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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
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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.

 

 

 

 

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Henri Cartier-Bresson at Centre Pompidou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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