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.
In my last review on Goya: The Portraits, I wished that I could visit these portraits again due to the sense of familiarity and intimacy that they provoked. Of course, I was lucky enough to do so in the first place in London, but not everyone is able to see the exhibition at least physically, whether this is due to geographical location, means or physical access. These are issues that are very close to me as a curating student: an exhibition, for me, should not feel menaced by the digital alternatives that we can use to reproduce it and open it up to an international audience. On the contrary, the exhibition space should provide as many opportunities as possible to collaborate with digital, immaterial initiatives that will not usurp the museum experience but democratize it. Many museums have already done so online. Recently, for example, the Musée du Luxembourg organized a live-stream of its exhibition on Fragonard for would-be visitors who could not see it in Paris. Other museums such as the Musée d’art moderne have created Google Streetview-like virtual walk-throughs of their displays once they closed for good. A third option is to think bigger – the cinema screen.
The initiative of Exhibition on Screen’s production “Goya: Visions of Flesh and Blood”, directed by Phil Grabsky, is to create a pendant to the Goya exhibition, without neccessarily seeing it as either a substitute. It seeks to avoid a methodical walk-through, and is its own standalone documentary on Goya as well as a guide to the temporary display currently on in London. This film launches the production’s third season, after successful previous projects with The National Gallery but also institutions such as The Royal Academy, The Van Gogh Museum and the Mauritshuis. The emphasis is usually on painterly, Old Master and Impressionist exhibitions that usually have great popular appeal. Their tagline itself is “EXHIBITION ON SCREEN brings blockbuster art exhibitions from galleries around the world to a cinema near you, in stunning high definition.” Exhibition on Screen is itself part of a larger scheme, Arts Alliance, which collaborates with venues such as the Royal Opera House to create live re-transmissions of ballet and opera. The masterful way in which the shows were filmed to create an intense and privileged experience for cinema viewers really stuck with me – and was part of the reason I was glad to become an ambassador for Arts Alliance to promote these events online but also react to future events and projects, such as the Goya film.
My previous review will give you an idea of just how enthralled I was by this exhibition so I was obviously excited for a chance to see it in a different format. Talking with spectators waiting with me in the Curzon Chelsea venue gave me a small idea of what their expectations were: it turns out that many were not seeing the film as an alternative but rather as a preview to seeing the real thing…or not. My seat neighbor already knew the Arts Alliance screenings well and preferred to trust what she knew before venturing out to Central London.
The film starts with a definite biographical feeling infused with the particular focus on portraiture and, above all else, Goya’s relation with people in general. It provided for me the exact same sense of what I found in the exhibition: the feeling that I was looking at a different side of Goya. The documentary mingles a variety of techniques to convey this and although they may sometimes clash strangely, the end result is successful. An actor for Goya looks out silently or writes while Goya’s voice reads out extracts from only a few of the letters in his extensive correspondence. However, Goya himself never speaks directly nor is there a sense of historical reconstruction…more of historical retracing. For instance, in order to address his childhood and personality as a countryman enjoying hunting, food and the simple things in life, easy to talk to and confide in, we are given shots of present-day Fuentetodos, his home town, complete with hunters, townfolk and street life. I’d argue that sometimes this visual illustration is a bit too literal and slightly confusing as it oscillates between contemporary Spain and Goya. Then again, it seems to emphasize the sense of authenticity and sincerity pervading the portraits and the feeling they not only encapsulate the character of Goya’s fellow citizens but also of current Spaniards – many people visiting the display with me found some uncanny resemblance with people they knew. Something that could have ended up as a bit contrived and stilted if it had been pushed too far became truly enjoyable and entertaining in revealing Goya’s bon vivant personality and his ambitious drive. Coming out of the exhibition, I felt as though I knew the portraits and their sitters. Coming out of the screening, I felt as though I knew Goya.
The interventions from scholars, curators and Xavier Bray, curator of the exhibition were well paced and managed to keep a very good rythm going, mingling passion and incisiveness by alternating voices and viewpoints. However, even though I enjoyed their interventions as an art historian I feel as though little visual touches in the film would have made some elements just a bit more accessible – for instance, when mentioning artists such as Velasquez, actually showing them on screen for people less acquainted with art history in general. However, their insight allowed for glimpses into gems that could never have been shown in the exhibition, such as a look at some on-site paintings in churches and a beautifully preserved sketchbook of Goya’s travelling in Italy. This was all the more heightened in juxtaposition with close-ups and presentation of the paintings which was very skillfully operated to allow more of this ‘intimate’ feeling you get when leaning in to take a closer look at an image in an exhibition.
Maybe the fact that some presentations of the portraits were so strong made me slightly frustrated that there were not more. I felt that the film slightly veered away from what had struck me so much in the exhibition, despite capturing its spirit of intimacy and sincerity. Although an emphasis was placed upon certain highlights in each room, and some of the display was shown, the actual sequence of works and succession of key points of the display was not very clear. I had particularly enjoyed the way in which the narrative went from regal portrayals to more intimate renditions of friends and family and would have liked that to be clearer. More of an emphasis was placed upon a comprehensive whole concerning the artist, which also included some of Goya’s darker works (The Black Paintings he executed at the end of his life for instance) but it was not clear in the film that these were definitely not a part of the exhibition. So I would have preferred a bit more substance related to the show – not only on more of the works themselves beyond the highlights but also how they came to be. A great example of this was the exploration of Goya’s passionate friendship with his best friend Martin Zapater explored in relation to his portrait of him, and I would have loved to see more of that same context and insight.
The film was a beautiful way of discovering another side to Goya. I would view it as a strong and vibrant companion and pendant to the exhibition, even though it could have benefited a lot from showing some of the curatorial display and intent – maybe even some behind-the-scenes shots on conservation and installation. Obviously it’s always difficult to know to which extent that is possible: exhibition installations happen in a relatively short timespan and perhaps this would have been impossible to pull off time wise. Portraying an exhibition virtually is still in the realm of experimental and personal taste, and this was definitely a very interesting take on it. I should add that although I did not have any issue with the length, a few people had fidgety children and had to leave before the end – a sad loss in a room that already had a very small percentage of young children or even young adults. A few senior spectators also found the screening a bit long – yet their enthusiasm to go and see the exhibition was far from untarnished.
The film has been released in the UK since the 1st of December and its international release is due for the 9th of February. If you go and see it, wherever you are in the world, let me know what you think!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
His name is spelt out in a bright neon sign as I arrive in the dark and spacious exhibition space at the Barbican Centre…a name that is a fashion trademark in itself, and a promise of extravagance, diversity and originality. Jean-Paul Gaultier possesses a unique legacy within the fashion world, born from a spirit that always seems to think out of the box. This immense collection of clothes arranged in terms of influences and inspirations over two floors, as well as the way in which they are presented, is a direct testimony to this attitude.
Gender ambiguity, sexuality and feminine empowerment, cultural diversity and futuristic designs…It would seem hard to fetter Gaultier within a single show. Yet this retrospective is one of the most daring and insightful fashion exhibitions I have seen this year.
Jean-Paul Gaultier’s world explores places and ideas that transcend fashion inspiration and delve into all walks of life. In fact, the most notably aspect of his fashion, reflected throughout the exhibition, is his distinct desire to go beyond it and reach out to a world of stark differences, irreverence and anomality, celebrating it rather than sanitizing it or elevating it to a catwalk ideal. The gallery of his lifetime muses, models and inspirations surpasses by far that of vestimentary concepts and ideas such as the navy jumper, the punk movement or the Virgin Mary.
I think that curating fashion and historical costume is extremely difficult to acheive in an interesting and captivating way, however striking the content is. There are an immense number of constraints that must be taken into account, such as lighting, protection and encasing. There will most often be mannequins which can also give a ‘shop window’ feel to the display and make it feel kitschy. However this exhibition seemed to embrace the kitsch and dared to explore new ways to make the clothing displays seem more alive and interactive, giving it a theatrical and performative flair.
The exhibition plays with the idea of the fashion exhibit, ever-increasing and glamourous but always quite difficult to change around. The Gaultier’s exhibition resides somewhere between a shop display and a contemporary art performance, with models going from standing positions to sitting and reclining. On the ground floor, all of them invariably have a filmed model’s face projected upon the mannquin’s face, in consant, looped motion, either blinking or talking. Even Gaultier himself gets his own talking mannequin as his recorded voice welcomes us into the exhibition.
It is more than a bit unsettling to be surrounded by a dozen immobile mannequins with moving blinking faces or lips reciting poems or freetalk that has a performance art quality to it.This installation qualiy has been created and staged by Denis Marleau and Stéphanie Jasmin from UBU/Compagnie de Création de Montréal, while Jolicoeur International of Québec designed the mannequins themselves. without this unique craftsmanship, the clothes would not have been highlighted with the excentric and fanciful nature that best suits them.
In the first part of the exhibition, we are introduced to Gaultier’s marine collection, taking a classic French garment and giving it his own modern twist, followed by dresses inspired by Baroque Catholic iconography of the Virgin Mary with a Gothic, elegantly dark touch; the models’ ethereal eyes seem to follow me around under the blue light, like an echo of a powerful presence on the catwalk frozen into place.
But not all of them remain immobile. As I walk into the larger space, a catwalk-like installation allowed the models to rotate while we sit into seats on the side, as though replacing the designers and fashion magazine editors in a real fashion show. Shapes, colours and texture vary yet the same spirit of extravagance and elegance remains, distilling itself into the rest of the display that shows Gaultier’s strong punk-rock influences, from his trips to London and inspiration from marginal counter-cultures, without sugar-coating or side-stepping them so that they could fit into a high-fashion ideal. They are complemented by amazing punk headresses that are part of the series of wigs creates for all the mannequins by Odile Gilbert. There is no particular chronology to these; designs from the 70s and 80s merge with present-day creations, while remaining in the same spirit.
In a sense, it is difficult to establish a chronology and grasp quite how revolutionary Gaultier was being at the time, because we now fully expect haute couture to create this spirit of provocation and of the extraordinary on the catwalk. There is a definite hommage through the predominance of punk in the largest space to both London and street style, rearranged in a theatrical fashion that sets the tone in its playful title: Punk Cancan. For the most part these are not organized in terms of different genres so much as ideas such as androgynity, unconventional beauty, stars…inspired either by his muses, people he worked for or models.
Enter The Muses, a sprawling collection of rooms under a thematic that is as eclectic in inspirations than in creations. Thus we find in one room Madonna and in the other Kylie Minogue, with the dresses that defined the power, sexuality and feminity that they wanted to convey on-stage. In another, we find again the likes of Dita von Teese, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. The exhibition has a definite stardom quality to it, emphasized by a series of celebrity portraits and extracts from concerts. This is only highlighted by the presence of the photographers that Gaultier worked with as well, such as Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman or David LaChapelle.
This fun celebrity aspect is not neccessarily new but I appreciate greatly the way in which it mingled very known names to the names of models and muses that are not neccessarily known to the general public, part of Gaultier’s search for an unconventional beauty. One of the first to embrace a body and gender diversity that is still looked for and sometimes lacking today! Through the photos and video footage of catwalks surrounding the clothes, the attitude of his models, nonchalant yet defiant, seem crystallized through a particular footage of a 1984 catwalk with a model sporting a suit and long tailored skirt for his “And God Created Man” collection. This allegedly caused Vogue editors to rise and leave at once, followed by Marie-Claire and Elle…much to the glee of Gaultier who said to The Face magazine a few years later, “I was slated by the French press for designing clothes for hairdressers and homosexuals!”
Provocation led to scandal yet also brought along popularity and a taste for the atypical. Amanda Cazalet and Tanel Bedrossiantz’s androgynity contrasted with the distinctive look and strong personality of Farida Khelfa, with her long bushy hair and tall figure. A softer, more intimate atmosphere is explored through The Boudoir, where Falbalas, a huge inspiration for Gaultier, plays on an old set within a dark and soft array of corsetry and lingerie. In full display presides his iconic teddy bear with an (i)conic bra attached to its furry breast – an addition made by the young Jean-Paul in a house where, raised by his grandmother, he grew up aware of a feminine strength that found its way into his work, mingling elegance with empowerment. Secrecy and sensuality here are not equated with submissiveness.
From femininity in the boudoir we go back to Gaultier’s exuberance and the way in which it encompassed not ony the catwalk but also television, with his participation on Eurotrash, numerous parodies and artistic involvement within pays and films, amongst which The Fifth Element remains a masterpiece of kistchy science-fiction. Punk, gender subversion and the boudoir: is it all too much? Yes…but “too much” is very much Gaultier. This exhibition pulled off an all-encompassing view of his work that focused on its eclectic and contrasting nature, without homogenisation or concessions. It managed to stay true to the vision of Gaultier in the documentation of his work and vision, complete with sketches, photographs and footage to complement the presentation of the clothes. Yet it still possessed its own artistic identity through a clever layout on two floors and the innovative work on the mannequins. The exhibition’s travelling success around the world will continue with its arrival in Paris next year at the Grand Palais and I look forward to another glimpse into a unique world.
Marvel superheroes are not, at first sight, the most museum-savvy creatures. After all, their bold and brightly colored designs are more familiar in the pages of a comic book or on the big screen with blockbusters such as Captain America, Iron Man or the Avengers. Yet Musée Art Ludique hardly bothers itself with such labels. Its previous exhibition on Pixar’s animation had already met an enthusiastic Parisian audience in its emplacement on the Austerlitz docks next to the Seine. Directly linked to Galerie Art Ludique, focused on an art market dedicated solely to entertainment art: video games, animation (stills and concept art) and of course, comics.
Comics have definitely acquired their own comfortable spot within the art world and its market – needless to say that an original Tintin page or a vintage Captain America comic from the 50s is going to attract wealthy collectors. Yet other smaller collectibles will also create a cheaper and more accessible market for many more collectors. The nostalgic power of the pages that we usually first perused as children and teenagers is strong, and the impulse to collect is even more intense with comics that create a saga over dozens if not hundreds of issues. As an avid reader of comics that has four bookshelves full of them, as well as art books, I can understand the appeal. And although the love of comics is universal, France in particular is known for its love and literary recognition of the genre.
The term comics is used here quite liberally of course: it can apply to Franco-Belgian comics, Japanese comics (also known as manga), indie comics and webcomics. American superhero comics are particular in that they possess a style and a narrative of their own that enters a kind of collective consciousness, even more than their European or Asian counterparts. Using a realistic yet exaggerated style with bright colours and muscular, heroic silhouettes, the spirit of comics is instantly recognizable. Creating an exhibition around Marvel’s superhero franchise is a clear celebration not only of their past evolution since the sixties and their present evolution within cinema. There is also a clear concern with the psychological and philosophical implications of superheroes and what they symbolize, as well as their future as cultural icons.
Stan Lee welcomes us in a video at the beginning of the exhibition and expresses his hopes to live long enough to see statues of Iron Man or Captain America being shown in museums around the world. Although any creator can deeply relate to this, there is another dimension to it: beyond their status as collectibles or movie heroes, these characters can transcend their format and become flexible within our collective imagination, become the point of focus of several stories and narratives…in short become a form of mythology in themselves.
This exhibition had an interesting format since it chose indeed not to focus category per category on comics then movies, but rather treat each character in relation to these various aspects. For example, we would move from Iron Man to Captain America along to Thor, etc. This meant that there was an immense amount of content to cover, which could have become a bit exhaustive; nevertheless the format worked, creating an mix between comic page originals and exhibits, sculpts and models from the films themselves, as well as concept art and storyboards.
The explanations showed a great balance between text and videos that were scattered throughout the exhibition, centered around various general themes: from colour symbolism to costume design through to historical and legendary origins. Stan Lee, as the co-creator of many of these characters is the centrepoint in most of them, as well as Adi Granov, the main concept artist for The Avengers’ movie franchise.
Yet it was an agreeable surprise to see that French voices had also been added to this discussion around comics, as a testimony to France’s serious dedication to the genre. Thus we heard from Olivier Copiel, a prominent French comics artist working for Marvel, but also from Joann Sfar and Zep, two important French artists whose work is, at first sight, quite different in its Franco-Belgian nature yet definitely inspired due to their own viewpoints and influences. A welcome presence was also that of the historian Franck Ferrand who added his own perspective on the birth of superheroes and their importance within our modern culture. For example, the fact that many of these superheroes, born in an era of Cold War and fear of the atomic bomb, were all created with a fragment of this atomic, radiation-related aspect, from a bite by a radioactive spider to a mutation in their genes caused by an elusive X chromosome. Fighting fear with a taste of its own medicine? Yes, but with an enduring flavour of athletic heroic prowess that dates back to Antiquity and that started with the Olympic Games.
The exhibition has an immense wealth of material to show alongside this extensive documentary aspect: original pages, concept art, even props and costumes from the films, including a peek at their new installment: Gardians of the Galaxy. The curatorial decision was to focus not on a travel through different formats but through different characters, furthermore emphasizing their adaptable nature. I would resent the overt advertising of the films themselves…but they do need to be considered as a huge part of Marvel’s influence and capacity to evolve with its time. As they explain and admit, there is a corny and kitsch aspect to a superhero that makes it difficult to adapt in a film format.
Yet Marvel pull it off very well. The element I appreciate the most about Marvel films (aside from the fact they managed to make Captain America’s uniform look dignified onscreen), is its refusal to sacrifice the main spirit and personality of their heroes in the process. DC has been veering towards increasingly dark territory in its film adaptations, easily enough with Batman but in a ridiculously far-fetched way with Superman, who became dark, gritty, prone to extreme violence and rebranded as the “Man of Steel”. Marvel keeps the ideals of its heroes at heart…as well as their weaknesses and the interest in the person behind the mask. And this ideal shines through this exhibition, touchingly intertwined with the hopes and fears of comics authors that wanted to make young people follow their dreams, or live them vicariously through their heroes.
Located in a cosy little venue rue Quincampoix in Paris, right next to the Centre Pompidou, this first exhibition focuses around 30 women artists, using various mediums and subject-matter that weaves in and out of our notions of contemporary and decorative art.
You might wonder why L’oeil de la Femme à Barbe chose the term “boutique d’art et d’objets itinérante” (roughly translatable as “art and objects itinerant shop”) has been chosen as rather than “art gallery”.
After a discussion with the owner and curator of the exhibition, it seems as though she wants to avoid the main labels that are attached to art galleries, in her own opinion: a sense of remoteness, isolation and silence. And although I disagree, believing that the atmosphere of a gallery (and its opening nights) varies widely depending on their owners, I do understand what she means in the general sense. Indeed, when I stumble upon the boutique with a friend, we are welcomed by her with open arms, drinks and food…as well as the presence of the artists themselves. Every Sunday and Thursday they assemble to welcome visitors and talk to them about their work.
It is a clever way of taking the element that really livens up a gallery exhibition – its opening night – and repeating it once a week, every time with various artists and informal discussions. And the display itself invites this cosiness, without cluttering the space; while the first floor has a lounge with a sofa and refreshments, downstairs is a cool and spacious continuation of the exhibition, allowing for a quieter viewing.
Amongst these artists, eccentricity and humour mingled with quaint, unsetting qualities seems to be the key. Amongst them: Martha Romero’s textile sculpted canvases, in which her little feminine models emulate both religious icons and art history in their small and soft intimate frames. I also had a soft spot for Pétra Werlé, who collects bits of vegetation and dead insects in the forest and then assembles them into impish, fairy-like characters, both ethereal and organic in nature. I was able to talk to her about her practice and passion, born from a great deal of boredom in her day job and the realization that with a bit of bread dough, butterfly wings, pinecones and leaves.
This creates a process of relic-like accumulation that also relates it to the work of Odette Picaud, who enjoys collecting tiny objects that she can amalgamate into sculptures that float somewhere between esoteric theatricals and nightmares, with a clear Baroque aesthetic. The love of bricolage and small scale is quite refreshing in an art world concerned with monumentality and fits in with the intimacy of the space.
In order to fall in love with the exhibition, I first fell in love with the place and its atmosphere. It possesses warmth coupled with a true sense of curating and artistic direction, showcasing emerging artists and letting them express themselves freely. And it is all about women, whether they are bearded or not. I therefore invite you to discover it if you are passing by the area, until the 19th of June – it will have some pleasant surprises in store for you.
Hello readers! As you may know from my About page I am French and British…which means that French is another language that I love to use when I write about exhibitions I have seen. Having recently joined Café Powell, a French webzine that specializes in cultural reviews, I am glad to say that I am writing articles in both languages now! You can find my first article here, in French, about the Martial Raysse retrospective at the Centre Pompidou.
This exhibition, open until the 22nd of September was a fascinating exploration into Martial Raysse’s involvement in the pop art scene and his subsequent detachement from it to pursue his own pathway, between surrealism, pop culture and classic references. I recommend it warmly to anyone spending some time in Paris…if your eyes find no difficulty in adjusting to flickering neons and acidic colours.
I am staying in Paris for a while, and with the exception of a few trips to London in which I sneak in several visits to exhibitions, I will be focusing around Parisian events. As usual I will follow my personal interests…but if there is something you really want a review about, or if you just want to say a few things about exhibitions happening in your corner of the world…do let me know in the comments!
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.
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.
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.
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.