Safety Curtain, Beatriz Milhazes, Vienna State Opera
Speech by Bice Curiger, 21/10/2021
Ladies and Gentlemen, honoured guests,
I am delighted to present to you on behalf of the jury the new Safety Curtain designed by Beatriz Milhazes. The title of this work, as you have already heard, is “Pink Sunshine”, but personally I have also given it a secret subtitle. Taking my inspiration from the famous lied by Schubert, for me this curtain is an ode “To Music”.
Here in the opera house we gaze upon this monumental painting, enjoy the interplay of the colours, trace the rhythms of the shapes and colours through their seemingly easy and lively yet complex interplay as they merge and interlace with one another, take off and float freely... and all of this within the imposing confines of the opera house’s architecture. Suddenly we are struck by where we are and by how seldom we are able to succumb at leisure to such refined aesthetic surroundings.
As a painter, Milhazes has created a kind of visual music with her composition, simultaneously speaking to and activating both our rational minds and our emotions with suggestive efficacy. Broad and narrow stripes, circles, wavy lines and dancing quadrilaterals create a kind of joyful geometry, simultaneously invoking mathematics and the wind, the laws of physics, the landscape and plant-based organic and architectural elements in vibrant harmony: Pythagoras and natural philosophy.
At the same time, the effect of this painting is blatantly, yes, even boldly ornamental. Ornaments and ornamentation are phenomena that transcend cultures and bring the world together. As we know, the same motifs occur in completely different contexts and cultures, having either developed entirely independently of one another, or reappearing in ever-new contexts as the result of a deliberate act of influencing or adoption or through an osmotic exchange.
Ornaments embody the power of popular culture to connect people with one another. We are here in Vienna, and in this context it is not far-fetched to think of Adolf Loos, who railed against the empty ornament as “wasted labour”. But can expressions of joie de vivre really be measured in such terms?
Inspiration drifts into Beatriz Milhazes’ works from far afield, from Matisse to Mondrian, from the Jugendstil to Max Bill – arriving at the latter especially via the Brazilian neo-concrete movement of the 1950s and even further back to the Modernismo movement in Brazil after the First world War. The influences of high art repeatedly mingled with folk art and folklore, and the same is true of music. You only have to think of the Viennese accordion maker and inventor of the piano accordion Cyrill Demian and the unbelievable journey that his instrument has undertaken through extremely diverse countries and contexts, its transformative power acting as a catalyst between musical cultures – and much more besides! Drawing clear boundaries between genres is a futile exercise. Here, in the opera house, the fusion of music with the visual, in terms of scenery, and with dance is put into daily practice, one might even say exemplified.
And just as the composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, a compatriot of Milhazes, gives direct expression to his inspiration from Brazilian folklore in his work the “Bachianas Brasileiras” by combining folk melodies with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, isn't it perhaps possible to see an allusion to a Bach Fugue in Milhazes’ work? A combining of high and low, of church music and the carnival of Rio...? Nowadays we like to talk about the hybridisation of culture – but it is a good idea to remind ourselves once again that this is not a new invention, a fact which, however, in no way makes it any less relevant today.