Saturday, February 25, 2017

Marat the Thinker

When I was staying in Eindhoven, for three months, I went to Brussels with my colleagues. Once we were there, we parted ways. I went on my own, sometimes, the best way to see a place.
My trusted Lonely Planet guide to Europe, "Europe on a Shoestring" gave me some good tips but not much information. For instance, I knew that I wanted to visit the Royal Museums but I had no idea what to expect there.
As I finished going through the rooms on the ground floor, I climbed the ornate stairs to the first floor. At the landing of the stairs awaited something that I would love to see. Rodin's Thinker. The unexpected pleasure felt like a gift! The awe-inspiring details and the coiled muscles of a man in deep thought, the texture of the surface would be impressive in any setting. Here, it was enhanced by its setting. It was illuminated by the sun fairly low in the southern sky. Light streamed through a window but no direct sunlight. It enhanced the contours and shadows cast by the taut and superbly defined muscles. I have not seen the replicas of this iconic statue placed in the open air (having missed Musée Rodin in Paris seventeen years earlier). I, however, felt that no setting could do better justice to it.
I reluctantly moved on, certain that on the way back I would have a last look at the Thinker.
I did not expect what was to come next. I turned into a room much longer than wide and in this alcove was a painting that had always affected me strongly - even in small and often black and white pictures I had seen of it. The uncluttered view, the total silence, the empty room at the end of which was this superb work of art – Jacques-Louis David’s painting, The Death of Marat (La Mort de Marat or Marat Assassiné in French) - took my breath away.
I enjoyed viewing it from a distance - through the door from outside the room, stood close to it to view the brush work and better observe the colours and soaked it all in.
In most people's minds, modern art is equated with abstract art. It means all that is not figurative, not realistic. I am sure that people who think so will be very much surprised if they are shown this painting and then told that art historians mark David and his works as the beginning of the modern era in art!
The impact the painting and the Thinker has been such that I hardly remember the other works I saw in that museum! Perhaps it is to be expected - that the sheer beauty and impact of these works, my personal affinity towards them, and the art-historical importance of the works should overshadow the other works. I hope I will visit Brussels once again and do justice to the other works.

Art Abroad VI

Monday, February 20, 2017


It was 1985 and I was in Paris. The first programme for the day was a visit to the Picasso Museum - Musée Picasso. Hôtel Salé - Salty. (Here is why it is called so) I don't remember its opening hours exactly. But, let us say 9:30 in the morning. I decided to go to the museum area a little early and look around. See the building from outside too. I reached the place at 9.

I was expecting a deserted place. I was so surprised when I saw that a long loose queue had already formed at the ticket counter! After all, the only musea I had seen till then were Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore, Visvesvaraya museum and the Government museum, Bangalore. Except on weekends and when tourist buses had arrived, they were very much deserted. Hence the surprise.

Whenever I had read about the public outcry caused by the paintings exhibited by rebel painters who had organised an exhibition parallel to the Paris Salon, I had always wondered why the general public would get so perturbed by art. Those painters were called les Fauves - French for "the wild beasts". The style or philosophy behind their paintings was called Fauvism for quite some time and are now called Impressionism. Those painters are now considered masters and trendsetters, is a different matter.

The queue half an hour before opening time gave me an idea, of sorts, of what art may mean to the general public.

Art Abroad V

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Balzac Park Figure

In Eindhoven, my teammates and I returned every evening from Philips HiTech Campus by bus where we underwent training. We were using the same bus and route for weeks. However, one day something hidden behind the foliage of a park caught my eye. Perhaps fall was setting in and some trees had already shed some leaves, making what lay beyond them a little more visible. I told my friend and fellow commuter, Eric, that we would get off the bus a few stops before our usual one and explore what I had seen.

We got off and found the gate to the park and walked in. What I had thought I had seen was indeed that! Rodin’s statue of Honoré de Balzac – made for the memorial for Balzac. I was intrigued since I had thought it stood somewhere in Paris.

An internet search revealed that this was a copy, cast from the mould from which the original was cast!  This one normally stood in front of the van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. Since the museum was under extensive renovation, the statue had been temporarily moved across the street into this park.

Ah! Mystery solved.

Art Abroad IV

Friday, February 10, 2017

Making Friends, with Modigliani

In Eindhoven, five colleagues of mine and I underwent training in the art and science of novelty searching.  Every patent is classified under the International Patent Classification system. You can imagine it to be similar to the bibliographic classification of books in a library. Each patent has one or more classification codes assigned to it and also has a unique patent number. When we use the classification codes to search for patents, the number of ‘hits’ is small and all are connected with a narrow field or a specific subject. So we had to learn how to classify an invention based on the description provided by the inventor and use that to search for patents which is closest to the invention on hand.

We were taught, in a classroom setting, by an expert in patent classification, Wim Krijnen. And what an expert he was! He was an elderly gentleman on the verge of retirement. He had old world mannerisms and very precise in his manners and speech. He reminded me of Mr. Chips of Goodbye Mr. Chips. He almost had the whole classification book in his head!

Just to give an example, a colleague described an “alleged” invention to him and sought his help to arrive at a classification. When posed with the question, he stood with his feet slightly apart, arms crossed and slowly rubbing his nose, with his elbow resting on the other hand. “I am a chemistry man. I am not very familiar with the electrical sciences. So, I may not be accurate. Let us see. Electrical sciences is. of course, H. Electronic circuitry is 03. The invention is about a pulse technique and that makes it H03K. And the invention is about switching and gating and that makes it H03K 17/00. And it has an element of delaying the pulses and hence it could be H03K 17/26 or H03K 17/28. He then proceeded to get the code from the internet and it turned out to be correct.*

Once, someone asked him a question and he asked us to go to his room so that he can show the relevant documents. When we went there, the first thing that caught my eye was a print of a painting by Modigliani. Perhaps this one. I exclaimed, “Ah! A Modigliani”. Wim beamed and asked me if I liked his works. Oh, yes!

He was, from then on, a friend of mine, in some ways. Whenever he met us, his pupils, as a group, he would wish us as a group and then nod at me separately!

Art Abroad III

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Print of the Print Gallery

In a room almost at the diagonally opposite corner of the building another “painting” had caught my attention. It is in fact a lithograph.The building indeed had a square plan. With a quadrangle in the middle. A corridor ran parallel to the sides of the square and had rooms on either side of it. All the rooms had windows either facing the quadrangle or the world outside. In this case it was a print. I wanted to go in and take a look but the room was empty whenever I passed by.
One afternoon I found one of the two people who shared the room in and sought his permission to walk in and look at the print. There were other interesting prints hanging on the wall but this one was special. I had a good look at it.
The occupant asked me why I was so interested. I told him that I was always interested in Escher's works and that this one was really special. He asked me why. I told him the story.
This was a print of Escher's work called the Print Gallery. Like most of Escher's works, this one too was art and mathematics and optical illusion all combined. It shows a man viewing a print hanging on the wall of the gallery. As you proceed, visually, along the path he is likely to follow, you can see other prints. As you do so, the inside of the gallery becomes the outside of the gallery and the outside in.
Since no such thing exists, and can ever exist, Escher must have painted it completely from imagination, seeing it through his mind’s eye. As the painting goes ahead it becomes so complicated that he did not know how to finish the painting! It stretched even his prodigious visualisation to its limits and beyond, because, he gave up. It was one of his unfinished works. And so it stayed.
Hendrik Lenstra, a professor of mathematics at the University of Leiden was travelling to the US. He holds a joint position in the University of Berkeley too. . He read about this work in an inflight magazine. He wondered if this problem could be reduced to a mathematical one, solve it using computers and finish the painting. Once he returned home, he gave this problem to a few of his colleagues doctoral students and that is exactly what one of them did!
I had read about this very recently and the colleague, who had read about it too, but in Nederlands, was happy that it was so well known! Later I had an opportunity to work with him and this incident, I felt, was one of the reasons that he was so friendly and helpful!