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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Museums have always been compared to churches: a sacred sphere in which contemplation, hushed voices and a slow, ambling pace around works to admire or ‘worship’ them is familiar. There is something ritualistic in the way in which we walk around an exhibition space following a specific route. And although being asked to quieten down or put phones away annoys us, we still abide by the rules. Rules in red against white walls are welcome us first within the Strange City of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, in their Monumenta installation at the Grand Palais.
“You are entering the Strange City. Please follow its rules: No cellphones. Lower your voices. No selfies.”
I was used to the ban on cellphones or, apparently, raising your voice in a space made holy by its adherence to an artistic event taking place every year within the great Parisian edifice. The ban on selfies, however, was a first. It added a layer of elusiveness and a pinch of humour to this impressively immaculate and sanitized environment and its large outer walls housing a myriad of corridors and arches.
In a large, bare expanse of space a large conical sculpture emulating the stained glass window of a cathedral changes colour just as different sounds chime from within its structure. A small crowd congregate in front of it and take pictures, remain there a while to witness the change in colours and chimes, fascinated. In the large empty expanse of space provided by the Grand Palais, no-one seems willing to transgress the rule on raised voices.
This seems perfectly on par with Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s aims with Monumenta this year: the creation of a large utopian city, where architecture meets idealism and spiritualism. The intent of both Russian artists from the same family, as uncle and niece, seems to be centred around the relation of us, the visiting “city-dwellers” to our environnment and the way it may change and influence us. As I walk through a set of pavillions, with a small dark curtain welcoming me inside, the impressions mingle between experimentation and imaginary concepts for the ideal city. Through one door, an elaborate model shows the way in which a futuristic centre could absorb spiritual energy from the noosphere – a ring around the Earth in which the ideas, creativity and genius of humankind are not lost but constantly reinjected into our collective consciousness. In the same aesthetic, a model in another room shows the reconstruction of Manas, a mystical city in Peru surrounded by eight mountains that concentrate into the lake at the centre of the town their spiritual energy. A woman next to me points out, a bit bafflingly, “This is a bit clearer.”
It is difficult for me to see in which sense any of this is “clearer” – firstly because it is impossible for a clear sense of direction and order to be felt within a strange city in which it is not strange to get lost, due to the uniformity of its exteriors. A scattering of helpful “mediators” and plans still do not allievate the fact that most visitors are walking around in a disorientated manner trying not to enter the same room three times in a row (like me).
Yet in terms of content, she does have a point. The Kabakovs’ have created a little world of fictional stuctures and mysticism made into architectural projects, and the conceptual jargon that they wrap around their creations can often appear as slightly obtuse or weighty. The creative impulse itself is created around a concept for many of these exhibits. The models, extremely concise and mathematical in their creation and projection of a large-scale work, contrast with the research around them, works on paper that are far messier and more colourful, more vibrant than the sanitized and tame models that end up being their end product. They range from the futuristic, with the cosmic spiritual centre, to a mixture between philosophy, tragedy and comedy as we are instructed “how to meet an angel.” This section is touching, almost a bit too corny yet graceful. It probably earned a few laughs when it described how to earn your wings by creating a giant feathered harness that you must then wear alone in your room for several hours without being seen by your family or friends, like the average blogger.
There are darker aspects to this airy and meditative rambling through the various pavillions; from the models we go onto a room that is in sharp contrast with the others; here the only display is shown through a red, baroque-like wall, chairs for the visitors and organ music blaring all around us. The ‘Empty Museum’ makes us sit down within comfortable armchairs in an environnment that remains nevertheless unsettling, eerie. In the same spirit, the White Chapel and the Black Chapel are rooms that are alike to fragments of a museum in which the artworks are either missing from the wall and replaced with large empty grids, or on the contrary mashed together in an absurd collage of various styles and moods.
It is easy – perhaps too easy – to create a clear link between the artists’ experience of the USSR and the utopian, tragi-comical structures that reflect either the desire to control spirituality or escape reality, imagine new spaces that are both ethereal and based in carefully planned buildings and concepts. Yet, although this should not be excluded, it is not an answer or a key to understanding the city, either in a positive, negative, or bittersweet light.
There is also an aim for self-reflection, on a smaller personal scale. Utopia is a collective endeavour yet in this “strange city” no-one speaks properly until they have left its walls, and there is something soothing about getting lost within its walls alone in an aimless pilgrimage. The Kabakovs create a scene that takes from the past and the future yet revolves around our present lives, and the act of stepping out of it for a moment – without the selfie or cellphone. The rules, rather than a command of religious or ritualistic mimicrky, become a simple invitation to find a new way of evolving within a space and sharing it. Ironically, as I leave, a panel urges me to tweet my impressions to #Monumenta2014. Maybe I will…but not within the Strange City.
Retrospectives are sometimes difficult to consider with an overly critical eye because the overview of an artist’s life and work is inevitably going to follow pathways that can only be assessed coherently by following his life within a chronological order. Yet this sometimes passes off as a formula, something that is known and rehearsed. If it is done without attention to themes and motifs it can quickly become weighty…especially due to the sheer bulk of art to cover, often accompanied by extensive documentation and a biography that weaves in and out of our assessment of the works.
When retrospectives choose to discard a linear format, and work with thematics regardless of chronology, this can work extremely well…depending on the artist. It can also potentially become confusing and misleading. So how did the retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe at the Grand Palais, the first in France since his death in 1989 fit into this?
We are welcomed into the exhibition, surprisingly enough, by Mapplethorpe’s iconic self-portrait shorty before he died of AIDS, clutching a staff whose skull-shaped tip, clearly in focus, contrasts with a pale intent face fading against a dark background. Powerful and elegiac, the portrait announces the risky yet refreshing stance of the exhibition: a reverse chronology, travelling back into time from the point of departure of the photographer’s death, back up to the very beginning…as the introduction points out, a beginning whose themes already predict the work of the end of his life. We start onto a exhibition route that is reversed, an anti-clockwise that physically joins the entrance with the exit…and also devoid of words.
Another risk taken in this exhibition is, indeed, the absence of biographical texts. Usually, most exhibitions have a block of text at the beginning of each section that shows how his life at that point reflected his work and influences. Yet the only texts were a few quotes dotted along the walls. This considerably lightened the visit itself, but added to it rather than creating an empty space. This retrospective contained 250 photographs and I can honestly admit that I did not see them pass by, absorbing the visual and wandering around, sometimes venturing back to compare one work with another. This allowed the audience to draw its own conclusions about Mapplethorpe’s life and ideas.
The atmosphere was quiet, contemplative, oddly fitting beneath the solemn gazes of his subjects in black and white but sometimes at odds with the energy of his pictures. There is definitely a requiem-like feeling in the environnment which is muted into greyscale: the walls are painted in various nuances of grey, a soft dark grey carpet on the floor mutes our footsteps and the frames of the photographs vary beween black and white. Pale violet-pink lighting from above softens this atmosphere somehow, perhaps also reflecting the erotic undertones that weave themselves into his work from beginning to end. Was this perhaps a bit too subdued for an artist who obviously enjoyed capturing tension, movement and sexual energy?
Perhaps. In another sense, it corresponds to the photographic style of an artist who did not only want to capture sexuality, gender presentation and bodily performances, but also celebrate them as part of an elevated artistic ideal, taking inspiration from the cool marble of roman statues while acknowledging the antique culture’s raunchier aspects.
We therefore begin with his last works: photographs of classical statues that mingle photographs of his models engaging in various poses that emulate the classical ideal and also charge it with a new sensuality, as the camera focuses on skin, and depictiction of portraits, of the body in movement or immobile, whole or fragmented by either a concentration. These subjects are torn between erotic and ideal, marble and flesh, classical tradition and controversy (notably concerning the heavy criticism of Man in a Polyester Suit, disucssed in his biography).
They complement the still-life photograph of flowers, either in black and white or in colour, that reflect both a fragile ephemeral nature…and a phallic one, perhaps reminiscent of Georgia O’ Keefe’s paintings.
After a section on catholicism and the way it influenced his work and depiction of the body, the idea of icons and gender subversion is presented through two women central to his work, Patti Smith and Lisa Lyon. The first was at some point his lover and they collaborated together on Horses, sharing an intimacy and intensity that is reflected through his pictures of her; the second was a bodybuilder that reminded him of Michelangelo’s muscular women, which motivated to capture the power of her body, both in photography and through film (Lady, in 1984, with mystical and religious tones that once again mingled his catholic upbringing with a bodily ideal). Featured are also his numerous self-portraits, in which he explores and confronts his face in terms of gender presentation and sexuality, very much in the same spirit as Andy Warhol.
We move on to another assessment of the icon, through familiar faces such as Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois or Cindy Sherman all congomerated onto a wall, creating a giant game of “who’s who.”
The only room that escapes the cool grey aesthetic as well as a lack of space is the only room that is forbidden to minors (under 18, in France). Sure enough, it contains most of the erotic content that makes Mapplethorpe famously controversial…in a deep purple setting with fringed curtains at the entrance, as though we were suddenly launched into a faux sex shop setting. Having the room closed off completely from the rest created a voyeuristic and secretive atmosphere that corresponded to the pictures’s nature, without becoming too extravagant or sleazy. After all, Mapplethorpe’s intention was to show that for him, art and sex were to be treated on the same level, elevated and demystified rather than debased, as he explains: “Photography and sexuality are both compatible. They are both unknown. And this is what excites me.” A more platonic take on his words is presented, below, after leaving the enclosed space.
As the exhibition ends with his biography and, on the wall facing it the first snapshots of his career the exploration of relations between the aesthetic and the body, sex and personalities is evident and closes off an exhibition that chose to concentrate on the visual and its interconnections rather than a clearer biographic overview or documentation.
Was it a good retrospective format for someone already aware of Mapplethorpe and his work, his positive and negative aspects? Absolutely. For someone entirely new to his art…probably less so and yet the reverse chronology is perhaps efficient in dispelling a certain number of preconcieved myths, letting us draw our own conclusions. Was this the best retrospective format? No…but it was one that was adapted to his work and personality, with elegance and originality.