The Mouse in the Auction House: The Collection of Disney Animation Cels


Twenty-four images.

In the context of art collecting, this number would already raise some questions. What is the relation of the images to each other? What is the collector’s intent and choice of display? Yet the idea of a coherent whole in a collection never replaces the idea that we can contemplate one of these twenty-four images on its own.

Twenty-four images in the context of animation is a different matter. They are what is necessary to create one second of animated film. Animation celluloids, or ‘cels’, are the transparent sheets on which a character is drawn and painted before being photographed against the background of the scene. This process is painstakingly repeated with thousands of these cels, to create approximately one hour of film. None of the images are meant to stand out from the rest – instead, they are purposefully meant give the impression of a dynamic continuity. We do not look at images, but an entire experience complemented by voices and music.

Now visualize a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, from the Disney’s 1940 animated feature Fantasia. Imagine freezing the film on a particular frame…which would be worth 35 250 dollars. Far from a mere speculation, this precisely what happened to an animation cel from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, sold at Sotheby’s in June 2000.

This is not an exceptional occurrence. Indeed, ever since the 1980s, the collecting of animation cels at a high price, particularly Disney animation artwork, has become important for large auction houses such as Sothebys’ or Christies’. Items that were sold for five dollars by Disney art galleries increasingly became more valuable and rare.

What do collectors truly value through the collection of these cels? Why collect images that were not even meant to be viewed outside of a sequence of images, never separated from sound and action?

It could be the appreciation of the complexity and beauty of the creation of an animation film, represented through a mere cel like a single stone from a great cathedral. The comparison with a cathedral is not as fanciful as it first appears. The amount of people involved in the creation of an animated film is immense, and they shall remain largely anonymous to non-specialists in the field.

This single cel representing Mickey in Fantasia evidently shows this problem of “authorship”: although the idea of Mickey as the Apprentice originated from Disney, his appearance is the result of the work of the animator Fred Moore, who created a new character design for Mickey,  under the supervision of the animation director Perce Pearce for the entire sequence of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”…which was then animated by  Les Clark.

Yet these names are generally forgotten in the process. Two words remain to explain the appeal to a collector: “Disney” and “Mickey.” For Pierre Lambert, animator and writer on the subject, and an Animation Art Consultant at Christies’ at the time of his interview by Deborah Reber in 1997, the animation cel has its own set of criteria that can influence its price and by whom it is collected. The name of the studio is obviously crucial: Disney, as one of the most famous and oldest animation studios, monopolizes the market.

Yet, the character appearing in the image is just as important in determining value. Do collectors of Rubens care more about the god or allegory that appears in the painting than the name of the artist? It is not likely. However, cartoon characters – modern-day icons and “gods” of popular culture – still have a hierarchy that is meaningful to collectors.

Yet the most important element in the collecting of animation is for me, that of nostalgia. The fact that the animated feature entirely drawn by hand ceased to be used in the beginning of the 1990s is directly related to the explosion of the value of animation cels for collectors. The most masterful animated features now use entirely digital animation, or combine hand-drawn animation with modern technology; the idea, therefore, of looking at a piece of a tradition that is now extinct is a powerful one.

Yet the nostalgia extends beyond that of the love for a craft. If the tastes and interests of collectors of Modernist art are those that they have acquired through time, the collector of animation cels is returning to the world of wonder and emotion that he experienced as a child, and celebrating these memories by acquiring one amongst thousands of images that made this experience possible. Just as the single cel captures a movement frozen for ever, the collector attempts to capture that moment that made a part of his childhood magical, making him, in the words of Pierre Lambert, “a child who never grew up.”

Originally published in the Edgar Wind Journal “Collecting” issue, June 2012, Oxford

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.


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.

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.

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.


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.


Moke, Kin Oyé, 1983, oil on canvas, private collection, paris, (c) Moke, photo (c) André Morin
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.

Pili Pili_04_HD
Pili Pili Mulongoy, Untitled, undated, oil on paper, Collection Pierre Loos, Brussels, (c) Pili Pili Mulongoy, photo (c) André Morin


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.

Antoinette Lubaki, Untitled, watercolour on paper, Collection Pierre Loos, Brussels, (c) Antoinette Lubaki, photo (c) Michael De Plaen
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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Martial Raysse, Rétrospective at Centre Pompidou (Café Powell)

Hello readers! As you may know from my About page I am French and British…which means that French is another language that I love to use when I write about exhibitions I have seen. Having recently joined Café Powell, a French webzine that specializes in cultural reviews, I am glad to say that I am writing articles in both languages now! You can find my first article here, in French, about the Martial Raysse retrospective at the Centre Pompidou.

This exhibition, open until the 22nd of September was a fascinating exploration into Martial Raysse’s involvement in the pop art scene and his subsequent detachement from it to pursue his own pathway, between surrealism, pop culture and classic references. I recommend it warmly to anyone spending some time in Paris…if your eyes find no difficulty in adjusting to flickering neons and acidic colours.

I am staying in Paris for a while, and with the exception of a few trips to London in which I sneak in several visits to exhibitions, I will be focusing around Parisian events. As usual I will follow my personal interests…but if there is something you really want a review about, or if you just want to say a few things about exhibitions happening in your corner of the world…do let me know in the comments!


Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Ilya and Emilia Kababov, The Strange City at the Grand Palais – MONUMENTA 2014

Museums have always been compared to churches: a sacred sphere in which contemplation, hushed voices and a slow, ambling pace around works to admire or ‘worship’ them is familiar. There is something ritualistic in the way in which we walk around an exhibition space following a specific route. And although being asked to quieten down or put phones away annoys us, we still abide by the rules. Rules in red against white walls are welcome us first within the Strange City of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, in their Monumenta installation at the Grand Palais.

“You are entering the Strange City. Please follow its rules: No cellphones. Lower your voices. No selfies.”

I was used to the ban on cellphones or, apparently, raising your voice in a space made holy by its adherence to an artistic event taking place every year within the great Parisian edifice. The ban on selfies, however, was a first. It added a layer of elusiveness and a pinch of humour to this impressively immaculate and sanitized environment and its large outer walls housing a myriad of corridors and arches.

IMG_1945In a large, bare expanse of space a large conical sculpture emulating the stained glass window of a cathedral changes colour just as different sounds chime from within its structure. A small crowd congregate in front of it and take pictures, remain there a while to witness the change in colours and chimes, fascinated. In the large empty expanse of space provided by the Grand Palais, no-one seems willing to transgress the rule on raised voices.


Ilya et Emilia Kabakov, Etude pour Le Centre de l’énergie cosmique, dessin, Monumenta 2014 © Ilya et Emilia Kabakov / ADAGP, Paris 2014

This seems perfectly on par with Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s aims with Monumenta this year: the creation of a large utopian city, where architecture meets idealism and spiritualism. The intent of both Russian artists from the same family, as uncle and niece, seems to be centred around the relation of us, the visiting “city-dwellers” to our environnment and the way it may change and influence us. As I walk through a set of pavillions, with a small dark curtain welcoming me inside, the impressions mingle between experimentation and imaginary concepts for the ideal city. Through one door, an elaborate model shows the way in which a futuristic centre could absorb spiritual energy from the noosphere – a ring around the Earth in which the ideas, creativity and genius of humankind are not lost but constantly reinjected into our collective consciousness. In the same aesthetic, a model in another room shows the reconstruction of Manas, a mystical city in Peru surrounded by eight mountains that concentrate into the lake at the centre of the town their spiritual energy. A woman next to me points out, a bit bafflingly, “This is a bit clearer.”


Ilya et Emilia Kabakov, Etude pour Manas , dessin, Monumenta 2014 © Ilya et Emilia Kabakov / ADAGP, Paris 2014

It is difficult for me to see in which sense any of this is “clearer” – firstly because it is impossible for a clear sense of direction and order to be felt within a strange city in which it is not strange to get lost, due to the uniformity of its exteriors. A scattering of helpful “mediators” and plans still do not allievate the fact that most visitors are walking around in a disorientated manner trying not to enter the same room three times in a row (like me).

Ilya et Emilia Kabakov, Etude pour Les Portails, dessin, Monumenta 2014 © Ilya et Emilia Kabakov / ADAGP, Paris 2014

Yet in terms of content, she does have a point. The Kabakovs’ have created a little world of fictional stuctures and mysticism made into architectural projects, and the conceptual jargon that they wrap around their creations can often appear as slightly obtuse or weighty. The creative impulse itself is created around a concept for many of these exhibits. The models, extremely concise and mathematical in their creation and projection of a large-scale work, contrast with the research around them, works on paper that are far messier and more colourful, more vibrant than the sanitized and tame models that end up being their end product. They range from the futuristic, with the cosmic spiritual centre, to a mixture between philosophy, tragedy and comedy as we are instructed “how to meet an angel.” This section is touching, almost a bit too corny yet graceful. It probably earned a few laughs when it described how to earn your wings by creating a giant feathered harness that you must then wear alone in your room for several hours without being seen by your family or friends, like the average blogger.



Ilya et Emilia Kabakov, Etude pour Le Musée vide, aquarelle, Monumenta 2014 © Ilya et Emilia Kabakov / ADAGP, Paris 2014

There are darker aspects to this airy and meditative rambling through the various pavillions; from the models we go onto a room that is in sharp contrast with the others; here the only display is shown through a red, baroque-like wall, chairs for the visitors and organ music blaring all around us. The ‘Empty Museum’ makes us sit down within comfortable armchairs in an environnment that remains nevertheless unsettling, eerie. In the same spirit, the White Chapel and the Black Chapel are rooms that are alike to fragments of a museum in which the artworks are either missing from the wall and replaced with large empty grids, or on the contrary mashed together in an absurd collage of various styles and moods.

Ilya et Emilia Kabakov, Etude pour La Chapelle blanche, maquette, Monumenta 2014 © Ilya et Emilia Kabakov / ADAGP, Paris 2014

It is easy – perhaps too easy – to create a clear link between the artists’ experience of the USSR and the utopian, tragi-comical structures that reflect either the desire to control spirituality or escape reality, imagine new spaces that are both ethereal and based in carefully planned buildings and concepts. Yet, although this should not be excluded, it is not an answer or a key to understanding the city, either in a positive, negative, or bittersweet light.

There is also an aim for self-reflection, on a smaller personal scale. Utopia is a collective endeavour yet in this “strange city” no-one speaks properly until they have left its walls, and there is something soothing about getting lost within its walls alone in an aimless pilgrimage. The Kabakovs create a scene that takes from the past and the future yet revolves around our present lives, and the act of stepping out of it for a moment – without the selfie or cellphone. The rules, rather than a command of religious or ritualistic mimicrky, become a simple invitation to find a new way of evolving within a space and sharing it. Ironically, as I leave, a panel urges me to tweet my impressions to #Monumenta2014. Maybe I will…but not within the Strange City.


Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Robert Mapplethorpe, Grand Palais

Retrospectives are sometimes difficult to consider with an overly critical eye because the overview of an artist’s life and work is inevitably going to follow pathways that can only be assessed coherently by following his life within a chronological order. Yet this sometimes passes off as a formula, something that is known and rehearsed. If it is done without attention to themes and motifs it can quickly become weighty…especially due to the sheer bulk of art to cover, often accompanied by extensive documentation and a biography that weaves in and out of our assessment of the works.

When retrospectives choose to discard a linear format, and work with thematics regardless of chronology, this can work extremely well…depending on the artist. It can also potentially become confusing and misleading. So how did the retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe at the Grand Palais, the first in France since his death in 1989 fit into this?

We are welcomed into the exhibition, surprisingly enough, by Mapplethorpe’s iconic self-portrait shorty before he died of AIDS, clutching a staff whose skull-shaped tip, clearly in focus, contrasts with a pale intent face fading against a dark background. Powerful and elegiac, the portrait announces the risky yet refreshing stance of the exhibition: a reverse chronology, travelling back into time from the point of departure of the photographer’s death, back up to the very beginning…as the introduction points out, a beginning whose themes already predict the work of the end of his life. We start onto a exhibition route that is reversed, an anti-clockwise that physically joins the entrance with the exit…and also devoid of words.

IMG_1837Another risk taken in this exhibition is, indeed, the absence of biographical texts. Usually, most exhibitions have a block of text at the beginning of each section that shows how his life at that point reflected his work and influences. Yet the only texts were a few quotes dotted along the walls. This considerably lightened the visit itself, but added to it rather than creating an empty space. This retrospective contained 250 photographs and I can honestly admit that I did not see them pass by, absorbing the visual and wandering around, sometimes venturing back to compare one work with another. This allowed the audience to draw its own conclusions about Mapplethorpe’s life and ideas.


The atmosphere was quiet, contemplative, oddly fitting beneath the solemn gazes of his subjects in black and white but sometimes at odds with the energy of his pictures. There is definitely a requiem-like feeling in the environnment which is muted into greyscale: the walls are painted in various nuances of grey, a soft dark grey carpet on the floor mutes our footsteps and the frames of the photographs vary beween black and white. Pale violet-pink lighting from above softens this atmosphere somehow, perhaps also reflecting the erotic undertones that weave themselves into his work from beginning to end. Was this perhaps a bit too subdued for an artist who obviously enjoyed capturing tension, movement and sexual energy?

Milton Moore, 1981 (Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York)

Perhaps. In another sense, it corresponds to the photographic style of an artist who did not only want to capture sexuality, gender presentation and bodily performances, but also celebrate them as part of an elevated artistic ideal, taking inspiration from the cool marble of roman statues while acknowledging the antique culture’s raunchier aspects.

Thomas, 1987 (Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York)
Fabrice, 1978 and Sleeping Cupid, 1989 (Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York)

We therefore begin with his last works: photographs of classical statues that mingle photographs of his models engaging in various poses that emulate the classical ideal and also charge it with a new sensuality, as the camera focuses on skin, and depictiction of portraits, of the body in movement or immobile, whole or fragmented by either a concentration. These subjects are torn between erotic and ideal, marble and flesh, classical tradition and controversy (notably concerning the heavy criticism of Man in a Polyester Suit, disucssed in his biography).


They complement the still-life photograph of flowers, either in black and white or in colour, that reflect both a fragile ephemeral nature…and a phallic one, perhaps reminiscent of Georgia O’ Keefe’s paintings.

IMG_1861After a section on catholicism and the way it influenced his work and depiction of the body, the idea of icons and gender subversion is presented through two women central to his work, Patti Smith and Lisa Lyon. The first was at some point his lover and they collaborated together on Horses, sharing an intimacy and intensity that is reflected through his pictures of her; the second was a bodybuilder that reminded him of Michelangelo’s muscular women, which motivated to capture the power of her body, both in photography and through film (Lady, in 1984, with mystical and religious tones that once again mingled his catholic upbringing with a bodily ideal). Featured are also his numerous self-portraits, in which he explores and confronts his face in terms of gender presentation and sexuality, very much in the same spirit as Andy Warhol.

Patti Smith alongside Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait
Lisa Lyon

We move on to another assessment of the icon, through familiar faces such as Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois or Cindy Sherman all congomerated onto a wall, creating a giant game of “who’s who.”

IMG_1879The only room that escapes the cool grey aesthetic as well as a lack of space is the only room that is forbidden to minors (under 18, in France). Sure enough, it contains most of the erotic content that makes Mapplethorpe famously controversial…in a deep purple setting with fringed curtains at the entrance, as though we were suddenly launched into a faux sex shop setting. Having the room closed off completely from the rest created a voyeuristic and secretive atmosphere that corresponded to the pictures’s nature, without becoming too extravagant or sleazy. After all, Mapplethorpe’s intention was to show that for him, art and sex were to be treated on the same level, elevated and demystified rather than debased, as he explains: “Photography and sexuality are both compatible. They are both unknown. And this is what excites me.” A more platonic take on his words is presented, below, after leaving the enclosed space.

IMG_1892As the exhibition ends with his biography and, on the wall facing it the first snapshots of his career the exploration of relations between the aesthetic and the body, sex and personalities is evident and closes off an exhibition that chose to concentrate on the visual and its interconnections rather than a clearer biographic overview or documentation.

Was it a good retrospective format for someone already aware of Mapplethorpe and his work, his positive and negative aspects? Absolutely. For someone entirely new to his art…probably less so and yet the reverse chronology is perhaps efficient in dispelling a certain number of preconcieved myths, letting us draw our own conclusions. Was this the best retrospective format? No…but it was one that was adapted to his work and personality, with elegance and originality.

Pictures/Self Portrait, 1977

Robert Mapplethorpe, 26th March to 13th July 2014, Grand Palais

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The EY Exhibition: Paul Klee – Making Visible at the Tate Modern

Klee encompasses all that we expect of the modern artist. Starting his career at the turn of the century, caught between one war and the foreshadowing of another, the exploration of form mingled with ideology and political tension, the research for the transcendance of colour beyond personal struggles. All too often however, despite Klee’s formal detachment from his time and perseverance to depict despite his inner demons rather than constantly mirror them in his work, this seems to be what we focus upon.

We remember the artist struggling with a degenerative disease destroying his body. We remember the member of the Blaue Reiter, the case study of the artist facing the rise of antisemitism and seeing his work dubbed as degenerate art by a party he was forcibly opposed to and that he escaped from at the earliest opportunity. But do we often have a sense of the artist as a methodic, modernist researcher of form and colour? Of the artist as art teacher at the Bauhaus period? The exhibition at the Tate does not want to leave anything out concerning this artististic and technical process and through this retrospective attempts to conciliate several aspects of Paul Klee; Klee as the witness of war with Klee the teacher, Klee the  tragic artist with Klee the meticulous promoter of his own work through carefully curated exhibitions and precise documentation and cataloguing. With a  desire to trace throughout Klee’s entire career, the exhibition let us follow into the footsteps that led him into aspects of cubism and abstraction, leading us through several periods of his life that have all to a certain degree influenced his works and his perception of the world. A timeline retraces his life at the beginning of the exhibition and, as per usual, a small explanatory text introduces each new section. The exhibition is chronological, and the works as such do not enter within distinct categories of genre or medium. Each room represented one or two years of his career, from the beginning to his unfortunate, early end.

Watercolours are juxtaposed next to oil transfers and larger paintings, both lavish and self-contained.

They're Biting 1920 by Paul Klee 1879-1940
They’re Biting, 1920, watercolour and oil (Image source:

His abstract works happily cohabitate with his dreamlike, humorous and almost surrealist scenes of fish and fishermen and fantastical creatures that belong to his own personal, secret narratives, showing either inner peace through the fish flitting through planes of colour, or turmoil as distorted figures of witches create jarring and mesmerising  thick lines and jagged dancing whirls upon the canvas, in the last years of his life.

Fish-Magic,1925 (Image source:
Forest Witches, 1938, oil on paper
Forest Witches, 1938, oil on paper (Image source: Wikimedia).

They contrast with the vibrant colours of a serene still life with flowers, the last work he ever sent out to the exhibition he was unable to curate due to his illness, shortly before his death.

The evolution and technical process appears clearly as the exhibition evolves, and letting the work speak for themselves is complemented by clear explanations concerning the techniques that Klee elaborated – such as his oil transfers or his gradient stripes of colour creating a tonal shift that allows him to explore colour theory in his work as well as teach it. In fact, these were my favourite parts of the exhibitions…and I would have preferred to see more of the same.  I also discovered aspects of his work I was unaware of before (such as his experimentations with pointillism).

Seaside Resort in the South of France, 1927
Seaside Resort in the South of France, 1927 (Image source:
Adventures of a Young Lady, 1922 (Image source:

Most of the explanatory text was concerned with delivering quotes about other people concerning Klee and his attitude towards his own art…yet seldom were by him about his own work, aside from those key quotes that always make it in large letters on the wall. All in all, the main focus seemed to be on Klee’s time as a teacher and the way that this influenced his work – this was at least the theme dedicated to the largest rooms.

Something that does tend to happen with exhibitions featuring small works, and works on paper, is the tendency to cram them together in a smaller space. When managed successfully this could pass off as “intimate”. When visitors have to shuffle past each work or crowd around to see it, intimacy as an accurate term is akin to describing the Central Line during rush hour as “cosy”. But this was certainly not the case. The rooms are large and spacious, leaving sufficient space for the small, luminous works to breathe…and for the visitors to breathe as well. No-one was struggling for space to see the works…although it could also be argued that the white space surrounding the works could sometimes menacingly  dwarf the works that they are meant to showcase.

Most of the time, the works could be approached and appreciated up close…apart from several roped-off works that triggered an obnoxious alarm every time you approached them too closely.Other than that – the works were presented beautifully, in an airy space that remained thankfully devoid of too much cluttering or colour, letting the works speak for themselves. Grasping the transparent luminescence of one of his watercolours, the fine ink lines of his spontaneous yet delicate drawings is a pleasure that the eye washes upon without effort, the intensity of the shapes and tones he pieces together always an eternal source of inspiration. The works shone through the display and lighting.

There is a slight discrepancy between the notion of artist process and progress and the fact that ultimately, these are all finished works. I was expecting more drafts, more first versions, scrapped versions and tentative splashes to test the numerous colour schemes. Having solely finished work to accompany an exhibition concerning the research and creativity of an artist can fall slightly short…but the flawless presentation of the works and their immense diversity makes up for this. In the same way, I would have liked to see more documentation about his life, Klee as the cultured violinist we are told about in the beginning of the exhibition…before this fact is cast aside and not really brought up throughout the rest of the exhibition.

However, the bewildered question of a visitor to one of the museum guards does sum up the main problem.“How many rooms are there?” 17 was the answer. And with a desire to cram everything into one exhibition while at the same time while not providing an overall clear focus or pathway…the exhibition does tend to drift off-course at certain times. I enjoy exhibitions that throw me upon a route, a journey, capturing my interest and making me leave an exhibition with a slightly different viewpoint on the artist than when I first entered. In a sense this did happen…but I feel as though I had to hang on tight for this to happen. What I certainly feel is that anyone without a certain knowledge of Klee before entering the exhibition might feel slightly lost. I feel as through a retrospective should be less concerned with finding all it can and more concerned with showcasing less and making us focus more upon the key points of his career. It could have been more tight-knit and although I loved the exhibition in itself albeit my criticism of it, I know that feelings around me were more than mixed, finding it either too monotonous or too busy…if not a mix of both. But maybe this is something that has less to do with the curating of the Klee exhibition and more to do with the format of retrospectives and their struggle of quantity and coherence versus quality.

Despite some problems in managing the general focus of the exhibition in my opinion, the formal qualities and transformations of Klee were beautifully handled and displayed. Yes, there were a few shortcomings. But did the exhibition make the complexity and diversity of Klee’s experimentation in colour and medium visible? It certainly did.

Fire in the Evening 1929 (© 2013 Digital Image, the Museum of Modern Art, New York/ Scala. Florence. Image source: