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'Not Yet: On the Reinvention of Documentary and the Critique of Modernism' opens at the Museo Reina Sofia
Installation view.

MADRID.- Not Yet. On the Reinvention of Documentary and the Critique of Modernism sets out from the re-discovery of the Worker-photography movement of the 1920s and 1930, but within the social and intellectual context after 1968 and the new urban struggles.

The title is a double reference to Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula. At the end of her essay In, Around and Afterthoughs (1981), Rosler’s reference to the unfulfilled historical promise of documentary echoed the 1920s awareness of documentary as an art produced in parallel to social struggles. The incompleteness of documentary referred to the incompleteness of social justice, of a revolution not yet fully accomplished.

Allan Sekula’s programmatic essay Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (1978), can be seen as a generational statement for politicized artists who placed the reshaping of documentary at the centre of their activities. The reinvention of documentary formulated by Rosler, Sekula and others was parallel to a critique of postwar depoliticised and institutionalised photographic modernism. The defence of documentary was also of its epistemic and archival condition and its instrumentality in social struggles, opposed to an autonomous understanding of art practice. It was precisely this historical need to politicise representation that turned the 1930 Worker Photography Movement into a reference for the new struggles against the repression of the working class revolutionary memory in the official history of the upsurge of modernism.

The exhibition is organized in various specific historic-conceptual areas, with the aim of offering a complex understanding of historical temporality. Together with photography and its printed public forms – magazines, books, posters, ephemera – the exhibition includes film and video work. Both in the 1930s and in the 1970s documentary activity has been produced in the complex confluence of photography, film and video.

This exhibition offers an approach to the debates on documentary photography as a critique of modernism and its institutions. These debates proliferated globally in the 1970s and 1980s in a context of rapid structural transformation in photographic culture. Photography acquired a new prominence in the art market and in the burgeoning new cultural policies, as well as in higher education. A new network of photography institutions began to appear, coinciding with the collapse of the prolonged phase of stability and economic growth following the Second World War, for which the turning-point came with May 68 and the economic crisis beginning in 1972.

During the Cold War, documentary art, which first emerged around 1930, had been resignified in a liberal humanist mode. In the 1920s and 1930s documentary practices in film and photography had emerged in order to represent the new political centrality of the working classes in the era of mass democracy. The impulse towards revolutionary working class self-representation produced by the Worker-Photography Movement since 1926, was overshadowed by liberal documentary projects, such as the paradigmatic 1930s Roosevelt era Farm Security Administration survey in the United States, which offered a communal, pious and paternalistic representation of the dispossessed in the emerging welfare state. Building on this basis, a conciliatory photographic discourse of universal brotherhood flourished after the War, fostered by the State and by international organisations. The major exhibition The Family of Man, organised by the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1955, served to institutionalise such humanist documentary culture, blotting out the originary revolutionary ideological aspirations underlying the foundational experience of proletarian documentary.

Liberal humanism ceased to be the hegemonic documentary ethos in the 1970s, when a new generation of politicised artists came on the scene and revived the political origins of documentary practice, initiating its reinvention as a critique of the obsolete, faux-conciliatory forms of modernism inherited from the Cold War.

The exhibition
The first part of the exhibition presents some scenes of the new awareness of the memory of pre-war worker-photography, constitutive of a starting-point for the reinvention of documentary discourse and the links between avant-garde and social movements.

In 1973, in Hamburg, a group of politicised photographers, inspired by the discovery of pre-war German worker-photography, founded a new organisation and began to publish a magazine, Arbeiterfotografie. Within a few years worker-photography groups had sprung up in the main cities of West Germany, where, from 1977, they organised national congresses.

The work of the new German worker-photographers focused on representations of industrial labour, which, in the 1970s, inevitably looked somewhat anachronistic. They also promoted community participative campaigns in support of public services and city planning local causes: children’s playgrounds, green spaces or the preservation of industrial labour and working class culture and neighbourhoods. They encouraged the use of inexpensive, portable photographic panels suitable for installation in public spaces. Exhibitions were seen as spaces for agitation and civic debate.

The second wave of German worker-photography emerged in a context in which other photographic practices were contributing to a politicised reinvention of documentary. In 1976 the Volksfoto group launched a magazine of the same name which pioneered the study of amateur, private and non-conventional uses of photography. Dieter Hacker, a founding member of Volksfoto, had produced one of his first programmatic installations using anonymous photographs collected from rubbish bins, precisely under the slogan “all power to amateurs”.

The journal Ästhetik und Kommunikation (Aesthetics and Communication) was one of the main theoretical forums of the new materialist and socially-oriented theories on the uses of photography. The journal published a special issue on the historical German worker-photography movement precisely the same year the organisation and magazine Arbeiterfotografie (Worker-Photography) emerged in Hamburg. Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt’s critique of bourgeois public life and its contributions on a proletarian public sphere, in their book The Public Sphere and Experience (1972), formed part of the magazine’s intellectual climate. The artist and graphic designer Gunter Rambow, in turn, produced some of the most monumental examples of collaborative photographic practices with his participatory photographic actions, based on methods of self-representation of working-class neighbourhoods in public spaces through appropriation of advertising methods.

In 1967 a group of workers at the Rhodiaceta textile factory in Besançon (France) began making films about work in the factory on a self-taught basis, including first-hand accounts from the workers themselves. The Besançon factory, occupied as a protest over working hours, was one of the first settings for the May 68 series of protests in France. The idea of using cameras was the result of a meeting of the struggling workers with the filmmaker Chris Marker during the making of his film À bientôt, j’espère (Be Seeing You) (1967). When Marker’s film was shown in the factory it provoked a critical reaction over the distance between the filmmaker and the workers, and this prompted them to take up cameras for themselves. This led to the “Medvedkin groups”, so-called in reference to Alexander Medvedkin, whose work aimed to document and represent from the inside the process of worker self-awareness in the context of May 68. The groups were encouraged by Marker, who lent them one of his cameras, as well as his production facilities. Despite his collaboration, Marker remained in the background, not to say completely invisible, throughout the process. Another group, active during the same period from 1967 to 1971, was formed at the Peugeot factory in Sochaux.

The international reception of the German worker-photography experience began in Britain, in the circle of the artists Jo Spence and Terry Dennett. In 1975, a year after founding their Photography Workshop, the two of them took over running the Half Moon Gallery in London, a publicly-funded institution oriented towards community groups and social movements. At the gallery they started the journal Camerawork, one of the fundamental critical forums of the new politicised British documentary culture.

The Half Moon Gallery produced travelling exhibitions using idiosyncratic laminated panels, an inexpensive system that enabled informal presentations of photographic work to be held in social and community spaces of all kinds. Spence and Dennett produced several such series, which established a historical connection between their activity and the worker-photography of the thirties, particularly their series The Thirties and Today (1974) and The Workers’ Film and Photo League (1974). In 1979 they published the anthology Photography/Politics: One, with a section on worker-photography which constitutes the first contribution to the history of the movement to appear in English. In the same period they also brought out the broadsheet The Worker Photographer, which emulated the militant approach of the historical journal Der Arbeiter-Fotograf (1926–1932).

After the departure of Spence and Dennett from Half Moon and Camerawork in 1977, the journal and the gallery continued to be oriented towards what was then called “community photography”. The aim was to promote the use of photography in a range of social processes of experimentation and empowerment and to favour alternative public spaces over dominant artistic spaces. This was happening in a context of expansion in public policies of support for photography, soon to be cut short with the advent of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979. The journal and the gallery were the forum for documentary practices such as those of Nick Hedges and the Exit Photography Group, as well as for the activity of groups like the Docklands Community Poster Project, which took up John Heartfield’s tradition of political photomontage and inserted it into a new advertising idiom to promote a critique of the neoliberal, speculative shift in urban policies in 1980s London.

In 1968 Nick Hedges had begun working with the Shelter organisation for the homeless. His work involved extensively documenting impoverishment and slum housing in working-class areas of several British cities. His images of abject poverty carried powerful echoes of the documentary rhetoric of the 1930s.

In 1974 the artist Martha Rosler returned to New York after several years in San Diego, where she had been part of a small group of artists including Allan Sekula, Fred Lonidier and Phil (later Phel) Steinmetz. In New York she produced her series on the Bowery, and the following year Rosler and Sekula began to publish articles in the journal Artforum. The series of essays produced by Sekula and Rosler is arguably the central theoretical corpus of the debates on documentary photography that took place in the 1970s, culminating in Sekula’s Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (1978), along with Rosler’s In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography) (1981).

This reinvention of documentary proposed by Sekula can be read as a critical response to photographic modernism, in a double sense.

On the one hand, documentary reinstated photography’s condition of social practice. By defending the use-value of documentary, it called into question the place of photography in autonomous art institutions, particularly museums. This amounted to restoring the historical status of documentary as a minor, hybrid art form, whose archival and communicative rationale was in some sense anti-artistic, inseparable from political projects for social transformation. This tradition had been initiated by the pioneering surveys on the living conditions of the urban proletariat compiled by reformist social researchers and activists such as Lewis Hine at the turn of the twentieth century.

On the other hand, despite having adopted this reformist tradition of documentary, it was not simply a matter of repeating it and idealising it, but of critically re-reading it. The critique was directed towards the positivism implicit in the idea of documentary and the ethical and political problems it raised: based on a concept of justice rooted in liberal democracy, it found expression in a victimist, paternalistic mode of representation of the underprivileged and social minorities which masked its own conditions of production. In a sense, it reproduced the very inequalities it condemned. Against this, there was a need for a new type of documentary in which the relationship between the subject and the object of representation would be made explicit and renegotiated. This critical re-reading of documentary made it possible to recover sources of modernism that had been suppressed in the postwar years, particularly the materialist, productivist and factographic practices of the period between the wars, including the Worker-Photography Movement and its American offshoot, the Photo League.

The First and Third Worlds
The second part of the exhibition seeks to move beyond the geographical and cultural confines of Europe and North America and examine documentary practices produced outside or on the periphery of that area. In the 1970s the geopolitical differences between the centres and peripheries of the world system were articulated as an opposition between the First and the Third World, an imaginary shaped by the colonisation processes of the industrial era and the resulting conflicts of a decolonisation that was still underway and was strongly marked at that time by the Vietnam War. In the political debate of the 1960s and 1970s, Vietnam occupied the symbolic position of a revolutionary war of liberation that the Spanish Civil War had represented in the 1930s.

The filmmaker Joris Ivens had founded the Dutch worker-photographers’ organisation in Amsterdam in 1931. During the thirties he made several films that acquired an iconic status within the networks of the proletarian documentary movement, such as Misère au Borinage (1933), in the mining region on the border between France and Belgium, Komsomol (1932), in the Soviet iron and steel works complex at Magnitogorsk, and Tierra de España (The Spanish Earth) (1937), during the Spanish Civil War.

In 1967 Ivens travelled to Hanoi to make 17e parallèle. La guerre du peuple (17th Parallel: Vietnam in War), a documentary on everyday life in Vietnam at war. It was shot in the border region between North and South Vietnam, on the demarcation line of the 17th parallel. In this film, made during a two-month stay in a small rural settlement north of the line, subjected to constant bombing from US aircraft, Ivens showed the “people’s war”, the daily life of the working class in wartime, with its distinctive forms of resistance, its silent, tenacious struggle, its work routine upset by the war. The destruction wreaked by the bombing and the immediate, persistent reconstruction. He also showed the harshness of life in the darkness of the underground shelters.

The Black Panther Party, an organisation originally created for the self-defence of the Afro-American community in the United States, represented the rebellion of the poorest and most oppressed youths, the lowest paid workers, the unemployed and neighbourhood gangs. Racial oppression was identified with extreme forms of exploitation and social exclusion. The Party was inspired by Third World liberation struggles, understood as a guide to the revolution that was bound to occur at some point in the United States.

In 1968, the wife and husband team of photographers Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones, who were interested in the counterculture movements of the 1960s in California, produced an extensive reportage on the Black Panthers for the Young Museum in San Francisco. Their aim was to promote understanding of the movement and counteract its negative social perception, fostered by the media. Their series showed an intimacy with the Black Panthers, beyond the military and gang connotations of their uniform, strategically adopted by the Party to counter the victimisation of the community and promote empowerment though an attractive self-image. Baruch and Jones revealed the under-represented side of the Panthers’ activity, their soup kitchens and social welfare services, as well as how they were repressed and attacked.

In June 1976 the students of the black township of Soweto, in Johannesburg, took to the streets in a protest against the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. Following the Soweto uprising, the attention of international public opinion and its condemnation of apartheid gave rise to a proliferation of documentary practices labelled as “struggle photography” or “resistance documentary”.

The South African issue raised a dilemma between two possible positions that the photographer could adopt: either to subsume individual subjective practice and experience into the collective needs of the struggle, or else to maintain independence and critical distance towards the instrumentalisation of such practices and experiences. This debate was raised at the Gaborone Culture and Resistance Festival in Botswana in 1982, focusing on the meaning of artistic commitment and the role of cultural workers and their responsibility to promote democratic change in South Africa.

Out of the debate at the Gaborone Festival arose the photographers’ collective Afrapix. Its object, according to Paul Weinberg — one of its founding members, along with Omar Badsha — was to function as “an agency and a photographic archive and to stimulate documentary photography”. Afrapix was a multiracial group which modelled itself on the Magnum agency. Its first members, such as Cedric Nunn and Peter Mckenzie, as well as Badsha and Weinberg, were later joined by others such as Santu Mofokeng. Afrapix’s activity included collaborating with trade union collectives and organisations, with the radical press and with the cultural media involved in the struggle, such as the literary journal Staffrider, which also published photographic essays.

In this context the second “Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa” was conducted. It included an extensive photographic documentation project which led to the exhibition South Africa: the Cordoned Heart, with Badsha as editor and curator, which toured internationally from 1986. The photographic project originated from a seminar held in 1984, although it included images produced from the late seventies onwards. Some twenty photographers took part in the inquiry, including highly renowned artists — Goldblatt or Badsha himself — as well as others who were less well known.

The project carried powerful echoes of the 1930s’ humanism of the Farm Security Administration survey: the demand for political agency was articulated through an iconography of human dispossession and fragility. Nevertheless, the documentary work produced in South Africa differed from the humanist tradition in that it included an analytical approach which sought to interpret the structural causes of poverty and inequality and make them comprehensible. So The Cordoned Heart was organised in a series of chapters which traced a historical narrative from the effects of segregation, the illegal settlements, the forced displacements and the genesis of the initially individual process of resistance, which gradually turned into an organised movement.

In the early 1980s the photojournalism that most radically interiorised the new demands for self-critique was that of Susan Meiselas, a paradigmatic case of the politicisation of the professional practice of photojournalism which started with the coverage of the popular insurgency processes in Nicaragua and El Salvador between 1978 and 1983. Despite her status as a foreigner and the fact that she worked for the main international hegemonic media, Meiselas’s work was based on a certain affinity and militant support for the revolutionary movements. She introduced self-critique into her practice in two main ways. One involved using her position and prestige to favour the distribution of militant reportages by local photographers who would not otherwise have been able to attain international visibility; she temporarily became an editor and curator, as is reflected in her books on El Salvador and Chile. The other way was her idiosyncratic use of the exhibition as a space for bringing transparency to the production process of her book on Nicaragua.

When she showed her work on Nicaragua in the exhibition Mediations, presented at the Side Gallery in Newcastle and at Camerawork in London in 1982, she used a display system in which the wall was divided into three horizontal cork strips running round the perimeter of the gallery, each of which contained one specific type of representation of the revolutionary process. The central strip held images published in the book and provided a timeline of events. The upper strip displayed cuttings from magazines that had published some of the images and illustrated the type of representation of the revolution promoted by the hegemonic international press. By comparing these two lines the discourse of the media could be identified through the selection of some images and the exclusion of others. The bottom line presented some images that Meiselas had not included in the book, exploring other possible ways of representing the conflict.

New social movements, the new urban struggles
The third and final part of the exhibition presents some cases of convergence between documentary photographic activity and the rise of the new social movements, the new urban struggles.

One of the icons emblematic of the politicisation of photographic documentary that arose in the late 1960s was the imagery of mental institutions. In Italy in the early 1970s, the critic Ando Gilardi echoed a new state of opinion when he responded to Cornell Capa’s “concerned photography” by denouncing its “miserabilism” and the aesthetic and paternalistic exploitation of others’ suffering, which represented a continuation of the discourse of humanist photography. And although humanism persisted, it certainly did so by incorporating new discourses. For example, the exhibition and book Morire di classe, organised by Franco Basaglia, with photographs by Carla Cerati and Gianni Berengo Gardin, both from 1969, took up that humanist tradition, while at the same time eloquently employing new ways of thinking and democratising the institution, echoing the social demands that emerged in the 1960s.

The critique of the mental institution was also one of the most important projects promoted by the Centre Internacional de Fotografia in Barcelona, a failed institution of the Spanish political Transition, active between 1978 and 1983. The Centre defended the humanist tradition of documentary and developed projects on the city. One of these was the collective series on the Santa Creu Mental Institute, carried out in 1980.

In Barcelona, during the period of high immigration in the years of maximum industrial growth in the 1960s, a large metropolitan periphery of housing estates for the working classes had been developing. Those neighbourhoods had been growing in a context in which planning policies were deficient, or indeed non-existent. The long period in office of Mayor José María Porcioles during the dictatorship (1957–1973) was characterised precisely by chaotic, speculative growth which neglected the needs of the new rapidly expanding working-class neighbourhoods. In the early seventies the residents’ movement became one of the main unofficial forums of political debate at a local level, precisely through the struggles for facilities, public services and social integration. In the absence of political parties, the residents’ movements in the metropolitan area were among the few civic organisations that could operate politically in the context of the dictatorship. During the 1970s neighbourhood struggles found an important discursive space in local magazines, some of which attained a high level of quality and distribution. They included 4 Cantons, in the Poblenou neighbourhood, and especially Grama, in Santa Coloma de Gramanet, the most visually sophisticated example, in which journalists and photographers who would later go on to have important careers in the professional press participated.

The Centre Internacional de Fotografia in Barcelona was also a focus of social and urban documentary photography production during its brief lifetime, from 1978 to 1983. Its educational programme included urban landscape documentation projects which occasionally resulted in exhibitions. One of these was the extensive documentation of the shanty town of La Perona, predominantly inhabited by gypsies, which was carried out by Esteve Lucerón throughout the 1980s.

The Dutch Provos of the second half of the 1960s were a distinctive avant-garde counterculture movement of a political and anti-state character whose use of performative and carnivalesque methods to appropriate public space was very influential. Although the movement was formally disbanded in the 1970s, it survived in the subsequent experiences of the Dutch squatter movement, possibly one of the most extensive and deeply entrenched in Europe.

The most famous of the Dutch urban protests of the seventies was the occupation of the Nieuwmarkt in Amsterdam, in the historical centre of the city. Faced with a project to build a new metro station and turn the area into a new rail hub, a wide-ranging social and counterculture movement ensconsed itself in the square to defend the public space from being destroyed by speculation. The occupation became a focus of creative activity and even published a magazine. On 24 March 1975 the place was stormed and violently cleared by the police, putting an end to the social resistance and leading to a series of demolitions and the start of the urban renovation project.

The repression of the protest was thoroughly documented, giving rise to a photography book self-published by the Nieuwmarkt action group, in which numerous photographers involved in the movement participated, such as Koen Wessing and Pieter Boersma, among many others. The book was entitled Blauwe Maandag (Blue Monday), referring to the colour of the police uniforms) and the introduction explained: “Nieuwmarkt is not the only neighbourhood that has seen more cops than construction workers. Nieuwmarkt is not the only neighbourhood sacrificed to the implacable arguments of money, steel and cement. The resistance in Nieuwmarkt is a struggle against housing cuts, speculation in transport and forced evictions.”

In Europe in the 1970s it was in Italy that the most innovative and dynamic politicised alternative press emerged.But the factor that did most to create the dynamism of Italy in the seventies was the great expansion of left-wing extra-parliamentary movements arising out of May 68, leading to what is known as the Movement of 77. It was a time of radical political and social experimentation, developed roughly between 1973 and 1978, alongside the emergence of the Autonomia Operaia organisation, founded as a result of the Italian Communist Party’s break with the policy of “historical commitment”.

The so-called “creative wing” of the movement was led by the Proletarian Youth Circles of Bologna, Rome and Milan, which — through Anti-Oedipus, by the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari — revived counterculture experiences from avant-garde art movements, such as automatic writing, Mayakovsky, Situationism, Artaud and the satirical theatre of Dario Fo, punk and pop culture, comics and photomontage. The most radical poetic and communicative practices were those of a counter-informative kind, free radio stations, such as Radio Alice (famous for broadcasting police repression in real time), and some of the earliest uses of the new portable video technology in independent local television channels, the forerunners of the alternative community television stations of the late 1970s and 1980s.

The fanzine A/Traverso, published in Bologna between 1975 and 1977, was the paradigm for the use of play, appropriation and irony in the distinctive combination of politics and desire that arose within the 77 movement in Italy. The cultural magazine Re Nudo organised a well-known music festival every year in the Parco Lambro in Milan, whose happenings, full of naked young people, became one of the icons of the movement. The far-left press produced numerous high-quality illustrated daily and weekly publications, including Potere Operaio, Rosso and Lotta Continua, the movement’s main organ.

Among the photography books that best captured the dynamics of the movement were the two by Aldo Bonasia, Vivere a Milano (Living in Milan), from 1976, with text by Nanni Balestrini, containing fifteen images which were also published and distributed in the form of posters, and L’io in divisa, from 1978, whose title was an ironic allusion to R. D. Laing’s “divided self”, and Tano D’Amico’s self-published book É il 77, also from 1978. D’Amico was to become a sort of “official photographer” of the movement through his contributions to Lotta Continua.

Between 1987 and 1989 Martha Rosler coordinated a collaborative project in response to an invitation from the Dia Art Foundation in New York, which was seeking to explore modes of artistic production more wide-ranging and complex than those normally shown in museums and galleries. Rosler’s project, entitled If You Lived Here…, was a response to the housing crisis and the proliferation of homeless people in New York, one of the most visible social effects of the neoliberal shift in the urban economy during the 1980s. The project consisted of a series of public debates and a sequence of three exhibitions which addressed issues relating to housing, the community, poverty and urban planning.

What is shown in this room is a reproduction of part of the second of the three exhibitions in If you lived here…, entitled Homeless: The Street and Other Venues. The works exhibited are by a number of the artists who participated in the project, some produced in collaboration with homeless groups or in various situations of aesthetic intervention in social conflicts, sometimes in the educational sphere.

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