Artist Alex Kiessling: Vienna’s Own Mr. Roboto

As the reader may well be aware, in addition to my general interest in cultural matters I am also something of a nerd.  Okay, quite a large nerd.  So it should therefore come as no surprise that when I read about Austrian artist Alex Kiessling’s latest project, which involves creating art in tandem with using robots, I may have become more than a little excited.

Recently, while Hr. Kiessling was at work drawing large-scale works in Vienna, robotic arms were rigged up in London and Berlin.  You can watch a short ITN news report showing how it worked, by following this link; apparently it took six months to perfect the operation, using a combination of computers, infra-red technology, satellites, and human ingenuity.  In the end, it allowed people in other parts of the world to be able to see how the artist went about creating the drawings, as he himself was drawing them.

Obviously there are certain foreseeable limitations to this process. It would be difficult to imagine how this could be done using pastels, watercolors, or acrylics/oils, where brushstrokes are often combined with the use of fingers by the artist to smudge and blend colors, for example.  In theory however, I imagine it would be possible to use this method to paint works using more matte effects by employing a device such as an airbrush gun, for example.  After all, that is the method employed for many years now by automobile manufacturers to paint and finish their products.

One of the pleasures of drawing your attention to this project is the fact that Hr. Kiessling can actually…well, draw.  Good drawing is the basis for good painting, and as you can see in the photograph below, this is not someone who got through art school on the basis of artistic manifesto hyperbole alone.  Now, I understand that perhaps for some of my readers his art may not be to your liking, but I rather like the fact that I can perceive his interests in neo-realism, surrealism, pop art, photography, graphic design, and so on, coming through in his work.  Judge for yourself by visiting his site.

In addition, the example which Hr. Kiessling provides through this project is one which, in principle, hearkens back to the tradition of the atelier.  The great Old Master painters such as Raphael, Rubens,  Velázquez, and so on, were so popular and successful in their own lifetimes that they were overwhelmed with commissions.  They often employed large teams of assistants to not only help them complete the work they had contracted, but also to make copies of their existing works for other collectors.

A perfect example of this can be seen in a story I shared with you last year, about the copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” which is in the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid.  A recent cleaning revealed that the work was not a later copy, but was in fact created alongside the original, at the same time that Da Vinci himself was working on it, by one of Da Vinci’s assistants carefully observing and copying his master’s work.  If Da Vinci or his contemporaries had the technology available to them which Hr. Kiessling is working on, they would have been able to take on even more commissions, knowing that they would be able to easily produce contemporary, simultaneous copies of their work themselves.

This brings us to larger questions of course, which Hr. Kiessling is perhaps asking us to consider. What makes a work of art “original”, for example: is it the human touch, or is it something else? For example, is a Picasso ceramic not a Picasso because he himself did not fabricate it? Does that mean that a Rodin bronze is not a Rodin because he himself did not cast it? Is playing a Mozart symphony not really Mozart, but the performance of some sort of pastiche?  These are questions which you need to answer for yourself, as you consider the nature of the art that you see around you.

In the meantime, kudos to Hr. Kiessling for producing such a fun and interesting example of art using technology in a  truly creative way; I shall look forward to reading about what he comes up with next.


Artist Alex Kiessling (and robot assistant) at work

Creating a Habsburg Comic Book

The careful student of history knows that so much of what we think makes us unique or special in contemporary society has far more ancient origins than most of us realize.  For example, human beings love a good story, particularly one about heroic deeds.  People have been telling triumphal tales in many different ways for many centuries, and one such way is through the creation of images.  Now, a newly restored masterpiece from 16th-century Austria gives us a chance to think about how these earlier efforts had a surprising, perhaps unexpected impact on our culture today.

In the past, among the most effective methods of describing adventures and victories was by the use of the tableaux or processional image, featuring an unfolding narrative told through a series of figures and scenes.  Sometimes these efforts were truly massive in scale.  Trajan’s Column in Rome, for example, depicts victories of the Emperor Trajan and his processing armies in a carved scroll rising nearly 100 feet high, while the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy is a 230-foot long cloth depicting the Norman conquest of Britain.  Such was the case as well with the massive “Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I”, which has recently been restored and put on display at the Albertina Museum in Vienna.

Created for the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I between 1512-1519, the Triumphal Procession was originally more than 300 feet long, though today only a little more than half of it survives.  It is a series of hand-colored, woodblock prints on parchment, which depict a procession of people, events, and symbols associated with the reign of Maximilian.  The piece symbolized both the power of the crown and celebrated the triumphs of Maximilian’s momentous reign, but unfortunately the Emperor himself died before the project was fully completed.

The importance of Maximilian’s Triumphal Procession to our contemporary culture should not escape the reader’s notice, for in a sense it is both the first comic book, and possibly an early motion picture as well.  The piece  is composed of colored pictures which were bound together end to end, so that the story unfolds as one unrolls the parchments.  Scholars believe that, given its state of preservation, it may have been unrolled in sections, to be read and admired sequentially.  Interestingly, it may even have been attached to some sort of device which allowed it to turn onto a spool – which is the same basic, mechanical principle behind motion picture film projectors, for example.

Because these images were printed, rather than a one-off creation like a sculptural column or an embroidered tapestry, they could be re-produced again and again for as long as the original printing block lasted.  This is why several different printings of the Triumphal Procession are known to still exist, in portions, in other European museums.  Gradually, as printing technology improved and the cost of creating these images decreased, it became possible for a series of related images which tell a story to be created and bound together in sequence, and thereafter distributed relatively cheaply.  Eventually, this led to all sorts of developments, including picture books and illustrated how-to manuals.

Admittedly, I am compressing enormous amounts of time, but we can see how the idea of using multiple, cheaply produced images to tell a story eventually led to the creation of characters like Superman (let alone my experience attempting to adopt his persona/appearance), who have had a tremendous influence on our popular culture.  And with the creation of these popular figures, we later on get the work of artists fascinated by the stories told and the techniques used in the creation of these images, such as American Pop Art pioneer Roy Lichtenstein, and contemporary British portraitist and painter Julian Opie.  Meanwhile in a separate, parallel development, the idea of a connected strip of images eventually led to the creation of motion pictures, television, and the like.

As stated at the outset, often we do not take the time to appreciate how many contemporary things are conceptually very ancient.  Indeed, in one blog post I cannot touch on everything that led to that something which seems, at least at first glance, to be a modern idea.  Its antecedents can be spotted not just in this important piece of Western art, but also in the art of many other cultures, from Japanese paneled screens to Egyptian tomb paintings.

Yet this single object reminds us that simply because something does not, at first glance, seem very relevant to today, does not mean it should be ignored.  Take the time to be curious about the past, and ask yourself what such objects and concepts meant to people of their time.  By taking the time to learn and study, and to be curious about the world around you, the long-gone Emperor Maximilian’s efforts to memorialize himself may have more relevance to you today, than it did even to the contemporaries of his own time.

Detail from “The Triumphal Procession” by various artists (c. 1512-1519)
Albertina Museum, Vienna