Exhibition review Paris

Femina at Pavillon Vendôme

Women artists have come a long way within the art world, amidst erasure, exclusion and stereotyping. We have come a long way since women were forbidden to draw male nude models (resorting to tasteful sculptures instead), lived in the shadow of their male counterparts while receiving no credit for their own work for years (Camille Claudel), or being deemed incapable of creating “high” art rather than twee scenes of domestic life or still life. Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists” is a perfect introduction to the subject of art history and how it must tackle this complex issue. Then again, it would be wrong to shun these problems into a safely distant past: as this collection of testimonials indicate, women are still underrepresented in exhibitions, galleries and art fairs – and this also applies to curators, galerists and art dealers. Some of these women are tired of being labelled as such, believing this affects the perception of their work compared to a fake male “standard”. Others think that it is important to create more feminist opportunities for discussion and representation around women in art.

The exhibition I am reviewing corresponds mostly to the second option. The Femina exhibition at Pavillon Vendôme, in Clichy (France), has closed but a virtual tour is still online, visible here. It closed only a few days after its opening on January the 24th, largely due to a great deal of debate surrounding Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s installation Silence, meant to reflect upon a dialogue between a elements of Westernized femininity and Islam, by portraying high-heeled shoes on cut-out prayer mats. However, the algerian artist decided to remove her work from the exhibition in January in the context of the attacks in Paris, deeming it inappropriate in the current context. This was interpreted in many different ways, in debates centred around self-censorship and the limitations between freedom of expression and individual commentary. One thing leading to another, after the town hall of Clichy rid itself of all responsability in the case of an “attack” or menace, even after the installation was replaced by another artwork by the artist, the exhibition closed.

This decision is saddening, partly because I believe such an extreme could have been avoided and secondly because it would have been a beautiful opportunity to explore women’s self-expression and agency in an art world that has for the most part objectified women’s bodies for centuries, without giving them an opportunity to weave their own narratives. The display, sub-titled “the reappropriation of models”, seeks to create a visual dicussion of the way women artists may have been inspired by past depictions of women or moved to reinterpret them in a more critical or “ironic” light (in the curator Christine Ollier’s words). Does the visit match these strong, compelling motives explored in its presentation?

The exhibition starts in a sobering white space with a collection of photographs and paintings that seem to echo this art historical theme – a history of numerous representations of women by men, which take another dimension with the reinterpretation of the pose as a self-portrait, such as ORLAN’s ORLAN en Grande Odalisque d’Ingres or Paloma Navares’ Venus Entretenidas, featuring Ingres’ Odalisque and Titian’s Venus d’Urbino, two classical figures of desire and idealism. Nina Childress’ immense painting l’Enterrement is in itself an acid-colour, suberted version of Courbet’s Enterrement à Ornans, freed from its initial sobriety into a surrealist sexual frenzy.

As we arrive in the next room featuring Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s work, we are introduced to the lavishness of the Pavillon Vendôme, its ornate, Versailles-like stately decoration. This virtual tour decides to show both views, before and after – after the incident I described above, Silence was replaced by another work by the artist, Dansons. Silence is thus intent on creating a dialogue between a certain view of femininity and Islam, drawing on the artist’s experiences and her existence on the border of two contrasting civilizations (she is Algerian but was brought up in Moscow). Yet its precense in this room creates a second dialogue perhaps, between French muslims and the ‘Old World’ French establishment reinforced by places such as the Pavillon Vendôme. Dansons, lost in the middle of the room in a hasty video installation, seems on the contraring underwhelming, obviously not meant to be there in the first place. The video itself , featuring a bellydancer in blue-white-red dancing to the tune of the Marseillaise is humorous more than it is though-provoking, drawing once again on a mesh of cultures and the issue of patriotism that still uncomfortably skims the surface on more serious issues concerning so-called “French national identity” and multiculturalism. In the current January context, I don’t think a funnier, feel-good-about-ourselves sentiment was the best way to address the subject.

Somewhat accidentally, Dansons leads us seamlessly to two other videos – MASKED by the Kenyan-German artist Mwangi Hutter and She-Wolf, by Pilar Albarracín, a raw performance that seems to reinterpret the Red Riding Hood fairytale in a more empowering way, both for the woman and the wolf itself as the artist locks herself in a room and shares her picnic with the hungry she-wolf, instead of the traditional, predatory outcome. Upstairs, Carmela García’s series of photographs I want to be a young british girl, give us a vision of documentary self-scrutiny, while Ellen Kooi reexplores the famous painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais. This particular ‘homage’ to (male) painters, mirrores Lydie Jean-Dit-Pannel’s Hommage à la Psyché abandonnée de Jacques-Louis David (vers 1795) inasmuch as…it does not go very far. These photographs are beautiful and I love the way that these artists have chosen to break down the idealised version of the “typical” female body imposed by these painters…but it feels somehow contrived, once again skimming the surface and more focused with the pastiche than what they could express instead from scratch.

Trine Søndergaard expressed a soft subtlety and sense of detail in her photography, but as with Laura Henno’s A Tree of Light, the model either turns her back or looks away – I can’t really sense the defiance, the confrontational aspect of challenging and exploring past portraiture.

The last room edges away from this very smooth, ‘pretty’ type of portraiture – Katinka Lampe’s Untitled (1420136) is both unflinching and fragile, as Hélène Delprat’s notebook rife with ideas, doodles and wit show a light-hearted intimacy that is reflected by Iris Levasseur’s Il miroir painting, showing a woman’s body under every facet, in a raw, unflattering and beautifully honest light.

I think that the focus on curating an exhibition with so many works reinterpreting art historical classics of painting moved the focus away from what women were capable of creating on their own terms. ORLAN’s provocation, her reappropriation of sterotypical criteria of beauty throughout the centuries, remodelling her body like a canvas, seems oddly lacking here! It seems ironic in the light of what happened to this exhibition, but I think that it probably did not go all out in the sentiment the curator beautifully expressed on the website. In fact, it had a soft, introspective and poetic feel for the most part, allowing only a small overview of the European scene – which was fine in itself but perhaps not the initial intent.

I was not truly able to find much that went against the traditional archetypes of the female nude and felt that in fact, I would have been a lot less critical had it been dubbed as a celebration of women’s bodies rather than expressing a need to “reappropriate” a model without ever steering very far from it.

A lot of the works did not quite ‘work’ for me, either in their vision or in the way they were displayed. Others crystallized moments of dialogue and reflection that I truly enjoyed – in the last rooms particularly.

However, this is the point that stuck with me: I was only able to discover a lot of new woman artists in this virtual tour because an exhibition was devoted to them, and that in itself, whether or not the “message” of the display pulled through, is extremely important. Erasure and underrepresentation shall not ebb away by themselves or go away if we ignore the issue, and we need to create spaces where we can discover, dicuss, like or dislike new women artists. This exhibition sadly closed before most people could see these works, but putting this project online and creating an entire small website online with pictures and links to these women’s work and portfolios is a brilliant idea that an increasing number of museums and temporary exhibition projects should draw inspiration from in the future.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Tatoueurs, Tatoués at Musée Quai Branly

Tattoos have had tumultuous and multi-faceted histories as objects of admiration or contempt. From a symbol of pride and honour in many civilizations, a brand of shame and criminality in others, the tattoo is now seen as a globalized aesthetic trend while retaining some of this “mysterious” edge and ambiguity. Popular but still largely alternative, accepted socially yet still refused in most office environnments, there is still a great deal of fascination and ambivalence around it, which the Tatoueurs, Tatoués exhibition attempts to explore.

Tattoos encompass a huge aspect of so many societies around the world that attempting to retrace its roots and evolution up until contemporary practices could seem more than a little ambitious and hefty. However, rather than forming a large academic monolith of information, this exhibition retained an easygoing, lively approach which was, however, often a bit too light explanation-wise, compared to the amount of visual content it packed in. The first particularity of this exhibition is that it is conceived by two guest curators, Anne & Julien, first and foremost art editors and galerists, tatooed enthusiasts mainly in touch with contemporary art world. Their artistic consultant is the famous French tattoo artist Tin-Tin, who is also president of the national syndicate of tattoo artists in France. A refreshing trio, backed by the scientific and scenographic know-how of the Quai Branly, or a risky choice?

The exhibition kicks off with a rather macabre selection of tattoos on dried-up human skin, remnants of colonialist discoveries of tattooing practices, which were actively repressed in African and Oceanian cultures while this trend travelled through sailors and travellers, winding up as a marginalized tradition in Europe. These are complemented by various other objects – the first tattooing tools, stamps and images, such as this 18th century stamp from Jerusalem, representing the ressurection of Christ.

© musée du quai Branly, photo Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado
© musée du quai Branly, photo Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado

By the 19th century, tattoos in Europe and the US were dubbed as a visual marker for prison environments, circuses and prostitution – whether intentionally or not. The portrait of an Algerian woman bearing her tattoos with pride stares back at us, below, as we learn that the French governement chose to “interpret” these symbols of honour as those of a marginal and of a prostitute. Much is to be said about the destruction of a tradition and the racist aspect of this vilified and exotifying reappropriation of tattoos – but this is often skipped in favour of the strange kitsch imagery that prison archives such as the Recueil Lacassagne have left behind.

Images provenant du Recueil Lacassagne
© Gdalessandro/ENSP

The notion of tattoos emerge as a record of personal, bodily experiences while still remaining linked to a community and its rituals. Pain is as much a part of the process that the image itself, if not more. In fact, for the most part early prison tattoos were not concerned with aesthetics. They are shamelessly  ugly and crude, as prisoners use their torsoes, backs and arms as organic pages for dry mottos and ‘postcards’ (usually a portrait of a woman with ‘Souvenir d’Afrique’ stamped above) or political caricatures. The cold and objective police and military archives become portraiture and paint a humorous, jarring, often poignant range of experiences and insights.

Copyright: © musée du quai Branly, photo Gautier Deblonde Photographe: Gautier Deblonde
Copyright: © musée du quai Branly, photo Gautier Deblonde
Photographe: Gautier Deblonde

The ‘freak show’ nature of the fully tattooed man and the aura of danger he exudes for the audience becomes an integral part of circus culture at the beginning of the 20th century, which is explored both through photographs and recent footage of current circus performers or models such as the Lizard Man or Rick Genest aka Zombie Boy. Another characteristic shared by circuses is the myth of the travelling tattoo artist, allowing for new influences and images added to his portfolio – like this 19th century Egyptian paravent “advertising” a travelling tattoo artist’s range of image-making.

Paravent, répertoire de tatoueur
Paravent, tattoo repertory, Egypt Copyright: © musée du quai Branly, photo Claude Germain Photographe: Claude Germain

Then again, this “renaissance” of tattooing and its increasing popularity is counterbalanced by the loss of specific traditions and rituals for a more globalized, “americanized” vision. The exhibition is good at showing the ambiguity between a European tradition that has absorbed others and the persistance of tattoo cultures specific to a country or tribe.

Copyright: © Jake Verzosa Mentions obligatoires: Collection de l'Artiste Photographe: Jake Verzosa
Last Kalinga tattooed woman, Phillippines, 2011 Copyright: © Jake Verzosa
Mentions obligatoires: Collection de l’Artiste Photographe: Jake Verzosa

These historical and geographical snippets, mostly shown through tattoo-decked portrait photography and a few compelling artefacts lead us through small corridors that create a complex maze of different countries and issues – from circuses and North American tattooing I stumble upon the evolving Japanese tradition of the irezumi full body tattoo – from a means of ornamentation in 17th century Japan to a means of punishment to a symbol of pride for yakuza…back to a trend cautiously creeping back despite a persistent gang-related taboo. Strangely enough, these tattoos extending from the wrists and neck to the ankles are not only stunning compared to their early European counterparts but also concerned with either heroic themes or symbols drawn from nature and spirituality. What do they mean? How did they vary? Unfortunately, these questions remain unanswered: like most of the traditional tattoos in the exhibition, any explanation of precise symbols and iconography is lost on the visitor.

MQB. Exposition anthropologique :
Copyright: © musée du quai Branly, photo Gautier Deblonde Photographe: Gautier Deblonde

Instead, each winding twist and turn of the exhibition as it explores every corner of the globe – from New Zealand’s moko to fine line latino tattooing or Polynesian traditions is paired with a contemporary reinterpretation of this tradition, by a practising tattoo artist, using torsoes, arms and legs covered in a synthetic ‘skin’. After the initial gruesomeness of this display – disembodied show window arrangement meets tattoo parlour – these objects inject a twist of originality and creativity into the exhibition.

Copyright: © musée du quai Branly, photo Thomas Duval Photographe: Thomas Duval
Artist: Mark Kopua Copyright: © musée du quai Branly, photo Thomas Duval
Photographe: Thomas Duval

Rather than grouping themselves at the end, they intersperse in a way that allows to travel back and forth between them. Sometimes, these projects were so complex that they remained two-dimensional aspect, mapped out on paper and yet to be created on a true body, showing a different side to the process that we may imagine for most tattooing: rather than accumulative, added tattoo per tattoo on an ever-evolving canvas, these projects show that many clients entrust their tattoo artists with an overall plan that can often cover an entire back or arm (or indeed, behind, as pictured above).

Rudy Fritsch , Photo (c) Musée Quai Branly

I loved these projects and their dramatic display, that added to the sheer eccentricity of an exhibition that flitted through so many visual influences and evolutions of the tatoo – but in a sense this strength was also its weakness.The exhibit left me wanting of a bit less style and a bit more substance. The problem with the desire to create an exhibition that is both anthropological and artistic is that one notion is probably going to end up stealing the other’s thunder. In this case, the anthropological side definitely lost, which is startling within the Quai Branly itself. I would have liked to see a little less on the aesthetics and artistic evolution of tatoos throughout the ages and more on the specific symbolism surrounding different tattoo cultures.

There is no clear sense of chronology as we dip into various rooms, and although I would not particularly mind if the evolution of tattoo culture was not the focus…it definitely is here! For this reason the rythm seemed slightly off at times – just as we advance into an entire section devoted to contemporary tattoo artist’s own personal tattoo projects, the exhibition suddenly veers off into Renaissance and Old Masters depictions of tattooing, before moving on to something else entirely. An exhibition without a specific order of visit is fine for me…as long as there are no narrow corridors that seem to impose one upon the visitor anyway.

Women wearing tattoos and costumes
© CORBIS pour Bettmann –

This exhibition was bursting with fascinating images and objects but was not perfect presentation-wise and its content was not always homogeneously explained. However, it largely compensated with a personal and deeply passionate vibe that justified its occaisional messiness and experimentation. For me it contrasted in a lot of ways of the Māori exhibition at the Quai Branly several years ago, curated by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This was a guest exhibition that let Māori culture curate itself, on a precise, insider level that created emotion as well as clear explanation about their civilisation and art. Here, an insider’s passion about tattooing and its confusing, multiple histories is felt in the same way, and it takes us by the hand into a wild ride of archives, objects and visual intensity. It also acheived something that I have not ever encountered in museums or galleries – works of art by current tattoo artists exhibited in a contemporary art mindset that is not only meant to be aesthetic, but provocative and humorous, exploring the various ways in which the pratice may evolve and thrive.

Xed LeHead Photo (c) Musée Quai Branly
Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Studio Ghibli Layout Designs: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata/Miyazaki Animation at Musée Art Ludique

Animation is a strange and fascinating process, and just as strange to document and curate. Whereas the finished animated feature rarely lasts more than one hour and a half, its creation and process takes years, following meticulous, painstaking stages that will ultimately result in spontaneous, dynamic movement.

Maybe the reason I feel so strongly about animation and its display in museums is puposefully because it is so difficult to grasp from a single angle, but also because there is so much left to show and explore. Within an increasing trend in exhibiting animation, Musée Art Ludique has risen to the occasion in recent years, in sensitive, engaging and provocative ways. I loved their exhibition previously shown at MoMA, celebrating 25 years of Pixar Studios with lavish displays of concept art, storyboards and models that created a balance between Pixar’s technical CGI achievements and their artistic vision. In this exhibition the main impetus was truly to “dip” into every stage leading to the creation of an animated feature, but leaving little room for technical and in-depth exploration of each stage of the process. This time, the formula is different, taking a very precise and almost scientific slant while harking back to a much loved tradition: the art of the preparatory sketch.

The exhibition “Studio Ghibli Layout Designs: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata/Miyazaki Animation” is, indeed, very precise and focused on one particular animation process. Its very title shows that this is going to be an exhibition with a pedagogical as much as an artistic aim: to understand a very particular stage of animation, while admiring the mastery of such drawings. The exhibition was made in collaboration with Studio Ghibli as well as the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s celebrated films within the studio are known around the world and have a glowing thity-year record for hand-drawn animations that are known for their charm, creativity and insightfulness. As Miyazaki has announced his retirement and Studio Ghibli close their film production for now, this exhibition is a poignant tribute to their acheivements.

Layout design is a particular stage of the animated feature in between the rough storyboard creating the narrative and the finished animated scenes. It has a very specific technical purpose: to create defined visual references for the animated in terms of scenery, perspective and position of the characters. It will detail how these characters move but also how the camera may pan upwards, to the side, or zoom in on a particular moment. They are also used to define the exact timing of each scene and movement, as well as key notions in terms of lighting, shadow and mood.

Howl’s Moving Castle © 2004 Nibariki – GNDDDT

At this stage I need to take a step back from a personal passion about animation and see it from a more general viewpoint: does it sound dry and perhaps too technical? At first sight, perhaps. But this technicity goes hand in hand with the virtuosity and masterful nature of these clean and complex sketches. Their precision and artfulness, setting the founding visual keystones to the final animation, brings to mind the drafts and preparations of old Masters. This is all the more relevant because Studio Ghibli is one of the rare studios that still creates hand-drawn animated  features.

Howl’s Moving Castle © 2004 Nibariki – GNDDDT

The exhibition starts with a very theoretical overview of the key terms of animation layouts in japanese, but also basic terms of animation such as the transparent page on which the characters are drawn in motion (the celluloid), to be set against the immobile backdrop. At the same time, a range of tools of the animator are put on display. This is accompanied by a sweet short comic by the animators themselves detailling every stage as a small memo. A very didactic start, therefore, but that then allows time for the viewer to pore over the hundreds of layout drawings that have been classified in terms of animated projects, from the most recent to the oldest – with hidden gems such as the very beginnings of Miyazaki and Takahata at Toei Animation on television series. The entire display definitely revolves around these two figures, with a slight preeminence of Miyazaki due to the overwhelming popularity of films such as Howl’s Moving Castle, Chihiro’s Journey or Nausicäa.

Kiki’s Delivery Service © 1989 Eiko Kadono – Nibariki – GN

Interestingly enough, for an exhibition revolving around narrative-building drawings, the content and narrative of the films was not introduced or explained in depth: this was definitely not what could be qualified as a beginner’s introduction to Ghibli, but mainly an exhibition for pre-existing fans. This would probably be a flaw in any other country than France, where respect for animation is stronger Ghibli films are usually well-known in a mainstream way that is not neccessarily true for the UK, for instance.

Yet the lack of introduction or explanation of the drawings themselves allows for more space for their purely visual appeal. The cleaned-up and neat process of the layout drawings, in coloured pencils still retains an organic, spontaneous appeal, the mapping out of colours and movements creating a strange visual poetry that the visitor learns how to decipher throughout the visit. Perhaps this particular charm also derives from the fact that these are the raw key elements of the movies, lived through and analyzed, corrected to perfection while retaining an emotional depth. Through the scribbling of japanese peppered with a few english terms, the hand of the “Master” Miyazaki emerges as some of his comments and critiques are translated. Some indicate that the pencilling is too rough, or that the movement is not natural. Others are small lessons in animation. This creates a certain tone of perfectionism mingled with intimacy and humour, translating only a fraction of the rigour and hard work of the Ghibli studio – who work as a tight-knit group. The problem remains of a single name obscuring many other skills: even though I can’t compare Miyazaki to Disney since the former is actively involved in the drawing process of many of these layouts, they do remain figureheads that blot out other names, storyboarders and animators that remain unknown. Having a little insight into their experiences would have been a nice touch. To perhaps gain a more global understanding of Studio Ghibli’s day to day life I would definitely recommend the documentary of Spirited Away’s making-of – here is a heart-warming small extract.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea © 2008 Nibariki – GNDHDDT

Aside from acquiring the technical jargon neccessary to decipher the layout drawings in the first place, do we acquire any of these “secrets” to animation promised at the beginning of the exhibition? In many sense, yes. And the first is this: you need to cheat. This may come as a stab in the back or a consolation to many fellow artists but apparently perspective is also worthless in a geometrical/mathematical sense if it cannot be distorted to fit the requirements of the scene or the camera. For example, some elements can be distorted or made larger if the camera is creating a panning movement, such as a castle floating away into the sky, in order to create the illusion it is floating further away. Such examples always created a comparison between the finished production and the key layout sketches, allowing further deciphering of the scenes.

Castle in the Sky © 1986 Nibariki – G

This exhibition could appear as a bit too specific for a person with little to no acquaintance with Ghibli but I think that the hugely popular emotional appeal for these films managed to trigger a deep desire to understand their technical side further…and also simply indulge in the visual beauty of so many imaginative world and stories “in construction”. It created a many-layered display that never became heavy-handed. In an arthistorical context it established these hand-drawn animators as the inheritors of composition and draftsmanship of Renaissance artists and Old Masters, while debunking the myth that japanese animation or “anime” is somehow less complex due to its stylized characters. The choice to focus on an oft-forgotten stage of the hand-drawn animated process allowed for a reminder that such films are works of collective craftsmanship, while ironically or paradoxically keeping Miyazaki and Takahata in the spotlight. Despite a few flaws, however, this harmony of poetry and technicality was a pleasure to visit before viewing these animated classics again.

Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Niki de Saint-Phalle at the Grand Palais

Niki de Saint-Phalle is the type of artist that can bring to mind not necessarily one work in particular but a type of composite image, or iconic aura, that is instantly recognizable. This phrase cropped up in my conversations about her: “You think you don’t know her but you actually do: you know, these large, colourful women.” In a way, yes, we do “know” Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Nanas, with their pervasive joy and round bodies. But do we “know” all we need to about Niki de Saint-Phalle? The curator of the exhibition, Camille Morineau, admits herself that she discovered new, surprising aspects of Saint-Phalle during her initial research. The end result is a sensitive and intense rediscovery that leads us onto unchartered and forgotten territories of her work, and their relation to feminity and women artists.

The first room is surprisingly sober in its scenography, with its grey walls and traditional format. Perhaps it reflects exactly that which Saint-Phalle wanted to escape in her early works: the confines of a traditional bourgeois Catholic family of bankers that wanted her to marry and perpetuate the family’s good name. Saint-Phalle’s emancipation from this bourgeois mindset in order to find a liberated, bohemian lifestyle is the stuff of romanesque novels. Yet her first works, creating collages of various everyday objects on canvas, interspersed with a folk-art and naïve style of painting reminiscent of Chagall or early Pollock works, hides darker struggles beneath their colourful and irregular surface.

They reflect her complete immersion into art as a therapeutic necessity rather than a casual soul-searching hobby, after a huge nervous breakdown, linked to her fluctuating mood and tense marriage. Beneath the work’s titles, particular quotes of hers allow us to pinpoint her state of mind as her works progress territories that are often dark and violent, exploring her dreams and fantasies – using for example the revolver she bought to “metaphorically” shoot her ex, an impulse that she exorcises through Revolver. As I continue on to a larger room, more circular and irregular in its shape, her voice already rings out crisply and defiantly from a 1960s documentary, as though criticizing what we have just seen: “It’s a good thing I was no good at painting.” This “good thing” that allowed her to go beyond the confines of painting to search out new artistic expression is shown all around the screen. Monumental women become the anthropomorphic materialization of her earlier works: accumulations of objects made into huge, overpowering female forms, these mesh together a complex glorification of woman and a criticism of her role in a society that wants to restrain her into marriage and submissiveness.

Large faceless brides tower over us while simultaneously seeming to keel under the weight of all the sum of their fragmented parts. The minute and breathtaking delicacy of Saint-Phalle’s composite sculptures never removes the sharp edge from her absolute hatred of marriage, likening it to the end of life itself in a quote associated with The Bride under the Tree: “Marriage is death.”  This figure is white and waif-like, like a ghost rather than a symbol of bridal purity, losing her face and individuality faced with the demands of tradition and society. Yet most of these women are domineering and victorious, already revealing Saint-Phalle’s vision of a powerful and colourful woman that needs to detach herself from the constraints of the patriarchy. Leto, with her baroque body, is rendered both glorious and monstrous through the collage of objects that create her. Flowers, toys soldiers, plastic artefacts among the many that she scavenges for at her treasure trove of choice – Monoprix, the French equivalent of Wall-Mart or Tesco.

Leto ou La Crucifixion, 1965 236 x 147 x 61,5 cm objets divers sur grillage Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre de création industrielle, Paris, achat en 1975 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMNGrand Palais / Georges Meguerditchian

Throughout these works, a strong motif reoccurs: a battalion of small plastic soldiers and animals, seemingly crawling over “their” woman. The body literally becomes a battlefield and a space that woman must reclaim for herself. This ensemble is complemented by a pair of garters in a pose imitating the Crucifixion. A celebration of female sexuality? The condemnation of a society that willingly objectifies women yet vilifies them in the same instance? Possibly both. Feminist? Undoubtedly. The idea of systematically labelling any work made by a woman artist as “feminist” causes a great deal of annoyance amongst artist and art historians alike. Yet in this case, Saint-Phalle says so herself, and loudly: “I can see that I am dealing with an anti-feminist!” she chides in the video facing her male interviewer’s comments, using the term with a strength and ease that reflects her uncompromising visions.

Niki de Saint-Phalle is not only concerned with a condemnation of patriarchy. What interests her is creation on all levels. The creation of a new matriarchy of powerful women, the creation of art on her own terms and the creation of life. The walls are lighter, more circular and curvaceous, as though reflecting values that are turned against their male oppressors: fecundity and compassion. The feminine body is no longer a monstruous bulk of collage made to denunciate a body used and abused; it is an object of power, giving birth on its own terms. The vision of a doll emerging from between the legs of these pure white deities is startling, shocking, yet unabashedly powerful.

Cavorting sculptures of wire and painted polymer lead us on into a smaller, dark room where spotlights showcase new forms. With a smoother surface than her collaged counterparts, rotund and full of life, these were inspired from an initial sketch of Clarice Rivers’ pregnant form. A darkened, tunnel-like room, almost womb-like, it announces the “birth” of the iconic nana but also echoes the monumental sculpture-machine installation that she made with Jean Tinguely and exhibited in 1966 within the Moderna Museet of Stockholm. HON – or “She” in Swedish was a momentous 28 meters long, 6 meters high and 9 meters large, enough for people to visit the inside of her body, strategically entering between her legs to discover an art gallery in her womb, a milk bar in the cavity of one breast and an observatory in the other.

Niki de Saint-Phalle’s voice and message, stern and reproving, now has a cheeky, more cheerful tone as a video shows her spinning around in a white chair like a mock James Bond villain, announcing “Je suis Niki de Saint-Phalle et je fais des oeuvres monumentales!” (“I am Niki de Saint-Phalle and my work is monumental!”) The room that leads us towards these towering works is, appropriately, the largest and the most spectacular, with a dome like a miniature cathedral as a Chopin waltz accompanies the rotation of the Three Graces, three grand dancers, covered in colour and mirrored mosaics whose reflections bounce and dart around the room. They are flanked by their gigantic peers, in a serene yet momentous atmosphere, as Niki continues to talk about her “grosses dames” in a video in the background, her humorous reverence forming a striking contrast with her slim, suit-adorned silhouette. This is truly a temple to the Nana: the woman who will exude power but remain protective and loving, forming a new bond with man based around exchange instead of confrontation.

Les Trois Graces, 1995 - 2003
Les Trois Grâces 1995-2003 argent : 290 x 125 x 95 cm noir : 260 x 150 x 90 cm blanc : 290 x 120 x 90 cm polyester, mosaïque de miroirs Niki Charitable Art Foudation, Santee, USA © 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved / Photo : Philippe Cousin

Not all of Saint-Phalle’s artwork surrounding women reflect this sunny, positive and power girl feminism that I was most familiar with. In another dark tunnel-like room, in dimly lit alcoves, the figures yet again become monstruous, both a criticism of women’s restrictive roles and a criticism of the women who willfully “devour” their children by bestowing upon them all their own ambitions and social restrictions. The tableau becomes darker and more autobiographical.

la toilette
La Toilette 1978 femme : 160 x 150 x 100 cm table : 126 x 92 x 80 cm papier collé peint et objets divers collection MAMAC, Nice, donation de l’artiste en 2001 © Niki Charitable Foundation / ADAGP, Paris 2014 / photo : MAMAC / Muriel Anssens

Saint-Phalle’s relation to her mother was complex and ambivalent. Facing the sculpture of a monstrous, gluttonous monster she recalls her mother asking, horrified, if this sculpture was her; Saint-Phalle does not have the heart to tell her that it is one aspect of her memories of her, a fragment of what she fears she might become as a mother. Motherhood becomes then not only a positive trait of protection and nurturing, but a toxic, unhealthy relation that is inextricably linked to possession and all-controlling affection: for Saint-Phalle, mothers will end up devouring their young just as much as the father with his dominance of the household. Saint-Phalle’s sculpture ‘The Death of the Father’ creates a darkly hilarious tableau, with a matronly window whose sorrow is suspiciously absent and an open coffin displaying a giant phallus. This mirrors the opening scenes of Saint-Phalle’s film Daddy, in which she explores the dark and complex relationship with her father, who raped her when she was eleven. Psychoanalysis, symbolism and morbid fantasy mingle with both intimate rejection of her father’s toxic influence and the ultimate obsolete patriarchy that must be destroyed. The “death of the patriarch” is theatrically presented as Saint-Phalle, in a classic “masculine” suit, shoots her father’s coffin.

Grand tir - séance Galerie J, 1961
Grand Tir – Séance galerie J 1961 143 x 77 x 7 cm plâtre, peinture et objets divers sur panneau d’aggloméré Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre de création industrielle, achat en 2004 © 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved / Photo : Laurent Condominas

The use of the pistol, the phallic, destructive object, rarely associated with womanhood, is in fact a recurring theme in Saint-Phalle’s work. Earlier on, Niki de St-Phalle did use a revolver as an element of her collage work but in the series of Revolver painting, the passive fantasy becomes a real act of violence in which she uses a gun to create her paintings, making colour burst from fragile envelopes of plaster with each shot. More than a creative protest, the shots become a public performance, and a political act, as she shoots patriarchal and political figures alike. This return to painting exacerbates both its violence and its feminism into outspoken, brash messages about the world she lived in. This included a cynical militaristic altar to speak out against the horrors of the Algerian war, and an eerily premonitory depiction of a rocket crashing into Twin Towers as the death-mask like faces of American presidents and politicians look on (in terms of strange premonitions, Saint-Phalle also “shot” Kennedy’s…portrait, only months before his assassination). The last room presents a few of her late sculptures as well as photographs of the breathtaking Jardin des Tarots in Garavicchio, Italy, which she funded and created through sales of her work and perfume brand, fulfilling her vision of an architectural art inspired by Gaudi.

It creates a lasting sense of unity: the large skull, multicoloured and cheerful, inspired from the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, finally unites the careless sense of joy in many of her work with the ominous sense of the morbid that pervades others.

Skull (méditation room), 1990
Skull (Meditation Room) 1990 230 x 310 x 210 cm mosaïque de verre et de miroirs, céramique, feuille d’or Sprengel Museum, Hanovre, donation de l’artiste en 2000 © 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved / Photo : Michael Herling

In a sense the particularity of this exhibition is its refusal to compromise while creating a complex, coherent whole. The exuberant nature of the Nanas cannot be complete without the toxicity of the Devouring Mothers. The delicate sculptural collages that she assembles join themselves to the violence and spontaneity of her gunshot paintings. It is truly an exhibition in the image of a feminist who refused to choose, embracing the idea of motherhood, sisterhood and its protective, nurturing aspect, but never discarding the radical, violent dismantling of the patriarchy through her work. I think this exhibition is essential in rediscovering a Niki de Saint-Phalle that is multi-layered and ambiguous, a revolutionary and a romantic rolled into one.

Claire Mead

Niki de Saint-Phalle at the Grand Palais, 17th September to 2nd of Febuary 2015

Exhibition review Paris

Paris 1900 at the Petit Palais

There is talk of a recent trend concerning Paris and its Chinese tourists, whose relation may become rocky. Travelling to the capital city with an ideal image of the City of Love in their minds (with Hollywood films and perfume adverts as the first culprits), they are often disillusioned and upset by the gritty reality that they faces upon arrival. Filthy subways, unkempt streets, rude waiters and grumpy Parisians abound in this fairytale gone wrong, according to this captivating article by The Business of Fashion.

I am probably a grumpy Parisian at heart: I was initially disgruntled by the fact that a living, active city was expected to keep itself as pristine and glossy as a Vogue photoshoot for tourists who, sometimes, do not bother with basic French phrases…or manners. Additionally, we would also like clean subways and pristine customer service to justify the price of a 4 euro espresso!

However this trend may not be that new. The tension between the naïve visitor and the seasoned Parisian, the Paris of dreams and the messy Paris of everyday life made me think of a recent exhibition. Indeed, Paris 1900 at the Petit Palais has both fed upon this dreamlike vision of Paris and challenged it in its own subtle ways.

The city is quite sleepy in terms of new art exhibitions for now. Many galleries are still shut and most museums are waiting for everyone to return from holidays before launching their new exhibitions in September. Despite the fact that Paris 1900 is now over, I wanted to reflect upon it, and return to Paris more than one century ago, at a turning point in terms of history, social change and entertainment.

Affiche de l’Exposition Universelle, Palais de l’optique, 1900. © Paris, Musée Carnavalet/ Roger-Viollet

Paris 1900 promised a “Ville de Spectacle” and this is exactly what I experienced, in a format somewhere between an art exhibition and a documentary. 1900 was both a pivotal year of the Belle Époque, the symbol of a last decade of prosperity before WWI and the year of the “Exposition Universelle” of Paris, or Universal Exposition. This was the event of the year, following into the footsteps of its Universal Exposition of 1889 and countless other Expos in the past decades in London, New York and Chicago. The aim of these expositions was to showcase the international achievements of the past decades in terms of science, industrial innovation, art and culture. In other terms, it was a huge opportunity for friendly rivalry between countries and unbridled showing off for the host city. Paris therefore transformed itself along the riverbanks of the Seine to welcome approximately 50 million visitors. Although most of the pavilions and adornments were temporary, a few of them still influence the Parisian landscape including the Eiffel Tower and the Petit Palais itself.

A general introduction to the Universal Exposition showed a flurry of preparatory sketches, blueprints, posters and paintings, where the diversity of objects and exhibits created a particular atmosphere. The unpredictable and the eccentric accompanied this international crisscrossing of cultures, making the city a large parade both for its tourists and its inhabitants. A beautiful fresco by Alfons Mucha was displayed overhead, right next to an authentic Metro gateway, in the typical Art Nouveau style that pervaded the entire Expo.

Binet, Projet pour la Porte monumentale de l’Exposition universelle de 1900, 1898. © Cl. Musées de Sens – E. Berry

Without selection or elitism, I was given an overview of the entire bustle and pomp around the exhibition in its most splendid and kitsch undertones. Most of the exhibition pavilions for each country and the different “palaces” built to welcome scientific or artistic displays were meant to impress and entertain for a while which allowed all kind of extravagances. As a shaky black and white footage from the Frères Lumière showed, the view along the Seine was ridiculously spectacular. So were the filmed reactions of Parisians sampling some moving sidewalks for the very first time. There was something moving about their excitement that created a sharp contrast with the utterly nonplussed use of moving platforms in the Parisian subway today…

The attention to detail, scenography and the steps every visitor undertakes through the exhibition was striking from the very beginning. The first room was constructed as a large airy space with archways that indeed gave the impression of an old fashioned exhibition space. Through the corridors leading to each new section, a film of Parisians going about their everyday lives was projected and on the other side, a mirror allowed visitors to literally “mirror” their experiences and those of their French, 20th century counterparts. It was truly this aspect and this sense of an intimate, ordinary vision of the Parisian in 1900 that created the exhibition’s strength.

Emile Gallé, Vase cattleya fait pour Charles Lebeau, 1900. © Collection du musée de Boulogne-sur-mer /photo Philippe Beurtheret

The Art Nouveau section, teeming with sculpture, textiles and furniture was full of surprises and hidden gems – such as Sarah Bernhardt’s apparent love of sculptures depicting the seaweed, shells and driftwood she would pick up on the beach! I couldn’t help but think of the slight scorn that celebrities experience when they try to reconvert themselves into art and attract mixed reviews. With a mix of art, design and decoration, with tapestries shown next to wallpaper, and busts cohabitating with combs, a true sense of the full aesthetic emerges here, the first sense of modern design that does not limit itself to a single category. Is it difficult to limit Art Nouveau to one single room? Yes, but this exhibition achieved it without leaving anyone too frustrated.

Paul Cézanne, Ambroise Vollard, 1899. Huile sur toile, 100 x 81 cm © Paris, Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet

This perhaps had something to do with the next room, which managed to reconstruct the content and atmosphere of one of the famed Artists’ Salons, where all of Paris – or those who could afford to in terms of time or money – would come and admire or violently criticize exhibiting artists. The idea of using the same format as a Salon, with a hanging system covering all of the walls from top to bottom was bad at the time, making some paintings hard to observe, let alone appreciate. The adaptation 114 years later was not any more successful in terms of visibility! Yet, with a small room dedicated to Rodin sculptures, and a late Monet facing Cézanne’s portrait of his friend and art dealer Vollard, a rich and comprehensive immersion back into the artistic scene of 1900 was achieved. This section definitely chose to show a realistic portrayal of the range of artists at the time, showcasing not only those whose names and images are still memorable for us, but also more significantly those who were forgotten by most people, lurking in small museums or thesis footnotes. This was mostly relevant in showing the amount of overwhelming choice that the audience had in terms of painters…and the fact that while some could be passing trends, uncovered gems could remain undiscovered for a century or so.

Jean Béraud, Parisienne, place de la Concorde, vers 1890. Huile sur bois, 35 x 26,5 cm © Paris, Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

As stereotypical as it sounds, the Parisian experience could not be narrated without the mention of fashion…and this ‘mention’ manifested itself in a lavish collection of clothes from the period, many of which come from the prestigious Musée Galliera. I was skeptical about the vision that this section would give about fashion overall, imagining that it would remain with the luxurious silhouettes and froufrous of the Belle Epoque’s high-class Parisienne, coquettishly flashing her ankles at her beau on a boulevard. Yet I was proven wrong. While ball dresses and tea gowns dominated the darkened room with their lace and satin, reflecting the fashion plates and caricatures of their time, the outfits of working class women were shown with just as much importance, showing their lasting influence on practical womenswear from the early 20th century onwards. The “midinette” – the young working class woman whose lunch break was at midday – captured a collective imagination that resides somewhere between a picturesque Parisian fantasy and its gritter reality outside of the limelight. As unimportant as the hardworking and coquettish midinette would appear to her contemporaries, she spoke to me far more than the idle rich lady in a lace tea gown could. While Belle Époque fanciness was remembered far more in terms of history and depiction of an era, her legacy continued as many women’s main fashion concern now resides in what they will wear at work rather than the next gala (are these the contemporary midinettes?)

Chahine, La Midinette, 1903., Vernis mou, eau-forte et pointe sèche sur papier Japon, 46,7 x 25,7 cm © Paris, Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet

Outside the limelight and afterhours is where a more nocturnal, risqué Paris reveals itself, in a dark blue room and intimate fragmented corridors. This was the part I was not expecting, definitely the most fun and teasingly scandalous: the nightlife of Paris, where gentlemen and women alike basked in fame and favours as soft erotica in sepia photographs started to circulate. The demi-mondaines, renown as comediennes and ballet dancers as well as ballroom celebrities, captured in photographs and written about weekly, are perhaps the first testimonies of celebrity tabloid and paparazzi culture. This was also the perfect time to witness footage of the first ever filmed strip-tease. ‘The Evening of the Bride’, starring a cheerful stripper and bumbling husband on their first night is so quaint and humorous it was almost heart-warming…and extremely instructive concerning Belle Époque undergarments. I wonder what the mockingly candid performer would think of the Crazy Horse. Would she faint in her many-layered undergarments? I am not so sure. We always seem to portray our turn of the century figures as far more rigid than they are!

Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in 'Chilperic', 1895 (oil on canvas)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Marcelle Lender dansant le boléro dans Chilpéric, 1895-1896. Huile sur toile, 145 x 149 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington (U.S.A.), 190.127.1. Don Betsey Cushing Whitney, 1990. © Bridgeman Giraudon

The theatre section seems predictable in its portrayal of the shows and entertainment at the time, between high-brow tragedies and cabarets, but subtle and powerful in is way of showing 1900 as a crossroads between a certain type of leisure and the arrival of cinema and photography, surprisingly shunned by the Exposition’s art exhibits. A lot was lost, much more was gained, and most of the trends, tastes and leisure of the “Ville-Spectacle” created a new swerve towards the type of entertainment we know today, through cinema and stars but also through opening up of media and entertainment to a larger portions of the population.

The Exposition Universelle is the main theme of this entire exhibition, strongest in the first room then diluting itself in the rest of the visit to let other issues speak out, creating a cohabitation between the desire to create a spectacular city for its visitors and the natural ebb and flow of taste and aesthetics among Parisians. In very much the same way, Paris today is constantly torn between the regulation of its touristic, glittering side and its other freefalling, improvised culture, often unappealing to those that were expecting something shinier and different. We enter thinking that the exhibition is going to be about Paris in 1900 but it turns out being far more about the Parisians of 1900, their experiences, aspirations and shortcomings in terms of culture and life. I am not certain I can leave any parting advice about discovering this Parisian’s Paris in more contemporary times. However, perhaps dropping the guidebook and finding a Parisian is a good start. If you ask politely for recommendations in clumsy French and sympathize with us about the terrible metro service, I promise most of us won’t bite.







Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Dark Waters at Galerie Chantal Crousel

Water has always been a fascinating subject-matter for artists, with its fluctuating nature and dangerous temperament, both a mirror of the soul in turmoil. The popularity of scenes at sea, ships and tempests, rose mainly amongst romantic artists of the 19th century. They never entirely left the peacefulness of pastoral scenes with their picturesque lakes and rivers, yet a definite shift occurred that made water a source of ambiguity and turmoil. Parisians lazing around on the riverside, or desperate shipwrecked sailors fighting against the waves?

Exhibition view. Photo credits: Florian Kleinefenn Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris
Jean-Luc Moulène, Drapé nuit, Paris, mars 2009

These deep, dark waters now reflected an inner melancholy or torment that the forces of nature could both show and channel. Is this romantic ideal dead? Not according to Galerie Chantal Crousel’s most recent group exhibition, Dark Waters. The theme of water is used to host a large array of interpretations in many different mediums and subjects. The arrival of water in the gallery space is welcomed by its sound as we walk in; David Douard’s sculpture MO: need sets the mood through its complex and elegant structure of plexiglas, cables, metal and flowing water, reminiscent of a urban, futuristic fountain. Its twisting forms seem to complement Jean-Luc Moulène’s Drapé Nuit, a twisting, serpentine work in rubber and epoxy resin, creating a shape “pulled inside out, creating a void…” according to the artist. It mirrors his work on paper Cristal Vague, that seems to create a strangely ordered chaos on the page.

Jean-Luc Moulène, Cristal vague, 2004, Crayon noir sur papier 28.50 x 39.50 cm | 11″ 2/8 x 1′ 3″ 4/8

The desire to seek out an abstract way of representing water and its flow, while paradoxically immobilizing it, seems to haunt many of the exhibition’s works.This is particularly true in a less abstract but more cinematic approach, with Marcel Broodthaers’ projection and video installations from the 1970s, Bateau-Tableau and Chère Petite Soeur (la Tempête). In the first, fragments of marine paintings are projected, while the second captures in motion a boat in the storm. Set into motion through film it mingles into a video collage between picture and text. The words call out on the approximate capture through the image, seem to question how we could capture a storm in any aspect, either through video, sound or image, tie in with a vaster question of the way in which we can represent at all, only attempt to record a sensation.

Exhibition view. Photo credits: Florian Kleinefenn Courtesy de l’artiste et Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris


Sometimes the most potent creations depicting water or recording its effects are those created partly by water, such as Gabriel Orozco’s Set of Ringstones, which are in fact river cobblestones he found in Mexico. In a sense the water also becomes sculptor, shaping objects just as it may shape entire environnements and people. It can either smooth out or destroy, remain pure or become “dark” in many different ways. In Darkwater IV by Tim Rollins and K.O.S, the darkness of the paint and water obscuring and destroying the pages of an old book corresponds to its content: Darkwater, Voices from Within the Veil, by W.E.B Du Bois, where “ever below is the water, – wide and silent, gray-brown and yellow.”

Wolfgang Tillmans, Buenos Aires, 2010, Inkjet print on paper in artist’s frame

It would appear as a description that is a far cry away from the introductory quote of the exhibition by Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire in Proust et le miroir des eaux:  “Reverie begins before a brook’s running water, the still water of a pond, the unpredictable water of the sea, it ends in a gloomy water that imparts strange and funerary murmurs.” Yet again, there is no concession made between the prosaic, almost documentary depiction of water and its poetic, almost abstract appeal, such as Tillmans’ Buenos Aires photograph where the down-to-earth shot of a gutter contrasts with the multitude of senses and colours it conveys with extreme precision.




Édouard Manet, Marina, 1964-1966

Most of these works I have mentioned, and those completing the exhibition as a whole, are more or less recent, from 2000 and onwards, with a few striking exceptions such as Broodthaers. These exceptions also include notably two works on paper from the end of the 19th century and early forties: the first is Marina, by Edouard Manet, a delicate and elegant etching on paper of ships at sea, a drawing reminiscent of his own maritime travels and sketches, when he was still aiming for a career in the Navy, before devoting his life entirely to his art. Its powerful dark lines contrast with the second work on paper, Untitled by WOLS (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze). His watercolour depiction of a harbour seem lyrical and dreamlike, in soft tones of yellow and blue, yet its accumulation of details reflects the time he spent at de Camp des Milles concentration camp in 1939, fighting against confinement and anxiety. The presence of the two works on paper within a contemporary display give an additional sense of the historical context and aesthetic legacy surrounding seascapes, adding to the dialogues going on within the space from one work to another.

WOLS, Sans titre, 1940-1941

The theme of ‘water’ could seem simple. Yet this group exhibition, far from only skimming the surface, delivers a thoughtful and sensitive display of an uncontrollable element that we nevertheless always manage to appropriate as our own, in abstract and poetic terms.

Featured image: Marcel Broodthaers, Chère petite soeur (La Tempête) film still, 1972


Dark Waters, at Galerie Chantal Crousel, June 12th to July 24th



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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

The Art of Marvel Superheroes at Musée Art Ludique

Marvel superheroes are not, at first sight, the most museum-savvy creatures. After all, their bold and brightly colored designs are more familiar in the pages of a comic book or on the big screen with blockbusters such as Captain America, Iron Man or the Avengers. Yet Musée Art Ludique hardly bothers itself with such labels. Its previous exhibition on Pixar’s animation had already met an enthusiastic Parisian audience in its emplacement on the Austerlitz docks next to the Seine. Directly linked to Galerie Art Ludique, focused on an art market dedicated solely to entertainment art: video games, animation (stills and concept art) and of course, comics.

affiche presse
©2014 Marvel

Comics have definitely acquired their own comfortable spot within the art world and its market – needless to say that an original Tintin page or a vintage Captain America comic from the 50s is going to attract wealthy collectors. Yet other smaller collectibles will also create a cheaper and more accessible market for many more collectors. The nostalgic power of the pages that we usually first perused as children and teenagers is strong, and the impulse to collect is even more intense with comics that create a saga over dozens if not hundreds of issues. As an avid reader of comics that has four bookshelves full of them, as well as art books, I can understand the appeal. And although the love of comics is universal, France in particular is known for its love and literary recognition of the genre.
The term comics is used here quite liberally of course: it can apply to Franco-Belgian comics, Japanese comics (also known as manga), indie comics and webcomics. American superhero comics are particular in that they possess a style and a narrative of their own that enters a kind of collective consciousness, even more than their European or Asian counterparts. Using a realistic yet exaggerated style with bright colours and muscular, heroic silhouettes, the spirit of comics is instantly recognizable. Creating an exhibition around Marvel’s superhero franchise is a clear celebration not only of their past evolution since the sixties and their present evolution within cinema. There is also a clear concern with the psychological and philosophical implications of superheroes and what they symbolize, as well as their future as cultural icons.

Stan Lee welcomes us in a video at the beginning of the exhibition and expresses his hopes to live long enough to see statues of Iron Man or Captain America being shown in museums around the world. Although any creator can deeply relate to this, there is another dimension to it: beyond their status as collectibles or movie heroes, these characters can transcend their format and become flexible within our collective imagination, become the point of focus of several stories and narratives…in short become a form of mythology in themselves.

This exhibition had an interesting format since it chose indeed not to focus category per category on comics then movies, but rather treat each character in relation to these various aspects. For example, we would move from Iron Man to Captain America along to Thor, etc. This meant that there was an immense amount of content to cover, which could have become a bit exhaustive; nevertheless the format worked, creating an mix between comic page originals and exhibits, sculpts and models from the films themselves, as well as concept art and storyboards.
The explanations showed a great balance between text and videos that were scattered throughout the exhibition, centered around various general themes: from colour symbolism to costume design through to historical and legendary origins. Stan Lee, as the co-creator of many of these characters is the centrepoint in most of them, as well as Adi Granov, the main concept artist for The Avengers’ movie franchise.

PAGE 104 e8cdf0b1-IMvsf22AG
©2014 Marvel

Yet it was an agreeable surprise to see that French voices had also been added to this discussion around comics, as a testimony to France’s serious dedication to the genre. Thus we heard from Olivier Copiel, a prominent French comics artist working for Marvel, but also from Joann Sfar and Zep, two important French artists whose work is, at first sight, quite different in its Franco-Belgian nature yet definitely inspired due to their own viewpoints and influences. A welcome presence was also that of the historian Franck Ferrand who added his own perspective on the birth of superheroes and their importance within our modern culture. For example, the fact that many of these superheroes, born in an era of Cold War and fear of the atomic bomb, were all created with a fragment of this atomic, radiation-related aspect, from a bite by a radioactive spider to a mutation in their genes caused by an elusive X chromosome. Fighting fear with a taste of its own medicine? Yes, but with an enduring flavour of athletic heroic prowess that dates back to Antiquity and that started with the Olympic Games.

Captain America: The First Avenger movie prop. ©2014 Marvel

The exhibition has an immense wealth of material to show alongside this extensive documentary aspect: original pages, concept art, even props and costumes from the films, including a peek at their new installment: Gardians of the Galaxy. The curatorial decision was to focus not on a travel through different formats but through different characters, furthermore emphasizing their adaptable nature. I would resent the overt advertising of the films themselves…but they do need to be considered as a huge part of Marvel’s influence and capacity to evolve with its time. As they explain and admit, there is a corny and kitsch aspect to a superhero that makes it difficult to adapt in a film format.

Concept Art for Captain America: First Avenger movie ©2014 Marvel

Yet Marvel pull it off very well. The element I appreciate the most about Marvel films (aside from the fact they managed to make Captain America’s uniform look dignified onscreen), is its refusal to sacrifice the main spirit and personality of their heroes in the process. DC has been veering towards increasingly dark territory in its film adaptations, easily enough with Batman but in a ridiculously far-fetched way with Superman, who became dark, gritty, prone to extreme violence and rebranded as the “Man of Steel”. Marvel keeps the ideals of its heroes at heart…as well as their weaknesses and the interest in the person behind the mask. And this ideal shines through this exhibition, touchingly intertwined with the hopes and fears of comics authors that wanted to make young people follow their dreams, or live them vicariously through their heroes.

L’Art des Super-Héros Marvel at Musée Art Ludique, from the 22nd of March to the 31st of August


Les Jeudis Arty


Many gallery-goers, I think, have once of twice experienced this feeling: a gallery that contains fascinating art, an amazing lineup of artists and…a lukewarm welcome. Nodding awkwardly at the gallery assistant, picking up one of the last press releases and ambling around the exhibition space in silence before shuffling our of the door again is not the most glamorous experience. While many galleries do encourage more interaction with visitors, this is a feeling that is most familiar in France, and particularly Paris. Even during opening nights, the atmosphere can feel a bit subdued for people that are not directly part of the art world.

Of course, gallery owners conduct a business and it is natural for them to engage mostly with public or private collections. Yet in most galleries, the exhibitions are open access and free: anyone can wander in and admire the works. And hidden within this wandering crowd that is not catered to are the future art collectors on which small galleries can survive. It is therefore in galleries’ wider interests to open up to a wider audience, both culturally and economically. This is the main idea behind Jeudis Arty: what if certain evenings during the year created the opportunity for an entire network of galleries to open their doors after hours and interact more closely with their visitors?

Alice Lebredonchel is the main creator of the Jeudis Arty and leader of the project, with the help of Caroline Turpin as the communications and marketing manager and Laure Cazaubon, responsible for relations with the galleries. Their idea is not ‘new’ as such on an international level. It is inspired directly from Alice’s experiences of London’s art scene. “First Thursdays” occuring once a month, involve galleries in the City organizing evening events and performances…galleries that have a friendlier and more open reputation than their Parisian counterparts.

The decision to emulate this type of event in the 3ème arrondissement of Paris launched a year of planning and communication with galleries. For Alice, it was often a case of finding the galleries that would already have an open, friendly viewpoint through their past events, open to new ideas. These galleries already have an innovative and participative spirit, even suggesting other galeries that would be enthusiastic about the idea, in a word-of-mouth system that was useful to the trio, helped by twenty or so volunteers from different cultural or marketing backgrounds. Any “art fair” competitivity, for Alice, was set aside to create an event around the Marais that allowed people to amble from gallery to gallery on different informal tours: opening nights, performances, or meetings with artists. There is also a possibility to pay 30 euros in order to join a private tour led by an art historian, as well as a goodie bag access to the afterparty – all sold out.

I therefore decide to remain with the free tour to meet the artists. The meeting in front of the first gallery shows a diverse array of people. Most of them are students, young professional art amateurs and gallery-goers in their spare time. They seem to confirm Alice’s expectations when I ask her what type of crowd she has been aiming for. The partnership with TimeOut and extensive use of social media confirm the main ‘target’: young, active professionals in their early twenties, dynamic and connected, that could become future collectors within galleries that offer works at affordable prices.

One Jeudis Arty enthusiast who paid for the VIP treatment described above shows me the contents of her goodie bag, the ArtyBag that contains several little gifts and perks. Our guide volunteer explains to us that they have managed to strike a great deal of partnerships with companies allowing them both to finance the entire event and these jam-packed goodie bags…as well as providing presents for the winners of their pictures competition on Instagram (#Défis Arty). Why Instagram in particular? For Alice, it is more image based than Twitter and more aesthetic, more trendy with the young audience they are attracting. It is further proof of the interactive nature of social media that could change the way we walk around exhibitions…either in galleries, or museums.

I did want to participate in this hashtag-and-filter fest…but I end up having my fair share of live interaction, as our two volunteers lead us around five or six galleries, all very diverse in their artists and approaches, from Galerie Claudine Papillon to School Gallery, passing by Gallery Polaris. A large amount of them were unknown to me and it was a pleasant discovery, complemented by the mini-guide on my programme that presented the thirty participating galleries and their individual particularities.

We meet the artists and gallery owners that give us a unique insight into their work and exhibition choices. I firstly fear an encounter with the dry and static short presentation format…but we steer far from it. The group asks questions, infers, suggests. Ideas and names are exchanged in a warm and intimate atmosphere. On our way to another gallery, we drop by another that was not on the Jeudis Arty list yet seemed interesting – and we are welcomed warmly all the same. The sense of initiative and dynamism is almost contagious, it seems, and the guides are very good at chanelling this energy while keeping us on track. The event is informal, but not messy in the slightest, with a professional sense of coordination and extensive preparation behind the scenes.

Too much in a short amount of time? I certainly feel frustrated that I have not seen all of it by the end of the evening and need to wait till the next event during the year but that is less because of the organisation and more because of the sheer amount of galleries to cover in a few hours – about thirty. And when my only complaint is wanting more of the same, more frequently…it’s usually a good sign. My only suggestion for next time would be a slightly more visible mapping system; despite the map on the programme we were frequently lost, which may have been amended with a few large signs or a more extensive knowledge of the itinerary by our guides (I can hardly claim I am better at it: I get lost in the Marais on a regular basis).

This first Jeudis Arty event was enthusiastic and ambitious. It managed to keep its promises and attract its key audience, sparking interaction and interest successfully. More than a adapted “First Thursdays” it managed to cater to a specific Parisian art world and audience, with innovative and flexible ideas. With four events a year, Jeudis Arty is still testing what it is capable of…and considering where it can expand its activities. The next edition shall most likely remain in the same area, due to the strong connections they have established there and the close proximity of the galleries to each other. In any case, I shall be there. And if you are in Paris looking for a vibrant taste of its gallery culture, you should join me next time.

Visit the Jeudis Arty site to find out more

Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Suivez mon regard at L’oeil de la femme à barbe

At the moment, it seems that Paris exhibitions are all about GIRLS. But I’ll be talking of an Parisian exhibition with a lot les press coverage but, in my books, a bit more feminist integrity. I am talking about the first inaugural group exhibition “Suivez mon regard” in the art boutique L’oeil de la Femme à Barbe”.

Located in a cosy little venue rue Quincampoix in Paris, right next to the Centre Pompidou, this first exhibition focuses around 30 women artists, using various mediums and subject-matter that weaves in and out of our notions of contemporary and decorative art.

You might wonder why L’oeil de la Femme à Barbe chose the term “boutique d’art et d’objets itinérante” (roughly translatable as “art and objects itinerant shop”) has been chosen as rather than “art gallery”.

After a discussion with the owner and curator of the exhibition, it seems as though she wants to avoid the main labels that are attached to art galleries, in her own opinion: a sense of remoteness, isolation and silence. And although I disagree, believing that the atmosphere of a gallery (and its opening nights) varies widely depending on their owners, I do understand what she means in the general sense. Indeed, when I stumble upon the boutique with a friend, we are welcomed by her with open arms, drinks and food…as well as the presence of the artists themselves. Every Sunday and Thursday they assemble to welcome visitors and talk to them about their work.

It is a clever way of taking the element that really livens up a gallery exhibition – its opening night – and repeating it once a week, every time with various artists and informal discussions. And the display itself invites this cosiness, without cluttering the space; while the first floor has a lounge with a sofa and refreshments, downstairs is a cool and spacious continuation of the exhibition, allowing for a quieter viewing.

Martha Romero, Maja Vestida and Maja Desnuda, 2011

Amongst these artists, eccentricity and humour mingled with quaint, unsetting qualities seems to be the key. Amongst them: Martha Romero’s textile sculpted canvases, in which her little feminine models emulate both religious icons and art history in their small and soft intimate frames. I also had a soft spot for Pétra Werlé, who collects bits of vegetation and dead insects in the forest and then assembles them into impish, fairy-like characters, both ethereal and organic in nature. I was able to talk to her about her practice and passion, born from a great deal of boredom in her day job and the realization that with a bit of bread dough, butterfly wings, pinecones and leaves.

Pétra Werlé, Histoires Naturelles (2005)

This creates a process of relic-like accumulation that also relates it to the work of Odette Picaud, who enjoys collecting tiny objects that she can amalgamate into sculptures that float somewhere between esoteric theatricals and nightmares, with a clear Baroque aesthetic. The love of bricolage and small scale is quite refreshing in an art world concerned with monumentality and fits in with the intimacy of the space.

Odette Picaud, La Déesse au Plumeau

In order to fall in love with the exhibition, I first fell in love with the place and its atmosphere. It possesses warmth coupled with a true sense of curating and artistic direction, showcasing emerging artists and letting them express themselves freely. And it is all about women, whether they are bearded or not. I therefore invite you to discover it if you are passing by the area, until the 19th of June – it will have some pleasant surprises in store for you.

Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Henri Cartier-Bresson at Centre Pompidou

The long wait in the queue within the Centre Pompidou betrays the exhibition’s immense popularity before I can even enter and see for myself; at any given time, there were about 300 people in the space itself, crowding around the small black and white images that established the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson as a lasting icon in terms of art, photoreportage and lyricism.

The general layout of the exhibition follows a chronological theme but shakes it up and breaks it up effectively with small rooms and a succession of small themes and motifs that created both a sense of coherence and eclecticism,mirroring Cartier-Bresson’s life but also the varying aspects of his photography. The aim of the exhibition, stated in the introduction, is to show a Cartier-Bresson of many facets. We all have an idea of Cartier-Bresson that is not always all-encompassing. And while I was aware of his beautiful photography waiting for the perfect instant in which the composition fell into place, his photoreportage for Life magazine had always resounded more clearly in my mind.

Yet the spectrum here is immense and mind-blowing. We move from Cartier-Bresson’s first experiments with photos of shop windows and mannequins,onto his travels to Africa, onto the moment where his involvement with the surrealist movement influences his work into a more dream-like and esoteric mood, contrasting with geometrically composed and almost abstract pieces. His political participation, starting with communism, pushes him into an area that is more documentary, but still as intense and focused. Taken as a prisoner of war during WWII and escaping, he captures the painful aftermath of the war in France; this will then lead to his creation of Magnum Photos, an organisation covering photoreportage around the globe. He himself shall focus his reportage on India and Central Asia, due to his fascination with the decolonisation process taking place there. Ever since his first trip to the african continent, notably its northern countries, Cartier-Bresson had rejected the exotification of many cultures still under a strict colonial regime at the time. From visual anthropology to an observation of our consumer culture and relation with technology, from portraiture to landscapes and poetry to strong social themes, Cartier-Bresson has covered all genres through his own particular black and white viewpoint (he in fact did produce colour photography but for purely documentary purposes – he disliked the distraction that colour produced from the composition and subject).

There is one notable element about this exhibition that strongly remains in my mind: the explanative texts are excellent and compelling, almost lyrical. Indeed, there is not only a concern with what Cartier-Bresson was doing in terms of subject matter at any given time but essentially the way in which his technique related to his thoughts about art, poetry and composition. For example, “l’explosante fixe” or “fixed explosion” technique describes the way he both attempts to capture “the state of an object perceived simultaneously in movement and immobile.” Another is the “érotique voilée”, or “veiled erotic” aesthetic, that involves itself in suggesting objects rather than revealing them entirely. It refers back to what André Breton called “associative and interpretative powers”, once again alluding to Cartier-Bresson’s strong Surrealist influences.

ITALY. Tuscany. Livorno. 1933.
Livorno, Tuscany, Italy, 1933, Silver gelatin print, printed in the 1980s, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Purchased thanks to sponsorship from Yves Rocher, 2011, former Christian Bouqueret Collection, Paris © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson

Another term is that of magie circonstancielle, or the “magic of circumstance”: a photograph left to capture a particular moment or gesture. The “magic” sounds dream-like, lyrical. Yet the magic of this aim can refer either to a silhouette captured mid-leap in Gare St-Lazare (Derrière la gare Saint-Lazare, 1932) or a French released prisoner captured mid-slap as she took revenge after recognizing the woman who had denounced her to the German authorities. The “magic” is either politically powerful, socially startling or strangely contemplative. More often than not, it resides somewhere between those categories.

Indeed, Cartier-Bresson’s aims as a photoreporter within Magnum Photos always had a personal cause within them, that rallied itself to a humanization and revelation of people as more than newspaper illustration backdrops. Perhaps a legacy of his involvement in photography for communist magazines before the war, they focus on the people rather than an official overview of the event. This is most obvious with his photoreports on China in the late 40s, or the everyday life of Russians following Stalin’s death.

CHINA. 1948-1949.
Crowd waiting outside a bank to purchase gold during the last days of the Kuomintang, Shanghai, China, December 1948, Silver gelatin print, printed in the 1960s, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson Collection, Paris © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson

This contrasts strongly to the attention that he then delivers towards the individual, throughout his portraiture. For an individual with a strong personality and aim, never shying away from capturing the masses, the fact of focusing on a single individual, it was revealed, was more complex, like a “question mark placed upon someone” in his terms. It relates back to a running theme throughout his works, between the instantaneous nature of photography and its abiity to take its time to create a moment unravelled in time, creating a lasting link with the viewer. The display ending as it has started with drawing, that he took up towards the end of his life, seems to conclude this thought: “Photography is an immediate action and drawing is an act of meditation.” His sketches of the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle let doubts remain: what if he had chosen drawing over photography rather than returning to it after the end of his career?

The exhibition’s aim has ultimately been to portray different aspects of Henri-Cartier Bresson yet they push this aim further by showing the extent to which his work is interconnected. His photoreportage does not lose its lyrical aspect while delivering its message and subject…nor can his contemplative artistic photographs be considered without his obsessive use of composition and mathematical precision. The desire to show so many themes without moderation or selection was risky and momentum could have been lost behind the sheer bulk of images on display. Yet the photographer always shone through, and a balance was struck between the intellectual and the traveller, the artist and the reporter.

 Henri Cartier-Bresson, Centre Pompidou, 19th of February to 9th of June.