Author Archives: Steph Raj

The Vorticists and Abstract Photography

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translation by Miss XS

If our historical and visual memories are filled with Cubists and Futurists, then we generally have only but a vague idea what their English equivalents, the Vorticists, wanted. An exhibition  at the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice (until May 15, then at the Tate Britain from June until September) will repair this neglect. This was a fluctuating group, under the aegis of Ezra Pound. And in great opposition to the elegant bourgeoisie of Bloomsbury : the Vorticistes, were political, popular, tough guys.

From the very first room, all is revealed: Jacob Epstein’s  Rock Drill (1913-1915, reconstructed in 1973): a white man on a black drill / submachine gun, is an aggressive, violent sculpture where the combination of metallic forms of the head, thorax and the immense black spider legs of its device evoke horror, destruction and the evil power of mankind. It’s a hero-worker before Stakhanov, yet it is also a combatant. We are at the eve of war; a little later, Epstein does a retake of this bust in bronze thence amputated, mutilated and with a severed arm.

So many sculptures. The Frenchman Henri Gaudier-Breszka (whose work the Pompidou Centre recently exhibited), an anarchist fellow traveler who died on the battlefront in 1915, had sculpted the hieratic head of Ezra Pound in 1914 in Pentelic marble dull like light wood. It’s almost an idol from Easter Island, in front of which we can bow down, the master of thought, the master of dreams. He died in  exile, banished, a stone’s throw away, in Venice, precisely.

All the vocabulary of the Vorticists is full of words that speak of revolution and marginality. Their magazine was named Blast, they founded the Rebel Art Club, they saw themselves as apaches, as outlaws. A painting by Wyndham Lewis titled The Crowd (1915-1915), abstract looking, shows a multitude of anthropomorphic red cascading ideograms encroaching in an ensemble of lines, doors and windows evocative of Metropolis or The Modern Times. Facing these proletariats (?), several supermen at the bottom of the painting attempt to close the doors to block entry from the prostesters; we can visibly read on one of the sign panels the letters ENCL (enclave? enclosed?). It’s a graphic painting that is very typical of the Vorticistes- angular, geometric, mechanical, harsh, and also a very political painting.

We can also note the graphic design of the review publication Blast, Dorothy Shakespear’s collages (the future Mrs Pound), Edward Wadsworth’s xylographs, Helen Saunders’ geometric and abstract compositions, and the décor of Frida Strindberg’s Cabaret du Veau d’Or, in which all would participate. But of course, what seduced me were the first abstractions in the history of photography in 1916. The vortographes of Alvin Langdon Coburn, were created by placing three mirrors joined from corner to corner (a vortoscope) in front of the camera’s objective to achieve a kaleidoscopic effect whilst photographing pebbles and bits of glass. After having created some photographic portraits of Pound with doubles and blurs, Coburn constructed his Vortoscope and was the first to deviate from representing reality and concentrate entirely on abstract forms. But Pound wasn’t very impressed; for him, it was just an ‘art of the eye, not an art for the hand and eye.’ Coburn created only forty odd Vortographs, then stopped photographing altogether in order to concentrate on Esotericism.

The group of Vorticists hardly lasted longer and dissolved in 1920. Their impact was not major, compared to Futurism (more viril, more war-prone) and Cubism (more formal, less representational), but this exhibition is a wonderful occasion to get to know them a little better.

En français

Aesthetics and Ethics (Miki Kratsman)

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translation by Miss XS

In a little opulent village nestled between Rhine and Neckar, the Ursula Blickle Foundation presented a monographic exhibition of works by the Israeli photographer, Miki Kratsman for the first time ever in Europe (it was until April 17th). Walking through the door, you pass from the calm German countryside enlivened by the first colours of spring, to a sorry and desperately dry universe aptly translated in the black and white of his photographs, the aridness of the Neguev Desert. Here live thousands of Bedouins, Israeli citizens whose villages are not ‘recognised’ by the State of Israel and are thus frequently razed by the army, in order for their ancestral land to be appropriated by the United Jewish Fund for the plantation of trees in recreational parks or by Jewish settlers avid of new land. Ahlam Shibli, a native of this region, showed us those who submit to the new order, who earn their quietness and their integration into society by becoming Trackers for the army (one thinks of the Harkis in Algeria or of the Amerindian Scouts, helpers of the conquest of the Wild West : they fight their brothers on the side of the colonial power, yet they remain always second-rate citizens). Miki Kratsman shows the others, those who attempted resistance, who came back, who hung on, who refused deportation and regrouping. For him (a key figure of Israeli photography and the director of the department of photography at the Bezalel school, as well as a photographer for Haaretz), it is imperative to witness and conserve the fugacious traces of this presence of the Bedouins before they are erased, deliberately eliminated. Nothing or next to nothing remains of the Amerindians or Aborigines before their genocide; nearly not a single image of the central European schtetls before the Shoah; no longer are there any traces of the Palestinian Arab villages destroyed during the Nakba in 1948, neither ruins nor memorial plaques or even a single photograph. So, in order to avoid the negation of the Bedouins of Neguev, a world which tomorrow will not exist anymore, Miki Kratsman and a few others want to be witnesses. Here, we see only the beginning stages of a very long project, the fruits of his first one-month stay in a village under destruction.

There are two types of photography: some show ruins, little trivial dumps of stones, flooring, tarpaulin, beams, scrap iron, residues of habitats that were themselves made wit scrappy bits and pieces. In the desert landscape, under the overwhelming light, the detritus would mean nothing if we didn’t know, if we didn’t point the finger at what happened: the men and women who lived here have been chased out of their own homes. This aesthetic of the ruins questions the role of photography itself, as an index and a sign of mourning.

The other series is made up of the portraits of inhabitants of a neighbouring village on the eve of their expulsion. These were taken in an improvised studio: the men in front of a white fabric, proud and calm outcasts; one of them in traditional attire, the others in their everyday wear, this one sporting a shirt stained with oil. Maintaining a little bit of distance, they pose standing straight in front of the camera with their arms dangling on either side. Their gazes are terrible; they are looks of suffering or resignation but also of resilience and eternity.

The women pose in front of a carpet with geometric floral motifs. If the youngest of them adorns a very simple veil, the others are more or less completely veiled; Bedouin women full of restraint in front of the stranger, who after all is a man, and one from the dominant ethnic group. From their gaze, we retain their sense of dignity. One can only think of Dorothea Lange and the FSA photos, also attempting to conserve the traces of a humanity derailing.

The workbooks of the photographer containing notes, drawings, and small photos, are exhibited in the level above. We can imagine (even without understanding Hebrew) his stylistic interrogations, his sense of composition, his will to make strong images that are well constructed and real. It’s photography without flourishes, without ‘special effects’. Rather, it is direct, brutal (and thus very much anchored in the Israeli reality, very different from German or American photography).

The last floor shows a slideshow of 1800 photographs from his archives spanning 25 years. Some are in colour, most are black and white, and some are pixelated reproductions of newspaper or book pages that have been re-photographed. Many of these are portraits taken very close to their subjects. Their gazes are dense, energetic and brutal. Many are tragic and full of signs pointing towards death: pilots walking towards their bomber planes, mutilated men and children, crying women, burials and control radars. None of the images in the slideshow have captions, and we strive to discover in them markers of place and time. In some of them, there appears to be kippas, kaffiyehs, the Hebrew or Arab alphabet, uniforms, flags, posters, badges, but often we do not know if the mother crying is Arab or Jewish, if the picture is about an explosion in a restaurant in Tel Aviv or about the Israeli bombing of Gaza or Jenine.

Miki Kratsman says that his work is destined in priority to the Israelis, him being a witness of events that the majority of his countrymen does not want to see, like a Just among the Nation in the midst of indifference (or worse). A good number of his photographs shown in the slideshow (without captions) are  enigmas for the non-Israeli. They are presumably men of power, politicians, generals, or footballers, unknown to us Europeans. No shock here, not many clearly identifiable events; yet there is an atmosphere, an ambiance, a culture appearing in these images. Tears rather than blood.

Images from his series Targeted Killings are shown here and there. They were taken with an objective identical to the one used in the Israeli drones, shot from the Jewish enclave of Mount Scopus. These photographs show anonymous Palestinians, as seen by a presumed Israeli sniper executing a preventive killing: these are the only fictitious images shown here, and they are very dramatic.

Let us hope that one day we will be able to see the photographs of Miki Kratsman in France, that we will be able to discover the story of the winners, the losers, the expelled, the massacres, that we won’t anymore be able to say “I didn’t know”; but then we will also have the chance to discover a work like no other, where ethics and aesthetics unite, like at the times of Lewis Hine or the Depression.

Photos of the exhibition were taken by the author.

En français

Manet: modernised romanticism?

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translation by Miss XS

“Manet, inventor of the Modern” is the title of the exhibition that opened on Monday the 4th of April at the Musée d’Orsay (until the 3rd of July). Upon entering, the exhibition reinforces Manet’s modernity by inscribing him between Romanticism (Delacroix) and Realism (Courbet). In fact, the exhibition begins with a group portrait titled Hommage à Delacroix, by Fantin-Latour where Manet, upright and across from Whistler, on the other side of a portrait of Delacroix, is situated between the Realist Champfleury (standing for Courbet) and the Romantic Baudelaire. This group portrait (like all of Fantin-Latour’s portraits) is filled with meaning and nothing is left to chance: it’s this argument of modernised Romanticism that is finely developed within this exhibition. Moreover, the first rooms are dedicated to the influence that Thomas Couture had on Manet, who was his student for six years (there is a painting of a ‘Man seen from behind’ by Couture, a man draped in white, ghostly, surprisingly filled with modernity, in contrast with what one would expect from this relatively academic painter.)

 The connections between Baudelaire and Manet that are detailed in the following section are like a missed appointment, whereby Baudelaire, whose desire it was to “convert Romanticism to Modernism” celebrates Constantin Guys (mentioned a bit too quickly here as a press illustrator), and not Manet, as the painter of modern life– and thus the first stroller, the ancestor of the ‘dérives’, the wanderings. Some drawings by Baudelaire and Constantin Guys can also be seen, such as Deux Femmes au Balcon (Two Women on the Balcony, 1845-1847; Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris).

A little further, the portrait of La Maîtresse de Baudelaire (Baudelaire’s Mistress, 1862; the Museum of Fine Art, Budapest) reveals an unattractive and square-faced Jeanne Duval, disappearing amidst the muslin waves of her crinoline dress from which a single, ugly foot emerges. Perhaps the relationship between Manet and Baudelaire would deserve a quasi-psychoanalytical study…The exhibition skims quickly over Manet’s psychology (I haven’t yet read the catalogue) but it is clear that this was a complex man in every respect- in his relationships with his father, with his mistress, (at the age of 18) and then  wife, Suzanne Leenhoff (but who was the real father of Léon-Édouard ?). It would also have been interesting to understand better how the successive refusals of his work by the official art-world and the scandals that accompanied, forged his point of difference, his marginality and his independence (like Courbet 12 years before, he constructed a pavilion to display his artwork outside the confines of the Universal Exhibition of 1867).

Subsequently, we admire closely and almost touch his scandalous paintings such as Déjeuner sur l’herbe, and Olympia. What more can be said that hasn’t already been said a million times, on this combination of contemporary mundaneness and ancient painting? It is best to simply let oneself be taken in by the quasi-magical atmosphere of these paintings and to avoid reciting what has been read or said about Manet elsewhere. My attention was then drawn onto Olympia’s diabolical black pussycat, so metaphorical (if I dare say so), and filled with symbolism (image above) and onto the forgotten character in the Déjeuner sur L’Herbe, the un-named one, the bather in the background, dressed in a greyish, loose, sleeveless dress, which she is curled up in (if one of the straps were to slip off, we would see her breasts), who, less indecent than her companion, is not looking straight at us. One could think thta her legs and her right hand have been amputated by the surface of the water. In order to avoid being shut in (and damned) by the provocative look of Victorine Meurent, our gaze glides easily towards the bather, to the most modest but not the most innocent element within this ‘foursome’ (seemingly the first title of the painting).

One of the most amazing rooms is titled ‘A suspect Catholicism’: suspect, because antipodean to Sulpician art, Manet introduced realist and crude elements in sacred art (like Caravage did in his time). Théophile Gautier (“This fat soft romantique ass,” wrote Jacques Henric), knew only how to chuckle about the Christ soutenu par les anges (Christ held by the Angels: 1864, Metropolitan Museum), that he “forgot to carry out his ablutions.” Yet this composition of a heavy man with an air of stupidity (and even hurt on the ‘wrong’ flank), and the two androgynous angels with soft faces (one stemming from Goya or Velazquez, the other ones from Fra Angelico) is  radically new in the domain of religious painting.

And his Moine en prière, (Praying Monk, 1864, Boston Fine Arts Museum) reveals Manet, inscribed with Hispanic roots, as a descendent of Zurbaran: the monk is also a man of flesh and bones, of skin and stubble, ; and not a pure, irreal holy spirit in a monk’s robe.

Le Fifre (the Fife) moves me because it was on the cover of the first book about art that I owned at the age of twelve. Les bulles de savon (The Bubbles of Soap) reminds me of Chardin, who I recently saw in Madrid: and in both, it was the gesture of the boy that counted, the truth of it, more so than the brilliant pictorial reproduction of iridescent bubbles. During the time when the Musée d’Orsay was still interested in contemporary creations, the troubling Balcon (Balcony) was presented as the counterpoint to a video by Anne Sauser-Hall but today, away with all that and back to order. Amongst Berthe Morisot’s portraits (his sister in law), one looks different, the Portrait de Berthe Morisot à la voilette (Portrait of Berthe Morisot in a Veil, 1872: Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva): it is, probably, only a sketch but the face of Berthe is devoured by the black lace of her veil, leaving her disfigured or, one could say, deconstructed. It was her who said: “Being painted by Manet is like eating a wild fruit, or one that is too green, and I like it.” (quoted from memory).

We can then skim quickly over the impressionist paintings, an art movement that Manet never really joined but flirted with, then wander among the numerous portrait paintings and finally reach the small room in the back, the one obviously less liked by the curator, the room of the still life paintings, titled Less is More? Perhaps indeed Manet’s modernity still respected the hierarchy of genres, perhaps indeed his still lives were mostly alimentary (in both senses of the term), perhaps indeed Olympia is more important than “the first asparagus magnified by the artist,” but also, perhaps, this magnification of an object, this treatment of a little Citron (Lemon, 1880, Musée d’Orsay) as a motive by itself, as a ‘character’ inscribed in a tightened, dramatic yet simplistic composition, are demonstrating as much sense, imagination and mastery of composition as his ‘grand’ paintings.

Coming back to the hierarchy of genres towards the end of the exhibition, we are presented with historical paintings, from a moderately republican Manet, a far cry from the extremist ardour of a Courbet, but nevertheless close to the progressives, the French ‘radicals.’ After the election of Jules Grévy in 1879, who reinforced the still weak French republican institutions, Manet painted republican scenes and streets decorated with flags. In 1881 (his last painting), he painted l’Evasion de Rochefort (the Evasion of RochefortI): Henri Rochefort, publicist, polemist and freemason, with ambiguous and constantly fluctuating allegiances (neither for nor against the Commune; he ended up anti-Dreyfussian and a partisan of General Boulanger), had escaped from a Caledonian prison by sea seven years prior, and had just returned to France. Of the two canvases shown at the exhibition, the Zurich one (shown here) is more dramatic, with its tormented sea, the frail skiff of the escapees and the silhouette of the English schooner who awaits them (believe it or not, her name was Peace, Comfort, Ease). It’s ‘Medusa’s Raft’ inversed, men victimised by power and not by elements, a helping solidarity and not a tragedy, a less grandiose but as dramatic treatment- realist romanticism in sum.

Just beforehand, we passed before l’Exécution de Maximilien, not the ‘clear line’ versions of the National Gallery of London, or of the Kunsthalle in Manheim, that everybody remembers, but a blurry, smoky, and indiscernible version (1867; Boston Fine Arts Museum) where those shot have disappeared in a cloud, where the face of the non-commissioned officer in charge of giving the coup de grace, facing us, remains indistinct, where the whole scene floats in a haze: a history painting in-between, a large genre painting which hides behind effects of form, of line and of light, here again at the antipodes of the usual history painting.

We of course regret that the Bar des Folies Bergères was not loaned by the Courtauld Institute, neither the Déjeuner the Munich Pinacotech. The pleasure would have been greater, but this exhibition remains very complete, well constructed, and it reaches rather well its goal of showing how Manet’s modernity is also anchored in Romanticism, reactivating and revisiting it. Shortly, another entry on a secondary subject, but one that interested me a lot in this visit: the photographic aesthetic of Manet.

En français

Photos courtesy of the Musée d’Orsay, except for the drawing of C. Guys, and from Manet, le Citron and Berthe Morisot à la voilette. Many thanks to the Musée d’Orsay for permitting me to visit the exhibition before its opening.

Photo Credits:

Olympia & Déjeuner sur l’herbe © Musée d’Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice
Maîtresse de Baudelaire ©Szepműveszeti Muzeum, Budapest. Ph. Andras Fay.
Christ aux anges © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist. RMN / image of the MMA.
Moine en prière & Exécution de Maximilien © 2010 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Evasion de Rochefort © 2010 Kunsthaus Zurich.

Messerschmidt Doloroso

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translated by Miss XS

You may have seen already some of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s Heads here and there in exhibitions suxh as ‘L’âme au corps’ (although it seems that most of these were false; posthumous reprints from the plaster moulds conserved in Bratislava),  Portraits publics, portraits privés or Mélancolie.

But the present exhibition at the Louvre (until the 25th of April) is the first presentation in France (after Vienna and Frankfurt amongst others) showcasing a significant 22 of the Character Heads of this strange sculptor, who recently re-emerged at the front of the art scene. A renowned sculptor within the court of Vienna, with a restrained style, somewhat airy, but nevertheless quite conventional (some examples are shown here such as a bust of Marie-Therese), his life radically changed when a cabal costed him a chair at the Academy,  probably because of his slightly strange demeanour. He then left Vienna, to settle later in Bratislava (Pressburg), then the capital of Hungary. He continued to sculpt the busts of princes and important people, but these sculptures are not terribly interesting (although they prove that he was a wealthy bourgeois, not a poor and cursed artist, as it is often wrongly said). However, during this period, he also developed a very personal approach with his famous heads in metal, (lead and tin) and alabaster (on top: image no.27, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

After his death in 1783, 49 of the heads were sold to a Viennese chef who exhibited them (in his restaurant? A strange way of igniting appetite), documented them (catalogue, 1793, image no.8; Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Vienne), and then gave them up to another collector. The collection was dispersed in 1889; and even if Klimt and Schiele appreciated these heads, it was the psychiatrist Ernst Krist (co-author of the excellent essay on artistic creation with Otto Kurz titled The Legend of the Artist) who rediscovered them in 1932. Messerschmidt’s fame did not surpass Central European frontiers until recently, when the Louvre acquired one of his heads in 2005 (a decision, so I heard through the grapevine, that was opposed by some reluctant conservative curators, unable to see beyond classical sculpture). Understandably, this is due to Messerschmidt’s revelations of unexplored territory, which are without doubt outside the narrow patrimonial vision of many of our curators. (Image no.13, courtesy of the Szépmüvészeti Mùzeum, Budapest).

So, what exactly are these Heads? Their titles given during an exhibition of 1793, ten years afterhis death,  have no relevance aside from being anecdotal (therefore I chose not to mention them here). What do these faces show?  The enlightened philosopher Friedrich Nicolai, who visited Messerschmidt on the 29th of June, 1781, reported that the sculptor explained how, having been persecuted by demons and suffering pain in his thighs and abdominal region (a modest, but significant euphemism, no doubt), he pinched himself in front of the mirror and then attempted to reproduce his characteristic grimaces in his works. For me, whilst contemplating these heads (they are all mental self-portraits, but do not pretend to be true resemblances), they are effigies of pain: perhaps physical pain, psychosomatic pain, and certainly psychic pain. No, this is not a man who yawns (as thet posthumous title of this image n°23 in the Szépmüvészeti Mùzeum, Budapest would have you believe), this is a man who howls in pain when facing his demons, misery and torture, fighting hopelessly against his hallucinations.  Even when he seems to be smiling (image no.10, Belgian collection), the pain is present. Very rarely in art, has one been able to reproduce such intimate pain that occupies the whole body and the whole spirit, the pain that leaves no respite; not the acme of brief or accidental pain (like for example, the woman of Guernica), but rather the perennial pain that accompanies every day. Perhaps only Bacon had this effulgence, this contained but insupportable violence (and also, seen a few days later by coincidence, the yelling Marie in the Compianto by Niccolo dell’Arca in Bologna).

That Messerschmidt’s pain was a mental one, no doubt, everything about him points to a very tormented personality. One can mention an evident kinship with Mesmer* (whom he met in Vienna, while Mesmer was developing his  magnetic trials, which later brought him success in Paris), and with Lavater and his physiognomies, (however with Greco, I hardly see any connection, unlike Mr Dagen). One can marvel at the realism of his heads, their wrinkles and crow’s feet, the tension of their skin, the depiction of their grins, the salience of their withered appearance, the texture of their shaved heads- even more so prominent in the plaster heads (image no. 16, courtesy of the Getty Museum, LA) whereby even the protrusion of clenched skin is inscribed in the texture of the stone- it’s a homage to his talent and his perfection at realistically rendering every single detail. One can say that, aesthetically, he was working in a totally contrary manner to his own official work, contrary to the dogma of the right proportions which is so characteristic of the Enlightment period (and that he certainly learned and taught at the Academy). But all these intelligent approaches do not give justice to this ultimate cry, this overwhelming pain, sometimes dramatically repressed ( as seen in Image no. 24, Belvedere, Vienna, a sort of autistic sculpture) and sometimes expressed with violence.

 Three of the heads (among which the one owned by the Louvre; image no.20) have strips over their mouths: it is unlikely to be a Mesmerising magnet, and we are led to think that it is more of a symbol of repressed passion, which Kris identified psychoanalytically as a chastity belt exposed in front of everyone’s eyes: Messerschmidt does not convey  his absence of sexual desire (rather on the contrary, one could say), but he displays the non-realisation of his desires. He himself even told Nicolai that he was utterly chaste, adding that “Man must always retain the red of his lips,” hiding what can be seen to evoke an intimacy, an internality, a suppressed and ambiguous sexuality.

It’s an exhibition to see time and time again, a visit that will change according to your own mood, an echo of your own troubled feelings, and maybe even of your own personal pains. And you absolutely must read the excellent catalogue.

* and not (Pierre) Messmer, Legionnaire and Prime Minister of France.

En français

Photos courtesy of the Louvre’ press service. Copyright of the photos: loaning institutions. Additionally, image no.10 ©Brussels, Art photo: image no.20 ©Louvre Museum / Pierre Philibert; image no.24 ©Fotostudio Otto, Vienna.

Pascale Marthine Tayou and Indian Artists at the MAC, Lyon

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, Translation by Miss XS

Two exhibitions with titles evocative of paths and passages are currently showing at the MAC (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Lyon: Always all ways is one, and Indian Highways is the other. Both show artists from elsewhere (hardly-known Indian artists, and a Cameroonian star living in Ghent) yet they have very different principles. The exhibition on Indian art goes across the world phase-by-phase (yesterday: London, Oslo and Herning, tomorrow: Rome, Moscow, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo to finish in Delhi), and it is enriched each time with a new curator and new artists (at the risk of becoming confusing and unmanageable).

In contrast, Pascale Marthine Tayou’s (until 15th May), exhibition (he has several of at the moment), is an artwork in itself. We do not look at the pieces individually, passing from one to another, changing our point of view and impression. On the contrary, we are taken into an ensemble, within a global ambiance where the individual pieces significantly collide and converge towards a synthesis, towards a spatial configuration of this large room. Diverse materials, black dresses, black, red and white headscarves, umbrellas, crystal, plastic bags, dishes, double sided panels (one side showing a photograph, the other odds and ends of wooden and plastic objects), shovels, spades, all of it is puzzling, cacophonous, disorderly and yet a veritable visual delight.

We seep into the room whilst foraying our way through the half-light in the midst of these suspended wooden trunks that can be described as somewhere between menacing stakes whose fall would pierce through us (the Sword of Damocles of course), and inoffensive crayons.

In the eye of the storm, we find calmness whilst plunging our gaze into the middle of the giant assembly of plastic bags (previously shown at the Moulin; massive, fragile and occupying space), we rediscover it here as tame, inviting and feminine.

The exhibition on Indian artists (until the 31st of July) is much more eclectical and prescribed, room after room, and we go through admiration, laughter, or skeptical criticism. Put simpler, we can see two different poles: the first is spectacular, flashy and monumental to achieve an effect; this Bollywoodian aesthetic where everything is too obvious, and not very sober isn’t my preference (such as the van made out of bones by Jitish Kallat, titled Aquasaurus, or the van made from steel balls by Valay Shende).

In stark contrast, there are many intelligent and evocative works that we are not amazed by, but rather, we are seduced. The brilliant 25-metre wall titled Take off your Shoes and Wash your Hands by Subodh Gupta has 34 modules containing three tiers of sparkling aluminium dishes. Dazzling for sure, but this is also a concert of variations, whereby no two modules are identical. But of Gupta’s works, I preferred by far, the neighbouring artwork titled Date to Date: a reconstruction of a 50 year-old provincial lawyers’ office. It is dilapidated and devilishly poetic with its bundles of tied-up dusty folders.

Further on, Bose Krishnamachari uses less sparkling crockery in Ghost / Transmemoir. Dull metal tiffin lunchboxes that are suspended from the ceiling contain little video screens displaying street scenes, witnesses, impromptu reports and the buzzing streets of Mumbai. This piece is antithetical to Gupta’s clean aesthetic, and it is more in spirit with Tayou’s work.

Opposite, there is a cave we can enter. 8 Feet x 12 Feet is an alcove with walls that are covered in small scale models of buildings. The materials used are very ordinary and Hema Upadhyay allows the visitor to physically feel the chaotic urbanisation of Mumbai, its towers and its slums.

On the other level, Tejal Shah revisits Dr. Charcot’s service at the Salpêtriere Hospital in Paris, Dayanita Singh photographs her dreams, the drawings and videos of Sumakshi Singh create a delicate and dream-like universe, we seep into the citadel of blackened oil cans of Sheela Gowda, we encounter the sculpture of microphones by Shilpa Gupta. However, the two pieces that retain the most amount of attention are, firstly: Growing, an impenetrable forest of incense sticks by Hemali Bhuta, whereby different odours blend together, conjugate and then dissipate over the course of time; making this a very mysterious piece, evolving over the years and presenting a garden-come-sculpture (the artwork dates from 2009). From the same artist, some very minimalist interventions on walls and plinths are on display; the specks of colour are hardly noticeable.

Finally, in complete contrast to the vans cited in the beginning, Escapement by Raqs Media Collective is a room in which 27 clocks are hung on display and, instead of displaying the time in hours, they are marked with feelings “anxiety, duty, guilt, awe, fear…” Each clock is assigned to a city, like a classic installation in the trading room of a bank, or behind a hotel reception desk. From New Delhi to Grozny, the clocks tick away and the background noises go from heartbeats to the sounds of a modem; life and technology. The observant viewer will note that three of the clocks turn back in time, with their needles ticking in a counter-clockwise direction. The cities associated are Babel, Shangri-La and Macondo: in mythical cities, time goes backwards (especially in Macondo). On the central pillar, encircled with video screens, a face turns to opposing sides, from left to right: this artwork about time and dreams is one of the most fascinating in this disparate exhibition.

In a few months, the Pompidou Centre will also present an exhibition on Indian art; we could compare them…

Pascale Marthine Tayou’s photos (ADAGP) will be removed from the site at the end of the exhibition. The visit was at the invitation of the MAC in Lyon.

En français

The Physical World (in the Suburbs)

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translation by Miss XS

Why do I so rarely take the trouble of going to the outskirts of Paris and organising a visit to one of the numerous art centres in the Ile-de France region (whereas I consider VeniseMadrid or Sarreguemines to be right next door)? I look sadly at the invitations I have received to see the exhibitions in the suburbs, that lay on my desk without any future: hopeless Parisian-ism will make my (more or less) lovable respondents explode.* But I also know how to take the RER to Noisy-le-Sec (before the 23rd of April) to go and see the exhibition Le Monde Physique. Amongst the four artists exhibiting, Rodolphe Delaunay installs modified objects and mecanisms, like the planks disseminated on the wooden parquet floor of the gallery that are hardly perceptible, and that take us back to a far-away country where this wood stems from. Another artist, Anne Tallentire, projects Londoner wanderings in a celestial map.

Julie Béna presents satellite photographs of an Indonesian port where ghosts of boats appear and rest at the bottom of the water; they are hardly distinguishable from real ships on the surface, questioning our perception through these beautiful mysterious images titled Marines.

If Estefania Penafiel Loaiza presents a series of islander cartography ( A particular idea of paradise) which are constructed entirely out of a heap of ashes from burning paper (and a video in the basement, rewinding time, shows the rebirth of this piece of paper from its ashes), her most interesting piece (as usual in her work) is invisible. In the neighbouring multimedia library, little ‘please insert’ notes on pieces of paper are disseminated within dozens of books; on them on can read quotes on travel and displacement. The letters blur over the course of the lines and become practically illegible. The readers who borrow a book from this library will sometimes discover these ‘please insert’ notes, and they are encouraged to replace them in other books, to allow them to circulate and travel. This work on displacement and latency, as always, pleased me immensely.

*Having said this, you can always attempt to find in other journals or in your favourite blogs, who else went to see this exhibition and wrote something in addition to the press release. Good luck in finding any!

En francais

The magical images of Adam Fuss

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translation by Miss XS

There is a wrong way in which one can visit the Adam Fuss exhibition at the Fondation MAPFRE in Madrid (until 17th of April) : it would be an erroneous, harmful, sterile approach and yet so engaging, so seductive an approach. Such an approach would be to ask all the time : how the devil are these photographs made? Wanting to understand, daring to ask the question, succumbing, curious and ashamed to want to know the secrets of his recipe. Better off not knowing, not reading the technical descriptions, better off being swept away by the magical beauty of his images without being preoccupied whether the artwork is a daguerreotype, a photogram, a pinhole or a ‘normal’ photograph.

These incredibly beautiful photographs are the fruits of an experimental body of work, of which the driving force is more sensitive and mystical rather than technical. Certain of his photographs attract you like mirrors and perhaps these are the daguerreotypes; others, like inversed silhouettes a-la- Lavater arrest you from a distance; they are perhaps photograms. Four very black photographs oblige you to engage with them for a very long time, finding the proper distance, the correct angle, trying to adapt and accommodate in order to finally be capable, or even worthy, of distinguishing the faces or the busts emerging from the shadows like pure spirits with whom we can enter in communion. Perhaps these photographs were taken with a camera.

These photographs speak of absence, very much like the translucent baptism dress inhabited by emptiness, like a ghost or a spirit from across the Styx. Elsewhere, a first communion dress- or maybe a first ball dress  is covered with serpents: a dress for puberty, of first turmoil, first love, and snakes of temptation, of original sin. Vanity, all is vanity, says  repeatedly this exhibition, with its billows of smoke and its peacock feathers.

We marvel again at babies jiggling about in water and at swaying serpents creating waves, at this frozen movement captured by the photographer- who is more of a catcher than a hunter. In front of this incandescent white hole in the middle of red circles (a drop of water? a pendulum?), is there not an evocation of unrepresentable divinity, of the light of the Holy Spirit? I was reminded of Heaven in Jérôme Bosch’s quadriptych seen in Venice not so long ago at the Grimani palace. What’s missing here is a giant daguerreotype of very anatomically correct female genitals (image no.3), which, presented on the floor of his New York gallery, aroused some puritanical critics: it is though – amidst the skulls- a sign of life, of resurrection, like a portal towards the origin of life.

Indeed there are many questions about death and resurrection here: whether it is the reborn phoenix and its ashes, a pupa photographed like a jewel, or the magnificent pair of disembowelled rabbits facing one another (read Chris Bucklow’s narration of the evisceration in the beautiful catalogue), where blood, lymph, urine and viscera, reacting with the salts of the photographic paper, drew this coloured lace: the piece (above) is titled Love. Death and resurrection: on the floor above, some magnificent wooden crucified Roman Christs from Barcelona tell us a similar story.

The virtual visit on the Foundation’s website is remarkable.

The MAPFRE foundation will subsequently show a large exhibition on Atget (from the end of May until the end of August), which will later travel to the Carnavalet Museum in Paris in Spring 2012. This posting is the 10000th in the chronological register of postings on Le Monde’s blogs. The voyage was made possible through an invitation from the MAPFRE Foundation and the Tourist Office of Madrid.

En français

Photo n°2, courtesy of the Foundation. All photos ©Adam Fuss

  1. Amor, 1992. Fotograma. Cibachrome. Ejemplar único.Cortesía de Cheim & Read, Nueva York
  2. De la serie Mi Fantasma, 1999. Fotograma. Plata en gelatina. Ejemplar único. Colección John Cheim
  3. Medusa, de la serie Hogar y el Mundo, 2010. Fotograma. Plata en gelatine. Ejemplar único. Cortesía de Timothy Taylor Gallery, Londres
  4. Sin título, 1998. Fotograma. Cibachrome. Colección privada
  5. Sin título, 1992. Fotograma. Cibachrome. Ejemplar único. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
  6. Sin título, 2003. Impresión digital con pigmentos. Cortesía de Cheim & Read, Nueva York

The two branches of the Amazon River (Michelangelo Penso 2)

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translation by Miss XS

So, on the last level of the Palazzo Fortuny, Venice (until the 8th of May), Michelangelo Penso has installed one of his giant 24-metre mathematical-biological representations. A hammock made from strips of interlaced rubber is suspended from the ceiling like an enigmatic monster with disturbing excrescences that are perhaps sexual, but not very sensual (Circuito genetico RSBP*). This soft whale-skeleton, this giant outlet of restraint, in tension and limpness, is a phantasmagorical translation of DNA whereby the slices of glass in a cabinet are the source. They are installed in a luminous piece with dilapidated inner walls where the trace of time is somewhat inscribed in the leper mural, and where triangles painted red punctuate the inside surface here and there, but are only here to signal the extinguishers…

The contrast between this giant piece and the more discreet works scattered here and there (little drawings over pieces of text stuck into the pages of moleskin diaries) is striking.

The far end of the hall shows, on a red screen (that is a lot less dilapidated than the walls), other floating forms, whereby we take as much pleasure in seeing their shadows as the sculptures themselves.

Additionally, at the Palazzo Fortuny, although I was hardly sensitive to Roberta di Camerino’s dresses, I was seduced by the L’automa path concocted by Paolo Ventura on the ground level: series of photographs of building models and little figures, recounting an episode of Venice’s ghetto during the war, creating a somber and mysterious atmosphere. It’s an interesting work exploring the duality between the dioramas constructed by the artist in his studio and his photographs, even if it would have probably been more oneiric to omit the ‘making-of.’

En français

* RSBP : Registry of Standard Biological Parts (M.I.T.)
Photos 1, 2 & 5, courtesy of the Fortuny Museum. Photos 3 & 4 by the author.

Don’t go for the Nudes (Cranach)

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, Translation by Miss XS

Return to France for the Cranach exhibition at the Luxembourg Museum (until 23 May). Do not believe the enticing reviews that will dazzle you with a cornucopia of lecherous and hypocritical nudes, there are only ten artworks with female nudes (excluding a lactating Virgin): four Eves with genitals hidden behind twigs, two Lucrèces with stripped torsos, and two Charités covered by children suckling. Furthermore, to satisfy you a little more, a nymph, whose body is covered by a transparent, barely-there veil, (“Do not disturb!”) and this Allegory to Justice (1537, private collection), who is similarly barely covered, and is the poster image for this exhibition, where the median point between the scale of justice and the sword of punishment is strategically placed: enough to make our striking judges reflect upon?

Let us abstain from commenting too much about this painter’s too obvious subject matter, whose workshop indeed produced a mass of such beauties (and on this point, the Roman exhibition‘s merit was the comparison of its nudes against those of the Italian Rennaisance). But here, Cranach is only being set against his direct influences such as Dürer and Barbari, in a historical rather than aesthetic analysis. Do not spend too much time on the supposed hypocrisy of this Luther supporter who claimed to paint these erotic scenes only for the purpose of witnessing their moral danger; an audacious, interesting and marketing-like analysis  states that the advent of Lutheranism dried up the demand for traditional Catholic painting, and that Cranach, as a shrewd businessman, had to find a new market,  that of Moralising Nudity. And let’s look at the rest- unlike all those critics so aroused with these adolescent beauties.

The first painting, the so-called ‘Scottish Crucifixion,’ , was painted when Cranach was 28 years old (circa 1500, Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna). It is astonishingly clumsy: the cropped-off thieves are really messed-up and the Virgin’s body collapses and distorts in an unnatural manner, whilst next to this piece, the later Dessau Crucifixion is one of the most accomplished. The juxtaposition of such paintings (and their diverse origins) is one of the gems of this exhibition (this was hardly expected in this museum). Cranach is first and foremost a painter of power, attached to the Electorate of Saxony, and his portraits are more testimonies of power than psychological studies: all his princes with giant jaw-bones, all his frail blonde princesses who all resemble one another, without showing individually here the brilliance of sapience, and there a dazzling charm. It is within the details that we can find finesse, depth, and striking beauty, more so than in the facial traits. The portraits of Luther (and of Melanchthon) by this fellow protestant are much more interesting.

We could also (re)view this exhibition, only concentrating on the details and the décor that are never innocent (even if they are sometimes painted by his son or his apprentices). In the painting of St. Elisabeth (1514, Thyssen Bornemisza collection, kept at the National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona) why does the donor, the Duke of Saxony Bearded Georges (who is a great Luther adversary) profile himself against the black background? This cannot be a staircase with uneven steps, neither a cut-up sheet, and the opening on the right (the Saint’s black robe and the white of her sleeves) is of no particular interest. It probably suggests that the limit between sacred and profane cannot be a simple, regular, straight line- this border must be made of  sudden jerks, reversions, hesitations and incertitudes. Perhaps it is the ambivalent relationship between Cranach himself and the nude – a simultaneously sensual and moralistic posture- that is depicted in this broken, incongruous dividing line.

And in the mystical marriage of Saint Catherine, in the presence of the Virgin and the saints Dorothy, Marguerite and Barbe (detail; 1516-1518, Szépmuvészeti Mùzeum, Budapest), on what exactly do these seven cherubs float upon? What is this black cloud receding from the background? A mountain? A sheet of fabric? The progressive apparition of the cherubs, (where the last one is only seen by the tip of his head and the first is cropped at the torso), indicates a progression, an advancement- which, separated from the rest of the scene by this black tinted area, could be its sublimation? Could this be an indication of progression towards faith, of the (descending) ascent towards the orgiastic mystical ecstasy of Saint Catherine? Flights of fancy no doubt, but what attracted me in this painting was the strangeness of this black emergence.

Also look at the sky in the Martyr of Saint Catherine (1508-09, Ràday Library of the Hungarian Reformed Church, Budapest), this celestial explosion, like fireworks above flailing bodies: Such tumult! Such racket! Such violence!

And Antaeus lifted by Hercules (1520-1530, Compton Verney, Warwickshire): this writhing, twisted, geometrical, swastika-shaped body in the arms of the hero who stands upright- is above all the opposition of two forms of strictness and of distortion, of two different worldly views probably, thus graphically symbolised in a simple and vigorous manner.

Amongst the etchings (Cranach was a great etcher and a true industrialist with the distribution of his works, always with marketing…), one of these marked me for a long time: it’s a Tournament of 1509, conserved at the National Library in Paris (BNF). It’s a confusing, tumultuous etching with tangled up bodies and indiscernible masses in its centre; only the straight lines of clattering blades give this piece its uprightness, that which troubles the omnipresent mousse of the woolly mixture of the combatants’ crash helmets like a carpet, or bouquet, as a background upon which unravels the battle. It would be interesting to set this piece against an Uccello, to compare the manner in which the tension between order and confusion is rendered.

To conclude this unconventional visit (but if you want a tame and erudite conventional discourse about this exhibition, you will find it  all over in the press), I found the Melancoly of Unterlinden less mysterious and engaging than that of Copenhagen, as seen in Rome a month ago, with the image still fresh in my mind. And, in the series of female power (Weibermacht, what a lovely word!), more so than Hercules at Omphale and missing the Fontaine de Jouvence, I loved the Mouth of Truth (1525-30, private collection). The spouse, suspected of infidelity, disguised her lover as a madman; he strolls the streets and touches her. She can then swear (whilst putting her hand in the mouth of truth ) that her husband and this madman who just disturbed her are the only men to have ever touched her.* It’s well more interesting than another naked woman…

And go and see the blog Boîte à images, providing rich reviews on Judith, Salome, Esther and Lucretia.

En français

Photos 1, 2, 3, 5 & 6 courtesty of the  RMN press office.

* On the Museum’s website, a well-made site with fine commentary, you can listen to the editor of Marie Claire talking about the modernity of nudes: Cranach and Kate Moss.

What you won’t discover about British painting here (but other things)…

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translation by Miss XS

After British sculpture at the Royal Academy, contemporary British art is on at Saatchi (until the 17th of April). The first edition was not very stimulating; the second is hardly any better, at least where painting was concerned (i.e. 2/3 of the 150 artworks presented by 60 artists). The paintings shown here are overall pathetically banal. But there are some beautiful discoveries to be made; the first room contains three ‘bodily’ sculptures by Juliana Cerqueira Leite that are amazing because they translate the struggle and imprint of the artist’s body against the material. She enters into a clay mass contained in a box, where she paves a path using her body. Descending in Down, suspended as if on a climbing wall, digging and turning on herself, she leaves an imprint of her feet, knees, breasts or buttocks –we don’t really know which – in clay; the white plaster cast of the cavity, quite deep, is suspended from the ceiling. In contrast, she climbs upwards in Up, in this clay mass above her, where she digs a lair closer to her body with her fingers, pushing the clay towards the bottom, leaving traces of vertical drippings; the black plaster casting is placed on the ground. These are sculptures that bear total physicality,  closest to the body- but that hardly reveal the forms of the artist’s naked body if not for a fleeting moment- a recognisable extremity such as a finger or a toe. Another difference with 19th Century plaster casts where immobility had to be absolute (see the craquelure of Présidente Sabatier that gently moved), is the movement that is transcribed here, a crawling movement, one of escape, quasi-animal, but one that also induces a certain feeling of panic (or a certain Houdini-like exhilaration). These abandoned pupa, these mineral traces of a body that manufactured and occupied them but is no longer, these transpositions at the body’s scale of a funeral mask that would have been made during the agony, translating the ultimate convulsions- are also very sexual forms. A black cassock penis pricked up towards the sky, a white vagina suspended from the ceiling like a single-flower vase, and the spectator’s body is subjected to confront this rather dizzily. It is symptomatic that in the gallery of artist profiles, Juliana is the only one whose face is not shown in her biographical portrait (a beautiful face, though, that you can discover in this video), but only her tattooed naked back and the nape of her neck pushed into the clay are visible : this is an artist at work in the midst of other artists posing, a naked artist in the midst of clothed artists, an artist whose face is concealed in the midst of the smiling faces of colleagues and peers.

Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s third sculpture is also an exploration of space with her body, an attempt to occupy, here, the largest amount of space without moving. Inside a clay cube, the artist frees her vital space, as far as her limbs can spread out, as far as she can touch. She obtains a volume that is more or less spherical, and of which ‘Oh’ is the imprint in latex. As much as the other two pieces were about submission towards constraint and attempts to survive, this piece, in contrast, is  a manifestation of voluntary deliberation to occupy the largest amount of space possible. This sort of physicality, ever-present in the field of performance, translates very rarely in sculptural artworks, and I found this body of work extremely passionate; and as a result, I regret not having seen the Physical Centre festival, of which Juliana Crequeira Leite was one of the organisers .

After this initial shock, the rest seemed a little dull: the superimpositions of the Bechers’ photographs by Idriss Khan are ingenious- the work of a creative art historian, much like the a posteriori research according to Ivan Lermolieff’s identification techniques applied in industrial architecture; freeing the essential elements of a composition by comparison and superimposition, revealing the very own essence of Becher photography (did they give their agreement? I doubt it, they [the Bechers] could have seen this as a denaturalisation of the purity of their work). (From left to right: Every B&H Bercher Prison Type Gasholders, Every B&H Becher Spherical Type Gasholders, Every B&H Becher Gable Sided Houses).

System House (aka Martin Fletcher) arranged this mirror-structure high up like a room-surveillance-post, like a solar panel energised by the (exhibition) visitors, or like a battery ready to bombard us with ionised rays: espionage, ecology or menace? These light and incongruous minimalistic pieces invite the spectator to be reflected- a little worrying and a little narcissistic.

I once again note the beautiful photos on memory and time by the intense Clarisse d’Arcimoles, whom I had noticed at the Photographer’s gallery, pursuing a powerful work on temporality- at the frontier between public and private, between modesty and unveiling, between history and fiction. Also, the medieval sculpture by Des Hughes, seen at Frieze, remains constantly fascinating- tragically abandoned on his pedestal. Then there is the misappropriation of photography through the embroidery by Maurizio Anzeri, who presents an interesting bypass of the medium, through which ordinary images are rendered surrealist, and restore aura to photographic reproduction.

Is the author of the blog so biased and disillusioned that he won’t say a word about paintings ? Yes, here is one, Tasha Amini whose five little hyper-surrealist paintings play with hair, exploring its mystery and eroticism. The forms she draws erase and dilute themselves, and she invites the viewer in a discreet intimacy, at a close proximity to the very essence of beauty itself- all whilst anchored to a line that extends from Duchamp to the Futurists and Surrealists, and even Picasso (Untitled paintings from 2006 to 2009). They bear a feminine fragility that is discreet but affirmed, and which pleases me a lot “between optimism and despair.” As much as other painters here only produce banalities, copies, plagiaries, it’s reinvigorating to see a young painter tracing her way with intelligence, sensitivity and autonomy.

Finally, the other ‘masterpiece’ of this exhibition, made to be spectacular (a little too much), is an entire wall of Peruvian funerary ‘nichos’ reconstructed by Ximena Garrido-Lecca. After the austere and heroic funerary monument by Susan Hiller, we are confronted here with a closer connection to the dead- one that is more tender, less clinical and historical. The tombs are decorated with flowers, cigarettes, and little alcohol bottles with more intimate inscriptions and pleasant portraits. The fusion of indigenous cultures and imported Catholicism is seen in each nicho– a sort of colonial syncretism that still proves difficult to come to terms with today. The importance of this installation, the vain attempt to find the proper viewpoint, to fathom all the details of the artwork, the hesitation between a global viewing or a close-up on details that are more or less inaccessible to us, especially in the higher sections, all this creates a dynamic tension and instils a frustration in the viewer- who doesn’t at all feel mortified, but rather calm and almost rejoiced by the beauty and power of this installation, he who has suffered through all the self-explanatory, reassuring paintings populating the rest of the exhibition.

Finally, on the highest level of the Saatchi gallery, Phillips de Pury’s auction house presented large installations by Chilean artists . In particular, The Duel by Josefina Guilisastian entire wall filled with 180 small still life images depicting various porcelain household objects- of which the accumulation contradicts the intimacy, of which the public exhibition opposes their private-decorative character, and of which the modernist serialisation confronts their roots in classical tradition. There is also Livia Marin’s The Missing Willow, an entire wall of porcelain plates with English replicas of Chinoiserie motifs- but where the willow tree element is missing: cut, transformation, colonial ablation, negation of weeping willows. At first glance, it’s a seemingly light-hearted artwork, but in fact, for me, it is also a complex and tough piece fuelled with politics. Strangely, I thought about Mathieu Abonnenc’s photos of lynching where the victims’ bodies have been erased, about this disappearance from history.

The British Art Show is now open at the Hayward Gallery but I won’t be able to see it. After all, will it be that different?

En français

Photos 1, 2 & 3 (Juliana Cerqueira Leite), Idriss Khan, Systems House, Tasha Amini, Josefina Guilisasti and Livia Marin by the author. Photo 4 (Julia Cerqueira Leite) and photos of Ximena Garrido-Lecca provided by the Saatchi website. All photos are © of the artists.