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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Alighiero Boetti at Tornabuoni Art Paris

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

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

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

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

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

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

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

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

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

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

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

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

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

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Exhibition review Paris Uncategorized

Seydou Keïta at the Grand Palais

“You look beautiful like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Goya: The Portraits, at The National Gallery

What we make of an artist’s career after he is long gone often, inevitably, is at odds with the artist’s own intentions. Goya wanted to be known for his portraiture, and in his particular his ambitious role as a court portrait painter. He could hardly predict that the vision we have of him mainly conjure the cruel denunciations of Horrors of War engravings, or the dark creativity of Black Paintings, as well as his harsh, biting satire of Spanish society and fantastical sabbats in Caprichos.

Competing with the hype of drama, horror and scandal is a challenge for the first exhibition devoted solely to Goya’s portraiture, all the more when it starts off slowly. Goya in the first rooms is shown not as the tragic, deaf artist we all know and love, but as a late bloomer, only just starting his career in portraiture in his late thirties and whose true ambition is to become the official portrait painter of the royal family. Only a handful at this early stage allow small and often enigmatic glimpses into the informality and sincerity he will try and cultivate in later paintings. This sense of intimacy is taken to an almost bizarre extent with the vast composition juxtaposed to it, The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbon. The theory of the curator, Xavier Bray, is that Goya is comparing his role and that of the portraitist directly to that of the barber, listening in on court gossip…

The amount of noble and royal collections that follow in quick succession are a testimony to Goya’s ambition, but not all complete masterpieces, building up a career in progress and a patient, painstaking learning curve, leaving room for flaws as well as gems.  These are not all the most memorable paintings, nor are they particularly set out as such, more as a patient build-up to Goya’s maturing portraiture. A shorter selection would have allowed for a faster pace and more concentration on Goya’s earlier blend of tenderness and delicacy, searching for a stable identity and brand measuring up to his ambition and pride.

 

Countess of Altamira with her daughter, 1787-88

Francisco de Goya, The Countess of Altamira and Her Daughter, María Agustina, 1787-8, Oil on canvas, 195 x 115 cm, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.148) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The visitor witnesses the gradual transformation of style and substance in Goya’s portraits, the elimination of slightly hard lines and postures of previous portraits and the creation of a mesh of light, colour and brushwork that is more soft and diffuse, not concentrated equally around the canvas but focusing on specific elements. Interestingly, the moment this style reaches full maturity is the moment where, slightly confusedly, the exhibition veers away from the chronology indicated by the “First Portraits” rooms and focuses on particular themes. So far, Goya had succeeded in securing a comfortable position at court, but yearned for more that the royal tapestry commissions he regularly received. Perhaps this frustration led him further into painting not only royals and nobles but also the enlightened spirits of the time, men of power and responsibility who seem to let him grasp further than appearance and symbolism. His liberal ideals and those of the Enlightenment shine through these quiet, introspective portrayals.

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Francisco de Goya, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, 1798, Oil on canvas, 205 x 133 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid P03236 © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos’ portrait shows the Minister of Grace and Justice as through taking a break from work and from the task of reforming Spain, melancholic and weighed down yet determined at his desk. Layers of depth and meaning let us leave the sincerity struggling to seep through the stateliness in the previous rooms: if this room starts with a self-portrait of Goya posing in his studio, like a small advertising billboard, it ends with a starkly intense reflection in the mirror, in black and white. There is something particularly startling about this confrontation – the realization that we are engaging in a dialogue with these sitters conducted via Goya’s intense gaze.

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Francisco de Goya, Self Portrait, 1795-7, Brush and grey wash on laid paper, 15.3 x 9.1 cm, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1935 (35.103.1) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The idea of Goya treading the line between the flattery of portraiture and the honesty of his gaze, laying bare his sitter’s souls with audacity and, to a certain extent, because he had the skills to get away with it, is very attractive to us.Despite the subtle flattery that Goya weaves onto his double hanging portraits of Charles IV and Maria Luisa in her fashionable mantilla, they still exude a relaxed confidence that does not need props or backdrop – indeed here the backdrops are outdoors, adding a sense of softness to the scene but also a strange theatricality. Opposite them hangs a portrait that is both spectacular and far more elusive, as well as one of Goya’s most famous portraits: the Duchess of Alba, whose portrait radiates charisma and aloofness, more fantasy than reality.

Maria Luisa with Mantilla 1799

Francisco de Goya, María Luisa wearing a Mantilla, 1799, Oil on canvas, 205 x 130 cm, Colecciones Reales, Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real de Madrid © Patrimonio Nacional

Yet this idea is thrown off by the tumultuous shifts in governments that occur from 1808 onwards that hardly gives room for picking sides. Just as Goya condemns the horrors of war he does not have his say after the installation of Joseph Bonaparte at court, and paints the returning monarch and tyrant Ferdinand VII  in just the same way.  Is the portrait of the King truly meant to depict him in such a subtly spiteful and shallow way with his beefy face and his body dripping with pompous regalia, or are we inferring too much? This is the flip side to the depictions of the “horrors of war” that Goya portrays elsewhere and creates a far more ambivalent and realistic portrait of the painter as a man bound to a job rather than the visionary satire and denunciation which may compromise it. It may not be the aspect of Goya we enjoy the most, but it is perhaps the most realistic.

The exhibition only just decides to tackle the impact that Goya’s deafness has had on his portraiture in the penultimate even though he has in fact been deaf ever since his illness in 1793. The display’s presentation of the paintings of his friends, shows that these were all the more important to him since he was not able to communicate with them as he usually did and probably relied on the closeness of a portrait sitting to do so. This is without a doubt, with the last room depicting his last portraits and his family, the most touching and powerful part of the exhibition. It is the moment in which these portraits become people and establish a relation with us, creating a true emotion and presence that goes beyond the original context and material life of an object destined to hang in a private home or office. The warmth and raw honesty of Martin Zapater’s portrait is a face to face testimony to the strong love between the two childhood friends whose record lives on through correspondence.

 

Portrait of Martín Zapater, 1797

Portrait of Martín Zapater, 1797, oil on canvas, Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (c) Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa – Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

The last room is like a quiet farewell already steeped in a certain degree of darkness, suggesting the turmoil of the Black Paintings, for instance, in Goya’s self-portrait of himself as a fading, desperate man held up by the doctor who saved him and for which he offered the painting as a sign of gratitude. Even then, the tenderness and love of his family portraits, from sketches and miniatures to a portrait of his adored grandson, shows another, ultimate side of Goya. The dark Romantic visionary has left a little room for several other lesser-known Goyas – the friend, the intellectual, the ambitious courtier, and the proud and doting grandfather.

Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, 1820

Francisco de Goya, Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, 1820, Oil on canvas, 114.6 × 76.5 cm, Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, 52.14 © Minneapolis Institute of Art

The exhibition succeeds in making Goya’s portraiture not only relevant but relatable – faces and glimpses of personalities that we can recognize, identify with, laugh at, or wish to know better. It somehow tricks you into believing this is going to be a somehow technical and slightly dry account of Goya’s evolution as a portraitist at the beginning but transcends these biographical and technical barriers.

While the rythm is slow to begin with it becomes flowing and effortless, creating a walk-through that is easygoing and feels shorter than it is – in the best of ways. Small rooms with warm, welcoming colours and lighting allowed for an intimate navigation in between works that was all the more heightened by the inclusion of the captions in a visitor booklet rather than on the wall, allowing wandering around and autonomy.  The intensity and depth of his portrayals has a special depth and presence within the succession of rooms that is strangely heartening. I emerged from it with the need to return to see a few particular portraits again before they leave London again – like visiting old friends.

 

 

 

 

Categories
Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Bruce Nauman at Fondation Cartier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview London

TalkAbout Guides

Visiting a museum or gallery can be a silent and solitary moment, despite the people surrounding us. More than once I feel that I am missing out on a great deal of discussion in front of a work of art with fellow visitors but no opportunity is given to me in order to change that.

Yet this notion is being challenged by a new generation of gallery-goers. Previously on this blog, Les Jeudis Arty were opening up art galleries to a larger Parisian audience. This time TalkAbout Guides, an Oxford-based company, are sparking off lively conversations in museums.

Eliza Easton, Communications Director for Talk About Guides, tells me all about the frustration of quiet art galleries, asking the right questions, and why overzealous shushing in museums alienates us all.

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What is the general concept of TalkAbout?
Eliza Easton: So the idea came from the fact that there was a group of us that were really frustrated with the way people were approaching art galleries that we worked in, and that people in contemplation thought of as appropriate. It was almost like a library, where you were only allowed to think about the works themselves…whereas I think that as a student the really enjoyable part about my course was having conversations about the artwork that can even be quite frivolous at times, and feeling really comfortable doing that. So that was why we started doing that. And the way we approached tackling that problem was to create kind of conversation-starting questions. So there’s a whole range of questions on different themes. And those questions invite conversations, specifically conversations that encourage you to look at the artwork closer but also encourage you to talk more to the person that you’re with. Because you remember things far better if you actually have someone to remember them with you, it’s really basic psychology. We felt that this was a problem that we tackled.

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What does the project look like, how is it used by the visitor?
E: The form that it takes at the moment is a set of five cards, each with three questions. They are fold-out cards so the questions are sort of revealed to you on an individual theme, a theme like love or beauty, or death, or fantasy… Sometimes they are themes around a specific event: we are doing one for the Breath Festival, which is themed around breath, different types of ideas to do with being alive. They come in an envelope, you can take them out, you can also keep them to have a physical reminder of the discussion. You give them to friends, to invite them to have this journey with you, or take the same journey with a different person…

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How are the themes chosen out of a wide range of subjects? Is it something that’s more of your personal preference, or is it based on feedback?
E: It completely depends on the project we’re working on. Sometimes they are separate projects, like I mentioned with the Breath Festival, working out how to present the subject of breath. Obviously we work in the galleries themselves. For example we’re doing a project at the Ashmolean at the moment on Schubert and Goethe, and we’re doing different themes within one pack based around that. The questions can be varied anyway, even within their theme. And then for another project at Waddesdon Manor where we had three themes…we actually went round, had a look, then had a meeting with some of the curators who were interested, kind of bounced ideas off them, suggested three final themes and they accepted them. If they had thought of different themes we would bounce that round a bit more. It’s similar with the objects: we go round, choose the objects, and communicate our choices to the curators. Whether they say yes to all of them, or yes to one of them, we work from that point onwards.

So really, it’s a tailored, custom-made theme for every single institution…which could take quite a lot of time I imagine. What’s the time lapse between the moment where you start collaborating with the institution and the final actual product that can be used by visitors?
E: It’s a really funny thing because first of all it’s quite a long time just because of the way that museums work! So they have to budget for things a long time in advance. So we can only take it as fast as they can take it. So they’ll decide they’re going to do it but they might not OK the objects for another two months…and so, you have it on the boil but it’s not taking up much time. The thing that does take us a long time is working out the questions. It’s a little bit design-dependant as well so if the museum wants their own design for the card, then obviously you have to work with the designer. The Ashmolean uses their own designer to help us, so it’s hard to find but they help us orchestrate it. For each question, each set of five questions between about five thinkers, question-seekers, it probably takes…four sessions, so probably eight hours for five cards. Five cards, each with three questions…fifteen questions in eight hours.

So it also takes quite a lot of time back and forth, checking that everybody in the team is okay with the questions?
E: Yes! It’s actually quite difficult to think up questions that are meant for a conversation. There are so many questions that have a yes or no answer and that people can laugh off but we choose questions that make sure people will start talking. The other thing is, we always drive ourselves in a bit of a passionate state because we’re so interested in the questions, they’re great philosophical, aesthetic or intellectual questions…It’s interesting because we’re going start bringing in other people to work on specific projects, it’ll be exciting. So at the moment we’re working on a training program to help people learn how to answer the questions. We’re looking for a kind of consultancy situation where we will have a pool of people who each have different specialties. For example, say, if you knew a lot about history of art and you knew specifically about a subject for a project then could we go to our list and look at it to select you. If we’re working on a project involving Schubert and we have somebody who knows a lot about music it’s useful to have them on board. So that’s how we can improve it a little bit at a time, because having a basic knowledge can help for a lot of things but people having selective, focused specialties on certain subjects can make everything more coherent. We also have something called a question bank, which is a big list of really interesting questions that we think up in our daily lives and that we want to get them to be talked about more at some point but we’re are still waiting on it.

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Do you think there is a definite problem of museums and cultural institutions intimidating people into silence?
E: I think it has more to do with the democratization of museums. I think that when it was all just the upper classes visiting, everyone felt comfortable because they all had training…Now everyone visits them which is such a positive thing but there’s still a problem especially in the UK where you don’t learn about art and you just don’t talk about it. So of course it’s going to be alienating. In Waddesdon Manor where I worked, you could see little schoolkids walking through and their teachers would go “Shh! Shh!” shushing them into silence, because they’re pointing out, going “What’s that?!”…but I think that’s exactly what most curators want! Especially since it’s a house meant to be visited, interacted with.

My mum is a teacher and she was showing her schoolchildren through the Musée d’Orsay…where they kept being shushed by the guard! It’s stupid because these places attract a lot of people and yet they don’t want them to interact fully with the works…
E: Yes, it’s not a straightforward dialogue. It should be a conversation…that is what’s really puzzling for me. A silent art gallery is great but it should also be a place for conversation. Otherwise it’s so intimidating! It’s like being in a library…which is nice on one hand, art is also meant to be appreciated when you’re alone, but…it should be something more.

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It’s kind of like John Berger in Ways of Seeing comparing people’s visions of museums to churches.
E: Yeah but even in churches, people sing, you know? There’s something communal about it whereas in art galleries everyone walks off on their own.

Yes it’s true. Especially with audioguides…What do you think about audioguides in general as a way to engage with the art?
E: Basically I think that audioguides can be a really good thing but they can also be intensely alienating and going into the room with people listening to audioguides and being the only one without them is always weird. I think also that the Internet made it so easy to find out facts… if you’re interested in a piece and you want to go home and find out facts about it, become more knowledgeable about it, that’s easy to do. You just need to be able to remember the piece in the first place. And if you’re not doing that, if you’re just accumulating facts, facts, facts and you’re not enjoying yourself, and not really sure which direction you’re going in…it’s not that great. About audioguides, it’s a weird thing that they are so normal. Maybe there should be a way of making use of what you already know to fill in blanks rather than cutting people off from each other.

How would you picture TalkAbout evolving, about one year from now? What direction do you think it’s going to go towards?
E: I think it all depends…The team is completely brilliant, which means they’re up for doing a lot of things all the time, so it’s a bit tough to determine exactly what we are going to do but we’re definitely going to open it up more, it would be really exciting. We’re hopefully going to be in cultural institutions the US and the UK…and I think working in London museums would be good, after Oxford, and lots of other national properties are interested. If we could also get more students on board we can work on more projects as a company. At the moment we are working on three projects each, with individual questions for different museums, and that’s pretty heavy for us.

Remind me who TalkAbout has worked for?
E: The Ashmolean in Oxford, twice, Waddesdon Manor, and then we’re working for the Breath Festival which is at the Pitt Rivers and the Natural History Museum in Oxford, working at the Oxford Castle which is going to be a permanent…and our future projects aren’t yet ready for full disclosure!

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You can find TalkAbout Guides on Facebook page and Twitter!

“When was the last time you had an interesting conversation in a museum?” Talk About asks, and so do I! If you have any interesting, good, bad or downright awkward conversations in museums, I definitely want to hear about them!

Ways of Seeing by Jonh Berger is a BBC documentary from the 1970s that looks at the way in which we perceive art and visit museums now, with the arrival of photography and mass media. Find it here.

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Making Colour at the National Gallery

Colour is so omnipresent today that we need not worry about having to create it or search for it extensively…in fact, a main concern is rather knowing how not to use too much of it at a time. As a digital artist I can simply open Photoshop and slide a colour wheel around to obtain thousands of different colour swatches that anyone else can use. As a traditional artist I can shop around for the exact shade of red I need. Being able to access and experience these colours is taken entirely for granted as an artist and as a viewer.

For this reason, the National Gallery’s exhibition Making Colour is a perfect reminder in our saturated world of the ways in which artists have long struggled to find and make colour in order to represent their particular vision of the world. The record of this search is as vast as it is fascinating; artists up until the 19th century were still grinding colour pigments and mixing them in with egg white, yolks or oil in order to create the effects they desired. The creation of synthetic colours available in tubes then allowed for revolutionary changes as painting outside was possible. As Renoir famously points out: “Paints in tubes allowed us to work in nature… Without paint in tubes, there would have been no Cezanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what the journalists were to call impressionism.” Yet this chemical and artistic breakthrough could only have been achieved through a slow and painstaking historical process to find the perfect pigment in nature, whether it was through dried insects, plants, minerals….or even poison.

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Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Two Crabs, 1889 Oil on canvas, On loan from a Private Collection © Private Collection

A short introduction shows us various colour palettes and the way in which the perception of colour evolved throughout the centuries, culminating into optical theories about light being broken down into a vast spectrum of colours. They also show us a few basic yet useful example about complementary and contrasting colours, as well as the way in which painters’ techniques of colour application varied, such as the use of orange and green with Van Gogh’s Two Crabs. Vigée-Lebrun’s neat dabs of colour in her self-portrait are challenged by Turner’s seemingly chaotic palette, showing that their brushstrokes and mixtures as well as the colours they had access to definitely influenced their styles and stemmed from their personalities.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851), Chelsea Palette, Wooden palette with paint on its surface, Tate Archive © Tate, London

The following rooms are all thematic in nature rather than chronological, presenting a wide selection of works from all time periods, with one colour for each room, the dark walls and soft lighting allowing the works’ palettes to shine out to their audience. Whether it is blue, red or green, even veering onto silver and gold, each section retraces a short history of the way in which its colour was created and used on a variety of formats. The act of breaking up the discovery of colour into several sub-sections and giving them their own small history, creates a sense of harmony and casualness; I could wander from room to room without feeling as though I had to follow a specific route or chronology. The exhibition was relatively busy but never gave a sense of clutter or overcrowding, mainly because it was quite easy to wander around from object to object leisurely rather than awkwardly queue up to see a series of works in a row.

Lapis lazuli amulet carved in the form of a frog
Lapis lazuli amulet carved in the form of a frog, Lapis lazuli, 2.2 x 1.2 cm The British Museum, London 1856,0903.243 © The Trustees of the British Museum

I was slightly wary about the sheer amount of information that would be thrown at me for every single colour. The ways in which we perceive colours now is almost never relevant to the art work’s actual time period, and cannot be properly be understood without a long painstaking history of each colour. Would it prove too heavy and too much to handle for an exhibition? It soon turned out, however, that this was going to be an extremely technical take on colour based more on aesthetic sensation, contrast and form and the ways to acheive it on various mediums.

The amount of cultural, religious, social and historical complexities and significance around blue, from the mantle of the Virgin Mary to its presence on the EU flag, would be so large and shifting in itself that the colour would need its own exhibition. (Incidentally it does possess its own book, Blue: History of a Colour by the colour historian Michel Pastoureau, which I cannot recommend enough). Although each section did briefly recall the various ideas related to their respective colours (red for passion or purple for nobility), the focus was less on their symbolism or what they represented, and more focused on how they were found and used, as well as their value. Ultramarine, created with lapis lazuli, was defined in its economic value and importance in the fact that it came from “beyond the sea”, mined in Afghanistan to this day in very difficult conditions. Its intensity and long-lasting nature made it precious for artists and their patrons from the medieval period onwards, but also explains why and how cheaper alternatives were looked for in duller and darker pigments such as smalt, or in an easier form through cobalt blue, later on used in its synthetic form by Monet. From this we could of course interpret that blue was researched and paid for because of its religious importance or that on the contrary it became an important colour used for the best of religious art because of its worth. Yet focusing mainly on the purely visual and technical was a good choice: sometimes leaving one aspect out from an immense subject allows another facet to shine in a more coherent and interesting manner and this was definitely the case!

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Claude Monet, Lavacourt under Snow, about 1878-81, Oil on canvas, 59.7 x 80.6 cm, Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

Each artwork description made sure to make the viewer understand exactly which pigments the artist used and how, sometimes adding in some historical context to reinforce its point but focusing on the form rather than the subject itself. In a sense, understanding the colour of the painting gives us valuable tools to understand it on our own terms, without the need to know the story behind it or the particular symbolism of a colour at that given time. For example I was not given much in the way of context concerning the Portrait of a Lady by Moroni and the sitter’s role or social status, but the knowledge that the red and gold dress she was wearing would have never existed because it was too expensive to make in 16th century Italy told me a lot about the wealth and power associated these two colours in terms of image and status.

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Giovanni Battista Moroni, Portrait of a Lady, perhaps Contessa Lucia Albani Avogadro (‘La Dama in Rosso’), about 1556 60, Oil on canvas, 155 x 106.8 cm, Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

In the same way, The Beheading of St-Margaret by Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina did not inform me about her martyrdom and its significance but rather about the narrative power of colour as our eyes move from the purple of the executioner to her form shrouded in blue against the dark background and crimson city walls.

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Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina (Master of the Bambino Vispo) The Beheading of Saint Margaret (?),probably about 1409, Egg tempera on poplar, 42.3 x 65.2 cm, Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

A great deal is also learnt about what we can no longer see or understand, due to the fact that either colours or our perception of them has been changed, either physically or psychologically. For instance, in Masaccio’s Saints Jerome and John the Baptist, while one red (vermillion) has remained vibrant in  the other (red lake, considerably cheaper, made with crushed dried insects or bark) has faded away, showing the stark difference between one and the other in terms of quality and durability.

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Masaccio, Saints Jerome and John the Baptist, about 1428-9, Egg tempera on poplar, 125 x 58.9 cm Credit Line:The National Gallery, London

In the same sense, the use of gilding is described as something that would have a lot more power for the Renaissance viewer by candlelight due to the flickering of the surface making it seem more tridimensional, while our electric light makes it flat and dull. In the same vein, flesh was painted with a greenish base to give it more volume but now that the flesh colour has faded away we see these painted figures as far more sickly than they actually were! These are only a few of the little tidbits of information and detail that made the exhibition so fun and refreshing, veering away from what we usually focus on in such paintings.

The visual impact of the pigment’s source versus the final work is often visually striking and makes for an informative and aesthetic experience. Seeing lapis lazuli evolve in a small display from its original rock, into pigment and then eventually object, breaks down colour from elaborate artwork to simple component in a way that mingled art history with science in an effective and pedagogical way. Another example is the delicate still life painting by Ruysch, just beneath an orange mineral in a glass display. The comparison seems slightly underwhelming until we read that the mineral in question contains arsenic, making its use very scarce amongst painters. Rachel Ruysch, however, was one of the foolhardy artists so intent upon using orange for her flowers that she took the risk…a risk that evidently paid off.

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Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750), Flowers in a Vase, about 1685, Oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London. Bequeathed by Alan Evans, 1974 © The National Gallery, London

The clear and concise information and descriptions are complemented by videos that show exactly how the artists mixed these pigments and then used them; several show the different effects of pigments mixed with egg yolk or oil, the first creating an opaque, fast-drying tempera and the second allowing for a more translucent glaze ideal for multiple layers. The final room even shows the careful process of gilding, in a reconstruction by students of the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge and the National Gallery Conservation Department.

I feel that in terms of variety and presentation the exhibition did remain extremely centred around Western European paintings from early Renaissance to the early 20th century; although some variety was provided in time period or format, I would have been glad to see more diversity. However, this can be explained by the fact that the main curators of the exhibition are Caroline Campbell, Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500 at the National Gallery, and Ashok Roy, Director of Collections at the National Gallery: where their expertise and choice is obviously tied to their own tastes, knowledge and collection. This is also reinforced by the fact that most of the scienfic observations about pigments and their application is born from the microscopic study of the fragments of paint on the dedge of canvases: it is therefore logical to keep the range of works presented to those that can be most effectively studied (for example, the work beneath, Degas’ Combing the Hair, was studied using a fragment of paint made into a cross section and then observed under a microscope to discern its different red pigments).

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Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas, Combing the Hair (‘La Coiffure’) about 1896, Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 146.7 cm, Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

This crucial aspect is actually shown to us through the final part of the exhibition, a short film showing us the scientific study of colour, and the way in which the colours of the past and their uses are rediscovered. It also allows us to partake into small experiments around our own perception of colour, which will be assembled into data for a survey, advancing the research the exhibition showcased in a different light. It gave a sense of interactivity and involvement as well as a definite sense of ambiguity surrounding colour and its interpretation, either optical or psychological.

This exhibition was a perfect example of the way in which a large and extremely technical subject could be broken down into a simple yet intelligent way for a diverse audience to understand and appreciate further the use of colour. It definitely felt as though this was an exhibition in which definite new skills and visual tools could be acquired and then applied to paintings beyond the exhibition’s walls, in the National Gallery and elsewhere. Highlighting the expertise of both artists and the scientists dechiphering their works’ colour, it did not clutter itself with additional historical context, leaving the colours speak for themselves and letting us appeal to our own senses and artistic taste. Like a few primary colours creating a large variety of tones, I think that a simple yet intense exhibition such as Making Colour will be able to provoke different interpretations and ways of seeing in its wake.

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Moses Harris, The Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular and beautiful Order and Arrangement,… 1769/1776 Book, Credit Line: Royal Academy of Arts, London

Making Colour, at the National Gallery, from the 18th of June to the 7th of September

Did you see the exhibition? Want to talk about colour and its history? Do you think there are better ways of talking about colour? Feel  free to speak up here, on the new Facebook page or on Twitter!