Modigliani’s Nude reclines in a Taxi Driver’s Collection

Paying tens of millions of dollars for a painting or a sculpture is nothing new. For decades now, auction houses have been doing a remarkable job and one record after another came tumbling down. Among the ‘usual suspects’ were Picasso, Rothko, Bacon, and a whole bunch of Pop artists and Post Impressionists.

This week, a 1917 nude painting titled ‘Nu Couché’ by the sensational Modigliani was sold for $170.4 million at Chrtistie’s New York, becoming the second most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. Till here it would have been just another piece of news, but…

The painting was acquired by a Chinese billionaire called Liu Yiqian, and the fact that he had started his career as a taxi driver caused an uproar among several self-righteous experts and critics that rushed to label him as a culture vulture with a stock exchange mentality and no taste. Nevertheless, his story is –to my mind- way more interesting than the purchase itself. New York Times reported the story of Liu Yiqian, the taxi-driver that turned into a billionaire and an extraordinary art collector:

As a teenager growing up in Shanghai during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Liu sold handbags on the street and later worked as a taxi driver. After dropping out of middle school, he went on to ride the wave of China’s economic opening and reform, making a fortune through stock trading in real estate and pharmaceuticals in the 1980s and 1990s. According to the 2015 Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Mr. Liu is worth at least $1.5 billion.

“To me, art collecting is primarily a process of learning about art,” Mr. Liu said in an interview with The New York Times in 2013. “First you must be fond of the art. Then you can have an understanding of it.”

Mr. Liu, together with his wife, Wang Wei, is one of China’s most visible –—some say flashy — art collectors. Over the years, they have built a vast collection of both traditional and contemporary Chinese art, much of which is displayed in their two museums in Shanghai: the Long Museum Pudong, which opened in 2012; and the Long Museum West Bund, which opened last year. Ms. Wang, 52, is the director of both museums.

“I first came up with the idea that the Long Museum should collect international objects about two years ago,” said Ms. Wang, adding that her husband has been very supportive of her work.

The couple’s collection includes a 15th-century silk hanging, called a thangka, bought by Mr. Liu for $45 million at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong last year. The purchase made headlines when it set the record for a Chinese artwork sold at an international auction.

With that purchase, Mr. Liu broke a record he had set months earlier when he paid $36.3 million at a Sotheby’s sale for a tiny Ming dynasty porcelain cup known as a “chicken cup.” Soon after, he caused an uproar after a photograph that showed him sipping tea from the antique cup spread online.

For both record-setting acquisitions, Mr. Liu reportedly paid with an American Express credit card, earning him many millions of reward points.

The couple’s self-promotion tactics have prompted some in contemporary art circles in China to draw comparisons with the “taxi tycoon” Robert Scull and his wife Ethel, voracious collectors of what came to be known as “Pop Art” in the 1960s but derided by some in the art world as crass nouveaux riche.

Speaking about Mr. Liu and Ms. Wang, Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, said: “These are collectors that have so much money that they acquire taste or they don’t have to have to taste because they buy everything in sight.” He added: “There’s very little discrimination, they just buy the most expensive things. They’re not connoisseurs.”

Source: New York Times. Click here for the full article.


Mediterranean Passages

While preparing a course on ‘Mediterranean Heritage’ for the university, I cam across some truly inspiring quotes and passages written by historians, sociologists, thinkers, artists and writers; a great homage to our great sea, at once civilizing and corrupting. Here I share some paragraphs, along with some photos that I took of different Mediterranean landscapes:

“The mark of a living civilization is that it is capable of exporting itself, of spreading its culture to distant places. It is impossible to imagine a true civilization which does not exports its people, its ways of thinking and living.
A living civilization must be able not only to give but to receive and to borrow. Borrowing is more difficult than it seems: it is not every man who can borrow wisely, and put an adopted implement to as good use as its original master. One of the great borrowings of Mediterranean civilization was undoubtedly the printing press, which German master-printers introduced to Italy, Spain, Portugal and as far away as Goa.
But a great civilization can also be recognized by its refusal to borrow, by its resistance to certain alignments, by its resolute selection among the foreign influences offered to it and which would no doubt be forced upon it if they were not met by vigilance, or, more simply, by incompatibility of temper and attitude.”

Excerpts from ‘The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II’ by Fernand Braudel

“The sea that stand between the lands knows very well that the frontier is a place where the richest and the most complex personalities are gathered, precisely because the old worn-out litany of identity is absent, and one can experience diversity. Those who stand on the frontier know that there are many ways to speak, pray, eat, love and die, and surely once in their life have thought that each civilization has its own wisdom and dignity. The Mediterranean is a sea of this difficult but essential mutual recognition, of building the difficult harmony among people who, even though they cherish their own identity, are still capable of understanding that contact with others expands the spirit, that it does not represent danger but enrichment.”

From ‘The Mediterranean: A Sea against all Fundamentalisms’ by Franco Cassano

“The Mediterranean exists, therefore, wherever people respect others, wherever they greet each other, wherever they sit down for the pleasure of conversation and telling stories, wherever they eat and drink together, wherever they become friends and spend time together until late at night, wherever they waste time because this is the only way to gain time. The Mediterranean exists wherever people speculate that perfection can have several faces, that it can come from work, from angels, from fantasy, but also from the tactile pleasure of the possibility of coexistence, from the highest, indolent agreement with the world.”

From ‘The Mediterranean Planet’ by Franco Cassano

“Take people from the remotest corners of the world, sprinkle them along the Mediterranean coast, and before long, through the alchemy of the sixth continent, they will become Mediterranean to the bone. Like its very waters, the Mediterranean embodies a fluent and cerulean history of humanity. […] And the eastern littoral is where the Mediterranean is quintessentially Mediterranean.

This in not a literary flourish or poetry, but the truth. Other regions of the world might boast of a single civilization, if that; but the eastern Mediterranean and its surroundings can lay claim to the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Hittite, “Persian, Minoan, Ionian, and Greek civilizations…for civilization is such a phenomenon that its seeds cannot be sown by one or another people alone. Civilization, which is humanist, has never been the monopoly of one pure line of descent. It has always taken hold through the intermingling of diverse strains.”

From ‘The Voice of Anatolia’ by Halikarnas Balɪkçɪsɪ

“There is a Mediterranean sea, a basin linking different countries. Those whose voices boom in the singing cafes of Spain, who wander in the port of Genoa, along the docks in Marseilles, the strange, strong race that lives along our coasts, all belong to the same family. When you travel in Europe, and go down toward Italy or Provence, you breathe a sigh of relief as you rediscover these casually dressed men, this violent, colorful life we all know. Our Country is (…) a certain way of appreciating life which is shared by certain people, through which we can feel ourselves closer to someone from Genoa or Majorca than to someone from Normandy or Alsace. This is what the Mediterranean is – a certain smell or scent that we do not need to express: we all feel it through our skin.”

Excerpts from text of a lecture Albert Camus gave on Mediterranean culture at the Maison de la Culture in 1937

“The Mare Nostrum, located in the north of the south and the south of the north. In-between water, media-terrania, sea between two lands, united by the bonds of water that are generally gentler than the bonds of earth. “Our” sea, belonging to all those living on its shores, is not what it should be because it has not been what it should have been: an area of confluence, of harmony, of plies blue waters fertilized by the peace of olive trees. And , all too frequently it has not been the Mare Nostrum but rather the Mare Vostrum. The sea dominated by the powers at each historical moment.”

Excerpt from ‘What Future for the Mediterranean?’ by Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Former Director-General of UNESCO

“The Mediterranean stands there reminding us that between the fundamentalism of the land or the sea there is a balance of measure. There exists a form of life capable of reconciling freedom and protection, a civilization that knows the beauty of belonging, but also of leaving, a civilization accustomed to a multi-dimensional geometry, a civilization that is never puzzled by the complexity of life.”

From ‘The Multi-Dimensional Mediterranean’ by Franco Cassano

“The Mediterranean ‎has a colour like mackerel, in other words, changing — you don’t always know if it’s ‎green or purple — you don’t always know if it’s blue — because a second later, its ‎changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey hue.”

From ‘The Letters of Van Gogh’

“Happy is the man who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean Sea.
(…) Many are the joys of life. But to cleave that sea in the gentle autumnal season, murmuring the name of each islet, is to my mind the joy most apt to transport the heart of man into paradise. Nowhere else can one pass so easily and serenely from reality to dream.”

From ‘Zorba the Greek’ by Nikos Kazantzakis

Course in Cairo: Mediterranean Cultural Heritage (28 Dec. 2015)

This is to announce my next course, taking place in Cairo on the 28th of December 2015:‎

Course Title: Mediterranean Cultural Heritage

Course Language: Arabic (slides in English) ‎

Venue & Date: 33 A Meqias al-Roda Street, 4th floor apt. 9. – Monday, 28 December 2015‎

Duration: 3 hours (7:30pm – 10:30pm)‎

Course Description:‎
From ancestral knowledge, prehistoric rock art and Bronze Age temples to classical Greek ‎drama and Roman architectural wonders; from medieval epic poems and elaborate crafts to ‎fantastic underwater worlds, this course is exceptional both in content and in scope, as it ‎offers a fairly comprehensive mosaic of the Mediterranean cultural heritage with all its ‎diversity and richness.‎
It is a journey across our civilizing sea, as we sail in the footsteps of Ulysses, through the ‎verses of Ovid, the music of Ziryab, the paintbrush of Jacques-Louis David, the ceramics of ‎Picasso, and indulge in the pleasures of the UNESCO-listed Mediterranean Diet. In short: ‎tangible and intangible heritage of the Mediterranean region as you never experienced it ‎before

Who should attend?‎
Anyone with a passion for/an interest in the Mediterranean, its history, its culture and its ‎people. No academic/professional background whatsoever is required. ‎

Mohammed Elrazzaz holds an MA in Arts & Cultural Management from the Universitat ‎Internacional de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain). He is Professor of Tools for Cultural ‎Management (since 2010) and Mediterranean Heritage (since 2015) at the same university. ‎He participated as speaker in several international cultural conferences in Spain, Italy, ‎Denmark and Egypt. ‎

Course Fees:‎
EGP 300 / person. ‎
The fee includes handouts (reading material and briefs) and access to the PowerPoint ‎presentation (in pdf format). ‎
Voice and video recording not permitted.‎

Deadline for Reservation/Cancellation: ‎
‎7 December 2015 (or as soon as the course is fully booked)‎

Please contact me for any further enquiries and for reservations:‎ ‎

New Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation

Dubrovnik in Photos

Beyond the massive tourism that has both plagued and blessed Dubrovnik, something extraordinary awaits any visitor with the slightest interest in history, culture or natural beauty. This city is the reincarnation of the old Republic of Ragusa which, through exemplary and peaceful diplomacy, managed to maintain its independence during some four centuries in the shadow of such giants as Venice and the Ottoman Empire. It was here that slavery was first abolished long before Great Britain ever thought it was a good idea.

Once you overcome the initial charm of the old port, the elegant piazzas, and the elegantly restored Stradun with its limestone and marble paving and its noble palaces, you start scratching beneath the surface and enjoying the ‘beat’ of the side streets. Surprisingly, and despite its relatively small size and tourist-trodden tracks, the Old Town is not lacking in idyllic corners where you have it all for yourself and where you take every photo imaginable.

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why Dubrovnik is considered the world’s most fabulous medieval walled city. Once you do the inevitable and magnificent tour of the city walls, you realize it’s not just the walls that are fascinating, but also the views of the cityscape that the walls command: Ahead of me, an entire city unfolded. I could contemplate all the houses, all the rooftops; I could gaze at the sea and at the nearby Island of Lokrum. King’s Landing in all its grace! Is it any surprise that this extraordinary city served as the setting for Game of Thrones’ most important city?

The most memorable view though is not one you enjoy from the city itself, but rather from the top of Mount Srd, which you reach through a short yet joyful cable car ride. Only from the top can you enjoy a view of the entire old town of Dubrovnik, as well as an unforgettable sunset if you’re there on time. Back to Dubrovnik, one can roam around the port forever. At the legendary Buza Bar, I stared at the Adriatic waters, imagining a Ragusan merchant ship heading to the Black Sea and how the voyage must have been like (Ragusa was the only European city allowed by the Ottomans to conduct trade in the Black Sea).

The pleasures of the Dalmatian Coast is complemented by the temptations of the Dalmatian gastronomy, and Dubrovnik is a perfect place to experience the Mediterranean cuisine with a Dalmatian twist: the brodet (fish stew), the octopus salad and the smoked swordfish Carpaccio are just a few examples.

Another priceless advantage of Dubrovnik is the fact that it serves as a base camp for tens of maritime adventures and island tours, and I don’t think I would be able to forget the natural beauty of Mljet or Lopud any time soon. I will let the photos do the rest of the talking.

The Mediterranean of Van Gogh

My dear Theo,‎

I’m writing to you from Saintes-Maries on the Mediterranean at last. The Mediterranean ‎has a colour like mackerel, in other words, changing — you don’t always know if it’s ‎green or purple — you don’t always know if it’s blue — because a second later, its ‎changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey hue.‎
It’s a funny thing, the family — quite unintentionally, and despite myself, I’ve often ‎thought here from time to time of our uncle the seaman, who has certainly seen the ‎shores of this sea many times.‎

‎(…) I took a walk along the seashore one night, on the deserted beach. It wasn’t ‎cheerful, but not sad either, it was beautiful.‎

The sky, a deep blue, was flecked with clouds of a deeper blue than primary blue, an ‎intense cobalt, and with others that were a lighter blue — like the blue whiteness of ‎milky ways. Against the blue background stars twinkled, bright, greenish, white, light ‎pink — brighter, more glittering, more like precious stones than at home — even in ‎Paris. So it seems fair to talk about opals, emeralds, lapis, rubies, sapphires. The sea a ‎very deep ultramarine — the beach a mauvish and pale reddish shade, it seemed to me ‎‎— with bushes. In addition to half-sheet drawings I have a large drawing, the pendant ‎of the last one. ‎

More soon, I hope. Handshake.‎

Ever yours,‎

Seascape by Van Gogh

Postcards from Monetengro

“What belongs to others we do not want, but what is ours we will never surrender.” – Phrase inscribed over the entrance gate to the old city of Kotor

And rightly so, because Montenegro is the coessential Adriatic country that should never fail to impress: on one side, the mountain; on the other, the sea, and in between, little towns and villages are strewn like pearls alongside the picturesque Bay of Kotor. Such is the case with Perast, Kotor and Budva.
The first two are understandably UNESCO World Heritage Sites, while Budva, apart from its awesome beaches, is a city where the urban boom seems to encroach the old city from all directions.

Kotor, the most fascinating of the three, has over 4 kilometers of city walls and fortifications that, in big part, date back the Venetian rule and surround the whole city. The Medieval city is well preserved because –luckily- Montenegro did not suffer heavy bombardment like other ex-Yugoslavian countries (it became an independent country only in 2006).

The dramatic setting of Kotor against elevated mountains creates a perfect backdrop against which all the back streets and alleys seem to vanish into infinity. Add some medieval buildings, pleasant piazzas and great food, and you have just figured out the city’s winning Mediterranean formula.

Then comes Perast, a little gem of a town on the coast that seems to rise from the very waters of the Adriatic, with small colorful boars dancing along the miniature marina. A boat ride to the nearby Island of Our Lady of the Rock is more than just a pleasant voyage: it’s an obligatory visit for two reasons. First, to visit the church and to enjoy fantastic views of the nearby Island of St. George which –somehow- resembles Arnold Böcklin’s painting, The Island of Death. Second, to experience the devotion of the natives who actually built this artificial island using rocks and sunken ships to commemorate the discovery of an icon featuring the Virgin and Child.

One can go on and on, but the photos would do a better job showing the beauties of the Montenegrin urban and natural landscapes.


Copenhagen: A Weekend among the happy Danes

In addition to being the ‘coolest kid on the Nordic block’ as the Lonely Planet puts it, the Danes must be among the coolest people ever: friendly, helpful and cheerful. It comes as no surprise for what is regarded as ‘the world’s happiest nation’!
What makes the Danes happy? There is no one definitive answer, but there are parks and bikes everywhere! Modern design is at home, the urban landscape is fantastic, and the cuisine is as exquisite as you wallet could afford.

I decided to hit the big attractions right away, starting with the picture-perfect 17th century waterfront of Nyhavn, where tradition houses with colored facades stand shoulder by shoulder, casting their playful reflections on the dancing water of the canal. I went again in the afternoon, by sunset, and at night. This is how much I liked it. It gets even more interesting when you hop on a boar for a grand canal tour.

Copenhagen is home to Europe’s oldest attraction park (Tivoli), as well as Europe’s oldest functioning observatory (the Round Tower, 1642), something that makes perfect sense for country that produced the likes of Tycho Brahe and Nicholas Copernicus. The panoramic views from the Tower are lovely, but one can best experience the city on a bike or on foot: the Strædet Street, the Amagertorv Square and other streets and squares in the old town all make for a pleasant walk, while buildings and momuments like the Old Stock Exchange with its fantastic spire, the Amalienborg Palace, the Marble Church and the Gefion Fountain are all not to be missed.

Funny enough, the one thing that no one seems to miss in Copenhagen is the smallest attraction that there is: the Little Mermaid statue that sits further along the Langelinie Promenade. H. C. Anderson’s legacy is alive and so are the houses where he lived in Nyhavn.

Following a nap at the park in the shadow of the Rosenborg Castle, I walked to the nearby David Collection Museum which, surprisingly, houses one of the most extraordinary collections of Islamic Art in Europe, while at the Design Museum I came to understand why the Danes are so good with everything they design! Actually, the whole city is a living monument to the alchemy of harmony between old and modern architecture. In addition to the Black Pearl and the Opera House, the Blue Planet Aquarium is a great example of that modern architecture, and a site worth every penny / second of the visit.

Having quenched my thirst for exploration, I had to appease my appetite, and it so happened that we headed to Schonnemann, a legendary restaurant famous for serving delicious varieties of the Danish national dish: the open sandwich. For someone whose idea about Nordic food is limited to smoked salmon, lunch came as a complete and welcome surprise to my taste buds: boiled-at-sea Greenland shrimps come side by side with friend plaice and marinated herring, a seafood feast with a Danish twist.

It was time for something different: Freetown Christiania. This neighborhood, which claims autonomy, has become an epitome of alternative lifestyle and a barter economy laboratory (soft and hard drugs included). Ever since it appeared in the early 1970s. controversy has persisted regarding its model and its future. Walking around the makeshift shops and graffiti-laden houses, one quickly gets a feeling that, beyond the apparent chaos, some sort of order exists. One that obeys a different rhythm and a distinct logic. A walk up and down then off I went to Nyhavn again to catch my canal tour.

One bridge after another and tale after tale, Copenhagen is a great tale to tell and an even better tale to experience. The only anecdote from my stay was the debate that followed my lecture there (on Northern Renaissance Art) about the inclusion of Albrecht Durer in the lecture: to some of the attendees, he is not ‘Northern’ enough since he was born in ‘Southern Germany’! No comment.