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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 Ongoing exhibitions Paris

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

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

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

08. Degas_Ballet

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

 

The exhibition moves on to the world of Second Empire prostitution that we know probably best through Toulouse-Lautrec’s pastels: the brothels themselves and the women who lived and worked there. And as expected, a immense, comprehensive collection of them are assembled, showing the every-day life and inner workings of the trade, either “behind the scenes” or while encountering their clients. These works are detached yet sensitive, vivid accounts that do not only document but allow to capture the lives and personalities of the women, rather than reducing them to simple models. They provide a good counterpart to Constantin Guys’ depictions, which are more like little genre scenes or narrative illustrations in their own right. The romanticization of earlier rooms is gone in favour of observation and documentation with a distinct sense of emphathy.
17. Toulouse-Lautrec_Dans le lit

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), Dans le lit, 1892, Huile sur carton marouflé sur bois parqueté, 53,5 x 70 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandow
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With these images, historical artefacts are also shown now for the first time, ranging from buisness cards to small whips or hygienic tools, adding an element of reality and of the prosaic. Another element is introduced as a literal side room, forbidden to people under 18 (superfluous in an exhibition about prostitution…?). We usually know of early photography as awkward portraiture or daring experiments but it seemed inevitable that it would provide the opportunity for the first clandestine pornographic albums. Some of these are presented in little peepholes in order to further accentuate the sense of voyeurism.  The erotic, slightly cheesecake pinup photography (at least by today’s standards) is followed by darker material, or at the very least a lot more intentionally bleak than what we have seen so far, where artists seem interested in the prostitute’s daily life and her role amongst a society where people of all social classes use their services.

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

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

20. Gervex_Rolla

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

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

26. B+®raud_La Madeleine chez le Pharisien

Jean Béraud (1849-1935) La Madeleine chez le Pharisien, 1891, oil on canvas, 95,5 x 127 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandow
ski

The final room ends with the depiction of the prostitute in modernism, the advent of new techniques and ways of seeing, in a vast room mingling different genres and visions – perhaps too much so, from André Derain to de Vlaminck, Munch and Picasso. They depict the way in which the world was turned over its head, vibrant and violent, but also quite distinctly the way in which the prostitute became not a subject of genre scenes or moralizing pictures, but a model in her own right. The fact that this was a large room at the end of a very, very large exhibition, sadly, does not do justice to the works that it exhibits. I think it is quite telling that I did have to go two times in order to take everything in, which not everyone has the time to do!

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

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

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

 

Categories
Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Beauté Congo Kitoko at Fondation Cartier

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

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

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

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

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

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The way the music was presented

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

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

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Moke, Kin Oyé, 1983, oil on canvas, private collection, paris, (c) Moke, photo (c) André Morin
Depara_18_HD
Jean Depara, Untitled (Moziki), c. 1955-65, gelatin silver print, CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva, (c) Jean Depara, photo (c) André Morin

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

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

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

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

Categories
Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Niki de Saint-Phalle at the Grand Palais

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire Mead

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

Categories
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?

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Exhibition view. Photo credits: Florian Kleinefenn Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris
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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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WOLS, Sans titre, 1940-1941

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

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

 

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

 

 

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Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier at the Barbican Centre

His name is spelt out in a bright neon sign as I arrive in the dark and spacious exhibition space at the Barbican Centre…a name that is a fashion trademark in itself, and a promise of extravagance, diversity and originality. Jean-Paul Gaultier possesses a unique legacy within the fashion world, born from a spirit that always seems to think out of the box. This immense collection of clothes arranged in terms of influences and inspirations over two floors, as well as the way in which they are presented, is a direct testimony to this attitude.

Gender ambiguity, sexuality and feminine empowerment, cultural diversity and futuristic designs…It would seem hard to fetter Gaultier within a single show. Yet this retrospective is one of the most daring and insightful fashion exhibitions I have seen this year.

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Jean-Paul Gaultier’s world explores places and ideas that transcend fashion inspiration and delve into all walks of life. In fact, the most notably aspect of his fashion, reflected throughout the exhibition, is his distinct desire to go beyond it and reach out to a world of stark differences, irreverence and anomality, celebrating it rather than sanitizing it or elevating it to a catwalk ideal. The gallery of his lifetime muses, models and inspirations surpasses by far that of vestimentary concepts and ideas such as the navy jumper, the punk movement or the Virgin Mary.

I think that curating fashion and historical costume is extremely difficult to acheive in an interesting and captivating way, however striking the content is. There are an immense number of constraints that must be taken into account, such as lighting, protection and encasing. There will most often be mannequins which can also give a ‘shop window’ feel to the display and make it feel kitschy. However this exhibition seemed to embrace the kitsch and dared to explore new ways to make the clothing displays seem more alive and interactive, giving it a theatrical and performative flair.

The exhibition plays with the idea of the fashion exhibit, ever-increasing and glamourous but always quite difficult to change around. The Gaultier’s exhibition resides somewhere between a shop display and a contemporary art performance, with models going from standing positions to sitting and reclining. On the ground floor, all of them invariably have a filmed model’s face projected upon the mannquin’s face, in consant, looped motion, either blinking or talking. Even Gaultier himself gets his own talking mannequin as his recorded voice welcomes us into the exhibition.

IMG_2120It is more than a bit unsettling to be surrounded by a dozen immobile mannequins with moving blinking faces or lips reciting poems or freetalk that has a performance art quality to it.This installation qualiy has been created and staged by Denis Marleau and Stéphanie Jasmin from UBU/Compagnie de Création de Montréal, while Jolicoeur International of Québec designed the mannequins themselves. without this unique craftsmanship, the clothes would not have been highlighted with the excentric and fanciful nature that best suits them.

IMG_2129In the first part of the exhibition, we are introduced to Gaultier’s marine collection, taking a classic French garment and giving it his own modern twist, followed by dresses inspired by Baroque Catholic iconography of the Virgin Mary with a Gothic, elegantly dark touch; the models’ ethereal eyes seem to follow me around under the blue light, like an echo of a powerful presence on the catwalk frozen into place.

But not all of them remain immobile. As I walk into the larger space, a catwalk-like installation allowed the models to rotate while we sit into seats on the side, as though replacing the designers and fashion magazine editors in a real fashion show. Shapes, colours and texture vary yet the same spirit of extravagance and elegance remains, distilling itself into the rest of the display that shows Gaultier’s strong punk-rock influences, from his trips to London and inspiration from marginal counter-cultures, without sugar-coating or side-stepping them so that they could fit into a high-fashion ideal. They are complemented by amazing punk headresses that are part of the series of wigs creates for all the mannequins by Odile Gilbert. There is no particular chronology to these; designs from the 70s and 80s merge with present-day creations, while remaining in the same spirit.

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In a sense, it is difficult to establish a chronology and grasp quite how revolutionary Gaultier was being at the time, because we now fully expect haute couture to create this spirit of provocation and of the extraordinary on the catwalk. There is a definite hommage through the predominance of punk in the largest space to both London and street style, rearranged in a theatrical fashion that sets the tone in its playful title: Punk Cancan.  For the most part these are not organized in terms of different genres so much as ideas such as androgynity, unconventional beauty, stars…inspired either by his muses, people he worked for or models. IMG_2179

Enter The Muses, a sprawling collection of rooms under a thematic that is as eclectic in inspirations than in creations. Thus we find in one room Madonna and in the other Kylie Minogue, with the dresses that defined the power, sexuality and feminity that they wanted to convey on-stage. In another, we find again the likes of Dita von Teese, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. The exhibition has a definite stardom quality to it, emphasized by a series of celebrity portraits and extracts from concerts. This is only highlighted by the presence of the photographers that Gaultier worked with as well, such as Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman or David LaChapelle.

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This fun celebrity aspect is not neccessarily new but I appreciate greatly the way in which it mingled very known names to the names of models and muses that are not neccessarily known to the general public, part of Gaultier’s search for an unconventional beauty. One of the first to embrace a body and gender diversity that is still looked for and sometimes lacking today! Through the photos and video footage of catwalks surrounding the clothes, the attitude of his models, nonchalant yet defiant, seem crystallized through a particular footage of a 1984 catwalk with a model sporting a suit and long tailored skirt for his “And God Created Man” collection. This allegedly caused Vogue editors to rise and leave at once, followed by Marie-Claire and Elle…much to the glee of Gaultier who said to The Face magazine a few years later, “I was slated by the French press for designing clothes for hairdressers and homosexuals!”

Provocation led to scandal yet also brought along popularity and a taste for the atypical. Amanda Cazalet and Tanel Bedrossiantz’s androgynity contrasted with the distinctive look and strong personality of Farida Khelfa, with her long bushy hair and tall figure. A softer, more intimate atmosphere is explored through The Boudoir, where Falbalas, a huge inspiration for Gaultier, plays on an old set within a dark and soft array of corsetry and lingerie. In full display presides his iconic teddy bear with an (i)conic bra attached to its furry breast – an addition made by the young Jean-Paul in a house where, raised by his grandmother, he grew up aware of a feminine strength that found its way into his work, mingling elegance with empowerment. Secrecy and sensuality here are not equated with submissiveness.

IMG_2245From femininity in the boudoir we go back to Gaultier’s exuberance and the way in which it encompassed not ony the catwalk but also television, with his participation on Eurotrash, numerous parodies and artistic involvement within pays and films, amongst which The Fifth Element remains a masterpiece of kistchy science-fiction. Punk, gender subversion and the boudoir: is it all too much? Yes…but “too much” is very much Gaultier. This exhibition pulled off an all-encompassing view of his work that focused on its eclectic and contrasting nature, without homogenisation or concessions. It managed to stay true to the vision of Gaultier in the documentation of his work and vision, complete with sketches, photographs and footage to complement the presentation of the clothes. Yet it still possessed its own artistic identity through a clever layout on two floors and the innovative work on the mannequins. The exhibition’s travelling success around the world will continue with its arrival in Paris next year at the Grand Palais and I look forward to another glimpse into a unique world.

The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier from the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the Barbican Centre – 9th April to 25th August 2014

Categories
Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

The Art of Marvel Superheroes at Musée Art Ludique

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

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©2014 Marvel

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


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

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

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©2014 Marvel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Martha Romero, Maja Vestida and Maja Desnuda, 2011

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

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Pétra Werlé, Histoires Naturelles (2005)

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

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Odette Picaud, La Déesse au Plumeau

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