Two stern avant-garde gazes in black and white overlook the stubborn queue forming outside the Musée Picasso in Paris on a cold autumn morning. In the newly refurbished Musée Picasso, which opened once more to the public a few years ago, the new permanent collection alone is usually sufficient to draw loyal crows. Add the name of the Swiss modern artist Giacometti and curiosity mingles with excitement outside. How do you compare and contrast the works of two masters of modern art? How did their paths crossed? How do their works speak to one another?
How? Beautifully so. The selection of works is absolutely breathtaking, as are the dialogues between Giacometti on one side and Picasso on the other, an effortless relation of form and facets which does make me wonder: why did no-one show their works together before? The missed opportunities are vastly made up for here, in the endlessly surprising hôtel particulier housing the Musée Picasso. There is something about the way in which this space mingles both stateliness and luminosity that makes it just right for the Picasso works, and enshrines the Giacometti works beautifully. The juxtapositions are stunningly crafted, as the eye slides effortlessly from form to form, from curve to sharp angle. Whoever conceived the display has a strong and intent eye for the silent correspondences between objects that bring them to life in a new way, without being heavy-handed or hasty. Most importantly, this is an exhibition with enough space to sit, wander, think and stroll. The main reason for this is that every temporary exhibition occupies the space of most of the permanent collections, save a few floors, an important point in terms of flow and time. Popular exhibitions can often become a tiring and back-aching business of shuffling and queueing to see a work stuck in a corner within a jam-packed room, which was far from being the case here.
However, the beauty of the works could not always make up for the themes they were organized within. I felt as though some topics, such as “death”, “love” or “women”, made a good job in distinguishing particular interests within avant-garde scenes at the time, but little to focus specifically on topics directly relevant to both Picasso and Giacometti, like two fascinating people brought together under vague premises but nevertheless creating a beautiful conversation out of the situation. Then again, the tone is universal, and does not force itself to peer too deeply into the content in order to let the form breathe. The nudes and skulls feel like a surface concern for the deep concern about the human form, personhood, identity.
As much as I loved the stunning formal juxtapositions between Picasso and Giacometti, I felt as though something was lacking: their viewpoint on each other, and historical proof of what sounded like mutual influence and conversation. I would have preferred more substance and less style, in the most literal way possible, or perhaps simply a more subtle balance between the two.The beginning of the exhibition thoughtfully ponder upon the fact that their work has never been curated specifically together yet avoid historical reasoning or sources. I therefore spent most of the display confused about whether or not Giacometti and Picasso ever crossed paths, or if this is a beautiful and creative reinterpretation of a fictional relation. Both cases are just as interesting and valid in my opinion, but the vagueness is not, and it does feel a little strange that it is only revealed towards the end of the exhibition that they did, indeed, cross paths in 1930s Paris, often meeting at one of these mythical little cafés where artists remade art history in their image, one drink at a time.
An enthusiastic and friendly guide is leading a class visit, with completely absorbed children who are eagerly participating; the discussion is about value judgement, realism and beauty in art and how Picasso and Giacometti aimed to change the “traditional” viewpoint at the time. They make the full creative impact of their juxtaposition come to life, showcasing the works as relevant keys towards understanding how artists departed from established, surface-deep notions of “realism”, and why. It suddenly becomes obvious that beyond the duel between the two artists and beyond the art historical sources, this is what truly matters: two paths intertwining, often crossing yet never clashing, searching for a new means of expressing reality, ugliness, beauty and the sublime.
The sentence that accompanies the visitor through a richly patterned door into the Seydou Keïta exhibition was the Malian photographer’s proclaimed tagline, one he perhaps repeated to countless subjects that posed for him from the 1940s onwards in his studio in Bamako, in the space of a few decades in which his work extended to neighboring countries and achieved worldwide recognition. Many photographers distinguish themselves through the diversity or eclecticism of their subject-matter, from portraiture to genre and landscape; Keïta was not one of them, focusing solely on portrait photography of a seemingly formal nature. Yet, it is through this uniformity and simplicity that Keïta acheived some of the most complex, sensitive and multi-layered portraits of the 20th century. The formal premise is that of his photography business: subjects drop in to have their photograph taken either within his studio or outside, due to his constant preference for natural light. The backdrops are usually patterned cloths, changing over the years, which become Keïta’s only means of placing a date on them. Entering the exhibition space is to enter an airy, vast space of soft pinks, whites and reds which delicately complement the black and white pictures, blown up almost life-sized, as though to transport us back to the precise moment in which Keïta achieved his perfect vision for the shot. Notoriously meticulous about poses and gestures, the results he achieves are not spontaneous or candid yet they capture the subject with startling intimacy and sincerity.
The effect is both striking and contemplative, in rooms that allow enough space for the photographs to breathe, but also convey enough intimacy for these anonymous faces to speak out to us. Anonymous, because Keïta’s way of working (footage shows people queuing up to be photographed one after the other) does not leave room for official records and names. We are left to guess thoughts and relations from one subject to another. As fashions change and intermingle, between Malian fashion and European suits and skirts, a portrait of a country in the midst of change and shifting identity, between images of tradition and modernity, is etched but never quite grasped. At the time, Bamako was still the capital of French Sudan; the year 1962 marking the independence of the Sudanese republic marked the closing of Keïta’s studio, as he was asked to become the first official photographer of the Republic of Mali.
Moving through the space, the sense of continuity and familiarity between different photos is through not only textile backdrops, but another theatre-like feature: props. Sunglasses, handbags and even an elegant white Vespa pop up in different pictures, as ways for subjects to play creatively with the composition, and also, significantly, the way in which they wanted to be seen and represented. Keïta’s portraits are sincerely realist, yet they also belong to the realm of fantasy and aspirations, on the public status level of a busy neighborhood of Bamako where photographs were usually taken in front of a noisy crowd of peers, and on a deeply personal level.
The final room of the exhibition brings us back to the small-scale level of the photographs that would have been taken home by subjects; since Keïta did not keep his own copies of the photographs, most of them were found abandoned or forgotten by clients of the framer’s shop, who also took care of colouring certain accessories. The contrast with the impeccable large-scale portraits is stark; many of them are torn, yellowed or stained. Yet, a deeper sense is given of them as artifacts and keepsakes, fragments of family memories and personalities. They mingle with the confident and light-hearted words of Keïta himself, through footage of his work and interviews that draw smiles and laughs from visitors. The photographer’s pride in his work and confidence in its perfect execution is communicated through his warmth and charisma. One of the quotes peppered throughout the exhibition states proudly and poignantly: “You can’t imagine what it was like for me the first time I saw prints of my negatives in large-scale, no spots, clean and perfect. I knew then that my work was really, really good. The people in my photos look so alive, almost as if they were standing in front of me.” This heartfelt exhibition left me with no reason to disagree with him.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Time can shape both the content and the format of a work and the way it is visited. On my way to the Bruce Nauman exhibition I had a slight time constraint and already drew up a rough estimate of the moment I would finish the visit. However as I left the exhibition I found that I was leaving earlier than I expected while under the impression I had been there longer.
Sound and video, in the same perspective, become an integral part of our daily routine that we devote a huge amount of time to but sometimes take for granted, skipping or cutting off at will. It takes a particular discipline and focus to make us sit down and cut off the rest of the world instead. Through performance, video and installations, as well as audio works and sculpture, Nauman manages to use this to his advantage within the exhibition space. Most of his iconic works have been concerned with the mapping of a place through the movements of the body and the measurement of time, his studio in New Mexico becoming fully part of his work as he used to create a map of his own footsteps around his workspace. Here, in the same way, the way we travel through the display influences us, and immersing ourselves in sculpture, audio or video becomes an artistic process.
The Fondation Cartier for Contemporary Art has a clean-cut, severe yet serene appearence that lends itself well to metamorphosis. I had seen it only once beforehand for the Takeshi Kitano exhibition that had made it a fun, multicolour treasure trove full of noise and movement. In contrast, at the moment, the Fondation remains soberly stripped down to its bare essentials with its large spaces and transparent walls. The first room shows us Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers, a casual optical illusion set in the everyday clutter of the artist’s studio as he seemingly lifts a string of pencils as his cat ambles past the camera.The intimacy of the studio where he attempts to merge the mundane and the “magical” is undermined by the huge format of the video installation, taking up an entire wall and towering over us.
After this luminous and light-hearted presentation, it is fair to say that arriving at the darker lower level welcomes you to the sleek stuff of nightmares. A deconstructed Carousel spins around dismembered dog mannequins, in a structure that ressembles a slaughterhouse scenario rather than a merry-go-round. Yet this effect would only be slightly creepy were it not for Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera). The chaotic, anguished and strangely sensual singing of classical singer Rinde Eckert is paired with a projected close up of his face towering over us on the three walls, surrounded by six monitors, all with a slight discrepancy that creates the strength and horror of the installation as in each video the singer declares “Feed Me, Eat Me, Anthropology”, “Help Me, Hurt Me, Sociology” and “Feed Me, Help Me, Eat Me, Hurt Me”…all at once. Eckert’s chant ressembling a prayer puts a dark spin on our basic human needs and impulses and our need to categorize them.
The harmonious cacophony that ensues in the large, darkened space creates a tension and anxiety that fascinates and disgusts at the same time. Even though the installation is almost unbearable to listen to and visually unsettling, we still remain drawn to it through the urgent emotion and tension of Eckert’s voice. This video from an exhibition in 1993 retranscribes this chaotic chanting.
It is neccessary to walk across the room in order to slide through a small darkened corridor, somehow masking some of the chanting to immerse us into a very different type of atmosphere. Untitled 1970/2009 shows us a doubly projected video of two dancers rolling harmoniously around a dial-like floor, their hands entertwined, like anthropomorphized needles of a clock. Their predetermined protocol (the artist was not present during the shooting of the video) was to dance until exhaustion ensued, in this case during 30 minutes. The entire video relies on the same movements again and again, playing with our notions of time and movement; it is fascinating, almost hypnotic in the way it forces us to take a break and watch the same, repeated motions.
The soothing, fascinating quality of Untitled and the nervous, anxiety-inducing nature of Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera) can both be found in the double audio-installation For Children/Pour les Enfants and For Beginners (Instructed Piano). The first happens on the ground floor, back in one of the large and luminous glass rooms, where a drawing, For Children/For Beginners shows the words “For children” and “Pour les enfants” hastily scribbled on the page as a stern voice repeats these terms on a loop, inspired from a piano music partition by Béla Bartók entitled “For Children”, adapted to the small size of their hands and their beginner level. This repetition makes the term go from mundane to almost ominous, confronting us to discipline and control, education and “playing”. For Beginners happens outside, in the Fondation Cartier’s luxuriant and peaceful garden. On louspeakers dispersed throughout the greenery and benches, we hear the recorded piano playing of Tony Allen corresponding to the artist’s protocol: his hands must remain at the centre of the keyboard. Both dreamlike and eerie, the constraint imposed by the pianist can only be heard and not seen, giving it a clumsy but endearing nature.
The exhibition is short and although it is meant to be a compendium of his recent career, does not feel like a comprehensive sense of his work. Yet each work is physically and mentally demanding, almost draining. Bruce Nauman does not want a passive gaze: to understand the work we need to work for it, wander around and into it, in the case of audio installations. Time is not linear in these works or in the way we confront them; it works itself into a loop that weaves itself into our footsteps, emotions and experiences.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Animation is a strange and fascinating process, and just as strange to document and curate. Whereas the finished animated feature rarely lasts more than one hour and a half, its creation and process takes years, following meticulous, painstaking stages that will ultimately result in spontaneous, dynamic movement.
Maybe the reason I feel so strongly about animation and its display in museums is puposefully because it is so difficult to grasp from a single angle, but also because there is so much left to show and explore. Within an increasing trend in exhibiting animation, Musée Art Ludique has risen to the occasion in recent years, in sensitive, engaging and provocative ways. I loved their exhibition previously shown at MoMA, celebrating 25 years of Pixar Studios with lavish displays of concept art, storyboards and models that created a balance between Pixar’s technical CGI achievements and their artistic vision. In this exhibition the main impetus was truly to “dip” into every stage leading to the creation of an animated feature, but leaving little room for technical and in-depth exploration of each stage of the process. This time, the formula is different, taking a very precise and almost scientific slant while harking back to a much loved tradition: the art of the preparatory sketch.
The exhibition “Studio Ghibli Layout Designs: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata/Miyazaki Animation” is, indeed, very precise and focused on one particular animation process. Its very title shows that this is going to be an exhibition with a pedagogical as much as an artistic aim: to understand a very particular stage of animation, while admiring the mastery of such drawings. The exhibition was made in collaboration with Studio Ghibli as well as the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s celebrated films within the studio are known around the world and have a glowing thity-year record for hand-drawn animations that are known for their charm, creativity and insightfulness. As Miyazaki has announced his retirement and Studio Ghibli close their film production for now, this exhibition is a poignant tribute to their acheivements.
Layout design is a particular stage of the animated feature in between the rough storyboard creating the narrative and the finished animated scenes. It has a very specific technical purpose: to create defined visual references for the animated in terms of scenery, perspective and position of the characters. It will detail how these characters move but also how the camera may pan upwards, to the side, or zoom in on a particular moment. They are also used to define the exact timing of each scene and movement, as well as key notions in terms of lighting, shadow and mood.
At this stage I need to take a step back from a personal passion about animation and see it from a more general viewpoint: does it sound dry and perhaps too technical? At first sight, perhaps. But this technicity goes hand in hand with the virtuosity and masterful nature of these clean and complex sketches. Their precision and artfulness, setting the founding visual keystones to the final animation, brings to mind the drafts and preparations of old Masters. This is all the more relevant because Studio Ghibli is one of the rare studios that still creates hand-drawn animated features.
The exhibition starts with a very theoretical overview of the key terms of animation layouts in japanese, but also basic terms of animation such as the transparent page on which the characters are drawn in motion (the celluloid), to be set against the immobile backdrop. At the same time, a range of tools of the animator are put on display. This is accompanied by a sweet short comic by the animators themselves detailling every stage as a small memo. A very didactic start, therefore, but that then allows time for the viewer to pore over the hundreds of layout drawings that have been classified in terms of animated projects, from the most recent to the oldest – with hidden gems such as the very beginnings of Miyazaki and Takahata at Toei Animation on television series. The entire display definitely revolves around these two figures, with a slight preeminence of Miyazaki due to the overwhelming popularity of films such as Howl’s Moving Castle, Chihiro’s Journey or Nausicäa.
Interestingly enough, for an exhibition revolving around narrative-building drawings, the content and narrative of the films was not introduced or explained in depth: this was definitely not what could be qualified as a beginner’s introduction to Ghibli, but mainly an exhibition for pre-existing fans. This would probably be a flaw in any other country than France, where respect for animation is stronger Ghibli films are usually well-known in a mainstream way that is not neccessarily true for the UK, for instance.
Yet the lack of introduction or explanation of the drawings themselves allows for more space for their purely visual appeal. The cleaned-up and neat process of the layout drawings, in coloured pencils still retains an organic, spontaneous appeal, the mapping out of colours and movements creating a strange visual poetry that the visitor learns how to decipher throughout the visit. Perhaps this particular charm also derives from the fact that these are the raw key elements of the movies, lived through and analyzed, corrected to perfection while retaining an emotional depth. Through the scribbling of japanese peppered with a few english terms, the hand of the “Master” Miyazaki emerges as some of his comments and critiques are translated. Some indicate that the pencilling is too rough, or that the movement is not natural. Others are small lessons in animation. This creates a certain tone of perfectionism mingled with intimacy and humour, translating only a fraction of the rigour and hard work of the Ghibli studio – who work as a tight-knit group. The problem remains of a single name obscuring many other skills: even though I can’t compare Miyazaki to Disney since the former is actively involved in the drawing process of many of these layouts, they do remain figureheads that blot out other names, storyboarders and animators that remain unknown. Having a little insight into their experiences would have been a nice touch. To perhaps gain a more global understanding of Studio Ghibli’s day to day life I would definitely recommend the documentary of Spirited Away’s making-of – here is a heart-warming small extract.
Aside from acquiring the technical jargon neccessary to decipher the layout drawings in the first place, do we acquire any of these “secrets” to animation promised at the beginning of the exhibition? In many sense, yes. And the first is this: you need to cheat. This may come as a stab in the back or a consolation to many fellow artists but apparently perspective is also worthless in a geometrical/mathematical sense if it cannot be distorted to fit the requirements of the scene or the camera. For example, some elements can be distorted or made larger if the camera is creating a panning movement, such as a castle floating away into the sky, in order to create the illusion it is floating further away. Such examples always created a comparison between the finished production and the key layout sketches, allowing further deciphering of the scenes.
This exhibition could appear as a bit too specific for a person with little to no acquaintance with Ghibli but I think that the hugely popular emotional appeal for these films managed to trigger a deep desire to understand their technical side further…and also simply indulge in the visual beauty of so many imaginative world and stories “in construction”. It created a many-layered display that never became heavy-handed. In an arthistorical context it established these hand-drawn animators as the inheritors of composition and draftsmanship of Renaissance artists and Old Masters, while debunking the myth that japanese animation or “anime” is somehow less complex due to its stylized characters. The choice to focus on an oft-forgotten stage of the hand-drawn animated process allowed for a reminder that such films are works of collective craftsmanship, while ironically or paradoxically keeping Miyazaki and Takahata in the spotlight. Despite a few flaws, however, this harmony of poetry and technicality was a pleasure to visit before viewing these animated classics again.
Niki de Saint-Phalle is the type of artist that can bring to mind not necessarily one work in particular but a type of composite image, or iconic aura, that is instantly recognizable. This phrase cropped up in my conversations about her: “You think you don’t know her but you actually do: you know, these large, colourful women.” In a way, yes, we do “know” Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Nanas, with their pervasive joy and round bodies. But do we “know” all we need to about Niki de Saint-Phalle? The curator of the exhibition, Camille Morineau, admits herself that she discovered new, surprising aspects of Saint-Phalle during her initial research. The end result is a sensitive and intense rediscovery that leads us onto unchartered and forgotten territories of her work, and their relation to feminity and women artists.
The first room is surprisingly sober in its scenography, with its grey walls and traditional format. Perhaps it reflects exactly that which Saint-Phalle wanted to escape in her early works: the confines of a traditional bourgeois Catholic family of bankers that wanted her to marry and perpetuate the family’s good name. Saint-Phalle’s emancipation from this bourgeois mindset in order to find a liberated, bohemian lifestyle is the stuff of romanesque novels. Yet her first works, creating collages of various everyday objects on canvas, interspersed with a folk-art and naïve style of painting reminiscent of Chagall or early Pollock works, hides darker struggles beneath their colourful and irregular surface.
They reflect her complete immersion into art as a therapeutic necessity rather than a casual soul-searching hobby, after a huge nervous breakdown, linked to her fluctuating mood and tense marriage. Beneath the work’s titles, particular quotes of hers allow us to pinpoint her state of mind as her works progress territories that are often dark and violent, exploring her dreams and fantasies – using for example the revolver she bought to “metaphorically” shoot her ex, an impulse that she exorcises through Revolver. As I continue on to a larger room, more circular and irregular in its shape, her voice already rings out crisply and defiantly from a 1960s documentary, as though criticizing what we have just seen: “It’s a good thing I was no good at painting.” This “good thing” that allowed her to go beyond the confines of painting to search out new artistic expression is shown all around the screen. Monumental women become the anthropomorphic materialization of her earlier works: accumulations of objects made into huge, overpowering female forms, these mesh together a complex glorification of woman and a criticism of her role in a society that wants to restrain her into marriage and submissiveness.
Large faceless brides tower over us while simultaneously seeming to keel under the weight of all the sum of their fragmented parts. The minute and breathtaking delicacy of Saint-Phalle’s composite sculptures never removes the sharp edge from her absolute hatred of marriage, likening it to the end of life itself in a quote associated with The Bride under the Tree: “Marriage is death.” This figure is white and waif-like, like a ghost rather than a symbol of bridal purity, losing her face and individuality faced with the demands of tradition and society. Yet most of these women are domineering and victorious, already revealing Saint-Phalle’s vision of a powerful and colourful woman that needs to detach herself from the constraints of the patriarchy. Leto, with her baroque body, is rendered both glorious and monstrous through the collage of objects that create her. Flowers, toys soldiers, plastic artefacts among the many that she scavenges for at her treasure trove of choice – Monoprix, the French equivalent of Wall-Mart or Tesco.
Throughout these works, a strong motif reoccurs: a battalion of small plastic soldiers and animals, seemingly crawling over “their” woman. The body literally becomes a battlefield and a space that woman must reclaim for herself. This ensemble is complemented by a pair of garters in a pose imitating the Crucifixion. A celebration of female sexuality? The condemnation of a society that willingly objectifies women yet vilifies them in the same instance? Possibly both. Feminist? Undoubtedly. The idea of systematically labelling any work made by a woman artist as “feminist” causes a great deal of annoyance amongst artist and art historians alike. Yet in this case, Saint-Phalle says so herself, and loudly: “I can see that I am dealing with an anti-feminist!” she chides in the video facing her male interviewer’s comments, using the term with a strength and ease that reflects her uncompromising visions.
Niki de Saint-Phalle is not only concerned with a condemnation of patriarchy. What interests her is creation on all levels. The creation of a new matriarchy of powerful women, the creation of art on her own terms and the creation of life. The walls are lighter, more circular and curvaceous, as though reflecting values that are turned against their male oppressors: fecundity and compassion. The feminine body is no longer a monstruous bulk of collage made to denunciate a body used and abused; it is an object of power, giving birth on its own terms. The vision of a doll emerging from between the legs of these pure white deities is startling, shocking, yet unabashedly powerful.
Cavorting sculptures of wire and painted polymer lead us on into a smaller, dark room where spotlights showcase new forms. With a smoother surface than her collaged counterparts, rotund and full of life, these were inspired from an initial sketch of Clarice Rivers’ pregnant form. A darkened, tunnel-like room, almost womb-like, it announces the “birth” of the iconic nana but also echoes the monumental sculpture-machine installation that she made with Jean Tinguely and exhibited in 1966 within the Moderna Museet of Stockholm. HON – or “She” in Swedish was a momentous 28 meters long, 6 meters high and 9 meters large, enough for people to visit the inside of her body, strategically entering between her legs to discover an art gallery in her womb, a milk bar in the cavity of one breast and an observatory in the other.
Niki de Saint-Phalle’s voice and message, stern and reproving, now has a cheeky, more cheerful tone as a video shows her spinning around in a white chair like a mock James Bond villain, announcing “Je suis Niki de Saint-Phalle et je fais des oeuvres monumentales!” (“I am Niki de Saint-Phalle and my work is monumental!”) The room that leads us towards these towering works is, appropriately, the largest and the most spectacular, with a dome like a miniature cathedral as a Chopin waltz accompanies the rotation of the Three Graces, three grand dancers, covered in colour and mirrored mosaics whose reflections bounce and dart around the room. They are flanked by their gigantic peers, in a serene yet momentous atmosphere, as Niki continues to talk about her “grosses dames” in a video in the background, her humorous reverence forming a striking contrast with her slim, suit-adorned silhouette. This is truly a temple to the Nana: the woman who will exude power but remain protective and loving, forming a new bond with man based around exchange instead of confrontation.
Not all of Saint-Phalle’s artwork surrounding women reflect this sunny, positive and power girl feminism that I was most familiar with. In another dark tunnel-like room, in dimly lit alcoves, the figures yet again become monstruous, both a criticism of women’s restrictive roles and a criticism of the women who willfully “devour” their children by bestowing upon them all their own ambitions and social restrictions. The tableau becomes darker and more autobiographical.
Saint-Phalle’s relation to her mother was complex and ambivalent. Facing the sculpture of a monstrous, gluttonous monster she recalls her mother asking, horrified, if this sculpture was her; Saint-Phalle does not have the heart to tell her that it is one aspect of her memories of her, a fragment of what she fears she might become as a mother. Motherhood becomes then not only a positive trait of protection and nurturing, but a toxic, unhealthy relation that is inextricably linked to possession and all-controlling affection: for Saint-Phalle, mothers will end up devouring their young just as much as the father with his dominance of the household. Saint-Phalle’s sculpture ‘The Death of the Father’ creates a darkly hilarious tableau, with a matronly window whose sorrow is suspiciously absent and an open coffin displaying a giant phallus. This mirrors the opening scenes of Saint-Phalle’s film Daddy, in which she explores the dark and complex relationship with her father, who raped her when she was eleven. Psychoanalysis, symbolism and morbid fantasy mingle with both intimate rejection of her father’s toxic influence and the ultimate obsolete patriarchy that must be destroyed. The “death of the patriarch” is theatrically presented as Saint-Phalle, in a classic “masculine” suit, shoots her father’s coffin.
The use of the pistol, the phallic, destructive object, rarely associated with womanhood, is in fact a recurring theme in Saint-Phalle’s work. Earlier on, Niki de St-Phalle did use a revolver as an element of her collage work but in the series of Revolver painting, the passive fantasy becomes a real act of violence in which she uses a gun to create her paintings, making colour burst from fragile envelopes of plaster with each shot. More than a creative protest, the shots become a public performance, and a political act, as she shoots patriarchal and political figures alike. This return to painting exacerbates both its violence and its feminism into outspoken, brash messages about the world she lived in. This included a cynical militaristic altar to speak out against the horrors of the Algerian war, and an eerily premonitory depiction of a rocket crashing into Twin Towers as the death-mask like faces of American presidents and politicians look on (in terms of strange premonitions, Saint-Phalle also “shot” Kennedy’s…portrait, only months before his assassination). The last room presents a few of her late sculptures as well as photographs of the breathtaking Jardin des Tarots in Garavicchio, Italy, which she funded and created through sales of her work and perfume brand, fulfilling her vision of an architectural art inspired by Gaudi.
It creates a lasting sense of unity: the large skull, multicoloured and cheerful, inspired from the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, finally unites the careless sense of joy in many of her work with the ominous sense of the morbid that pervades others.
In a sense the particularity of this exhibition is its refusal to compromise while creating a complex, coherent whole. The exuberant nature of the Nanas cannot be complete without the toxicity of the Devouring Mothers. The delicate sculptural collages that she assembles join themselves to the violence and spontaneity of her gunshot paintings. It is truly an exhibition in the image of a feminist who refused to choose, embracing the idea of motherhood, sisterhood and its protective, nurturing aspect, but never discarding the radical, violent dismantling of the patriarchy through her work. I think this exhibition is essential in rediscovering a Niki de Saint-Phalle that is multi-layered and ambiguous, a revolutionary and a romantic rolled into one.
There is talk of a recent trend concerning Paris and its Chinese tourists, whose relation may become rocky. Travelling to the capital city with an ideal image of the City of Love in their minds (with Hollywood films and perfume adverts as the first culprits), they are often disillusioned and upset by the gritty reality that they faces upon arrival. Filthy subways, unkempt streets, rude waiters and grumpy Parisians abound in this fairytale gone wrong, according to this captivating article by The Business of Fashion.
I am probably a grumpy Parisian at heart: I was initially disgruntled by the fact that a living, active city was expected to keep itself as pristine and glossy as a Vogue photoshoot for tourists who, sometimes, do not bother with basic French phrases…or manners. Additionally, we would also like clean subways and pristine customer service to justify the price of a 4 euro espresso!
However this trend may not be that new. The tension between the naïve visitor and the seasoned Parisian, the Paris of dreams and the messy Paris of everyday life made me think of a recent exhibition. Indeed, Paris 1900 at the Petit Palais has both fed upon this dreamlike vision of Paris and challenged it in its own subtle ways.
The city is quite sleepy in terms of new art exhibitions for now. Many galleries are still shut and most museums are waiting for everyone to return from holidays before launching their new exhibitions in September. Despite the fact that Paris 1900 is now over, I wanted to reflect upon it, and return to Paris more than one century ago, at a turning point in terms of history, social change and entertainment.
Paris 1900 promised a “Ville de Spectacle” and this is exactly what I experienced, in a format somewhere between an art exhibition and a documentary. 1900 was both a pivotal year of the Belle Époque, the symbol of a last decade of prosperity before WWI and the year of the “Exposition Universelle” of Paris, or Universal Exposition. This was the event of the year, following into the footsteps of its Universal Exposition of 1889 and countless other Expos in the past decades in London, New York and Chicago. The aim of these expositions was to showcase the international achievements of the past decades in terms of science, industrial innovation, art and culture. In other terms, it was a huge opportunity for friendly rivalry between countries and unbridled showing off for the host city. Paris therefore transformed itself along the riverbanks of the Seine to welcome approximately 50 million visitors. Although most of the pavilions and adornments were temporary, a few of them still influence the Parisian landscape including the Eiffel Tower and the Petit Palais itself.
A general introduction to the Universal Exposition showed a flurry of preparatory sketches, blueprints, posters and paintings, where the diversity of objects and exhibits created a particular atmosphere. The unpredictable and the eccentric accompanied this international crisscrossing of cultures, making the city a large parade both for its tourists and its inhabitants. A beautiful fresco by Alfons Mucha was displayed overhead, right next to an authentic Metro gateway, in the typical Art Nouveau style that pervaded the entire Expo.
Without selection or elitism, I was given an overview of the entire bustle and pomp around the exhibition in its most splendid and kitsch undertones. Most of the exhibition pavilions for each country and the different “palaces” built to welcome scientific or artistic displays were meant to impress and entertain for a while which allowed all kind of extravagances. As a shaky black and white footage from the Frères Lumière showed, the view along the Seine was ridiculously spectacular. So were the filmed reactions of Parisians sampling some moving sidewalks for the very first time. There was something moving about their excitement that created a sharp contrast with the utterly nonplussed use of moving platforms in the Parisian subway today…
The attention to detail, scenography and the steps every visitor undertakes through the exhibition was striking from the very beginning. The first room was constructed as a large airy space with archways that indeed gave the impression of an old fashioned exhibition space. Through the corridors leading to each new section, a film of Parisians going about their everyday lives was projected and on the other side, a mirror allowed visitors to literally “mirror” their experiences and those of their French, 20th century counterparts. It was truly this aspect and this sense of an intimate, ordinary vision of the Parisian in 1900 that created the exhibition’s strength.
The Art Nouveau section, teeming with sculpture, textiles and furniture was full of surprises and hidden gems – such as Sarah Bernhardt’s apparent love of sculptures depicting the seaweed, shells and driftwood she would pick up on the beach! I couldn’t help but think of the slight scorn that celebrities experience when they try to reconvert themselves into art and attract mixed reviews. With a mix of art, design and decoration, with tapestries shown next to wallpaper, and busts cohabitating with combs, a true sense of the full aesthetic emerges here, the first sense of modern design that does not limit itself to a single category. Is it difficult to limit Art Nouveau to one single room? Yes, but this exhibition achieved it without leaving anyone too frustrated.
This perhaps had something to do with the next room, which managed to reconstruct the content and atmosphere of one of the famed Artists’ Salons, where all of Paris – or those who could afford to in terms of time or money – would come and admire or violently criticize exhibiting artists. The idea of using the same format as a Salon, with a hanging system covering all of the walls from top to bottom was bad at the time, making some paintings hard to observe, let alone appreciate. The adaptation 114 years later was not any more successful in terms of visibility! Yet, with a small room dedicated to Rodin sculptures, and a late Monet facing Cézanne’s portrait of his friend and art dealer Vollard, a rich and comprehensive immersion back into the artistic scene of 1900 was achieved. This section definitely chose to show a realistic portrayal of the range of artists at the time, showcasing not only those whose names and images are still memorable for us, but also more significantly those who were forgotten by most people, lurking in small museums or thesis footnotes. This was mostly relevant in showing the amount of overwhelming choice that the audience had in terms of painters…and the fact that while some could be passing trends, uncovered gems could remain undiscovered for a century or so.
As stereotypical as it sounds, the Parisian experience could not be narrated without the mention of fashion…and this ‘mention’ manifested itself in a lavish collection of clothes from the period, many of which come from the prestigious Musée Galliera. I was skeptical about the vision that this section would give about fashion overall, imagining that it would remain with the luxurious silhouettes and froufrous of the Belle Epoque’s high-class Parisienne, coquettishly flashing her ankles at her beau on a boulevard. Yet I was proven wrong. While ball dresses and tea gowns dominated the darkened room with their lace and satin, reflecting the fashion plates and caricatures of their time, the outfits of working class women were shown with just as much importance, showing their lasting influence on practical womenswear from the early 20th century onwards. The “midinette” – the young working class woman whose lunch break was at midday – captured a collective imagination that resides somewhere between a picturesque Parisian fantasy and its gritter reality outside of the limelight. As unimportant as the hardworking and coquettish midinette would appear to her contemporaries, she spoke to me far more than the idle rich lady in a lace tea gown could. While Belle Époque fanciness was remembered far more in terms of history and depiction of an era, her legacy continued as many women’s main fashion concern now resides in what they will wear at work rather than the next gala (are these the contemporary midinettes?)
Outside the limelight and afterhours is where a more nocturnal, risqué Paris reveals itself, in a dark blue room and intimate fragmented corridors. This was the part I was not expecting, definitely the most fun and teasingly scandalous: the nightlife of Paris, where gentlemen and women alike basked in fame and favours as soft erotica in sepia photographs started to circulate. The demi-mondaines, renown as comediennes and ballet dancers as well as ballroom celebrities, captured in photographs and written about weekly, are perhaps the first testimonies of celebrity tabloid and paparazzi culture. This was also the perfect time to witness footage of the first ever filmed strip-tease. ‘The Evening of the Bride’, starring a cheerful stripper and bumbling husband on their first night is so quaint and humorous it was almost heart-warming…and extremely instructive concerning Belle Époque undergarments. I wonder what the mockingly candid performer would think of the Crazy Horse. Would she faint in her many-layered undergarments? I am not so sure. We always seem to portray our turn of the century figures as far more rigid than they are!
The theatre section seems predictable in its portrayal of the shows and entertainment at the time, between high-brow tragedies and cabarets, but subtle and powerful in is way of showing 1900 as a crossroads between a certain type of leisure and the arrival of cinema and photography, surprisingly shunned by the Exposition’s art exhibits. A lot was lost, much more was gained, and most of the trends, tastes and leisure of the “Ville-Spectacle” created a new swerve towards the type of entertainment we know today, through cinema and stars but also through opening up of media and entertainment to a larger portions of the population.
The Exposition Universelle is the main theme of this entire exhibition, strongest in the first room then diluting itself in the rest of the visit to let other issues speak out, creating a cohabitation between the desire to create a spectacular city for its visitors and the natural ebb and flow of taste and aesthetics among Parisians. In very much the same way, Paris today is constantly torn between the regulation of its touristic, glittering side and its other freefalling, improvised culture, often unappealing to those that were expecting something shinier and different. We enter thinking that the exhibition is going to be about Paris in 1900 but it turns out being far more about the Parisians of 1900, their experiences, aspirations and shortcomings in terms of culture and life. I am not certain I can leave any parting advice about discovering this Parisian’s Paris in more contemporary times. However, perhaps dropping the guidebook and finding a Parisian is a good start. If you ask politely for recommendations in clumsy French and sympathize with us about the terrible metro service, I promise most of us won’t bite.
Museums have always been compared to churches: a sacred sphere in which contemplation, hushed voices and a slow, ambling pace around works to admire or ‘worship’ them is familiar. There is something ritualistic in the way in which we walk around an exhibition space following a specific route. And although being asked to quieten down or put phones away annoys us, we still abide by the rules. Rules in red against white walls are welcome us first within the Strange City of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, in their Monumenta installation at the Grand Palais.
“You are entering the Strange City. Please follow its rules: No cellphones. Lower your voices. No selfies.”
I was used to the ban on cellphones or, apparently, raising your voice in a space made holy by its adherence to an artistic event taking place every year within the great Parisian edifice. The ban on selfies, however, was a first. It added a layer of elusiveness and a pinch of humour to this impressively immaculate and sanitized environment and its large outer walls housing a myriad of corridors and arches.
In a large, bare expanse of space a large conical sculpture emulating the stained glass window of a cathedral changes colour just as different sounds chime from within its structure. A small crowd congregate in front of it and take pictures, remain there a while to witness the change in colours and chimes, fascinated. In the large empty expanse of space provided by the Grand Palais, no-one seems willing to transgress the rule on raised voices.
This seems perfectly on par with Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s aims with Monumenta this year: the creation of a large utopian city, where architecture meets idealism and spiritualism. The intent of both Russian artists from the same family, as uncle and niece, seems to be centred around the relation of us, the visiting “city-dwellers” to our environnment and the way it may change and influence us. As I walk through a set of pavillions, with a small dark curtain welcoming me inside, the impressions mingle between experimentation and imaginary concepts for the ideal city. Through one door, an elaborate model shows the way in which a futuristic centre could absorb spiritual energy from the noosphere – a ring around the Earth in which the ideas, creativity and genius of humankind are not lost but constantly reinjected into our collective consciousness. In the same aesthetic, a model in another room shows the reconstruction of Manas, a mystical city in Peru surrounded by eight mountains that concentrate into the lake at the centre of the town their spiritual energy. A woman next to me points out, a bit bafflingly, “This is a bit clearer.”
It is difficult for me to see in which sense any of this is “clearer” – firstly because it is impossible for a clear sense of direction and order to be felt within a strange city in which it is not strange to get lost, due to the uniformity of its exteriors. A scattering of helpful “mediators” and plans still do not allievate the fact that most visitors are walking around in a disorientated manner trying not to enter the same room three times in a row (like me).
Yet in terms of content, she does have a point. The Kabakovs’ have created a little world of fictional stuctures and mysticism made into architectural projects, and the conceptual jargon that they wrap around their creations can often appear as slightly obtuse or weighty. The creative impulse itself is created around a concept for many of these exhibits. The models, extremely concise and mathematical in their creation and projection of a large-scale work, contrast with the research around them, works on paper that are far messier and more colourful, more vibrant than the sanitized and tame models that end up being their end product. They range from the futuristic, with the cosmic spiritual centre, to a mixture between philosophy, tragedy and comedy as we are instructed “how to meet an angel.” This section is touching, almost a bit too corny yet graceful. It probably earned a few laughs when it described how to earn your wings by creating a giant feathered harness that you must then wear alone in your room for several hours without being seen by your family or friends, like the average blogger.
There are darker aspects to this airy and meditative rambling through the various pavillions; from the models we go onto a room that is in sharp contrast with the others; here the only display is shown through a red, baroque-like wall, chairs for the visitors and organ music blaring all around us. The ‘Empty Museum’ makes us sit down within comfortable armchairs in an environnment that remains nevertheless unsettling, eerie. In the same spirit, the White Chapel and the Black Chapel are rooms that are alike to fragments of a museum in which the artworks are either missing from the wall and replaced with large empty grids, or on the contrary mashed together in an absurd collage of various styles and moods.
It is easy – perhaps too easy – to create a clear link between the artists’ experience of the USSR and the utopian, tragi-comical structures that reflect either the desire to control spirituality or escape reality, imagine new spaces that are both ethereal and based in carefully planned buildings and concepts. Yet, although this should not be excluded, it is not an answer or a key to understanding the city, either in a positive, negative, or bittersweet light.
There is also an aim for self-reflection, on a smaller personal scale. Utopia is a collective endeavour yet in this “strange city” no-one speaks properly until they have left its walls, and there is something soothing about getting lost within its walls alone in an aimless pilgrimage. The Kabakovs create a scene that takes from the past and the future yet revolves around our present lives, and the act of stepping out of it for a moment – without the selfie or cellphone. The rules, rather than a command of religious or ritualistic mimicrky, become a simple invitation to find a new way of evolving within a space and sharing it. Ironically, as I leave, a panel urges me to tweet my impressions to #Monumenta2014. Maybe I will…but not within the Strange City.
Retrospectives are sometimes difficult to consider with an overly critical eye because the overview of an artist’s life and work is inevitably going to follow pathways that can only be assessed coherently by following his life within a chronological order. Yet this sometimes passes off as a formula, something that is known and rehearsed. If it is done without attention to themes and motifs it can quickly become weighty…especially due to the sheer bulk of art to cover, often accompanied by extensive documentation and a biography that weaves in and out of our assessment of the works.
When retrospectives choose to discard a linear format, and work with thematics regardless of chronology, this can work extremely well…depending on the artist. It can also potentially become confusing and misleading. So how did the retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe at the Grand Palais, the first in France since his death in 1989 fit into this?
We are welcomed into the exhibition, surprisingly enough, by Mapplethorpe’s iconic self-portrait shorty before he died of AIDS, clutching a staff whose skull-shaped tip, clearly in focus, contrasts with a pale intent face fading against a dark background. Powerful and elegiac, the portrait announces the risky yet refreshing stance of the exhibition: a reverse chronology, travelling back into time from the point of departure of the photographer’s death, back up to the very beginning…as the introduction points out, a beginning whose themes already predict the work of the end of his life. We start onto a exhibition route that is reversed, an anti-clockwise that physically joins the entrance with the exit…and also devoid of words.
Another risk taken in this exhibition is, indeed, the absence of biographical texts. Usually, most exhibitions have a block of text at the beginning of each section that shows how his life at that point reflected his work and influences. Yet the only texts were a few quotes dotted along the walls. This considerably lightened the visit itself, but added to it rather than creating an empty space. This retrospective contained 250 photographs and I can honestly admit that I did not see them pass by, absorbing the visual and wandering around, sometimes venturing back to compare one work with another. This allowed the audience to draw its own conclusions about Mapplethorpe’s life and ideas.
The atmosphere was quiet, contemplative, oddly fitting beneath the solemn gazes of his subjects in black and white but sometimes at odds with the energy of his pictures. There is definitely a requiem-like feeling in the environnment which is muted into greyscale: the walls are painted in various nuances of grey, a soft dark grey carpet on the floor mutes our footsteps and the frames of the photographs vary beween black and white. Pale violet-pink lighting from above softens this atmosphere somehow, perhaps also reflecting the erotic undertones that weave themselves into his work from beginning to end. Was this perhaps a bit too subdued for an artist who obviously enjoyed capturing tension, movement and sexual energy?
Perhaps. In another sense, it corresponds to the photographic style of an artist who did not only want to capture sexuality, gender presentation and bodily performances, but also celebrate them as part of an elevated artistic ideal, taking inspiration from the cool marble of roman statues while acknowledging the antique culture’s raunchier aspects.
We therefore begin with his last works: photographs of classical statues that mingle photographs of his models engaging in various poses that emulate the classical ideal and also charge it with a new sensuality, as the camera focuses on skin, and depictiction of portraits, of the body in movement or immobile, whole or fragmented by either a concentration. These subjects are torn between erotic and ideal, marble and flesh, classical tradition and controversy (notably concerning the heavy criticism of Man in a Polyester Suit, disucssed in his biography).
They complement the still-life photograph of flowers, either in black and white or in colour, that reflect both a fragile ephemeral nature…and a phallic one, perhaps reminiscent of Georgia O’ Keefe’s paintings.
After a section on catholicism and the way it influenced his work and depiction of the body, the idea of icons and gender subversion is presented through two women central to his work, Patti Smith and Lisa Lyon. The first was at some point his lover and they collaborated together on Horses, sharing an intimacy and intensity that is reflected through his pictures of her; the second was a bodybuilder that reminded him of Michelangelo’s muscular women, which motivated to capture the power of her body, both in photography and through film (Lady, in 1984, with mystical and religious tones that once again mingled his catholic upbringing with a bodily ideal). Featured are also his numerous self-portraits, in which he explores and confronts his face in terms of gender presentation and sexuality, very much in the same spirit as Andy Warhol.
We move on to another assessment of the icon, through familiar faces such as Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois or Cindy Sherman all congomerated onto a wall, creating a giant game of “who’s who.”
The only room that escapes the cool grey aesthetic as well as a lack of space is the only room that is forbidden to minors (under 18, in France). Sure enough, it contains most of the erotic content that makes Mapplethorpe famously controversial…in a deep purple setting with fringed curtains at the entrance, as though we were suddenly launched into a faux sex shop setting. Having the room closed off completely from the rest created a voyeuristic and secretive atmosphere that corresponded to the pictures’s nature, without becoming too extravagant or sleazy. After all, Mapplethorpe’s intention was to show that for him, art and sex were to be treated on the same level, elevated and demystified rather than debased, as he explains: “Photography and sexuality are both compatible. They are both unknown. And this is what excites me.” A more platonic take on his words is presented, below, after leaving the enclosed space.
As the exhibition ends with his biography and, on the wall facing it the first snapshots of his career the exploration of relations between the aesthetic and the body, sex and personalities is evident and closes off an exhibition that chose to concentrate on the visual and its interconnections rather than a clearer biographic overview or documentation.
Was it a good retrospective format for someone already aware of Mapplethorpe and his work, his positive and negative aspects? Absolutely. For someone entirely new to his art…probably less so and yet the reverse chronology is perhaps efficient in dispelling a certain number of preconcieved myths, letting us draw our own conclusions. Was this the best retrospective format? No…but it was one that was adapted to his work and personality, with elegance and originality.