An Intro to the Fine Art of Greek Vases

I first developed a taste for Greek Vases during my visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, whose collection offers a tour-de-force of Ancient and Classical Greek Art. In addition to the fascinating Minoan frescoes, Mycenaean gold masks and jewelry, Cycladic idols and Classical statues, the Museum houses a mind-blowing collection of Greek kylixes, kraters, pitchers, amphorae, askoi and other varieties of Greek pottery from different periods and styles. The styles are so many and the techniques are sophisticated, but here I mention some examples to those interested:

Minoan Marine Style
One of the earliest ‘styles’ of pottery painting during the Bronze Age is the Marine Style developed by the Minoans in Crete during the third millennium BCE. As the name implies, this style is dominated by depictions of marine life on amphora and other vessels. Octopuses, shellfish and fish were painted using brown or black against a creamy background; figures would flow and fill the surface of the vessel with curves and waves. The Mycenaeans also employed this style.

The Geometric Period Style
The Pre-Geometric, Proto-Geometric and Geometric Vases which coincided with the Archaic Period all show intricate geometrical patters that range from simple concentric circles to the famous ‘meander’ motif that resembles a labyrinth design. Moreover, some stylized representations of men, horses and charioteers were used. One of the most impressive examples is the Dipylon Amphora.

Black-Figure Pottery
Attica became the heart of pottery production, and the black-figure style appeared in the seventh century BCE. Simply put, black figures are painted on brown/red clay. Attention to detail is very high, and mythological themes became a main inspiration for the subject matter.

Red-Figure Pottery
In the late sixth century BCE, several artists started using red figures against a black background, producing a wealth of magnificent pottery that eventually turned into a prized commodity throughout the Mediterranean. From everyday vessels, the Greek Vases have become collectable ‘art objects’ and several artists gained fame as master potters (like the Andokides Painter). Moreover, Greek vases became bearers of a tradition and media through which people could peer into the Greek world and its system of beliefs and values through the stories they depict.

 

 

Casa Vicens: Gaudí’s Early Masterpieces

“To be interesting, ornamentation must present objects that remind us of poetic ideas, that constitute motifs. Motifs are historical, legendary, active, emblematic; fables relating to men and their lives, action and passion.” – A. Gaudí

This week, one of Antoni Gaudí’s most impressive –and bizarre- houses finally opened its doors to the public. Considered as his first masterpiece, Casa Vicens (1883-1888) is everything you would expect from Catalan Modernism: polychromy, curvilinear forms, wrought iron railings, geometrical and zoomorphic motifs, the interplay between light and shade, to the end of the long list, all with an unmistakable ‘organic’ twist that is a constant in Gaudí’s work.

One particularly interesting detail in Casa Vicens is the use of the ‘muqarnas’ (stalactite) decoration in one of the rooms. Guadí incorporated elements of the Islamic-influenced mudejar style in many of his buildings, but the use of muqarnas breaks the mudejar mould and betrays a clear fascination with Islamic art, not only of al-Andalus, but also of the Orient. In his notebooks, Gaudí explains:

“In the East, everything blends into the horizontal supports and vertical struts. The arch is a simple ornamental motif set within a system of pillars and lintels. Its vaults are simple spherical caps or stalactite vaults – a flat ceiling supporting stalactites as a reminder of the coolness of the cave.”

Click any image to enlarge it.

Casas de Indianos: Barcelona’s Colonial Legacy

During the cultural walk that I organized for my Mediterranean Heritage students in Barcelona, we explained several heritage elements that included the Renaixença (the 19th century Catalan Renaissance), els Jocs Florals (Floral Games involving poetry contests), la Sardana (a traditional Catalan dance), the Tertulia (cultural salon), the Castellers (human towers), and the Casas de Indianos, which I explain in more detail in this post.
Following the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, Spain referred to the native Americans as ‘Indios’ (Indians), inspired by Columbus’ famous original misconception, thinking he had discovered India, rather than a new continent. Eventually, many explorers, navigators, and soldiers-of-fortune would follow the example of Columbus and try their luck in the New World, hoping for money or fame: Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Hernando de Soto and Alonso de Ercilla are just a few examples. The Age of Discovery had begun, and so did Spain’s ‘Siglo de Oro’ (the Golden Century).
Scores of Spanish men, young and old, saw the New World as an opportunity to accumulate riches. The sugar and the coffee industries were among the most flourishing businesses in America, and many Spaniards managed to accumulate riches in Mexico, Chile, Cuba, Puerto Rico and elsewhere before Spain finally lost its last colonies overseas during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Those Spanish adventurers and business men that came back to Spain having made a fortune in the Americas came to be known as ‘Indianos’. Those rich Indianos used their fortune to wield power and prestige: they tried to buy noble titles, gain social status by patronizing artists and poets (like Eusebi Gϋell becoming the patron of Antoni Gaudí) and building fancy houses and palaces in the colonial style. These houses came to be known as Casas de Indianos, and they share certain characteristics: the use of marine motifs (like the anchor, the trident of Poseidon, sea serpents, etc.) and native American inspirations (most commonly the head of a chief or a slave with feathers and arrows, but also exotic fruits and brids) as decorative elements; the cultivation of palm trees in their gardens (if they have one), and the use of porticos or colonnades or other elements of colonial architecture.
In Barcelona, we visited the most elaborate example, namely Casa Xifré in Passeig d’Isabel II, which dates back to 1840. The house, which shows clear masonic inspiration, features a very interesting iconographic program that includes, in addition to marine motifs and native American faces, a row of medallions featuring the busts of Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus and many other iconic explorers and navigators from Spain and Portugal.
Though many Indianos were involved in illicit trade, trafficking and promoting slavery, their contribution to cities like Barcelona and other parts of Spain was overwhelming. In addition to their own houses, they undertook urban projects, promoted the industrial revolution, built banks and educational institutions, sponsored art and culture, introduced new traditions and tastes to their native communities and -in some cases- even left us a body of literature chronicling their endeavours and offering us a first-person glance into the Americas.
Barcelona is a city that has a lot to offer, and yet, most tourists and inhabitants skip the colonial legacy of the city (which inspired a whole musical genre known as the Habaneras, named after la Habana or Havana, the capital of Cuba) in favour of the usual suspects that include the Gothic Quarter and the Modernist architecture of Gaudí and Co.
Below are images of Can Xifré and a nearby Casa de Indianos in El Born.

 

‘Defend Europe’ and Mediterranean Xenophobia

The closing of the Mediterranean route is the only way to Defend Europe and save lives.” – excerpt from the mission statement of the far-right group Defend Europe

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), almost 118,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea this year, 80% of whom arrived in Italy, with the remainder in Greece, Cyprus and Spain. Over 2,400 migrants have died (or are missing) crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, and the tragedy is far from over.
As the world intensifies its efforts to rescue migrants and pools resources to face the crisis, the far-right group ‘Defend Europe’ has managed to raise funds for the exact opposite purpose: they sent a boat with full crew to patrol the coast and circumvent the rescue efforts in an attempt to send the refugees/migrants ‘back to Africa’. The discourse is not new and the excuses are age-old, including security concerns, economic pressures and the misguided desire to protect Europe’s identity (whatever that means). This and other far-right groups in France, Germany, Austria, Greece and elsewhere are oblivious to –or consciously ignore- the fact that identity is a dynamic concept and that the European culture would be inconceivable without pluralism, mobility and dialogue. Blinded by Xenophobia and racism, they forget that migrants gave Europe its earliest civilizations and forged its culture over millennia.
You will not make Europe home!” is only one of the many messages that Defend Europe sends to migrants through huge banners on its boat, the C-Star. They accuse NGOs involved in rescuing migrants of collaboration with the human smugglers, fashion themselves as saviors of Europe and enemies of human-trafficking, and they continue their fundraising efforts and their toxic propaganda at a part of the world where tensions have been already growing.
Is “the closing of the Mediterranean route” really “the only way to defend Europe and save lives”? Isn’t curbing the arms manufacturing and arms deals a better way than ‘Fortress Europe’ to save not only Europe but the whole region? Isn’t intercultural dialogue a tried-and-trusted means to save the entire region? Isn’t this the very same Mediterranean where the Phoenicians taught Europe how to write and the Arabs gave Europe its numeral system?

More than ever, we need to understand that the ‎moment we see our diversity as a threat rather than a resource, ‎we are no longer Mediterranean, because one of the core parameters of our Mediterranean ‎culture is our ability to absorb so many differences without losing our essence; without giving up on what makes us individually unique in a context of pluralism. ‎
The fact that our part of the world is currently plagued with a full spectrum of regional challenges should guide our moral compass to a new, more humane geography in which building bridges and engaging in dialogue -rather than flashing economic sanctions, resorting to armed conflict, and stooping to political and cultural Darwinism- would pave the way for a better future.

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The Painter of Nightmares

Not Herni Fuseli, not Goya, not Dalí…

I first learned about Zdzisław Beksiński thanks to his cover art for an album by a metal band. As I started exploring his artworks, I came face to face with a gothic realm of nightmares where art is more than just a medium. I cannot think of any other artist that reproduced nightmare landscapes the way this man did; surrealism was never so ‘real’!
Many attempts have been made to classify his artwork, and like always, the obsession with terms and categories are meaningless when it comes to contemporary art. Those with a taste for the grim and the eerie will most definitely appreciate his art, but so would those with the slightest interest in surrealism.

Van Gogh’s Mediterranean

“We can tell that Van Gogh painted this view of the sea from the beach, as grains of sand have been found in the paint layers. It was done at the fishing village of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, during a trip he took from Arles in the south of France. In addition to the blue and white that he brushed onto the canvas with bold strokes, he used green and yellow for the waves. He applied these colours with a palette knife, neatly capturing the effect of the light through the waves.

Van Gogh was enthusiastic about the colours of the Mediterranean Sea. He wrote that it ‘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’. The bright red signature has been placed prominently in the foreground: it was intended as a ‘red note in the green’.”

Source: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0117V1962

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الأندلس وتاريخ الشتات

 

شرفت خلال الأعوام الماضية بإلقاء العديد من المحاضرات حول تاريخ الأندلس في مكتبة الإسكندرية: الأندلسيون في الشرق، حكايات الأندلس، الأندلس كمعبر حضاري، إلخ. هذا العام سيكون لنا لقاء من جديد في مكتبة الإسكندرية في شهر أغسطس أو سبتمبر للحديث عن تفاصيل مذهلة حول الأندلس. أنصحكم باقتناء وقراءة كتابي “الأندلس تاريخ الشتات” الصادر عن دار الربيع العربي والمشارك في معرض الإسكندرية للكتاب استعداداً للقائنا القادم. إليكم عناوين بعض الفصول التي وردت في الكتاب:

صقر قريش، عاقل الأندلس، الإخوة الأعداء، زرياب عصفور من الشرق، القديس قاتل العرب، الزهراء وأخواتها، قصة مدينتين، ألفونسو الحكيم، زمردة الموحدين،  حلم ابن الأحمر، أرباب المثلثات، برتقالة ابن خلدون، سان كريستوبال، في تاريخ المدجنين والموريسكيين، رسول الأجراس، فتنة كتب الرصاص، الخراف ومحاكم التفتيش، ما لم يعرفه كولومبوس، تطوان ابنة غرناطة، في ضيافة الموريسكيين، قراصنة هورناتشوس، تمبكتو عاصمة السراب، أندلسيو حوض النيجر، وهران سيدي هواري، تلمسان وأشباح وهران، بربروس كابوس اللحية الحمراء، تستور حفرية أندلسية، عروس الفقراء، الإسكندرية عاصمة الذاكرة، في خطى وإرث المقام، الأندلسيون في الشرق.

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