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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY, at Palais de Tokyo

The refugee crisis seen through the lens of contemporary art has been a recurring source of debate in the past year. What can the art world could do to raise awareness around refugees’ travelling and living conditions? How can artistic engagement change our society’s relationship with migration? Where do we draw the line between awareness and emotional exploitation, education and pathos? Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Green Light’ participatory installation working with refugees at the Venice Biennale attracted both praise and doubts about the efficiency of such a manoeuver, at risk of instrumentalizing a crisis in spite of good intentions. Similarly, Ai Weiwei’s political artistic initiatives made headlines and provoked debate about the limits of art’s activist efficiency. These works revolving around visual impact and participation contrast with focused documentary work, such as Daniela Ortiz’s recent exhibition ABC of Racist Europe   at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. In a series of interviews with refugees and grassroots activists she explores the nature of migratory control systems and European states’ hypocrisy in waving a public “Refugees Welcome!” flag while secretly organising deportations.

Artistic reactions and involvement are therefore wide-ranging and diverse in nature. However, while there are no right or wrong ways of educating and raising awareness or support, there is a recurring sentiment artistic and charity organisations do not neccessarily have a shared network allowing for productive exchanges around the subject. This is why initiatives such as WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY are essential, providing a framework for collaboration between two systems sharing the same ideals with different tools at their disposal. The charity auction, precededed by an exhibition till the 21st at the Palais de Tokyo, will be organized by Christie’s at the Gallery Azzedine Alaïa. Its proceeds will benefit five NGOs working directly with refugees and migrants to advocate for their integration and rights. The initiative is led by Julie Boukobza, Chantal Crousel, Blanche de Lestrange, Niklas Svennung and Marine van Schoonbeek, in direct collaboration with the NGOs La Cimade, Migreurop, Centre Primo Levi, Thot and Anafé. Charity auctions benefiting refugees in Paris and throughout France have thankfully already existed – involving contemporary art but also photographs taken by refugees themselves, as well as the locks from the Pont des Arts. However this is first of its kind in Europe to involve an internationally recognised selection of contemporary artists with strong museum and gallery representation. 

The exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo showing the donated works of 26 contemporary artists should not be mistaken with an exhibition specifically about or illustrating the refugee crisis. While many of the works do reflect some of the artists’ concerns with political and migratory themes, others do not neccessarily draw an immediate comparison, nor are they required to. This is not a show in which the refugee crisis become the direct, quite literal subject of works so much as part of an underlying, broader theme. As Chantal Crousel indicated in her speech during the exhibition’s opening, the aim is to show how refugees’ situations reflected concerns artists harbour about identity in a context of displacement and doubt. In this particular context, this approach gives space for many of the works to reflect broader aesthetics and feelings around the theme of migration, identity and society.

24 HD Rirkrit Tiravanija
Rirkrit Tiravanija untitled 2017 (we dream under the same sky, new york times, january 26, 2017) 2017 Peinture à la main sur papier journal / Handpaint on news paper 228,6 x 185,4 cm / 89.7 x 72.8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled (we dream under the same sky, new york times, january 26, 2017) (2017) is a new work created for the exhibition which immediately responds to migration and xenophobia by directly painting his statement on the pages of the New York Times announcing Donald Trump’s devastating “Immigration Ban”. A comparison can be drawn with Wade Guyton’s work Untitled (2016), using screencaptures from the same newspaper to challenge the way in which migration is being represented by the media. Oscar Tuazon’s Reading bench 5 (wild ways/services for nomads) (2016) is a bench through which the pages of the magazine Vonulife by an Oregon collective in the 1970s can be read. Standing for VOLuntary Non vULnerable, the collective advocated freedom and nomadism in a refusal to interact with state structures. Its presence in the exhibition allows for the work to take on new meanings around nomadism, freedom and identity.

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Anri Sala Le jour de gloire 2017 Encre sur papier minéral, triptyque / Ink on stone paper, three parts Chacun : 40 x 29,7 cm / Each: 15 3/4 x 11 6/8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

A beautiful and sensitive triptych by Anri Sala explores his work practice working directly with refugees in relation to his exploration of sound. Le jour de gloire (2017) is the result of a three-day workshop with refugees in which each of them produced images, drawings and objects related to their experiences. The tonality and rythm of Le jour de gloire corresponds to the layout of the apples in the triptych while presumably challenging the integrity of French republican values facing the welcoming of refugees in terms of our hymn and, implicitely, the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité. This subtle approach relying on several layers of interpretation and viewing also applies to Adel Abdessemed’s Chicos (2015) for whom migration and violence are recurring themes. His use of porcelain to represent two smiling children refers to kitsch decoration and imagery, subverted here to refer to the plight of child soldiers and the loss of innocence.

11 HD Mona Hatoum
Mona Hatoum Afghan (red and orange) 2008 Laine / Wool
 107 x 180 cm / 42 1/8 x 70 7/8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris © photo : Florian Kleinefenn

Abraham Cruzvillegas’ new work specifically conceived for the sale, Self Constructed Upside Down Shelter (2017) associates his interest in the dynamics of craft and reclaimed materials with the theme of migration, with a copper-plated, reversed world map on which all borders have been erased. The world map reclaimed and reinterpreted outside of a Eurocentric or American world view is a common theme in Mona Hatoum’s work, while letting domectic and socio-political issues confront and collide as part her practice. Her work Afghan (red and orange) (2008) reprises this subject. The eroded shape of a world map on the traditional carpet reveals a view of the world based on the Projection of Peters,  rendering each country to scale and thus allowing for a more realistic representation of the African and Asian continents. Danh Vō ‘s work Promised Land (2017), created for the sale, relates to the themes of migration and cultural identity present in his work. His gilding of the lettering on a piece of cardboard seems to poke fun at the expectations and ideals we can ascribe to objects and the countries they are associated with. Its light-hearted but intimate message reflects Vō’s practice, which often resonates with his experiences as a Vietnamese-born Danish artist.

The abstract and multifaceted nature of the works does not soften the project into a feel-good, do-good initiative without any hard facts on migratory policy in sight. On the contrary, an integral part of the exhibition and week-long initiative leading up to the sale on the 27th is to raise awareness around each of the beneficiaries’ works by letting them have centre-stage. Every evening, free and open conferences take place in the exhibition space during which each NGO has room to launch conversations and debates about their activities and the condition of refugees in France. The fact that this is happening in Paris is all the more important. The refugee crisis here is not an abstract concern but a tangible and shameful reality in which individuals in seek of asylum or a better life are denied basic human rights and living conditions. Xenophobia and racism have not died down since Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential elections. “No room for homeless people, but at the same time centers for migrants continue to open,” declared journalist Jean-Pierre Pernaut earlier this month, on privatised and most widely watched French television channel TF1. This is only one example of the way in which the refugee crisis is either scapegoated or normalized. This was notably the case for a recent French maths textbook using the increasing arrival of refugees to teach children about percentages. (The manual has since been withdrawn to be reprinted).

Thus, the involvement of five NGOs with five different priorities is all the more essential, raising awareness about what needs to be done on so many levels and educating exhibition-goers about many unhealthy assumptions we may have internalized (such as picturing refugees as more worthy of being welcomed than migrants coming for economical purposes). Migreurop are a network of activists conducting research on the EU’s exclusion policies, raising awareness around detention and deporatation as well as the closure of borders. The Centre Primo Levi focuses upon refugees suffering from trauma related to torture and political violence, while Thot is a school for migrants and refugees, teaching French and facilitating their inclusion into society. While Anafé concentrates on human rights at borders and “waiting zones” with dire living conditions, La Cimade deals with asylum and integration rights. The focus on different needs for refugees and migrants alike is all the more important to give the visitor increased awareness of what needs to be acheived, beyond a blanket “refugees welcome!” statement. It is genuinely rare to leave an exhibition with so much activist information at your disposal. At the door as I arrived, peaceful protesters were holding placards with a familiar name – that of Cédric Herrou, condemned for his help towards refugees as a concerned French citizen. While grassroots activism and individual involvement are admittedly not a part of WE DREAM’s activist representation, it is difficult to leave the space without considering our individual responsability towards the people we welcome into our countries.

Art and activism must form more networks and initiatives to work together, to balance ideals with calls to action in spaces geared towards information and debate. This exhibition and its charity sale is important for a number of reasons, beyond the financial support and social awareness it will raise. It shows what can happen when artistic and charity networks merge to bring their individual expertise to the table for a dynamic and solidarous exchange. It would be sadly optimistic to think we’ll need less of these initiatives in the future. Nevertheless, these projects bring hope that the art world will know how to anticipate, mobilise and organise with increasing skill, passion and commitment to relieve further suffering and injustice.

WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY, at Palais de Tokyo till the 21st of September, charity benefit sale at Galerie Azzedine Alaïa on the 27th September

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Eli Lotar (1905-1969) at the Jeu de Paume

The first photographers of modern life did not only have an entire realm of subjects and spaces  at their fingertips waiting to be captured on film for the first time . In more ways than one their angles of vision created an entire new language in order to grasp, understand and reflect the world in a new medium. When this language is channelled with enduring sincerity and intensity, its message seems ageless. In a period of crisp smartphone snapshots capturing the energy of places and people, Eli Lotar’s analog black and white photographs from the 20s through to the 60s keep the same timeless power.

“Eli Lotar” might not be a household name in terms of modern photography on the same level as Man Ray or Henri Cartier-Bresson. However, the Romanian photographer’s importance and vision as one of the first photographers of the Parisian avant-garde cannot be doubted. His first retrospective in the 90s at the Centre Pompidou, two decades after his death, started a new reappraisal of his legacy. While the level of knowledge and expertise is apparent throughout the display, it operates extraordinary restraint and clarity, managing to operate an overview of Lotar’s work which is complex yet accessible through a hundred photographs from the Centre Pompidou’s archives as well as private and public collections worldwide. The co-curator of the exhibition, Damarice Amao, completed her thesis on Eli Lotar at université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), adding particular strength to the narrative of the exhibition in which different projects and pathways undertaken by the photographer intertwine without ever tripping us up as readers or visitors.

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Eli Lotar, Untitled, c. 1930-40, donation by M.Jean-Pierre Marchand 2009, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar

In a setting of greys and whites with space for the black and white works to breathe and for the visitor to wander, we encounter Lotar’s modernity for the first time through his photographic reports for different magazines since the 1920s. As a student of the photographer Germaine Krull, Lotar shares her avant-garde vision: one in which through the photographic lens, the photographer transforms the city into a living, active system of shapes and people.  The “New Vision” titling one of his photographic reportages is one in which the viewer redefines the world through his viewpoint. Nothing could be clearer through the creative angles and compositions Lotar creates, adding to written narratives and creating his own silent stories. This vision is steeped in everyday social life and the streets; despite a few  The most notorious series of magazine photographs is a report on the slaughterhouses of La Villette. More than any other imagery, it captures the eery in-between gaps between the realistic and the fantastical buried in the mundane. A picture of a young man staring down at a pile of entrails rubs shoulders with a series of cows’ legs lines against a wall. Surrealism and a certain strand of the supernatural is shown as a particular viewpoint, not only on a street corner but in relation to the world.

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Eli Lotar, Quinze-Vingt Hospital, 1928, purchased through the patronage of Yves Rocher, 2011. Ancient collection Christian Bouqueret, collection Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar
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Eli Lotar, At the Slaughterhouses of la Villette, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (c) Eli Lotar

It is rare to see an exhibition which manages to strike such a good balance between its contents and its design, making the discovery of Eli Lotar’s complex and consequent life work readily accessible to the visitor by breaking down different parts of his life and career expertly. There are many inconveniences that slightly pollute an exhibition’s enjoyment which, here, are solved with simplicity. The simple case of getting rid of archival casings to present facsimiles of magazine cuttings on the wall is perfectly adapted to the exhibition. Purists might not enjoy the fact that the original documents are not on display, but the clutter of documentation in cases which you crowd around and lean over awkwardly is avoided here, to go to the essential. In this context you actually have time to read the cuttings and understand the context in which Eli Lotar’s photojournalism operated. Similarly, the secion of the exhibition related to Eli Lotar’s documentary work is treated with skill, allowing for a cinema space in the midst of the display rather than a separate room, managing to srike a balance between the darkened cinema space with benches and time to reflect and the meanderings of the visitor.

The large screen displays his documentary on Aubervilliers in collaboration with Jacques Prévert in the 1940s; the shots and narrative manage to mingle lyricism with realism, popular songs about the children of Aubervilliers punctuating a scene in which they play and barthe alongside dead cats in the river and the ruins of working-class homes. On the side, a bench and headphones allow for a more intimate experience of Tierra sin pan, the documentary of the Hurdes region in Spain by Luis Buñuel in collaboration with the photographer. The shots were in black and white, but remembering them makes me feel as though they fully captured the sun-drenched colours and lights of the region. The extreme poverty of the people portrayed is emphatic and prompts for revolution rather than voyerism, as their stories mingle with legends and customs lost between pagan rituals and Christian values.

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Eli Lotar, Las Hurdes, c. 1935, donation of Anne-Marie and Jean-Pierre Marchand 1993, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar

The thematic choice of the exhibition as allows for a clear overview not only of Lotar’s versatility but also the way in which connections unfurl beween his different projects. These subjects and themes loosely flowing into each other show a problematic at the heart of Lotar’s work floating between documentary and poetry, the objective and the subjecive in order to eventually choose or compromise on neither. From surrealist photomontages, we then encounter his set collaborations with absurdist and satrical playwrights such as Alfred Jarry. A photojournalistic voyage to Greece shows his attention divided between the portrayal of the Greek landscape and its inhabitants and the representation of Cycladic statues. At the very end of the exhibition, we then encounter a particular sculpture staring back at us. Few exhibitions escaping traditional chronology would have chosen to end rather than begin with a spectacular bust of Eli Lotar by Giacometti, yet here it was by the exit, in a silent conversation with a strange self-portrait: a photograph of the bust by Lotar himself, somehow infusing it with his own presence and viewpoint. Lotar was Giacometti’s last male model, and in return Lotar would confer a particular vision upon the sculptor’s work, made visible in the exhibition through contact sheets exploring his workshop. The relation between the sculpture and the photograph taken of it merges with that of the sculptor and his model. The writer Giorgo Soavi described the complete immobility of Lotar, captured in sculpture:

“[Giacometti’s] gaze shone with a strange glimmer, his body vibrating from head to toe, only able to follow the impulses guiding his hands, his arms, his legs: he was in ecsasy. Observing closely the two faces, I understood the secret allowing Lotar not to breathe: Eli was the perfect model for this sculpture because Eli was dead. He did not breathe, he did not think, remained concentrated till the very end. An electric current linked the artist to the model, uniting them in true complicity. They played together, without a ball, or a racquet, or a net.”

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Eli Lotar, Giacometti, bust of Lotar, 1965, donation by Anne-Marie and Jean-Pierre Marchand 1993, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar
In many ways it takes this outsider’s insight on Eli Lotar himself to start to understand who he is as a person raher than a photographer. The particular aura around the bust itself is elusive, his gaze vulnerable yet mysterious. Like Lotar’s own work it promises the opportunity to look back again with a new insight and interpretation every time. The “New Vision” lives on.

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Alighiero Boetti at Tornabuoni Art Paris

You might be forgiven for considering that many commercial gallery spaces look the same, however the perfect antidote might be a venture down to Tornabuoni Art in Paris. Like many Parisian galleries, it has perfected the art of hiding itself in plan sight. This one in particular can be found in the Passage de Retz courtyard within the Marais district, a few steps away from the National Archives and the Centre Pompidou. A cobbled courtyard leads us to a series of compelling art spaces; in the case of Tornabuoni Art, entering the building cases the traditional vast white cube space of the gallery to unfold, with its own peculiarities nonetheless – a winding metal staircase, a glasshouse glimpse of the sky, and a small garden, oddly intimate in proportion to the momentous space. There, I discover and rediscover Alghiero Boetti, and the shifting, exacting, myriad aspects of his work. Tornabuoni has a 20-year relationship with the Italian artist and it clearly shows: this exhibition presents itself as one of the most impressive retrospectives put together by a commercial gallery, drawing upon a previous exhibition at Tornabuoni London, and building up to a major exhibition at the Fondazione Cini during the Venice Biennale.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Alighiero Boetti was an Italian conceptual artist whose legacy is complex and multifaceted. His initial allegiance was with the Arte Povera movement, a group which attempted to address and deconstruct the art world’s obsession with costly, inaccessible materials by relying on objects considered “poor” from a material viewpoint, or unconventional, with simple, everyday objects and concepts. It encompassed the idea that art was part of life and nature, intertwining into the everyday. This definition is most likely to change in relation to the major artists who became part of the movement, such as Jannis Kounellis, who passed away recently, or Giovanni Anselmo. Boetti started to delve into Arte Povera with a variety of “unconventional” industrial materials, while also focusing on creating monumental works on paper from the simplest materials. However, this part is not quite explored in the exhibition, privileging what Boetti did after distancing himself from the movement while keeping some of its key values and aims.  Mettere al mondo il mondo, 1972-73, a work using a blue ballpoint on paper laid onto canvas (below), creates a stunning example you get lost into within the display. What comes out of this is the sheer diligence and discipline in Boetti’s work, led by a concept which was then executed by others (in this case, friends and family), and rife with codes and puzzles centred around the alphabet.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

The fact that the exhibitions is classified by different works and mediums rather than a strict chronology allows for several small pocket displays to wander around before visiting the more monumental rooms. One of these includes a series of “Postal Works” (Lavoro postale (Permutazione), 1989, below) consisting of enveloppes with postage that Boetti has sent to various friends and family repetitively, with variations in writing that create a strange pattern as they are displayed side by side, creating art out of everyday habit and process.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

The most visually iconic example of Boetti’s works are his embroidered world maps, and this exhibition definitely does not disappoint. A vast selection of them are brought together, allowing for a contemplative insight into the way the maps reflect political change across the globe in a collaborative embroidery process, carried out of 500 Pakistan and Afghanistan artisans over a period of several decades from 1971 to 1994. Their lo-fi, artisanal quality emphasizes the “arte povera” ideas of simplicity that Boetti hung onto but also capture the human, intimate side of this mapping in the face of vast geopolitical changes beyond a single individual’s control.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Surprisingly, however, the maps are not neccessarily the main focus of the exhibition – or rather, their familiarity comes as a visual comfort or reminder, rather than a first shock-encounter. For me, this shock encounter occurs in front of Tutto 1992-94 (belowan immense embroidered, multicolour accumulation of shapes, objects merged into a dizzying tapestry.This effect is only strenthened by the light spilling in from the overhead windows, giving the impression the work is glowing from within.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Venturing upstairs in a spiral metal staircase, both oddly charming and out of place, pursues this encounter with a series of embroideries combining basics colours, letters or numbers to create a coded, crypic patchwork in which phrases and proverbs in Italian can sometimes be deciphered (Alighiero Boetti, Untitled, 1984 ca., marker pen on lithographic print, below). They draw the eye as beautiful material objects as well as conceptual objects of design used by Boetti in an attempt to classify and catalogue the world, an exploration of the gap existing between design and execution with its beautiful flaws, changes and perumutations. This exhibition allows for a quiet breathing space to come to terms with Boetti’s work and grasp its enduring significance. More than anything, it reminds us that outside of the often intimidating and confusing lingo surrounding conceptual art is a simple aim through simple means: to connect collective ideas and emotions like the many pieces of a patchwork embroidery.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Alighiero Boetti at Tornabuoni Art Paris, till the 8th of April

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton

The Louis Vuitton exhibition on the Shchukin collection reveals the ambiguity of art collecting in its form as well as its content, through its attempt to reconcile the personal quirks, contradictions and passions of a Russian collector with the immense role his collection came to adopt within modern art history. This rich textile merchant amassed an impressive collection of art for his Moscow palace between 1898 and 1914 at a moment during which collecting outside national, traditional painting was frowned upon in Russia. Considered scandalous at the time, Serguei Shchukin only fanned the flames by allowing young Russian artists to view this work and draw inspiration from it. The rest is art history: the exhibition’s aim is to not only show this fascinating, ground-breaking collection, but to portray it alongside the works of Malevich, Rodchenko, Tatlin and Popova. Just as Shchukin provided an exceptional opportunity for a glimpse of Western art introduced to Russia, the reverse dynamic is now taking place in Paris with a rare look at the contents of the Ermitage and Pushkin collections, amongst many others.

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Installation shot (c) Martin Bureau/AFP

The display starts off with a bang – a series of portraits and self-portraits, Derain’s Man with a Newspaper facing Cézanne’s Self-Portrait,  a gripping Van Gogh adjacent to Wan Krohn’s portrait of the collector himself, a celebrity art history who’s who enticing us foward.  In a darkened room, the commissioned art work “Shchukin, Matisse, dance and music”, by Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke is an immersive multimedia installation which imagines a conversation between the collector and Matisse, subverting the idea of an introductary documentary with a larger-than-life touch of kitsch, humour and energy. The history of his commission of the painting “The Dancers”, followed by “Music”, touchingly captures Shchukin’s own boldness, contradictions and earnestness as he commissions, relents, censors and finally goes through with his presentation of the work alongside the rest of his collection to a new generation of Russian artists. With theatrical kitsch and colour, the work comes to life, as does Shchukin’s whose actor transcribes his words with poignant emotion despite his stutter: “Art must be a psychological shock” – a “sharp blow”.

After this vibrant first encounter, the rest of the exhibition reads like a stroll through Shchukin’s mind to understand this emotional and spiritual shock to the system he descrives, as well as a lesson in influences and tributes in art history. From portraiture to landscape and still-life through to nudes, it’s impossible to predict Shchukin’s tastes, as they seem to vary wildly from the slightly boring pastel Maurice Denis paintings or Burne-Jones tapestries through to daring bursts of colour with Gauguin and Matisse. The exhibition masterfully weaves a journey from Impressionist landscape through to Fauvism and Cubism in order to explain how this diverse selection of works, from traditional choices to daring ones, inspiring a revolution within the Russian artists Shchukin invited to view his work. Their works appear, bold and bright, in the last rooms, their sharp abstract shapes reflected vividly in Daniel Buren’s multiclolour shapes on the Louis Vuitton Foundation by Frank Gehry. The avant-garde experiments in colour and form are a rush of blood to the head, increasing in intensity and pushing boundaries, creating silent conversations and interconnections across rooms.

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Installation shot (c) Martin Bureau / AFP

Despite the fact that it presented a huge selection of 160 works over 14 rooms, over three stories of exhibition space, the exhibition itself never has the length or exhausting effect that these blockbusters usually have on my feet and mind. The exhibition scenography is designed around the idea of an airy, temple-like space of suspended time, in glowing grey walls, subdued lighting and arched doorways. It regulates the flow of people and allow for a leisurely, contemplative pace, with room to sit and even stand next to a Picasso for awhile without having to shuffle to leave space for more people. The Matisse room is serene yet bubbling with energy, with enough space to stride, wander and dream amongst masterpieces.

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Matisse,  Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908, Hermitage Museum (c) Succession H. Matisse. Photo (c) St-Petersburg.

The selection of works is breathtaking in its sheer amoung and diversity, making a quick summary neither possible nor desirable. Amazingly, in spite of this, there are some gaps, some understandable and others more complex. It would have been optimistic to assemble more than 130 items from the initial 274 works that composed Shchukin’s collection, to recreate this initial “psychological shock” – even though we would have loved to see Matisse’s “Dance” and “Music”, their very rare removal from the Hermitage Museum is justified by the iconic status they have gained. It is impossible to recreate the astounding accumulation of works of Shchukin’s original palace in a single exhibition – for instance, the original “Gauguin” room also had a few Matisse works and the Edward Burne-Jones tapestry. This website in the link above is an impressive summary of the original display as well asa compilation of the entire collection in collaboration with FLV as well as museums and archives – sadly, only in French and Russian yet intuitive enough for a clear encounter of Shchukin’s curatorial decisions.

Sadly, this is a resource I find only later – and whose pedagogical clarity seems to be missing from text panels and resources. Amongst varied opinions on how to pronounce “Shchukin”, I also hear vague confused mutters about the wall text which is, sadly, not quite accessible to a non specialist audience. Unfortunately, this does not improve as the exhibition veers away from representations of lanscapes and picnics into Malevich’s black squares and Popov’s abstract shards. “What is pantocrator?” “What is iconostasis?” “What is suprematism”? “What is postcubist ambiguity?” As an art historian, I spend my time explaining (and looking up “pantocrator”, because I’m not a latinist). I can feel that some of this lingo is muddying people’s instinctive, empassioned response to the artworks…and worse, intimidating. The panels read like a exhibition catalogue extract, with a very academic tone which could be easily amended by a glossary and a few explanations. These terms are not easy to understand for people with some understanding of modern art, let alone novices…and this is a recurring complaint when I visit French exhibitions with friends and family alike.  French museums are not yet on par with the level of attention given to learning and interpretation in the UK or the US. At least, these texts are all assembled within a beautiful booklet that can be brought home and deciphered – often useful when you want to focus on the works first and the explanations later. The audioguide file is also freely downloadable and accessible on the Louis Vuitton Foundation app, a refreshing change from the traditional clunky and expensive devices. The amount of videos and presentations by the curator Anne Baldessari on the website, as well as a free symposium on the exhibition were also welcome additions that perhaps needed to be exploited more in the display itself.

Another lingering feeling is that we never quite get to glimpse the person behind the legendary collection, or capture his personal rather than artistic intentions between his works and the theatrical portrayal in Greenaway’s commission. The eccentricity and contradictions become muted by concerns about intentions feeding into a clear pattern and design. It’s hard to work out to what extent he is truly a “collector-hero” and “collector-experimenter” (in the Russian critic Alenxander Benois’ words) who devised a very precise fresco of modern art, or the extent to which he was an eccentric and empassioned amateur who sometimes went all out and sometimes played it safe, following his own heart and instincts. Perhaps this is only a feeling we can grasp wordlessly through his paintings, with the rush of adrenalin at the glimpse of a Cézanne or a Picasso followed by quieter pauses facing a Monet or a Courbet. Audiences’ reactions and preference vary and diverge amongst themselves, creating a mix and match effect where some visitors will glance over some artists and spend ages in front of others. Ultimately, despite some questions left unanswered and some answers perhaps made too complex, the initial rush of excitement and passion constantly beats below the surface. As I hear mutters of delight and scorn amongst the audience, I believe the “blow” Shuchkin described still resonates, challenging contemporary artists and collectors to remain unpredictable, daring and provocative in spite of the status quo.

“Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection” is on display at Fondation Louis Vuitton till the 5th of March

The Shchukin Collection website

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Picasso/Giacometti at Musée Picasso

Two stern avant-garde gazes in black and white overlook the stubborn queue forming outside the Musée Picasso in Paris on a cold autumn morning. In the newly refurbished Musée Picasso, which opened once more to the public a few years ago, the new permanent collection alone is usually sufficient to draw loyal crows. Add the name of the Swiss modern artist Giacometti and curiosity mingles with excitement outside. How do you compare and contrast the works of two masters of modern art? How did their paths crossed? How do their works speak to one another?

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Giacometti, Man (Apollo), 1929 and Picasso, Figure, 1928

How? Beautifully so. The selection of works is absolutely breathtaking, as are the dialogues between Giacometti on one side and Picasso on the other, an effortless relation of form and facets which does make me wonder: why did no-one show their works together before? The missed opportunities are vastly made up for here, in the endlessly surprising hôtel particulier housing the Musée Picasso. There is something about the way in which this space mingles both stateliness and luminosity that makes it just right for the Picasso works, and enshrines the Giacometti works beautifully. The juxtapositions are stunningly crafted, as the eye slides effortlessly from form to form, from curve to sharp angle. Whoever conceived the display has a strong and intent eye for the silent correspondences between objects that bring them to life in a new way, without being heavy-handed or hasty. Most importantly, this is an exhibition with enough space to sit, wander, think and stroll. The main reason for this is that every temporary exhibition occupies the space of most of the permanent collections, save a few floors, an important point in terms of flow and time. Popular exhibitions can often become a tiring and back-aching business of shuffling and queueing to see a work stuck in a corner within a jam-packed room, which was far from being the case here.

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Giacometti, l’homme qui marche II, 1960 and Picasso, The Shadow, 1953

However, the beauty of the works could not always make up for the themes they were organized within. I felt as though some topics, such as “death”, “love” or “women”, made a good job in distinguishing particular interests within avant-garde scenes at the time, but little to focus specifically on topics directly relevant to both Picasso and Giacometti, like two fascinating people brought together under vague premises but nevertheless creating a beautiful conversation out of the situation. Then again, the tone is universal, and does not force itself to peer too deeply into the content in order to let the form breathe. The nudes and skulls feel like a surface concern for the deep concern about the human form, personhood, identity.

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Giacometti, Femme qui marche I, 1930 – Picasso, Nude in red armchair, 1929

As much as I loved the stunning formal juxtapositions between Picasso and Giacometti, I felt as though something was lacking: their viewpoint on each other, and historical proof of what sounded like mutual influence and conversation. I would have preferred more substance and less style, in the most literal way possible, or perhaps simply a more subtle balance between the two.The beginning of the exhibition thoughtfully ponder upon the fact that their work has never been curated specifically together yet avoid historical reasoning or sources. I therefore spent most of the display confused about whether or not Giacometti and Picasso ever crossed paths, or if this is a beautiful and creative reinterpretation of a fictional relation.  Both cases are just as interesting and valid in my opinion, but the vagueness is not, and it does feel a little strange that it is only revealed towards the end of the exhibition that they did, indeed, cross paths in 1930s Paris, often meeting at one of these mythical little cafés where artists remade art history in their image, one drink at a time.

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An enthusiastic and friendly guide is leading a class visit, with completely absorbed children who are eagerly participating; the discussion is about value judgement, realism and beauty in art and how Picasso and Giacometti aimed to change the “traditional” viewpoint at the time. They make the full creative impact of their juxtaposition come to life, showcasing the works as relevant keys towards understanding how artists departed from established, surface-deep notions of “realism”, and why. It suddenly becomes obvious that beyond the duel between the two artists and beyond the art historical sources, this is what truly matters: two paths intertwining, often crossing yet never clashing, searching for a new means of expressing reality, ugliness, beauty and the sublime.

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Categories
Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Persona at the Musée du Quai Branly

This is a fair warning and confession: I am not the bravest person as far as the “horror” genre or at the very least the uncanny is concerned. The latest embarrassing example dates from just this Halloween when I finally decided that one of the oldest horror films of all time, Nosferatu by Fritz Lang, could hardly faze me as much as, say, the trailer for The Woman in Black. I subsequently slept fitfully without being able to get the 1920s vampiric visuals out of my mind.

All the same, despite my much-mocked inability to sit through The Exorcist, I am convinced that the exhibition Persona at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris has been one of the most disturbing exhibition experiences of the year, with a creeping sense of unease which could be felt within visitors all around. The fact that the range of the unsettling varied from a computer programme to a ouija board as well as a 19th century wax anatomic model followed by a robotic gesticulating statue of a Buddha also makes it one of the best interdisciplinary exhibitions I have seen this year. Its blend of anthropological artifacts, historic and contemporary art, popular culture and historical documents make it a stunning and bizarre exploration into what makes us animate entities and most important, how this status can encompass a variety of other objects, such as machines, objects of devotion and artworks.

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The exhibition requires an attentive ear and at the very least an open-minded spirit, since from the onset it pulls us into strange new territories about personhood and presence, starting with hallucinations and invisibility, macrocosms and microcosms. What does it mean to exist? Can people exist while being minuscule or invisible? The selection becomes slightly odd at times, with for instance the juxtaposition of a video of a “flea circus” next to a NASA video of infinite space. However, the exhibition never forgets its roots at the centre of the permanent display of the Quai Branly, letting the artifacts from African, Asian, Latin American and Oceanian countries and cultures speak most eloquently about the fragile line between inanimate objects and receptacles for spirits and souls. Most importantly, these objects and their relation to presence, hallucinations, spirits and the relation to the animate is never condescending or a prop for a point. Roseline de Thélin’s Man Homo Luminoso (2015) made of optic fibers, above, talks to Ernst’s the temptations of Saint-Anthony, a BBC documentary on hallucinations following sensory deprivation, and an Oceanian mask.

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© musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, photo Gautier Deblonde

The exhibition manages to skillfully tie in our fascination with spiritualism and detecting the invisible presences around us with the fascination in creating or imagining this artificial presence through robots both fictional and imaginary. A display of Edison’s documents on a machine capturing the frequencies of ghosts leads to a showcase of chilling ghost-hunting equipment (including a medium hand with a broken index found next to the body of the medium show-runner ‘s husband and a revolver), and Artaud’s “Radio Momo” – a contraption by Jean-Jacques Lebel involving a real skull, a radio and antennaes to capture the dead playwright’s presence. HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey sings in a screening in the background while we interact with ELIZA, one of the first artificial intelligence program from the 60s. By this stage, it is sufficient to say that everyone is understandably spooked, but the exhibition decides to take it up a notch with the uncanny valley corridor, a true horror-trove exploring how and why we express disgust and fear when an inanimate object resembles an animate body too much, but without the spark and soul of life, including robots, sugar skulls and theatre puppets. Moving onto the sole question of robots veers into bizarre, amusing and often oddly sexual territory concerning attraction, companionship and increasingly hybrid organisms.

If the exhibition would have a main advantage and drawback, is that it addressed such a vast range of subjects and concepts that I immediately wanted to write down everything and read anything on the subject as soon as I left. However it also means it was quite wordy and also had the ambition of sifting through millenia of anthropology, art and history around personhood and artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, this exhibition is haunting in more ways than one: much the content it addresses is intentionally conceived to disturb and subvert our traditional concepts of personhood and asks open-ended question which we may only be able to answer in a century, with nothing to calm the existential dread about a robot takeover in the meantime. However, asking these questions forces us to shine a light upon our perception of what it means to be a person, altering our vision of the world and placing us in a strange space between the supernatural and the factual, wonder and understanding. Beyond the spiritualism and science-fiction undertones, we are face to face with our own limitations and potential as living, thinking, feeling entities. And I’m left with a few Pink Floyd lyrics:

Hello,
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?

Persona is at the Musée Quai Branly till the 13th of November

Categories
Exhibition review Paris Uncategorized

Seydou Keïta at the Grand Palais

“You look beautiful like that.”

The sentence that accompanies the visitor through a richly patterned door into the Seydou Keïta exhibition was the Malian photographer’s proclaimed tagline, one he perhaps repeated to countless subjects that posed for him from the 1940s onwards in his studio in Bamako, in the space of a few decades in which his work extended to neighboring countries and achieved worldwide recognition. Many photographers distinguish themselves through the diversity or eclecticism of their subject-matter, from portraiture to genre and landscape; Keïta was not one of them, focusing solely on portrait photography of a seemingly formal nature. Yet, it is through this uniformity and simplicity that Keïta acheived some of the most complex, sensitive and multi-layered portraits of the 20th century. The formal premise is that of his photography business: subjects drop in to have their photograph taken either within his studio or outside, due to his constant preference for natural light. The backdrops are usually  patterned cloths, changing over the years, which become Keïta’s only means of placing a date on them. Entering the exhibition space is to enter an airy, vast space of soft pinks, whites and reds which delicately complement the black and white pictures, blown up almost life-sized, as though to transport us back to the precise moment in which Keïta achieved his perfect vision for the shot. Notoriously meticulous about poses and gestures, the results he achieves are not spontaneous or candid yet they capture the subject with startling intimacy and sincerity.

Vue de l'exposition (4)Scénographie Gare du Nord architecture © Rmn-Grand Palais / Photo Didier Plowy, Paris, 2016

The effect is both striking and contemplative, in rooms that allow enough space for the photographs to breathe, but also convey enough intimacy for these anonymous faces to speak out to us. Anonymous, because Keïta’s way of working (footage shows people queuing up to be photographed one after the other) does not leave room for official records and names. We are left to guess thoughts and relations from one subject to another. As fashions change and intermingle, between Malian fashion and European suits and skirts, a portrait of a country in the midst of change and shifting identity, between images of tradition and modernity, is etched but never quite grasped. At the time, Bamako was still the capital of French Sudan; the year 1962 marking the independence of the Sudanese republic marked the closing of Keïta’s studio, as he was asked to become the first official photographer of the Republic of Mali.

72 DPI-2. Sans titre, 1949 51Untitled, 1949-51, Genève, Contemporary African Art Collection © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo courtesy CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Genève

Moving through the space, the sense of continuity and familiarity between different photos is through not only textile backdrops, but another theatre-like feature: props. Sunglasses, handbags and even an elegant white Vespa pop up in different pictures, as ways for subjects to play creatively with the composition, and also, significantly, the way in which they wanted to be seen and represented. Keïta’s portraits are sincerely realist, yet they also belong to the realm of fantasy and aspirations, on the public status level of a busy neighborhood of Bamako where photographs were usually taken in front of a noisy crowd of peers, and on a deeply personal level.

72 DPI-9. Sans titre, 1952-55Untitled, 1953, Genève, Contemporary African Art Collection © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo courtesy CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Genève

The final room of the exhibition brings us back to the small-scale level of the photographs that would have been taken home by subjects; since Keïta did not keep his own copies of the photographs, most of them were found abandoned or forgotten by clients of the framer’s shop, who also took care of colouring certain accessories. The contrast with the impeccable large-scale portraits is stark; many of them are torn, yellowed or stained. Yet, a deeper sense is given of them as artifacts and keepsakes, fragments of family memories and personalities. They mingle with the confident and light-hearted words of Keïta himself, through footage of his work and interviews that draw smiles and laughs from visitors. The photographer’s pride in his work and confidence in its perfect execution is communicated through his warmth and charisma. One of the quotes peppered throughout the exhibition states proudly and poignantly:  “You can’t imagine what it was like for me the first time I saw prints of my negatives in large-scale, no spots, clean and perfect. I knew then that my work was really, really good. The people in my photos look so alive, almost as if they were standing in front of me.” This heartfelt exhibition left me with no reason to disagree with him.

72 DPI-16.jpgUntitled, no date, collection André Magnin, Paris © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo François Doury

 

 

 

Categories
Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Misery and Splendour: Images of prostitution 1850-1910 at the Musée d’Orsay

Opening Misery and Splendour: Images of prostition, 1850-1910 not so long after a large exhibition on the artistic influence of the Marquis de Sade could inspire accusations of the Musée d’Orsay creating provocating subject-matter to draw in the crowds. Yet this seems hasty: I’m actually surprised such a display was not shown sooner. Indeed, the theme runs through much of 19th century and 20th century art, and was an enduring subject of fascination and creativity for artists that could hardly be ignored. This display’s aim was, to cast a light not only upon the artistic figure of the turn-of-the century prostitute but also hopefully who she truly was in all her different incarnations behind the stereotypical froufrous and cabaret imagery usually associated in some tourists’ minds to Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge, a kind of sexy-whimsy image of Paris as a city of pleasures with all the seedy bits cut out. My great concern was this: was the exhibition going to go in that glossy direction or truly veer into more in-depth social analysis? The result was an experimental, sometimes irregular but ultimately efficient mingling of both.

The display starts with prostitution within the street and as an activity which was more or less ambiguously associated with certain professions in which women not making enough money had to illegally provide for themselves on the side (This is, for instance, what Fantine was accused of in Les Misérables.). The vision of the woman both visually alluring and bleakly resolute mingles with a city transforming, creating new experimentation in lighting and colour. The tone is sometimes melancholic, sometimes bawdy and tongue-in-cheek like just another manifestation of the Parisian nightlife with its iconic cabarets: suggestive but not too vulgar, racy but not explicit. The safe, flirty nature of these depictions were already stirring some concerns in me about how serious this exhibition would actually be on the subject, or remain in the realm of pure fantasy. However, the suggestive waiting at street corners and flirting in bars is already confronted by different kinds of images: the danger confronting the woman selling herself on the street to anyone without protection of safety, in Béraud’s L’Attente. When the scene shifts to opera and ballet the mood darkens surprisingly. Once you notice in Degas’ pastel the man looming in the background behind the graceful ballerina, her regular client and “patron” (the only way these impoverished young  girls could ever have a future in dancing), the context changes drastically, mingling the aesthetic with jarring allusions.

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Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Ballet (L’Étoile), vers 4876 Pastel, 58,4 x 42 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice S
chmidt

 

The exhibition moves on to the world of Second Empire prostitution that we know probably best through Toulouse-Lautrec’s pastels: the brothels themselves and the women who lived and worked there. And as expected, a immense, comprehensive collection of them are assembled, showing the every-day life and inner workings of the trade, either “behind the scenes” or while encountering their clients. These works are detached yet sensitive, vivid accounts that do not only document but allow to capture the lives and personalities of the women, rather than reducing them to simple models. They provide a good counterpart to Constantin Guys’ depictions, which are more like little genre scenes or narrative illustrations in their own right. The romanticization of earlier rooms is gone in favour of observation and documentation with a distinct sense of emphathy.
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Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), Dans le lit, 1892, Huile sur carton marouflé sur bois parqueté, 53,5 x 70 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandow
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With these images, historical artefacts are also shown now for the first time, ranging from buisness cards to small whips or hygienic tools, adding an element of reality and of the prosaic. Another element is introduced as a literal side room, forbidden to people under 18 (superfluous in an exhibition about prostitution…?). We usually know of early photography as awkward portraiture or daring experiments but it seemed inevitable that it would provide the opportunity for the first clandestine pornographic albums. Some of these are presented in little peepholes in order to further accentuate the sense of voyeurism.  The erotic, slightly cheesecake pinup photography (at least by today’s standards) is followed by darker material, or at the very least a lot more intentionally bleak than what we have seen so far, where artists seem interested in the prostitute’s daily life and her role amongst a society where people of all social classes use their services.

The next rooms show the way in which legal prostitutes in brothels, registered with the police and made to undertake regular medical examination, were tolerated as a “neccessary evil” to a growing male population. But they have their counterparts: the “non-submissive girls” as they were called by the police, operating illegally and living in constant danger of the police raids that could have them arrested and detained, as well as abuse. There are arresting sketches and paintings of these instances, as well as historical documentation, even popular songs reminiscing on these events and the dangers of venereal disease. It is another chilling reminder that sex workers’ protection and health only really appear to matter as long as their clients cannot be affected by it. It’s also interesting to note that there is a mention of the feminist movement’s pledge and success in the abolition of brothels in 1946, but not focused on the rights of sex workers themselves (which is still, incidentally, a very contemporary issue). The corner devoted to historical documentation of these matters is large but not reinforced by a great amount of painting: it is not quite clear whether or not there was a lack of artists willing to depict such uncomfortable scenes or to which extent the theme was meant to be short in order to spare the visitor.

The subject then veers to the luxurious and the aristocratic with another aspect of prostitution in danger of feeling quite romanticized: the demi-mondaines, seducing and living off rich and powerful men, starting out as actresses and singers and achieving a certain celebrity status. The paintings are decorations and commissioned portraits for these women, sculptures such as the one of “La Belle Otéro” or once again romanticized portrayals of a life of vice and luxury. These are followed by various iconic paintings around the same theme, including Manet’s Olympia, one of the only paintings whose stark realism seems to strip away the lustre of the courtesan, that appears for instance as some kind of Greek goddess in ‘Rolla’.

20. Gervex_Rolla

Henri Gervex (1852-1929), Rolla, 1878, oil on canvas, 175 x 220 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, dépôt du musée d’Orsay © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice S
chmidt

We then discover imagined depictions of the prostitute this time as an allegorical figure in fantastical scenes, ironically seem often closer to showing all her nuances. Munch’s Alley in which a young naked figure is surrounded by menacing, suit-bearing men, shows once more the menace and horror of prostitution, of a woman given no choice in a world of men. It was interesting to see that most of these depictions focused on the prostitute’s role as one that encapsulated the evil in her potential clients, rather than condemning her own depravity. Béraud adds a contemporary twist to the biblical scene in which the prostitute Marie-Madeleine cries and washes Christ’s feet, as he condemns the men around her who seem to condemn her but would hypocritically be the first to visit her in a brothel.

26. B+®raud_La Madeleine chez le Pharisien

Jean Béraud (1849-1935) La Madeleine chez le Pharisien, 1891, oil on canvas, 95,5 x 127 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandow
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The final room ends with the depiction of the prostitute in modernism, the advent of new techniques and ways of seeing, in a vast room mingling different genres and visions – perhaps too much so, from André Derain to de Vlaminck, Munch and Picasso. They depict the way in which the world was turned over its head, vibrant and violent, but also quite distinctly the way in which the prostitute became not a subject of genre scenes or moralizing pictures, but a model in her own right. The fact that this was a large room at the end of a very, very large exhibition, sadly, does not do justice to the works that it exhibits. I think it is quite telling that I did have to go two times in order to take everything in, which not everyone has the time to do!

The scenography was elaborated by Robert Carsen, who usually belongs to the world of theater sets. The decision for this decidedly dramatic backdrop is slightly unnerving: it starts with warm tones dealing with the street life of prostitution, then deep red and a plush, boudoir feel accompany the next rooms concerning brothel scenes. It conveys effectively the message of performance and showmanship behind the first portrayals of prostitution in all its forms but its attempt to “recreate” the atmosphere of a brothel’s lounge undermined the sense of intimacy of Toulouse-Laurec’s depictions in the same room. When the display then adopts darker tones for the visually uglier undertones of the trade, such as the room on raids by the police and disease it seems suited and then veers between dark red and grey for the dark romantic visions of the time. It then finished with a vivid, violent red in the final room devoted to avant-garde visions of the prostitutes. There is something to be said about imitating without reconstructing that atmosphere but it sometimes distracted from the works themselves and the nuance within them.

This is a necessary and fantastically diverse exhibition in terms of imagery and subject-matter and if I returned a second time, it was also in order to focus more closely on certain fascinating aspects. I felt, however, that the exhibition would have been complex and would have done the sum of its parts so much more justice in terms of balance, had it focused a bit more on the misery in comparison to the splendour, with maybe more social history and context. I did not only want to know how these women were depicted, I wanted  to know who they were, and more about their work conditions and rights. There are also a few gaps in my opinion, concerning a viewpoint from either side that is not purely heterosexual (what about all these fellow prostitutes dancing and sleeping together in Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings? And what about homosexual clients? Were they able to go to dedicated brothels? Were there any covert, clandestine depictions or traces of male prostitutes?).

However, I believe it still succeeded in crystallizing these issues in ways that delved into many different facets, both aesthetic and social, but never with a sense of gratuitous voyeurism or polemic. If some visitors maybe came to ogle in the first place, they perhaps left with more sobering thoughts than they were expecting, and any sense of drawing in through provocation was justified in my eyes if it allowed to explore such a subject without titillation or judgement. An entire cycle of performances, conferences and screenings around the subject of prostitution was also put on by the museum, allowing to round off issues that could not be explored in the display. When I next visit the Musée d’Orsay and any museum of 19th century art, I will spare a thought not only for the nuanced image of the prostitute but also of all the real prostitutes of the Second Empire who fascinated society but were hypocritically condemned by it, whose life was carefully either observed or romanticized by artists and whose legacy prevails today in our collective imagination.

 

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Beauté Congo Kitoko at Fondation Cartier

If I had to be quizzed about artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo a few months ago, I would have to admit that I would not have been able to list many off the top of my head. On a wider level, the lack of exposure of arists from the African continent in terms of international exhibitions and collection displays is an issue that must be acknowledged and confronted. Nevertheless the tide is changing in the art market, with a significant amount of African art fairs and opportunities for artists from Africa emerging which still need to make their way to museums and exhibition spaces. This is precisely Fondation Cartier’s aim with Beauté Congo Kitoko, the first and long-overdue presentation of a selection of Congolese art from 1926 to 2015.

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Chéri Samba, La vraie carte du monde, 2011, acrylic and glitter on canvas, collection of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, photo (c) Florian Kleinefen, (c) Chéri Samba

The display starts at the ground level of the Fondation Cartier, with its luminous glass walls allowing full appreciation of some of the iconic painters of Congolese art from the 90s onwards, such as Chéri Samba, the leader in popular painting and the first to incorporate text in his works as well as his own image, like a succession of surrealist and omnipresent self-portraits. This smooth, realistic and colourful paintings are comments on society and politics, somewhere between a mural and a comic – appropriate for the traditional custom in Kinasha to display paintings outside the artist’s studio, open to the street. Cheik Ledy addresses the issues behind immigration, malaria and contemporary art, while Pierre Bodo uses a fantastical, festive style to describe “La Sape”, the iconic and showy fashion of the young Congolese scene. Meanwhile, Chérin Chérin calls out political corruption and Monsengo Shula imagines an utopian space. Political opinions and severe criticism on a country recovering from its colonial past seems to go hand in hand with bright colours and an optimistic vision of the future…however it is a brightness that does not sugarcoat the issues at hand, instead portraying the hopes and aspirations of a country with the complexity and ambiguity they deserve.

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Monsengo Shula, Ata Ndele Mokili Ekobaluka (tôt ou tard le monde changera), 2014, acrylic and glitter on canvas, Private collection, (c) Monsengo Shula, photo (c) Florian Kleinefen

The liveliness of the works is all the more striking since they are not accompanied by quiet contemplation. Indeed, this exhibition ‘s main strength and particularity was the incorporation within its display of something I am extremely enthusiastic about: music to go along with the works. Even better, rather than a single; looping playlist for the entire display, these are different playlists of Congolese music for every single part of the exhibition, which relate closely to the works in terms of subject-matter, style or simply inspiration. Placed to the side, under a small acoustic roof, this allows you to sit down and listen more closely, also viewing lyrics and the particular context or curatorial intent behind a song, or to walk around the display with a music which seems to give contemplation a particular life and rythm. The selection and correspondence between image and sound was perfect and only strengthened the vibrant and diverse works present. I discovered not only new artists but also new musicians! However, quite frustratingly, there was no CD compiling all this music on sale, due to copyright issues…as though to remedy to this, Fondation Cartier invited the pan-African news station Chimurenga to install their web radio Pan African Space Station to take control of the exhibition space with interventions, concerts and performances in September.

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The way the music was presented

Veering into the second ground floor room the visitor is greeted with a selection of contemporary photographs, works on paper and comics – a hugely important part of the cultural scene and nowhere than in France, huge lover of the bande dessinnée, could they be more appreciated. However this time, most of the text on the comics covers is in Congolese rather than French and although that in itself seems pretty obvious, it was surprising not to have any translations provided, or some way of leafing through a facsimile. However Fondation Cartier has provided a creative way of allowing its visitors to read through a story, by collaborating with Papa Mfumu’eto 1er, who frequently releases a new comic on the Facebook page introducing us to everyday life in Congo from his perspective.

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Descending to the underground level opens up a far wider, opens space which reveals the futuristic structures of Bodys Isek Kingelez and Robert Nimi, made from a variety of materials and meant to be proposals for a bright, exciting future of expansion and urban wonder. They are surrounded with earlier examples of artist’s relation to new urban spaces and people, such as Moke’s depictions of boxers and nightlife, creating the ideal counterpart to Jean Depara’s black and white photographs from the 50s and 60s capturing people in snapshots that are sometimes spontaneous, sometimes theatrical and often a mix of both, with  a diversity of humor, sharpness and social insight.

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Moke, Kin Oyé, 1983, oil on canvas, private collection, paris, (c) Moke, photo (c) André Morin
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Jean Depara, Untitled (Moziki), c. 1955-65, gelatin silver print, CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva, (c) Jean Depara, photo (c) André Morin

It is only after arriving at the end of this vast panorama that the visitor is invited to move even further back into time, through small, quieter corridors which explore 1920s artists and their use of abstraction, patterns and expressionism merging with a relentlessly figurative way of depicting the world. The delicacy of Antoinette Lubaki’s watercolours, the intricacy of Pilipili Mulongoy’s animals in gouache, oil and pastel works on paper and Mwenze Kibwanga’s enigmatic figures in oil on paper and many others, all in usually small formats using paper or panel, create a Congolese avant-garde whose creativity in technique and figurative art will create a strong precedent for all the works we have seen before. Even though the chronology may seem bizarre and slightly confusing at time, slowly unfurling this Congolese contemporary and modern art history in all its diversity is worth it.

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Pili Pili Mulongoy, Untitled, undated, oil on paper, Collection Pierre Loos, Brussels, (c) Pili Pili Mulongoy, photo (c) André Morin

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It is rare to emerge from an exhibition where I hardly knew a single artist or anything about the country’s cultural background and feel so utterly convinced and enthralled by what I have found out. The exhibition was obviously curated with a passionate drive and intelligence which allowed it to draw in its visitor and keep a good rythm and interest going within a relatively short display. André Magnin, the exhibition curator, has been championing artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo for decades now, and it shows through in the best way possible – a vision of the country’s artistic heritage which pushes the visitor to leave and discover more. Furthermore, the Fondation Cartier is good at creating additional events and documentation around its exhibitions which only further enrich the experience for visitors and allows to “follow” the exhibition right until the end. The best news in all of this is that the dedication in showing works almost completely unknown to the French general public paid off: the exhibition is such a success that it has been extended until the 10th of January. Hopefully, museums cautious about exhibiting exhibitions exclusively devoted to artists from African countries shall take note.

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Antoinette Lubaki, Untitled, watercolour on paper, Collection Pierre Loos, Brussels, (c) Antoinette Lubaki, photo (c) Michael De Plaen
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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Bruce Nauman at Fondation Cartier

Time can shape both the content and the format of a work and the way it is visited. On my way to the Bruce Nauman exhibition I had a slight time constraint and already drew up a rough estimate of the moment I would finish the visit. However as I left the exhibition I found that I was leaving earlier than I expected while under the impression I had been there longer.

Sound and video, in the same perspective, become an integral part of our daily routine that we devote a huge amount of time to but sometimes take for granted, skipping or cutting off at will. It takes a particular discipline and focus to make us sit down and cut off the rest of the world instead. Through performance, video and installations, as well as audio works and sculpture, Nauman manages to use this to his advantage within the exhibition space. Most of his iconic works have been concerned with the mapping of a place through the movements of the body and the measurement of time, his studio in New Mexico becoming fully part of his work as he used to create a map of his own footsteps around his workspace. Here, in the same way, the way we travel through the display influences us, and immersing ourselves in sculpture, audio or video becomes an artistic process.

The Fondation Cartier for Contemporary Art has a clean-cut, severe yet serene appearence that lends itself well to metamorphosis. I had seen it only once beforehand for the Takeshi Kitano exhibition that had made it a fun, multicolour treasure trove full of noise and movement. In contrast, at the moment, the Fondation remains soberly stripped down to its bare essentials with its large spaces and transparent walls. The first room shows us Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers, a casual optical illusion set in the everyday clutter of the artist’s studio as he seemingly lifts a string of pencils as his cat ambles past the camera.The intimacy of the studio where he attempts to merge the mundane and the “magical” is undermined by the huge format of the video installation, taking up an entire wall and towering over us.

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View of the exhibition Bruce Nauman, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2015. Visuel © Luc Boegly

After this luminous and light-hearted presentation, it is fair to say that arriving at the darker lower level welcomes you to the sleek stuff of nightmares. A deconstructed Carousel spins around dismembered dog mannequins, in a structure that ressembles a slaughterhouse scenario rather than a merry-go-round. Yet this effect would only be slightly creepy were it not for Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera). The chaotic, anguished and strangely sensual singing of classical singer Rinde Eckert is paired with a projected close up of his face towering over us on the three walls, surrounded by six monitors, all with a slight discrepancy that creates the strength and horror of the installation as in each video the singer declares “Feed Me, Eat Me, Anthropology”, “Help Me, Hurt Me, Sociology” and “Feed Me, Help Me, Eat Me, Hurt Me”…all at once. Eckert’s chant ressembling a prayer puts a dark spin on our basic human needs and impulses and our need to categorize them.

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View of the exhibition Bruce Nauman, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2015. Visuel © Luc Boegly

The harmonious cacophony that ensues in the large, darkened space creates a tension and anxiety that fascinates and disgusts at the same time. Even though the installation is almost unbearable to listen to and visually unsettling, we still remain drawn to it through the urgent emotion and tension of Eckert’s voice. This video from an exhibition in 1993 retranscribes this chaotic chanting.

It is neccessary to walk across the room in order to slide through a small darkened corridor, somehow masking some of the chanting to immerse us into a very different type of atmosphere. Untitled 1970/2009 shows us a doubly projected video of two dancers rolling harmoniously around a dial-like floor, their hands entertwined, like anthropomorphized needles of a clock. Their predetermined protocol (the artist was not present during the shooting of the video) was to dance until exhaustion ensued, in this case during 30 minutes. The entire video relies on the same movements again and again, playing with our notions of time and movement; it is fascinating, almost hypnotic in the way it forces us to take a break and watch the same, repeated motions.

Bruce Nauman Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain. Mars 2015
©thomas salva / Lumento pour la fondation Cartier

The soothing, fascinating quality of Untitled and the nervous, anxiety-inducing nature of Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera) can both be found in the double audio-installation For Children/Pour les Enfants and For Beginners (Instructed Piano). The first happens on the ground floor, back in one of the large and luminous glass rooms, where a drawing, For Children/For Beginners shows the words “For children” and “Pour les enfants” hastily scribbled on the page as a stern voice repeats these terms on a loop, inspired from a piano music partition by Béla Bartók entitled “For Children”, adapted to the small size of their hands and their beginner level. This repetition makes the term go from mundane to almost ominous, confronting us to discipline and control, education and “playing”. For Beginners happens outside, in the Fondation Cartier’s luxuriant and peaceful garden. On louspeakers dispersed throughout the greenery and benches, we hear the recorded piano playing of Tony Allen corresponding to the artist’s protocol: his hands must remain at the centre of the keyboard. Both dreamlike and eerie, the constraint imposed by the pianist can only be heard and not seen, giving it a clumsy but endearing nature.

The exhibition is short and although it is meant to be a compendium of his recent career, does not feel like a comprehensive sense of his work. Yet each work is physically and mentally demanding, almost draining. Bruce Nauman does not want a passive gaze: to understand the work we need to work for it, wander around and into it, in the case of audio installations. Time is not linear in these works or in the way we confront them; it works itself into a loop that weaves itself into our footsteps, emotions and experiences.