck Close.‎

After photography, the other body blow to the primacy of painting came in the 1910s, ‎when Marcel Duchamp elevated a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack and an upturned urinal to ‎the status of art. Even more than photography, the ready-made object struck at the heart ‎of painting’s self-justification. Not only did Duchamp recalibrate the terms of artistic ‎success, privileging ideas over visuals. He also eliminated the need for the artist’s hand ‎in a way photography never entirely did. (Indeed, many photographers of the early 20th ‎Century, from Ansel Adams to Edward Steichen, consciously imitated painting ‎techniques.) Duchamp’s insurrection removed technical skill as a painterly virtue, and by ‎the 1960s an artist like the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd could confidently say, “It ‎seems painting is finished.”‎

Some styles of painting really did undergo a kind of death in the 20th Century. So-‎called neo-expressionism, whose big bad canvases by such figures as Julian Schnabel ‎and Francesco Clemente fetched millions in the 1980s, may have pleased the market but ‎had little to offer anyone who cared about the history and potential of the medium. ‎Today’s ‘zombie formalism’ is much the same. But painting that acknowledges the ‎challenges the medium has faced and builds from there is doing very well indeed. ‎‎“Painting, too, is capable of manifesting its own signs,” Hudson writes. “Painting has ‎become more, rather than less, viable after conceptual art, as an option for giving idea ‎form and hence for differentiating it from other possibilities.”‎

In the last century abstraction was seen as the supreme, even the only, form of advanced ‎painting. But in recent decades, as painting has thrown off the yoke of avant-garde ‎prescriptivism, figurative painting has been on a noted upswing. Some make use of ‎appropriated media imagery, notably Luc Tuymans, whose colour-sapped paintings of ‎Condoleezza Rice or Patrice Lumumba redeploy photographic representations. Others ‎prefer observation without cameras, such as Josephine Halvorson, who paints modest ‎tableaux of rural buildings from arm’s length, or Liu Xiaodong, whose plein-air ‎paintings of young Chinese students recall Manet and Courbet. Perhaps the biggest ‎omission from Hudson’s book is Catherine Murphy, who is not only one of America’s ‎greatest painters but also a professor who taught generations of students at Yale Art ‎School.‎

Painting has also moved off the canvas, and even off the walls. Imran Qureishi, from ‎Pakistan, makes not only miniature paintings but also all-encompassing installations ‎drawn directly on the floor and the walls, often featuring blooming floral motifs in ‎blood-red acrylic. Jim Lambie plays off the architecture of the spaces in which he ‎exhibits, covering the floors with multi-coloured vinyl tape. Paintings also now function ‎frequently not as stand-alone artworks, but as elements of a larger network of artistic ‎procedures. The influential painter Jutta Koether, for instance, does not only paint; she ‎also designs the presentation of her paintings, complete with special lighting and ad hoc ‎viewing platforms, and sometimes performs in the gallery alongside them.‎

Koether’s expansive practice of painting is a good counterweight to the big question ‎surrounding the rude health of the medium – a question that goes unasked in Hudson’s ‎fine book. That is the question of the market. When I visited her studio a few years ago, ‎the artist RH Quaytman – known for her brainy, reflexive paintings organised into ‎chapters, like a book – lamented how the demands of collectors and markets were ‎powerful enough to move art history. “Art fairs, jpegs and the entire bloated art market ‎are responsible for the resurgence of painting as opposed to all other art forms,” she told ‎me. “I’m sad that it is the structure of the art market that has revalidated and ‎reinvigorated painting.… It’s easy to store, it’s easy to transport, it works well enough ‎on the internet: it turned out that painting was, despite itself, the perfect tool. The ‎problem is, whose tool is it?” Every painter should ask themself that question when they ‎turns to the empty canvas.”‎


An art installation by Jim Lambie called ZOBOP September 2000 on the floor of the camden arts center. It forms part on an exibition called Dream machines.