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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

Tatoueurs, Tatoués at Musée Quai Branly

Tattoos have had tumultuous and multi-faceted histories as objects of admiration or contempt. From a symbol of pride and honour in many civilizations, a brand of shame and criminality in others, the tattoo is now seen as a globalized aesthetic trend while retaining some of this “mysterious” edge and ambiguity. Popular but still largely alternative, accepted socially yet still refused in most office environnments, there is still a great deal of fascination and ambivalence around it, which the Tatoueurs, Tatoués exhibition attempts to explore.

Tattoos encompass a huge aspect of so many societies around the world that attempting to retrace its roots and evolution up until contemporary practices could seem more than a little ambitious and hefty. However, rather than forming a large academic monolith of information, this exhibition retained an easygoing, lively approach which was, however, often a bit too light explanation-wise, compared to the amount of visual content it packed in. The first particularity of this exhibition is that it is conceived by two guest curators, Anne & Julien, first and foremost art editors and galerists, tatooed enthusiasts mainly in touch with contemporary art world. Their artistic consultant is the famous French tattoo artist Tin-Tin, who is also president of the national syndicate of tattoo artists in France. A refreshing trio, backed by the scientific and scenographic know-how of the Quai Branly, or a risky choice?

The exhibition kicks off with a rather macabre selection of tattoos on dried-up human skin, remnants of colonialist discoveries of tattooing practices, which were actively repressed in African and Oceanian cultures while this trend travelled through sailors and travellers, winding up as a marginalized tradition in Europe. These are complemented by various other objects – the first tattooing tools, stamps and images, such as this 18th century stamp from Jerusalem, representing the ressurection of Christ.

© musée du quai Branly, photo Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado
© musée du quai Branly, photo Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado

By the 19th century, tattoos in Europe and the US were dubbed as a visual marker for prison environments, circuses and prostitution – whether intentionally or not. The portrait of an Algerian woman bearing her tattoos with pride stares back at us, below, as we learn that the French governement chose to “interpret” these symbols of honour as those of a marginal and of a prostitute. Much is to be said about the destruction of a tradition and the racist aspect of this vilified and exotifying reappropriation of tattoos – but this is often skipped in favour of the strange kitsch imagery that prison archives such as the Recueil Lacassagne have left behind.

Images provenant du Recueil Lacassagne
© Gdalessandro/ENSP

The notion of tattoos emerge as a record of personal, bodily experiences while still remaining linked to a community and its rituals. Pain is as much a part of the process that the image itself, if not more. In fact, for the most part early prison tattoos were not concerned with aesthetics. They are shamelessly  ugly and crude, as prisoners use their torsoes, backs and arms as organic pages for dry mottos and ‘postcards’ (usually a portrait of a woman with ‘Souvenir d’Afrique’ stamped above) or political caricatures. The cold and objective police and military archives become portraiture and paint a humorous, jarring, often poignant range of experiences and insights.

Copyright: © musée du quai Branly, photo Gautier Deblonde Photographe: Gautier Deblonde
Copyright: © musée du quai Branly, photo Gautier Deblonde
Photographe: Gautier Deblonde

The ‘freak show’ nature of the fully tattooed man and the aura of danger he exudes for the audience becomes an integral part of circus culture at the beginning of the 20th century, which is explored both through photographs and recent footage of current circus performers or models such as the Lizard Man or Rick Genest aka Zombie Boy. Another characteristic shared by circuses is the myth of the travelling tattoo artist, allowing for new influences and images added to his portfolio – like this 19th century Egyptian paravent “advertising” a travelling tattoo artist’s range of image-making.

Paravent, répertoire de tatoueur
Paravent, tattoo repertory, Egypt Copyright: © musée du quai Branly, photo Claude Germain Photographe: Claude Germain

Then again, this “renaissance” of tattooing and its increasing popularity is counterbalanced by the loss of specific traditions and rituals for a more globalized, “americanized” vision. The exhibition is good at showing the ambiguity between a European tradition that has absorbed others and the persistance of tattoo cultures specific to a country or tribe.

Copyright: © Jake Verzosa Mentions obligatoires: Collection de l'Artiste Photographe: Jake Verzosa
Last Kalinga tattooed woman, Phillippines, 2011 Copyright: © Jake Verzosa
Mentions obligatoires: Collection de l’Artiste Photographe: Jake Verzosa

These historical and geographical snippets, mostly shown through tattoo-decked portrait photography and a few compelling artefacts lead us through small corridors that create a complex maze of different countries and issues – from circuses and North American tattooing I stumble upon the evolving Japanese tradition of the irezumi full body tattoo – from a means of ornamentation in 17th century Japan to a means of punishment to a symbol of pride for yakuza…back to a trend cautiously creeping back despite a persistent gang-related taboo. Strangely enough, these tattoos extending from the wrists and neck to the ankles are not only stunning compared to their early European counterparts but also concerned with either heroic themes or symbols drawn from nature and spirituality. What do they mean? How did they vary? Unfortunately, these questions remain unanswered: like most of the traditional tattoos in the exhibition, any explanation of precise symbols and iconography is lost on the visitor.

MQB. Exposition anthropologique :
Copyright: © musée du quai Branly, photo Gautier Deblonde Photographe: Gautier Deblonde

Instead, each winding twist and turn of the exhibition as it explores every corner of the globe – from New Zealand’s moko to fine line latino tattooing or Polynesian traditions is paired with a contemporary reinterpretation of this tradition, by a practising tattoo artist, using torsoes, arms and legs covered in a synthetic ‘skin’. After the initial gruesomeness of this display – disembodied show window arrangement meets tattoo parlour – these objects inject a twist of originality and creativity into the exhibition.

Copyright: © musée du quai Branly, photo Thomas Duval Photographe: Thomas Duval
Artist: Mark Kopua Copyright: © musée du quai Branly, photo Thomas Duval
Photographe: Thomas Duval

Rather than grouping themselves at the end, they intersperse in a way that allows to travel back and forth between them. Sometimes, these projects were so complex that they remained two-dimensional aspect, mapped out on paper and yet to be created on a true body, showing a different side to the process that we may imagine for most tattooing: rather than accumulative, added tattoo per tattoo on an ever-evolving canvas, these projects show that many clients entrust their tattoo artists with an overall plan that can often cover an entire back or arm (or indeed, behind, as pictured above).

Tatoo
Rudy Fritsch , Photo (c) Musée Quai Branly

I loved these projects and their dramatic display, that added to the sheer eccentricity of an exhibition that flitted through so many visual influences and evolutions of the tatoo – but in a sense this strength was also its weakness.The exhibit left me wanting of a bit less style and a bit more substance. The problem with the desire to create an exhibition that is both anthropological and artistic is that one notion is probably going to end up stealing the other’s thunder. In this case, the anthropological side definitely lost, which is startling within the Quai Branly itself. I would have liked to see a little less on the aesthetics and artistic evolution of tatoos throughout the ages and more on the specific symbolism surrounding different tattoo cultures.

There is no clear sense of chronology as we dip into various rooms, and although I would not particularly mind if the evolution of tattoo culture was not the focus…it definitely is here! For this reason the rythm seemed slightly off at times – just as we advance into an entire section devoted to contemporary tattoo artist’s own personal tattoo projects, the exhibition suddenly veers off into Renaissance and Old Masters depictions of tattooing, before moving on to something else entirely. An exhibition without a specific order of visit is fine for me…as long as there are no narrow corridors that seem to impose one upon the visitor anyway.

Women wearing tattoos and costumes
© CORBIS pour Bettmann – http://www.corbisimages.com

This exhibition was bursting with fascinating images and objects but was not perfect presentation-wise and its content was not always homogeneously explained. However, it largely compensated with a personal and deeply passionate vibe that justified its occaisional messiness and experimentation. For me it contrasted in a lot of ways of the Māori exhibition at the Quai Branly several years ago, curated by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This was a guest exhibition that let Māori culture curate itself, on a precise, insider level that created emotion as well as clear explanation about their civilisation and art. Here, an insider’s passion about tattooing and its confusing, multiple histories is felt in the same way, and it takes us by the hand into a wild ride of archives, objects and visual intensity. It also acheived something that I have not ever encountered in museums or galleries – works of art by current tattoo artists exhibited in a contemporary art mindset that is not only meant to be aesthetic, but provocative and humorous, exploring the various ways in which the pratice may evolve and thrive.

tatoo_mqb_0281
Xed LeHead Photo (c) Musée Quai Branly
Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern

Images of war and conflict invade us more than ever before. The constant presence of them in photographs and videos, on television, in press, on the internet, is both an eye-opener to the horrors of wars far away from us yet strangely desensitizing when we become “accustomed” to them. 2014 has been rife with these images while museums have been concerned with a similar topic: the centenary of the beginning of World War I, which has launched a certain number of commemorative exhibitions documenting these first raw depictions of war in photography and painting.

In this context, I was not certain how to approach Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern before my visit: would this be a commemorative exhibition or an exploration of the way in which war photography has evolved in time? Would this be a display centred around photoreporters or artist’s interpretation of conflict? Time Conflict Photography was effectively made to coincide with the centenary, yet has chosen to focus on a wider scope of conflict spanning many time periods. Yet in a uniquely creative twist, these records of conflicts are not shown in their chronological order but in the order of time that followed the photographing of each conflict: moments later, days, weeks, months, several years later. As the curator of the exhibition Simon Baker elaborates, “We wanted to think about the way photographers have photographed moments of conflict after they have happened, thinking about their long-term effects.” Thus, even though a photograph of the atomic ‘mushroom’ over Hiroshima is shown in “moments later” by Toshio Fukata, further photographs of the ravaged city and its inhabitants will only appear several rooms later in “months later” or “years later”. It mirrors however Luc Delahaye’s much more recent photograph US Bombing on Taliban Positions in 2001, its peaceful depiction of a field with the dissipating cloud in the distance only making it more horrifying and ominous in its understatement.

Landscapes and buildings are the main protagonists of this series of photographs, whether this is moments or months and years later. The only survivors that will be able to last through time and serve as commemorative parts of the landscape in itself? Or the fact that the immediate human experience is too difficult to capture in film both physically and emotionally? Regardless, this only makes the appearence of portraits all the more poignant, like Shell-shocked Marine, Vietnam, Hue, taken in 1968 by Dan McCullin, a reporter, only moments after this soldier returned from the battlefield, showing the raw tramatic toll of war in a way that would be almost impossible now, due to the increasing alienation and sanitization of relations between war correspondants and the army.

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Don McCullin Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968, printed 2013 © Don McCullin

Strangely therefore, in this exhibition, death and suffering is alluded to but very rarely shown – the only elements that we are allowed to see are those that have survived the initial blow to be recorded. Yet this is purposefully the point of the exhibition: memory, its persistence and the fact that despite the disappearance of bodies, either immediately or in time, they are still inscribed within landscapes and objects. Sophie Ristelhuber’s immense desertic series of landscapes, Fait riddled with memories and objects of the Gulf War, lull us into aesthetic and almost abstract compositions to show us how nature has “absorbed” conflict but never forgotten it, in a way alike to our own process of memory and remembrance. In the ‘days, weeks, months later’ section, Simon Norfolk embarks on a similar process: using the romanticized idea of the “ruin”, he uses it to document the destruction of sites in Kabul in 2003, such as in this photograph below, taken in the Karte Char district of Kabul, in the aftermath of the conflict between Hikmetyar and Rabbani and then Rabbani and Hazaras.

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Simon Norfolk Bullet-scarred apartment building and shops in the Karte Char district of Kabul. This area saw fighting between Hikmetyar and Rabbani and then between Rabbani and the Hazaras 2003 © Simon Norfolk

In a different perspective, the photographs are often nondescript without further context on their history and meaning. Thus, Diana Matar’s series of seemingly uneventful and unharmed buildings means nothing without her captions integrated to the mosaic of works on display – in which she describes how these were revealed as torture dungeons following Ghaddafi, in 2012. In the same perspective, Chloé Dewe-Mathews’s series Shot at Dawn, in “years later”, shows peaceful landscapes in the north of France that retain no more memories of their past use – as spaces where deserters were shot. All that remains of them and their memory are these landscapes and their titles composed of their names.

SHOT AT DAWN
Chloe Dewe Mathews Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013 Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed 17:00 / 15.12.1914 © Chloe Dewe Mathews

Other photographs take us back to an experience of bodies and objects that undermines the full horror of a war that can take its toll through the dead, but also through its survivors – such as those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki subject to radiation. How to represent what cannot be represented without an overwhelming feeling of horror? Kenji Ishiguro, with Hiroshima Now, shows the full frontal reality and brutality of war on surviving bodies, while Shomei Tomatsu participates in the record of objects and their ongoing, horrific reality in Hiroshima-Nagasaki document published in 1961. Hiromi Tsuchida’s photography of surviving objects coupled with quotes from the relatives and friends of the lost owners is probably the set of photographs that is hardest to watch, in its brutal and unforgiving honesty.

st_1963_steelhelmet_350dpi_1_1
Shomei Tomatsu Steel Helmet with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

Until now the scenography has been very sober, understated, white walls and sufficient space between the works as though to reinforce this passage of time. Sometimes an entire wall is dedicated only to one work, and allows us ample time to walk next to it, contemplate, before going on to the next set of photographs. This creates a slow, meditative pace that is quite soothing: despite the large amount of people, there was never a sense of feeling crammed into a space or crowding around to see a work. It felt appropriately timeless while showing us works recording a very precise time and place.

This setting abruptly changes as we enter a room labeled as the Archive of Modern Conflict, by the eponymous group that curated it. This somewhat elusive group houses an archive of photographs and artifacts related to wartime that publishes books based around this content, or curate exhibitions. Here, a central space was devoted to them, as “guest-curators”, interrupting the ongoing display. Contrasted with the main exhibition, this was a wartime cabinet of curiosities, with photographs collaged onto the wall like archival wallpaper, paraphernalia and trinkets in antiquated glass cabinets. This interruption was a surprise, and although it was interesting and fascinating in its own right, obviously jarring in the context of the exhibition’s usual sobriety and neatness. If I had been aware of this room beforehand, I would probably have visited it after the main exhibition, in order to view in a different mindset. Then again, it was a welcome change to the pristine nature of the main display.

Conflict Time Photography created an intense yet subtle exploration of memory, time and war without veering into pathos or preaching. It is not to be visited lighly, in a casual or hurried mindset. It is harrowing, poignant and often unbearable in a way that we have often learnt to forget in order to protect ourselves from the violence. This is as much an exhibition about conflict than the way we deal with conflict, grief and remembrance, in all its ambiguous and complex undertones.

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.

RMN114358NU
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

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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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Martial Raysse, Rétrospective at Centre Pompidou (Café Powell)

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

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

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

Claire

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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.

ITALY. Tuscany. Livorno. 1933.
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.

CHINA. 1948-1949.
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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Robert Mapplethorpe, Grand Palais

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

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

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

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

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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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patti Smith alongside Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait
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Lisa Lyon

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

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

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

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

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Pictures/Self Portrait, 1977

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

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Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

The Glamour of Italian Fashion, 1945-2014 at the V&A (part 2)

In my first part on the exhibition The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 at the V&A it was neccessary to set the scene for postwar Italy: impoverished, the funding it received through the Marshall Plan for regional industries provided high quality material that could fuel a fashion industry about to break through onto the international scene. Following Giorgini’s efforts to showcase the best of Italian production in the 50s, a potent market was found in North America for exquisite and hand-sewn pieces strengthened by a blend of quality and tradition. The 60s saw the emergence of a cultural fascination with Italy that went hand in hand with its fashion, creating an attitude and attractiveness that only grew throughout the years.

So far the main concern had been the creation of the “perfect outfit” – made for a maker’s loyal and exacting clients, every detail curtailed to his or her desire. Yet the late 60s and early 70s called for a new approach. Just as Florence and Rome were being replaced by Milan as the new capital of Italian fashion, ready-to-wear fashion was on the rise, where the concern was not so much the perfect outfit, but the perfect “style”.

On that note, the exhibition leads us seamlessly into this second part, where the outfits on display are now almost all left unprotected by glass; this allows for more observation of the textures but is also intentionally reminiscent of shop display rather than a traditional  museum collection.

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Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Indeed, proudly displayed at the entrance of the room, Elio Fiorucci and Walter Albini have become the epitome of the new designer that have embraced the ready-to-wear market branching out into clothes stores. They eclipse the traditional dressmaker with the more modern notion of “Lo Stilista”: the designer, stylist and mediator in terms of brand image and clothing. This new creator is concerned as much with the marketing image and wide-range accessibility of his products…while retaining an impeccable quality in his materials, as well as a newfound inventivity. The motto of Ferregamo mentioned at some point encapsulates this attitude: “Handmade shoes by mass production.”

This is perfectly on par with the marketing campaign “Made in Italy” that sought to increase the appeal of Italian fashion abroad. While Elio Fiorucci was definitely concerned with the branding aspect of his work, Albini, trained as an illustrator, uses his skills to produce elegant sketches that search for this sense of style and expression. Yet there is also a stronger focus, as we evoved through the display, on a more concise exploration of fashion’s relation to italian production. A video displays the regions that provide the industry with silk (Como), wool (Biella) and leather (Tuscany). The slightly dry and advert-like feel of the small video is toned down by the garments displayed on rows either side in themes corresponding to the textiles used, from Missoni’s knitwear to Karl Lagerfeld’s multicolour mink or Max Mara’s camel coat.

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Women’s knitted ensemble 1972 Missoni 528 KB Missoni / Fashion in Motion at the V&A, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The last part is one that concerns itself not only with fashion but essentially with the way it is channelled throughout modern media and deified.Lo Silisto here becomes, in the year 2014, the “designer”, whose world and its superstar status is defined as such by Anne Piaggi: “a secret society, made up of pioneers, a few inventors and a few poets. They are the new phenomenon and the new elite.”

The room is large and dark, projecting a sense of covert holiness as a large dome-like structure stretches overhead and a screen shows a whirl of videos in which models stride across the catwalk as a reconstruction of one displays various haute couture designs from recent years. Almost too excessive, too showy…yet it works. Maybe the true key to displaying fashion that oscillates between elegance and brightly coloured, textured luxury.

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Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

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Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some are instantly known, such as Valentino or Dolce & Gabbana. Yet again, some are new arrivals, designers yet to become fashionable household names. In a sense, I wish I could have seen more of these. We see a lot of well-known fashion designers throughout the exhibition itself so giving more of the scene to a larger array of emerging designers would have been interesting. Yet this is a small point in itself…counterbalanced by a video at the end of the exhibition in which designers, editors and fashion experts are asked their opinion concerning the future of italian fashion, and encourage the presence of fresh emerging designers within the industry.

The exhibition finishes off with a greater focus on photography as not only the vehicule of a design but also of the idea and appeal behind it, sometimes drawing on lyrical, cultural and even political themes, such as the Benetton ads by its artistic director Oliviero Toscani that became revolutionary for the messages that they conveyed rather than their presentation of the clothing, making a brand image something other than its garments…making it desirable and glamorous as a concept in itself.

This exhibition left a great impression on me…and it might have been one of my favourite so far this year. It showed an immense love of the clothes and a concise eye not only on Italian fashion but on the evolution of an industry as a whole. I would have personaly loved to see more fashion sketches; there were a few dotted here and there as well but not always a clear overview concerning their contribution to the final product. However I understand the fact that the focus had to be on the Italian textiles and the way they shaped the design of the clothes, rather than the sketched idea. The sheer amount and quality of the clothes was overwhelming, although I would a few more in-depth spotlights on particular designers in certain places and maybe more historical context in terms of Italy’s political and social situation. How were other industries faring? To what extent were Italians themselves and their governement supportive in relation to international buyers, aside from the prosperity that this would inject into the country? The subject is mentioned but remains vague, perhaps reflecting the concluding video in which the need for renewal and economical support is stressed.

Another subject that would have interested me would have been the way in which Italians would express this dolce vita, nonchalant and refined way of dressing outside of the catwalk and workshops, to see a bit more of the “typical” dressers and consumers rather than having allusions to a faceless market. Yet, there was an immense width of information to cover and I think that this insighful overview was perfectly handled. On display until the 27th of July, this exhibition is one that I cannot recommend enough.