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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Eli Lotar (1905-1969) at the Jeu de Paume

The first photographers of modern life did not only have an entire realm of subjects and spaces  at their fingertips waiting to be captured on film for the first time . In more ways than one their angles of vision created an entire new language in order to grasp, understand and reflect the world in a new medium. When this language is channelled with enduring sincerity and intensity, its message seems ageless. In a period of crisp smartphone snapshots capturing the energy of places and people, Eli Lotar’s analog black and white photographs from the 20s through to the 60s keep the same timeless power.

“Eli Lotar” might not be a household name in terms of modern photography on the same level as Man Ray or Henri Cartier-Bresson. However, the Romanian photographer’s importance and vision as one of the first photographers of the Parisian avant-garde cannot be doubted. His first retrospective in the 90s at the Centre Pompidou, two decades after his death, started a new reappraisal of his legacy. While the level of knowledge and expertise is apparent throughout the display, it operates extraordinary restraint and clarity, managing to operate an overview of Lotar’s work which is complex yet accessible through a hundred photographs from the Centre Pompidou’s archives as well as private and public collections worldwide. The co-curator of the exhibition, Damarice Amao, completed her thesis on Eli Lotar at université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), adding particular strength to the narrative of the exhibition in which different projects and pathways undertaken by the photographer intertwine without ever tripping us up as readers or visitors.

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Eli Lotar, Untitled, c. 1930-40, donation by M.Jean-Pierre Marchand 2009, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar

In a setting of greys and whites with space for the black and white works to breathe and for the visitor to wander, we encounter Lotar’s modernity for the first time through his photographic reports for different magazines since the 1920s. As a student of the photographer Germaine Krull, Lotar shares her avant-garde vision: one in which through the photographic lens, the photographer transforms the city into a living, active system of shapes and people.  The “New Vision” titling one of his photographic reportages is one in which the viewer redefines the world through his viewpoint. Nothing could be clearer through the creative angles and compositions Lotar creates, adding to written narratives and creating his own silent stories. This vision is steeped in everyday social life and the streets; despite a few  The most notorious series of magazine photographs is a report on the slaughterhouses of La Villette. More than any other imagery, it captures the eery in-between gaps between the realistic and the fantastical buried in the mundane. A picture of a young man staring down at a pile of entrails rubs shoulders with a series of cows’ legs lines against a wall. Surrealism and a certain strand of the supernatural is shown as a particular viewpoint, not only on a street corner but in relation to the world.

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Eli Lotar, Quinze-Vingt Hospital, 1928, purchased through the patronage of Yves Rocher, 2011. Ancient collection Christian Bouqueret, collection Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar
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Eli Lotar, At the Slaughterhouses of la Villette, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (c) Eli Lotar

It is rare to see an exhibition which manages to strike such a good balance between its contents and its design, making the discovery of Eli Lotar’s complex and consequent life work readily accessible to the visitor by breaking down different parts of his life and career expertly. There are many inconveniences that slightly pollute an exhibition’s enjoyment which, here, are solved with simplicity. The simple case of getting rid of archival casings to present facsimiles of magazine cuttings on the wall is perfectly adapted to the exhibition. Purists might not enjoy the fact that the original documents are not on display, but the clutter of documentation in cases which you crowd around and lean over awkwardly is avoided here, to go to the essential. In this context you actually have time to read the cuttings and understand the context in which Eli Lotar’s photojournalism operated. Similarly, the secion of the exhibition related to Eli Lotar’s documentary work is treated with skill, allowing for a cinema space in the midst of the display rather than a separate room, managing to srike a balance between the darkened cinema space with benches and time to reflect and the meanderings of the visitor.

The large screen displays his documentary on Aubervilliers in collaboration with Jacques Prévert in the 1940s; the shots and narrative manage to mingle lyricism with realism, popular songs about the children of Aubervilliers punctuating a scene in which they play and barthe alongside dead cats in the river and the ruins of working-class homes. On the side, a bench and headphones allow for a more intimate experience of Tierra sin pan, the documentary of the Hurdes region in Spain by Luis Buñuel in collaboration with the photographer. The shots were in black and white, but remembering them makes me feel as though they fully captured the sun-drenched colours and lights of the region. The extreme poverty of the people portrayed is emphatic and prompts for revolution rather than voyerism, as their stories mingle with legends and customs lost between pagan rituals and Christian values.

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Eli Lotar, Las Hurdes, c. 1935, donation of Anne-Marie and Jean-Pierre Marchand 1993, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar

The thematic choice of the exhibition as allows for a clear overview not only of Lotar’s versatility but also the way in which connections unfurl beween his different projects. These subjects and themes loosely flowing into each other show a problematic at the heart of Lotar’s work floating between documentary and poetry, the objective and the subjecive in order to eventually choose or compromise on neither. From surrealist photomontages, we then encounter his set collaborations with absurdist and satrical playwrights such as Alfred Jarry. A photojournalistic voyage to Greece shows his attention divided between the portrayal of the Greek landscape and its inhabitants and the representation of Cycladic statues. At the very end of the exhibition, we then encounter a particular sculpture staring back at us. Few exhibitions escaping traditional chronology would have chosen to end rather than begin with a spectacular bust of Eli Lotar by Giacometti, yet here it was by the exit, in a silent conversation with a strange self-portrait: a photograph of the bust by Lotar himself, somehow infusing it with his own presence and viewpoint. Lotar was Giacometti’s last male model, and in return Lotar would confer a particular vision upon the sculptor’s work, made visible in the exhibition through contact sheets exploring his workshop. The relation between the sculpture and the photograph taken of it merges with that of the sculptor and his model. The writer Giorgo Soavi described the complete immobility of Lotar, captured in sculpture:

“[Giacometti’s] gaze shone with a strange glimmer, his body vibrating from head to toe, only able to follow the impulses guiding his hands, his arms, his legs: he was in ecsasy. Observing closely the two faces, I understood the secret allowing Lotar not to breathe: Eli was the perfect model for this sculpture because Eli was dead. He did not breathe, he did not think, remained concentrated till the very end. An electric current linked the artist to the model, uniting them in true complicity. They played together, without a ball, or a racquet, or a net.”

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Eli Lotar, Giacometti, bust of Lotar, 1965, donation by Anne-Marie and Jean-Pierre Marchand 1993, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar
In many ways it takes this outsider’s insight on Eli Lotar himself to start to understand who he is as a person raher than a photographer. The particular aura around the bust itself is elusive, his gaze vulnerable yet mysterious. Like Lotar’s own work it promises the opportunity to look back again with a new insight and interpretation every time. The “New Vision” lives on.

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Exhibition review Paris Uncategorized

Seydou Keïta at the Grand Palais

“You look beautiful like that.”

The sentence that accompanies the visitor through a richly patterned door into the Seydou Keïta exhibition was the Malian photographer’s proclaimed tagline, one he perhaps repeated to countless subjects that posed for him from the 1940s onwards in his studio in Bamako, in the space of a few decades in which his work extended to neighboring countries and achieved worldwide recognition. Many photographers distinguish themselves through the diversity or eclecticism of their subject-matter, from portraiture to genre and landscape; Keïta was not one of them, focusing solely on portrait photography of a seemingly formal nature. Yet, it is through this uniformity and simplicity that Keïta acheived some of the most complex, sensitive and multi-layered portraits of the 20th century. The formal premise is that of his photography business: subjects drop in to have their photograph taken either within his studio or outside, due to his constant preference for natural light. The backdrops are usually  patterned cloths, changing over the years, which become Keïta’s only means of placing a date on them. Entering the exhibition space is to enter an airy, vast space of soft pinks, whites and reds which delicately complement the black and white pictures, blown up almost life-sized, as though to transport us back to the precise moment in which Keïta achieved his perfect vision for the shot. Notoriously meticulous about poses and gestures, the results he achieves are not spontaneous or candid yet they capture the subject with startling intimacy and sincerity.

Vue de l'exposition (4)Scénographie Gare du Nord architecture © Rmn-Grand Palais / Photo Didier Plowy, Paris, 2016

The effect is both striking and contemplative, in rooms that allow enough space for the photographs to breathe, but also convey enough intimacy for these anonymous faces to speak out to us. Anonymous, because Keïta’s way of working (footage shows people queuing up to be photographed one after the other) does not leave room for official records and names. We are left to guess thoughts and relations from one subject to another. As fashions change and intermingle, between Malian fashion and European suits and skirts, a portrait of a country in the midst of change and shifting identity, between images of tradition and modernity, is etched but never quite grasped. At the time, Bamako was still the capital of French Sudan; the year 1962 marking the independence of the Sudanese republic marked the closing of Keïta’s studio, as he was asked to become the first official photographer of the Republic of Mali.

72 DPI-2. Sans titre, 1949 51Untitled, 1949-51, Genève, Contemporary African Art Collection © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo courtesy CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Genève

Moving through the space, the sense of continuity and familiarity between different photos is through not only textile backdrops, but another theatre-like feature: props. Sunglasses, handbags and even an elegant white Vespa pop up in different pictures, as ways for subjects to play creatively with the composition, and also, significantly, the way in which they wanted to be seen and represented. Keïta’s portraits are sincerely realist, yet they also belong to the realm of fantasy and aspirations, on the public status level of a busy neighborhood of Bamako where photographs were usually taken in front of a noisy crowd of peers, and on a deeply personal level.

72 DPI-9. Sans titre, 1952-55Untitled, 1953, Genève, Contemporary African Art Collection © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo courtesy CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Genève

The final room of the exhibition brings us back to the small-scale level of the photographs that would have been taken home by subjects; since Keïta did not keep his own copies of the photographs, most of them were found abandoned or forgotten by clients of the framer’s shop, who also took care of colouring certain accessories. The contrast with the impeccable large-scale portraits is stark; many of them are torn, yellowed or stained. Yet, a deeper sense is given of them as artifacts and keepsakes, fragments of family memories and personalities. They mingle with the confident and light-hearted words of Keïta himself, through footage of his work and interviews that draw smiles and laughs from visitors. The photographer’s pride in his work and confidence in its perfect execution is communicated through his warmth and charisma. One of the quotes peppered throughout the exhibition states proudly and poignantly:  “You can’t imagine what it was like for me the first time I saw prints of my negatives in large-scale, no spots, clean and perfect. I knew then that my work was really, really good. The people in my photos look so alive, almost as if they were standing in front of me.” This heartfelt exhibition left me with no reason to disagree with him.

72 DPI-16.jpgUntitled, no date, collection André Magnin, Paris © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo François Doury

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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