Monday, December 28, 2009
With the Centre Pompidou closed due to continuing industrial disputes, the Albert Oehlen exhibition at the Musée de l'art Moderne de Paris is one of the only contemporary art exhibitions on in Paris over the holidays. While I wouldn’t rush to see it, it’s certainly a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. But I am not sure it is much more than that.
I was excited at the prospect of seeing so much of Oehlen’s work in one place. However, his works which sit at a crossroads between American Abstract Expressionism, German neo-Expressionism with traces of pop art and even Secessionism are enticing, but not always rewarding. The psychadelic and plastic colors — lime green, violet, hot pinks — the collages of mass media images and the playfulness, or some might say, lack of subtlety, make Oehlen’s paintings unmistakeably post-modern. While the self-conscious use of media is interesting, it is also somewhat overwrought. Indeed, the application of paint can be almost ironic in its exaggeration: a sudden stopping and starting, the visible traces of the artist’s thinking – “I will place it here, not there”, and the drips running from left to right across the canvas. However, these gestures are not redolent of a love of paint, so much as a love of the self as an artist.
The same self-annexation is evident in the use of the different media – photographs, mass cultural images, different kinds of paint — did not convey much about the media or what they represent, but rather, betrayed an interest in what the artist can do, what the artist does. When the images invariably represent women's bodies, in fragmented form, the superficiality of the re-appropriation becomes uncomfortable viewing. And though the evidence of German cultural icons or German language could be identified in the interstices between different colors of paint or between images, these did not make any substantial reference to German identity, either cultural or historical. They were no more than compositional elements in a visual field.
On more than one occasion, I have been "accused" of being a modernist with all the derogatory and superciliousness of academic authority. However, rather than this being a strike against my intellectual position, it has never been made clear to me what the problem might be with aligning myself with a modernist aesthetic and a modernist sensibility. Certainly, if the demand for responsibility to image and what it represents be a modernist demand, I am not about to be convinced by the political, intellectual or ethical irresponsibility of my opinions! However, I am willing to be convinced that there is something I have not seen for the brashness of Oehlen's painting.
All this said, on another level, what I enjoyed about these paintings was the use of the thick white ground, and later in the 1990s and 2000s the colored grounds: these do not appear as supports for the collages of images and other painted shapes and gestures. But rather, background and foreground remain separated, two distinct planes, with nothing in between. As such, the emptiness of the painted space and its harsh perceptual effect when standing close to the canvas, become negotiated when seen from a distance. It is only then, at a distance, that the supposed emotional power of Oehlen's paintings begins to emerge.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
In among the odd and diverse collection of the Kunsthalle, Hamburg there is the most spectacular room full of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. In a collection that has been described as second rate paintings by first rate artists, the room of Friedrich’s must be an exception.
I have seen Friedrich’s paintings over the years and always loved them. Years ago, in Dresden at the Gemäldegalerie, I remember seeing Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes/ Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819) and being so mesmerized, as if I was an 19th century viewer, obeying the call to fall, or be elevated into, the highest realms of spiritual experience through art. I felt for a moment that I had glimpsed the power of enlightened vision away from the routines of life, as if in imitation of the two men at the edge of the world. And together with the monk by the sea (Mönch am Meer [1808-09]) at Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, I was drawn into a meditative trance before this tiny painting. What drew me to the works in Dresden and Berlin was the size of the paintings, their dimensions seemed physically diminuitive, particularly in relation to the enormity of their vision.
The painting that captured my attention in Hamburg was not, in this sense, typical of what I have come to know of Friedrich’s work. Das Eismeer (The Sea of Ice) depicts neither lonely wanderers, and nor is there a world before them that, through its opening up to the figures, invites us to identify and step into the possibility of infinite knowledge and understanding. And Das Eismeer is huge, by comparison, albeit with the same allover density of nature illumined. What stopped me in my step was the power and energy, the violence and sheer magnitude of the enormous ice pieces, rising up as if to meet the heavens, the ice was enraged, with a will of its own, there was nothing the fragile, man made world could do in the face of this retaliation. I don’t remember ever having seen nature so angry, at least not so vicious. It’s true that Turner’s storms have become the reference point for the turmoil and relentlessly unforgiving natural world. But it is a different kind of anger at sea on a Turner canvas than it is caught in the ice storm on one of Friedrich’s. The conviction and threat of the ice in this image seems permanent. The ice is sharp, it is imposing and there is no promise of its anger subsiding; even though there is a glimpse of light as the clouds open above, there is no promise that the sun will melt the wrath of the ice. We know that for Turner, the storm will pass, the daybreak will come, the stillness of the port will be the relief offered in the next painting. For Friedrich, the condition of being overwhelmed and overpowered by elements out of human control, indeed, beyond human imagination, is permanent. Unlike his other paintings, especially those of the solitary wanderer in a Romantic landscape, there is no apparent hope or way out of this cold, arctic prison. And with no end in sight, not even the hint of melting ice, the heart becomes heavy and laden with doom in the face of a nevertheless luminescent and glorious natural world. The ship looks as though it may have been there for months now, and certainly, it has no chance of leaving, weighed down, turned over, left to rot, trapped by the ice that now clings to it. Human failure is the only lasting consequence of our naïve attempts to navigate, colonize and arrest the power of the natural world.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
When Raimund Hoghe walked onto the stage at the Théâtre de Gennevilliers last night for the performance of Sans-Titre, I exclaimed without thinking to my friend James “oh look, he’s a hunchback” and immediately felt guilty for my indiscretion. And then, when Faustin Linyekula removed his shirt to expose his perfect black body, I was relieved that it wasn’t Raimund Hoghe’s body I was being asked to watch. Apparently as is usual with the lyrical and mesmerizing movements of Hoghe’s choreography, I was transfixed for the following 90 minutes. He laid out single sheets of A4 paper around the stage creating the frame for Linykula’s movements. And as Linykula writhed his perfect black body in agony at his enslavement to the deformed white captor, I was enchanted and amazed at how two bodies could so lyrically, yet, discordantly express the pain of being in each other’s worlds. They fought against each other, but not once did they touch. Until, Hoghe walked to the front of the stage with his awkward gait, and lay down on his stomach. Linykula began one by one, to place stones along the spine of his nemesis, crowning the arrangement with a stone on the point of the hunch. It was the most tender and loving expression of acceptance, a gesture that completely transformed my wariness for the man whose body didn’t accord with what I know as normal. And so, by the time Hoghe removed his shirt, the relationship between the two dancers and all of its implications of violence, aggression, and injustice prepared me to see through different eyes: the tenderness in the heart of the oppressed for his oppressor had fully replaced my fascination and repulsion for the hunch on Hoghe’s back.
There was a reference in the program to Pier Paolo Pasolini, about the necessity of throwing the body into the fight. It apparently inspired Hoghe to go on stage. He says, “other inspirations are the reality around me, the time in which I live, my memories of history, people, images, feelings and the power and beauty of music and the confrontation with one's own body which, in my case, does not correspond with conventional ideals of beauty. To see bodies on stage that do not comply with the norm is important - not only with regard to history but also with regard to present developments, which are leading humans to the status of design objects.”
I am in total amazement that he dares to show his body on stage, and yet, why shouldn’t he? As I writer, I recognize that my task is to creep ever closer to whatever it is that words cannot explain or describe. And if, as a writer, that takes the courage not only to access, but also to reveal my most intimate secrets, made up as they are of failures and flaws, then why should the dancer not reveal his? For a dancer, it is understandably healing and necessary to reveal the beauty and perfection of a body that is not usually seen as perfect. Hoghe says, “it is important to be able to work and to go your own way - with or without success. I simply do what I have to do.” Hoghe is clearly beyond attachment to what the likes of me with all my prejudices and social conformity think: he is motivated by an imperative that needs nothing more than its own fulfillment. To live and to express himself with the body he has been given.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
At the entrance to the installation Primitive, there is a 10 minute film Phantoms of Nabua (2009) that is conceived as a preface or exposition to the forms and ideas of the larger installation. (Click on the link to see the Film)
I couldn’t help seeing this film as encapsulating everything that interests me and seduces me about the cinema. I have seen Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films before in the movie theater, and was so much more taken and entranced by these examples in the gallery. I wonder if they aren’t in fact more appropriate to the context of the gallery, even though everything about them is cinematic. This ten minute film, Phantoms of Nabua is all about light: fire —in flames and cinders— neon, electrical, light of the projector, and lightening as it is projected on a screen that is the backdrop to the profilmic reality. The film is, in many ways, a poem of light, an ode to light, as these everyday lights dance together, the one replacing the other, making patterns, light made into an object, creating and destroying illusions. And perhaps the most fascinating thing about the lights in this film? They never illuminate the scene. Light might be the film’s protagonist, but it is a protagonist who remains true to its realist dimensions, and simultaneously, departs from our expectations of it.
The film opens with a shot of a neon street light against a luminescent blue night sky. The camera finds the image of lighting on a screen in an expanse of wasteland. A group of young men kick a log around in the foreground of the screen. The two worlds, the one on the screen, the one before the screen apparently have nothing to do with each other. And then the screen catches aflame, it becomes an object, and the men do not extinguish it, they watch it burn, waste away. It is as though now that the screen is an object it warrants their attention, whereas before when the parade of images were projected onto it, there was nothing of interest to look at. And then as the screen becomes ash, blowing away in the gentle night wind, the light of the projector behind what was once the screen flickers. The film continues to run, but with no screen to fall on. All illusions are incinerated, but behind the illusions there is just another empty light. We can still hear the soundtrack of the image as it runs through the projector: the thunder of the film that no longer exists, is so distinct, and in place of the lightening we see the flickering light of the projector. Is this the end of cinema, or the end of illusion?
Phantoms of Nabua is about watching films within films, films on films, the image we watch continually being reduced to no more than a surface as the drama of the lightening on the projected screen starts to resemble something we would see in Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory, sparks flying, exploding, and yet, of course, as we watch the light, the film becomes about the difficulty of seeing. Again, somewhat ironically for a film that is such a drama of light, lighting and lightening, we never see the young men, even as they use a log on fire as a football. We know they are young men, but that’s as far as we can go to defining their presence.
Like the figures of the young men, the themes of anger, memory, the past and history are kept in the shadows here. We know they are there because the title alerts us to their presence, but we have little access to them. Nabua was the site of a bloody battle between local communist farmers and the Thai totalitarian government in August 1965, resulting in a longstanding and brutal occupation by the army. If Phantoms of Nabua is an exposition of what is to follow in Primitive, then its concerns with light--natural light, neon light, electrical light, daylight, fire light-- which stay in the darkness, then the history of national destruction and trauma might be everywhere addressed in the exhibition, but they are nowhere to be seen. And I have to say, this is not because the real history is obfuscated, but rather, a subtle rendering through experimental film ensures that they remain spectres that haunt every vision, but refuse to satisfy our desire to know more.
It is a rare occasion to find such powerful and intelligent filmmaking either in the museum or the theater, and to appreciate the force of Phantoms of Nabua as exposition to the installation, a word of warning. It’s important to approach the exhibition through its main entrance (as opposed to via the Albert Oehlen exhibition next door).
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Rembrandt’s exquisite self-portraits are as enigmatic and mysterious as the eyes that follow us before the Syndics. In another room of the Rijksmuseum is an early Self-Portrait (1628) we have seen many times before in reproduction. As always, it’s the light that enchants me, frustrates me and seduces me. My fascination with this inexplicable beam of light does not begin and end with the way it illuminates the skin on the face on which it falls. The light itself is so clear, so defined, so lucid, and no matter how close I stand to the canvas, the answer to the same question of how Rembrandt does this, how he makes light from paint continues to elude me. It is a mystery that I cannot see in the painting itself. I move backwards and forwards and still I cannot see anything other than the photographic image of the light falling on this heavenly, porcelain like skin.
Skin and light, together, are the reason I go again and again to see Rembrandt’s portraits. As much as I love Jeremiah (1630) and the Philosopher in Meditation for example, it’s the portraits that have me in amazement every single time. And always, it’s the very old and the very young who have the most beautiful skin, transparent, heavenly, perfect, in the light. Even the hand of the Old Woman Reading (1631) which is also in the Rijkesmuseum, is not only lifelike, but when skin and paint as light come together on her weary wise fingers, the result is so photographically dreamy that portrait photographers might experience pangs of envy at the ability to replicate the perfection of the human body in an image. And this, painted 200 years before such technology was dreamed of.
I wonder why no one has called on Rembrandt’s hands and faces to dispute theorists such as Belà Balazs’ claim that the cinema, for the first time, like no other medium before it, sees the emotions written on the face, and we could extend this to the gestures of the hand. The cinema may have the capacity to reveal to us in close up the internal drama of emotions as they are written on the human face, but surely painting, in the hands of Rembrandt, clearly has the capacity to do just that and more. Like the film camera in particular, paint on Rembrandt’s canvases not only depicts human emotions as they are created through the marriage of light and skin, but this too is the place at which we are invited to connect to these people. Where paint as light and skin coexist on Rembrandt’s canvases, no matter the identity of the sitter, we are beckoned and seduced into their emotional world. It doesn’t matter if the person is old and the skin wrinkled or if it is the flawless, porcelain skin of youth, we cannot help but adore these faces and hands.
It is true that when eyes come into the equation, and the brushstrokes become looser, often as Rembrandt matures as a painter, like the Self-Portrait as the Apostle St Paul (1661), the serenade is more complicated. Figures such as the artist in the said portrait always look at us and simultaneously, they reflect on their own inner melancholy. It is no longer the skin that is so delicately rendered, but the inner life made external, once again, inexplicably through brushstrokes we cannot always discern.
I always come away, at a loss to explain how Rembrandt does what he does, how he makes these figures so replete with a perspicacity and emotional complexity. And then, seducing me into their subjective world, as if I am somehow held responsible for its existence. I know Rembrandt always experimented with paint: he dries it out, adds more oil, applies flecks of gold dust to create light, he adds it, removes it. As a painter who never really made sketches, we know that all of his thinking is done in paint. But still, this doesn’t help me explain anything. In the end, my inability to explain and analyze Rembrandt’s paintings is probably for the best: it means I continue to be seduced by these sumptuous images.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
If my journey to Madrid was a pilgrimage to Vélasquez and Goya, Amsterdam held the promise of Rembrandt. Like Las Meninas and The Third of May, Rembrandt’s paintings have become so clichéd thanks to their mass distribution in every possible medium, that I wondered if there was anything left for me to see. And though it took some time to shift from seeing the images I expected to see to those before me in the Rijksmuseum, once in the world of Rembrandt van Rijn, it was as though I was there for the first time.
The major drawcard of the museum is The Nightwatch (1642), which is truly breathtaking, primarily for the splendid gold coat of the lieutenant. But it was The Syndics (1662) that caught my eye for hours. What an extraordinary painting. These five men and their servant were the sampling officials of the Amsterdam Drapers' guild in 1662. Unlike the arresting dress of the lieutenant, it is not the fabric of their official garb that holds us, or held me, before these esteemed gentlemen. It is their eyes, and their direct engagement with us that compelled me to keep looking at them. No matter where we stand, all but one of the syndics follows us with their eyes. As we enter the not so grand hall in which the syndics temporarily sit, from the opposite end, they make quite clear that they have noticed my arrival. Stopped in motion, they watch me walk in the room, perhaps I have interrupted them, intruded on a conversation I am no supposed to hear? I all but hear them demand to know “What’s she doing here?” But it is unclear, maybe they were expecting me and they are merely announcing my arrival: “she is here!” Such is the world of a painted masterpiece, and the ambiguity of their look is just the point: I may not know what they are thinking, but what is clear, is that they know and acknowledge my arrival.
The oldest among them, Volckert Jansz, in the process of standing up or, maybe he is sitting down, looks ever so slightly downwards. As a result he does not watch me. The youngest —we know this by his dress and his hair — Aernout van der Mye (second from the right) is the one we strike up the strongest connection with. And yet, he is also the one in the most shadow. How does that work? Surely the focus of the paining should be in the light? But it’s true, contrary to all logic van der Mye has the strongest eyes, vibrant features, full lips, and ruddy cheeks that give him an energy, an attractivenes. He has a fire in his face, his eyes, his hair, that somehow gives him a seduction, his intensity makes him reach out of the painting, to me at least. He also smiles quiety with me, perhaps at me, in animated engagement with me. The others are more reserved, quieter, their pale, aging skin, their calmness sees them less eager to flirt with me, they rest content with their place in the painting. It is very difficult for me to move away from Aernout van der Mye: the connection that develops with him starts to leaves behind the others in the painting. And I am left to wonder: How does Rembrandt do this? Evoke such animation and emotion, in a painting?
When I regain my composure and recover from my flirtation with Aernout van der Mye, I note the brilliance of the composition: the table at an angle, the figures at different heights, impossibly both looking in different directions and surveying me with their look. I am also transfixed by the light that falls on the embroidered carpet that covers the table, the gloves of Jochem de Neve on the right of the painting. Again, I am left to wonder: How does Rembrandt do this? I shall save my discussion of light, especially as it falls on skin for my discussion of the portraits. Here, I want to briefly mention the page of the ledger that the syndics are studying together. The thick, yellow, handmade paper is so realistic, so tactile that I can feel the texture of the hand woven surface as I adoringly watch van der Mye lift they page, and Willem Doeyenburg in the process of discussing something he finds written thereon, a discussion that takes places through he movement of his thumb and forefinger. Here, in The Syndics, Rembrandt extends the passionate rendering of the hand for which he is renowned into the exquisite texture of paper, as though the hands that touch it infuse it with their beauty and magic. And so, having settled down from my flirtation with van der Mye, I fall into a relay between faces, hands, books, and we must not forget, collars. Again, like the pages of the ledger, the brilliant white collars, each different from the next as they mark the age and social position of their wearer are like the extension of the face.
A word of warning for those determined to make new discoveries, the Rijksmuseum is under renovation for the next few years, and they have chosen the masterpieces for display. It was fine by me, because rather than discovering paintings I had not yet seen, the diminished display made me make discoveries within canvases I thought I already knew.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
I have to admit I had not heard of Pierre Soulages before I saw the poster for his latest exhibition at the Pompidou Center. This, together with the fact I didn’t feel as though I spent enough time with the later paintings in the final rooms of the exhibition, makes my thoughts and impressions of his work seem incomplete.
My disclaimers aside, as I walked around the chronologically organized exhibition, watching the paintings get larger and larger, I was overwhelmed by how very un-French is the work of Pierre Soulages. French painting of the twentieth century is noticeably characterized by small, compact, quiet, petite. And certainly, Soulages’ Taschist contemporaries, Fautrier, Dubuffet, and so on, are not known for the largesse of their works. Even a painter such as Nicolas de Staël who made four foot canvases did so with a quiet, reflective resolve. There is nothing grand, aggressive or masculine in the form of de Staël’s work. Soulages is a different story: the later paintings might even be described as paint attacking the canvas: they are huge, aggressive, masculine and determined in their exploration of the relationship between black paint, canvas and the light it reflects. There is no quiet contemplation of the kind we see in the Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella black canvases. On the contrary, if we compare Soulages to an American, it has to be the masculine energy of Franz Kline, an energy that is multiplied in Soulages’ severing of canvases with thick black lines.
The early works are fascinating as they engage with materials not usually associated with painting: tar and walnut stain on canvas, glass, paper. The specific quality of these substances, their dilution on paper and their luminescence on glass gives them a substance, a tactility that allows them to show the first signs of what will become Soulages’ trademark of color appearing to emerge from the surface on which it is painted.
Among my favorite paintings were Peinture 202 x 125 cm, 15 décembre 1959 and Peinture 190 x 300 cm, 11 juillet 1965, both painted immediately before Soulages launched into his half century devotion to black. What I love about these paintings, especially the first, is that color is shown to be in a slow process of appearing, Up close it is as though the black has been stripped from the canvas and red is in a process of revelation. There is also an unpredictability to the black and the red, their relationship to each other filled with conflict that might drive them in surprising new directions at any moment. And this unpredictability gives way to a movement, an energy that is in no way harnessed by the rest of the painting as a support to the encounter between black and red, or by the canvas as frame to that painting. In turn, this energy is a force that beckons the viewer to connect with such a painting. In contrast, images such as Peinture 195 x 130cm, 30 Octobre 1957 feel trapped, stultified by the boxed in nature of the black strokes that overlay the color. Black has won the battle over blue, and there is no invitation offered to me to indulge in the vibrancy of he conversation with red, or with honey in Peinture 190 x 300 cm, 11 juillet 1965.
As I moved through the exhibition into the explorations of black, where black comes to dominate his palette and his thinking, I couldn’t help seeing them through the lens of Rothko, and Reinhardt. But it is only a useful comparison in so far as we get to see how completely different is Soulages’ relationship to painting and to the canvas. If, as I and others have argued, Rothko invites us to fall into his canvases of thickly layered paint, Soulages keeps us on the surface. The ribbons of flat against glossy black paint, the composition of different thicknesses, different viscosities, different panels of black moving in different directions across a diptych, even the veil of black paint dragged and scraped away to reveal blue in Peinture 222 x 137, 3 février 1990, keeps me occupied on the surface. In fact, these paintings actively discourage the contemplation that has me fall into my own self before a Rothko canvas, a falling I love and yearn to experience again and again.
All of this said, I need to go back and spend more time with the diptychs in which it appears as though the surface of thin black paint has been stripped away when wet with tape to reveal grey, brown, and white underneath. These huge canvases such as Peinture 222 x 222cm, 8 juin 2001 may represent a return to that vein of modernist love of painting in which the mystery of color is all that matters.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
As I sat watching Resnais 1977 psycho-drama, Providence, I thought of all my students who would not even know his name, and as a result, of what they were missing out on. For those of us raised on the diet and discipline of learning a discipline from the Pyramids to Picasso, from Old Norse to The Sound and the Fury, the equivalent in my cinema studies' education was the Lumières to Film School Generation. And Resnais and Last Year at Marienbad were turning points in 20th century cinema as they were in my growing appetite for modernist film. Yes, it might be confusing, and it might even be nonsense, but for me, seeing this bizarre film as an undergraduate was as all part of the thrill of having new worlds opened up.
And I was plunged back into that excitement last night when I chose Resnais’ 1977 Providence over This is It, the Michael Jackson bonanza. Now my shame: I can't believe I hadn’t seen Providence already. It’s a great film and would, in many ways, be more suitable in the classroom than Resnais’ modernist masterpiece. Students would get their teeth into what’s real and what’s fantasy – and of course, because the lines between the characters’ reality and the fantasies of the aging John Gielgud, and the narrative he is writing in his latest and presumably last novel are indeterminable and unfathomable, we could then turn the lesson to questions of the realities that are at stake in the cinematic world more generally. The absence of reality check in Providence makes it a perfect psychological puzzle of the kind that fulfils both the needs of the students to convince themselves of the importance of untangling the “real” from the imagined, and of the teacher to convince them of the pitfalls of debating the stability of cinematic realities. Students would also have fun with analyzing the character of the son (Dirk Bogarde in a characteristically brilliant performance) who not only harbors all the anger and hangups of his father, but who takes a mistress that is played by the same actor — Elaine Stritch — as his mother.
Aside from its suitability to the classroom, there is much to admire about the film as it demonstrates Renais’ absolute skill at putting stories together in a way that both embraces the full spectrum of the cinema’s want to transgress social norms and expectations and, simultaneously, to escape the rationalizing desires of the audience. Providence plunges us into a world of an aging — dying if we are to believe Gielgud — writer who both rewrites his life as he remembers it or as he would like it to have been, and/or (not sure which) convinces us his nightmares are true. There is reference to a war as the opening depicts soldiers chasing an unknown man through a forest who turns out to be transforming into a werewolf. However, the real war of the film is the narrative written, erased, rethought, and rewritten, as we are shown it to be playing either in the aging John Gielgud’s mind, or in the novel he is or is not writing. What we never know is whether or not he is really vilified by his family, or if it is in his imagination – do they change their minds about him, or does he change his mind about them? Is the daughter-in-law (Ellyn Burstyn) really in pursuit of the man who killed a werewolf? Who turns out to be Gielgud’s illegitimate son? Or are her lascivious desires the whim of a horny old man frustrated with and intolerant of a repressive social world that allows no place for his bald imaginings? It’s difficult to say. And in the end, knowing Renais, it probably doesn’t matter. What matters for him, as the great modernist filmmaker, is that the medium allows him to blur all distinction between real and imagined, fantasy and reality, memory and fiction and even, the nature of the relationships between husband and wife, stranger and step son.
Film doesn’t come much better than this, and, given the choice of seeing Resnais’ version of reality or Michael Jackson raised from the dead – which might not be Michael Jackson after all – there is really no discussion.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
My two cultural outings last Friday were, to say the least, uncomfortable bedfellows. I knew this in advance, but it wasn’t until 1am this morning when I arrived home after a four hour performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar that I realized just how impoverished some forms of contemporary culture can be.
I have never been a fan of Shirin Neshat’s work: she is one of those artists that I think is very overrated, someone who exploits her Iranian background to win the attention of those who matter in the art world. She is, afterall, an upper-middle class, Berkeley educated woman living in New York City who makes images about female oppression in the Islamic world, claiming legitimacy on the basis of her Iranian roots. Why then, do I keep going back to see her work? Because I keep thinking, well maybe there is something to these video installations, typically bifurcated visions of Muslim gender divisions on two screens simultaneously, that I am just not getting. Alas, Games of Desire at Galerie Jerome de Noirmont on Avenue Matignon failed to convince me of any failing on my part to be wise to the supposed profundity of Neshat’s work. The dozen photographs on the ground floor, all of a single Laotian in front of a ritual drawing are pretty, but it is the video upstairs that is the centerpiece of the exhibition. I had barely got through the gallery door before the man told me the video was upstairs.
The 22 minute video was filmed in Luang Prabang in Laos in 2005 and 2008. The two-channel video is shown on two screens, one at either end of the gallery: on the right we see 60-80 year men singing passionate love songs, and on the left, women of the same age do the same. The Laotian men sit on mats cross-legged, chanting and singing with glee as if to schoolgirls, wooing them with phrases that seem strange given the reality of the women opposite them, at the other end of the room. In a group, and then one by one, framed individually, they sing of the “round faced girl” while the women respond by singing of the men’s white teeth and red lips. Clearly, the lined, yet joyful, faces, mouths filled with rotten teeth on the opposite wall do not marry with the young lovers we imagine to be the recipient of such flattery.
The singing or chanting of the men mirrors that of the women. The words are symmetrical and repetitive, slowly becoming raunchy, erotic and then sexually explicit. We are somewhat shocked to hear these old faces singing such lines as “open my skirt so you can see the paradise! There you can see the Naga’s (dragon) eyes in the water (…)” The men answer by matching the invitation “There you can see the God’s mouth in the sky! Something black erected, you thought it was a hunter’s gun powder (…).” The representation of the old Loatians enjoying life and reveling in their erotic fantasies of is anthropologically of interest for its challenge to conventional representations of the old. Similarly, there is a very touching connection established between the men and the women across the boundary created by the gallery space.
Ultimately, however, I remain unconvinced of the great insights about this Eastern culture that Shirin Neshat apparently brings to the West. There is a border between men and women, yes, but wasn't this the same message we were given in all Neshat's other work? I am only glad that I had Julius Ceasar to look forward to, and to give me something more worthy of my energy to think about over the weekend.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Tsuyoshi Shirai’s True is another of the Japanese dance works that open up whole new ways of thinking about dance and performance. First, I have to admit that there is a lot about the work I still do not understand. For example, the relevance of the title to the piece still eludes me. In an interview the director and lighting designer, Takayuki Fujimoto, says that the piece “tries to show that what we perceive to be a lie can also speak the truth.” Conceptually, there’s little to disagree with, but the connection to the dance performance is obscure. And that's through no fault of the piece itself! Perhaps this is because the knowledge base and aesthetic references of a performance such as True are, like so much that comes out of Japan, of a different realm, steeped in Japanese history, ways of thinking, and seeing the world.
True opens with what appears to be a street kid in a hooded sweatshirt and chinos familiarizing himself with his environment, mainly handling the objects that sit on a 10 meter long table. A cup, a glass, a globe, a puzzle, a toy aeroplane among other everyday treasures. Tsuyoshi Shirai, picks one up, inspects it, turns it around, looks at it from different angles, and then puts it back on the table. Ever so slowly the tension mounts and as Shirai handles an object, an electronic noise is emitted simultaneous with his taking it off the table. The second he puts it back where it was, the noise stops. Then the lights are activated. LED lights that beat at the rhythm of the technological sounds and bathe the space in their red, blue or yellow. This integration of sound, light and human body was extremely impressive.
In the West we are accustomed to thinking of dance as being about the body, and indeed, the body of the dancer is usually fetishized — through lighting and movement etc — such that the form and movement of the body is the very substance of modern dance. However, in True, the body shifts from a technological sound board to no more than a silhouette. Sensors are attached to Shirai’s body such that the movements of his muscles and his brain register on a computer and trigger sound and light simultaneously creating a world of technological wonder. Even when Shirai’s slight body is in motion, and indeed, his movements are often extraordinary, it is otherwise unremarkable. Dressed in street clothes we would walk straight past him were he to cross our path out in the world. And even though his movements are often of the highest technical demand, they are not flamboyant, but rather, most often they are an intensification of an everyday movement that you or I would make, unthinkingly. This understatement of the body is a very different language of dance than those we are used to, and might perhaps account for a reviewer for the New York Times complete misunderstanding of the piece. When Japanese art and performance is seen in the West, it might, on one level seem straightforward, but I would argue that it is rarely coming from an aesthetic and epistemic history that we have at our fingertips. This leaves me at least without the tools to understand, let alone analyse a work such as True. And yet, I was nothing short of riveted for the 90 minute performance at the Maison du Japon the other night. There was something so exciting about the sophistication and ease of this concert in light, sound and human bodies reduced to movement.
As Illustration of the “foreigness” of the references, my friend James pointed out with amusement a question posed to Fujimoto in the program. The French interviewer asks “In Renaissance painting for example, the table symbolizes knowledge. Does the table in your work have the same significance?” Without even reading Fujimoto’s response, common sense would tell us that in True the table belongs to a completely different order of things. The dancers pull it apart, use it as a jungle gym, they pass objects through it, and are drawn to it as a safe haven for objects that otherwise create intense noises when they are touched, or even worse, lifted off the table. The table is a constant source of fascination, something to return to, but also a mystery that can be transgressed, its parts used for innovative games (at one point a cylinder that is cut out of it is rolled across the stage). Whatever it is, the table obviously does not represent the sturdy resolve of knowledge.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Given the paucity of exhibitions in Paris this Fall, despite my reluctance, I went to the latest installation at the Jeu de Paume: “Fellini, La Grande Parade”. The text at the entrance to the exhibition announces that it is a visual laboratory of moving and still images, texts and sounds, by and about the great Italian film director, Federico Fellini. Even though it is one of the only national museums in Paris that exhibits contemporary art, on hearing of this as a planned exhibition I was skeptical. I wondered why we needed to visit and exhibition of Fellini paraphernalia rather than go to see his films.
Unfortunately, my reservations were well-founded. Rather than a visual laboratory —which gives the impression of a kind of experimentation through juxtaposition of different media to create surprising results — Fellini: La Grande Parade, might better be described as an overwhelming and incoherent cocktail of image forms.
What I find most disturbing about these exhibitions at major Paris museums and galleries is that the images are completely emptied of all value. (See my review of the recent Warhol exhibition at the Grand Palais) And so clips of Fellini’s own films, those he admired, documentaries about him, about Anita Eckberg, and about Marcello Mastroianni are represented on large flat-screen monitors or scrims in very poor reproduction. This representation might be conceptually challenging, but the image is so impoverished through reproduction and editing that even Fellini’s biggest fans will not want to watch the clips from beginning to end. The curators proudly announce that this “visual cocktail” is not in any particular order, certainly not chronological. While they might see this as a drawcard, for visitors to the exhibition, the lack of explanation, context and logic to the installations results in a bombardment of texts and images —from magazines, journals, newspapers, and so on — that had this viewer losing interest very quickly. It is true that the energy of the exhibition evokes Fellini’s enthusiasm for life, but the conglomeration of display objects became one big blur after the first couple of rooms. However, this said, the one set of images I was delighted to see were Fellini’s famous dream books. Fellini’s recording of his dreams in pen, ink, and gouache are both aesthetically sumptuous and fascinating. This said, however, the content is still no more revealing than any of his films —the proliferation of over-sized women’s breasts and buttocks in the dream images comes as no surprise.
Ultimately, my question was answered: Parisians and tourists alike would do well to spend their time at Place de la Concorde by having coffee in the Tuileries. And then, those in search of Fellini magic should head down to the Cinémathèque to see the complete retrospective of the great filmmaker’s work. Certainly, there is nothing on display at the Jeu de Paume that will give greater insight into Fellini or his filmmaking than watching 81/2 and La Dolce Vita again.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Readers of my blog will know that I am a big fan of the Louvre. It must be my favorite place in Paris, I love everything about it - its architecture, the collection, the activities, exhibitions, and there’s nothing better to do on a Friday night than visit my favorite paintings which, because they don’t appear on the “highlights of the collection” guide for visitors, always silently awaiting my arrival. One of the things I have always admired about the Louvre is its awareness of the necessity to keep the collection alive. While other museums might be happy to let their Roman antiquities, Egyptian relics, medieval paintings, and old masters rest on their historical reputation , not the Louvre. Not only does the Louvre invite young artists to create works that converse with the collection, it purchases and commissions contemporary works - see the installation of the Anselm Kiefer pieces in Richelieu. I have also had the joy of being educated by young art students in one-on-one presentations to visitors about otherwise obscure works they have studied. These and other events ensure ongoing interest in the Louvre’s extraordinary collection, and bring to life works I would probably have otherwise walked straight past.
So while I am not surprised that the Louvre invited a figure such as Robyn Orlin into the museum to unleash her creative vision, I am nevertheless impressed that this stalwart of French heritage and culture embraced Orlin’s lashing critique of its whole raison d’être. Babysitting Little Louis is swashbuckling fun from beginning to end. The title of the piece refers to a minature of François Girardon’ 1692 statue of Louis XIV which sits in the Puget courtyard with other impressive, but noticeably bigger, bronze and marble statues. Like the bigger, more sturdy, pieces in the Puget, the tiny bronze sculpture sits in the open air (as opposed to encased in glass) to avoid oxidation. And so, little Louis is very vulnerable, and needs to be “babysat” by the guards to protect him from the temptation of wandering hands. This is explained to us in song by the 8 security guards on the first stop of a “guided tour” they will lead us on over the next two hours. Immediately, the colonial and racial politics of little Louis’ power are the focus of the show. We hear of Louis’ nightmare — as we watch black African women in fantastic dress writhing on the opposite balcony. As we all stood around, a six foot plus African guard approached a group of us, to tell a story of how when he was a young boy in Africa he met a man with no head. A story that was brought to resolution when the man came to Paris as an adult and found the head on display in the Louvre! Clearly, the other guards of various racial origins were telling similarly frightening stories of Louis XIV’s colonial rule.
Towards the end of the performance an English tourist (one of the handful of professional dancers and actors used by Orlin), goes to Africa. While the audience sits and stands huddled in between headless African statues and oriental antiquities, the man plays Louis in Africa: he recounts in a broad British accent such exciting events as his lunch with Nelson Mandela, who when he arrived was having tea with Madonna. Carrying an “Out of Africa” shopping bag, at one and the same time, a typical tourist and a slanderer of French Imperial oppression, the man had me in hysterical laughter. Sadly, for a non-English speaker, the French translation did not capture the trysts and asides that held the most humorous, and cutting, remarks.
There were many other wonderful moments as we went around the museum: one highlight was when a guard entered into a conversation with deeply reflective statue that mimicked a therapy session. “I know you are depressed, but many people would do anything to be in your place surrounded by treasures;” “you want to be like Michael Jackson, dying, and have all these people come to mourn you.” And on she went; it was brilliant.
Mention must be made of the extraordinary guards who performed the piece. Apparently Orlin talked to guards, watched them in their work and eventually selected eight enthusiastic security guards for Babysitting Little Louis. Orlin invited them to make a film of their favorite work in the museum. At one point on our tour, everything stopped, the guards opened their jackets and projected their films on the inside. So we all crouched down and watched intently at the amateur images. While the technology of projection onto jackets, and sculptures in the midst was probably more interesting than the films themselves, the point was made with conviction. Guards in a museum are not simply someone to ask for directions to the toilet and the exit. As much as the piece was a scathing critique of the history of French culture and its acquisition, it also gave voice to an otherwise silenced group: the museum guard. The eight guards who performed in Babysitting Little Louis, not only showed their creativity through singing, dancing, filmmaking and performance, but the piece was an opportunity for their articulation of the depth of their engagement with the works they survey. The greatest tribute to them was that I didn’t know if they were actual guards from the museum or actors until I got home and read the program. Ultimately, it was the guards, and their continual interaction with the audience and statues alike, that shattered our preconceptions of what we do and who we are in a museum: that we should observe silence, or that guards (like Africans) have no opinion on culture or their own oppression within cultural structures, and so on.
It is true that as we walked around, following the guards on their journey through the Louvre, there were times when chaos reigned. There were times when I wondered what I was meant to be looking at, times when I couldn’t see, and times when there was so much going on that I didn’t know where I was supposed to be. Our movement through the space, and the conception of the piece itself, were at times too ambitious, resulting in incoherence. However, there was much to make the night fun and memorable. In addition to the innovation of the whole spectacle there was the pleasure of being in a French audience. While the French are usually reluctant to laugh out loud, I did catch a few having a chuckle at this relentlessly entertaining, and simultaneously, searingly critical “night at the museum.” That in itself really speaks for Orlin’s performance: getting the French to laugh at the principles that underlie the history and culture on which they have built their very national identity. And this, within the walls of their most revered cultural institution no less. This alone makes Babysitting Little Louis quite an achievement for Orlin. And in its embrace of an opportunity to see itself and its collection from an innovative (and not so flattering) perspective, Babysitting Little Louis has me even more in admiration of the Louvre.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
A few years ago, I skipped the afternoon session at a conference in the US to go shopping. You don’t have to be a fashion guru living in Europe to know that shopping needs to be done in the US because, unless you are after haute couture, clothes in Paris are overpriced and not very interesting. On my return, my friend Denise reported a colleague’s disbelief when he asked her where I was, and she replied, “she went to the mall.” “Frances wouldn’t go to the Mall” he replied, convinced Denise was hiding something from him, “come on, where is she?” In the opening moments of The September Issue Anna Wintour muses that fashion makes people nervous, as though it is some kind of overindulgent display of consumption gone awry. While Wintour’s world of fashion is very different from my findings in the Mall in suburban America, the same unease around creative self-expression imposes its judgment on our visual presentation whether it be bought from Banana Republic or Dolce and Gabana. Fashion is to be feared. And I would portend that fashion is feared because unabashed self-expression by women is feared. It’s why in Paris, anything a bit more creative is expensive and hard to find. Contrary to hearsay, it is a rare French woman who dares to look different from the crowd.
There are no doubt many reasons to be wary of the fashion industry, its unapologetic clothing of underweight pubescent girls in dead animals is just the beginning. However, The September Issue shows us that, in the eyes of Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, fashion is an art form, and its presentation a visual entertainment. The world of fashion is for dreaming and fantasizing, it is for creating our identities, it is a way to express who we are. As we rush through our day, on trains, walking on streets, past crowds listening to music, riding a bike, how we look is often the only chance we get at admitting who we are. What’s there to be nervous about?
The September Issue is not so interesting as a film, mainly because it is not much more than a portrait of Wintour. However it provoked some interesting questions for me. It is a portrait — I couldn’t help thinking — that is a response to the more malicious version of Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada. Irrespective of her sympathetic image in The September Issue, why is there any discussion of Wintour as businesslike in the first place? Why the fascination with a successful, apparently not so warm woman, in a position of power? No film has yet been made about Donald Trump, either criticizing him for being “not warm,” or redeeming him through showing his human side, his tenderness. And neither is anyone rushing to make a film about Bill Gates’ lack of sentiment, or otherwise, on the job. So why is Wintour’s emotional life so fascinating? Because she is a woman. And so, The September Issue as a documentary response to The Devil Wears Prada reminds us of one thing: men and women in business are held to very different standards, still.
If Wintour were held to the same standards as men of her standing in their respective business, she would be seen as a role model. She is, by her own description, decisive, talented, professional, and the list goes on. As a woman in power, she strikes me as being highly competent, in an exciting way. I have had male bosses, one in particular, who was indecisive, wanting everybody to like him, selfish, disrespectful, insecure, all in the guise of “reasonable.” Given the choice to work for him and for her, I would take a job in Wintour’s office any day. Wintour clearly has vision, she is consistent, fair, respectful, and as the film presents her, she brings clarity to the office every morning, along with her Starbucks coffee! While being hard-skinned may be a criteria for being in her employ, for those who bother to watch and listen to Wintour, she shows loyalty, trust in her employees, and ultimately, inspiration as a woman in and with power. It’s more than I can say for any man I have ever worked for.
I have seen what Paris, New York and Milan Fashion Week do to those who work in the industry, and I know that The September Issue with its soft view of life at Vogue does nothing to capture the stress and neuroses experienced by those involved. However, I did come away convinced that we need more women at the top, inspiring us to find ways to express our power, a power that begins with what we have on as we walk out the door in the morning.
Friday, September 25, 2009
People like me know nothing about what it means to go to war. And people like me know nothing about what it is that makes a man want to go to war. And for these reasons if for no other, I think everyone should see Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Just released in France with the more prosaic title of Démineurs, the film gives a perspective on war that remains novel. Namely, that there is something addictive about the thrill of being on the battlefield. Otherwise, I wonder if the film is as brilliant and groundbreaking as its critics have claimed.
The opening scene, like many of those to follow, is terrifying. What makes it so scarey is that we have nothing and noone to hold on to. I remember when Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998 and the pre-publicity word was that the opening scene was terrifying because the documentary, hand-held camera on the boat as it landed on Normandy beaches was unanchored, echoing the the destruction, and placing us, defenceless in the middle of the action. And I also remember being so disappointed by the opening scene because, for me, we were at no point left alone to drown on the beachhead. We had Tom Hanks to hold onto. The codes of the Hollywood movie are so familiar to us, that even without being conscious of it, we were under no threat because we had the star of the movie on our side. And there’s no star I know who is killed in the first ten minutes of a Hollywood film. At least not one who has center stage in the pre-release publicity.
The Hurt Locker is a different story. Bigelow does what Spielberg may have attempted to do in Saving Private Ryan. I found the opening scene as the team of specialist soldiers come face to face with an-about-to detonate IED, terrifying. The camera was so uncertain, creating images that were fragmented, dislocated and without point of view. There was nothing to hold onto. And even though we see no blood in this opening scene, I struggled to keep my eyes on the screen. Bigelow uses a confrontational handheld camera to echo a world out of control, a world in which blowing up streets, Iraqis, even marines, is inevitable. Life in Baghdad is cheap, and we have no Tom Hanks to palliate our fears for our own safety. This is another strength of the film: feeling our own discomfort at what we see in Iraq, even if it is fiction, is something we need to experience again and again and again.
For all intents and purposes Will James is a cowboy in the classical Hollywood sense. He’s John Wayne in a bombproof suit. Like the best of his 1950s counterparts, young Will James remains loyal to his fellow cowboys, does his job with precision, and is fairly much indestructible. The only difference being that he doesn’t ride off into the sunset looking for more. At the end of the film James comes back to the eternal war in Baghdad where the task of a gunslinger is never over. Unlike the lone Alan Ladd or John Wayne, James has somewhere else to go — a family in the US who do normal things like shop in supermarkets. But after doing his time on the battlefield, a life of domestic serenity is no tradeoff for the thrill of bombs, guns, insurgents and the heat of the desert. He’s addicted. Seargent First Class William James needs the adrenaline of detonating IED bombs to survive. It never occurred to me that this might be a reason to go to war.
Otherwise, I wonder if Bigelow has much to say about the war in Iraq. The powerful camerawork she uses to create suspense when James (and his comrades) go in to disarm an IED aside, this is a character study of the twenty-first century cowboy: fearless, built of steel, obsessed. And as the American frontier moves across the desert of Iraq, so continues the work of colonization, the bringing of “civilization” to those who apparently need it, but don’t want it. Not much has changed since the 1800s, this we know already.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Having spent two hours drinking coffee and yarning with friends, Geo and I made the mistake of taking our time to get to the Centre Pompidou on Friday afternoon. We spent two and a half hours at the Elles exhibition and didn't even get half way through. Even then, we didn't do justice to many of the works we saw. Elles is one of those rambling, overwhelming conglomerations of works that bear the slightest of connections under a loosely defined thematic umbrella - the sort that the Centre Pompidou does so often.
That said, we were both reacquainted with works we love and admire. Karen Knorr's photographs were among those that caught my attention. I had seen her series Fables, at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, in an exhibition where she introduced stuffed animals and naked ladies into her photographs taken in such a museum. I was impressed by them, but more overwhelmed by the stuffed animals, the classification of guns, and other hunting instruments in this bizarre museum. The two works included in Elles from Knorr’s Connoisseurs series, (1986-1988) however, are complicated and captivating, and stood out among those surrounding them.
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and The Analysis of Beauty — as they were exhibited among a lot of work that might bring representations of women to the foreground — were outstanding. Both photographs (and others in the series not exhibited at the CP) are to be celebrated for reasons in addition to the fact that they were done by a woman, and they critique the representation of women within mainstream culture. Both had, what I want to call “a radical feminist edge.” The two photographs are much more than upfront, in your face, diatribes on injustice towards women. The critique of the institution of the Museum in these photographs is subtle and conceptually layered. And, unlike many of the works in Elles, they dared to be aesthetically beautiful as well.
In The Analysis of Beauty an abundance of telescopes, other optical devices of magnification together with two men in tailored suits as the only observers, leave no doubt as to the omnipotence of the male view in the production of knowledge about art. Knowledge about aesthetics, is, according to Knorr, scientifically measured: the image, its value and its aesthetic are always in the eyes men, the object of their gaze. And it is not just men, it is bourgeois men of a certain social standing, of a certain social regard, who determine and own the measure of beauty. We also notice the recession of the arched doorways that frame the scientific instruments, the observers, and open out to embrace us. The axis along which our eye is directed by Knorr’s photograph is the most traditional of classical vanishing point perspectives. And in this we see a return to the surface of the photographic image: the power and dominance of the cultural construction of the museum building itself accords with the vision of privilege and the claim that painting – or in this case, photography – is indeed a true representation of reality. It is a complete and hermetically sealed world that we cannot penetrate, one that is safely policed by the men who designed it. And these men cling tightly to the Renaissance connaissance that shaped them.
I found The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction equally compelling for its conceptual depth and aesthetic appeal. The title is taken from Benjamin’s famous essay in which he discusses the loss of aura in the photographic reproduction. Knorr here appropriates Benjamin’s title, and by implication his argument, to discourse critically on the culture of the copy and proliferation of history as a series of fabricated replicas. In Knorr’s photograph, Michelangelo’s David, and Raphael’s School of Athens (1510-11), one of Michelangelo’s Slaves, and various other sculptures, are exhibited together, in one room, as if in storage. We know they must be copies as David does not leave the Galleria dell'Accademia, the slave is in fact much bigger in size than it is here, and Raphael’s painting is a fresco in the Vatican. But to the man in the smart suit and polished shoes, it doesn’t matter how far these works are from the originals. He is more interested in his book. All of the works have lost their value in their infinite reproduction, in this case, for museum display. Knorr cuttingly observes that today, it is not the photograph that removes the aura, it’s the museum that exhibits the sculptures that destroys their uniqueness. Nevertheless, men in smart clothes continue to espouse their knowledge and judgement of art, however irrespective of the object that knowledge might be.
And so, together, Knorr’s photographs claim that knowledge is always representing a point of view, and it is a point of view that belongs to men, men who want to get closer, to study in detail, to see better. Knorr’s photographs are ironic and humorous because the male desire to look at images of women, to objectify them under the auspices of knowledge, is not only literalized. But in their obsession to see, the men actually become blind to the image. Either, as in The Analysis of Beauty, men use instruments of navigation and colonization to analyze beauty, a phenomenon which cannot be analyzed or scientifically explained anyway. Or, as in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, men who claim hunger for knowledge about art, satiate that hunger through reading books, and not looking at the impoverished copies which they nevertheless triumph as the real thing. Men might insist on dominating the world, to have the last word on beauty and aesthetics, but they are, according to Knorr, unable or unwilling to see the objects of their supposed expertise.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
In Madrid to see Velasquez, I had expectations. Goya was a different story: I knew there would be surprises and I knew there would be paintings I had never seen. And yet, nothing prepared me for the power and seduction of what have posthumously become known as the Black Paintings.
Towards the end of his life, at age 72, Goya redecorated by painting the walls of his two-storey house outside of Madrid. For Goya this didn’t mean deciding between egg-shell white, satin white, semi-gloss or matte. For Goya, painting the walls of his house meant 14 of his most extraordinary works. In 1874, the fresco paintings were transferred to canvas and placed in the Prado. None of them were titled, and none of them were meant for public exhibition. And despite the claims of most critics, they are not unanimously melancholy, frightening and dark. The figures might be surrounded in darkness, and the paintings may have an overall tone of intensity, but they do not all strike me as either sinister or gloomy.
To the contrary, what is so striking about them is the brilliant light that illuminates the moment depicted. In my three favorites — works that have since been titled, Reading, A Man and Two Women, and Judith and Holofernes — the intense emotion excited by a simple, everyday action is vivdly brought to life by Goya’s masterly handling of light. In stark contrast to the placement of the light in his tour de force, The Third of May, there is no light source in these paintings. It is as though the belly of the man in the modestly named A Man and Two Women by art historians, a painting if it were left up to me would be titled The Masturbator, has the light within him. And the light by which the men gather to read the paper in Reading is once again like an emanation from the man who holds it. Together with the intense grey background, this light is what these paintings are all about. The illumination at the centre of the works draws us in – it is more than an invitation, more like a command, to share the secret world of whatever is written in that newspaper, of both the women and the man’s delight at bawdy pleasures, of Judith’s sheer determination to sever the unsuspecting Holofernes' head. Within minutes of standing before them, I found myself silently creeping into the simultaneously exciting and unknown worlds of these compelling characters. Interestingly we see Judith preparing to behead Holofernes, her breasts bared, the knife in hand. This is not a painting that is about the beheading, it is about the intent to behead. The depiction of the feelings aroused as opposed to the significance of any action is typical of these three Black Paintings.
As I say, critics want to focus on the darkness of these and the other paintings. It is true that the one that depicts the witches Sabbath is more sinister because it is witches who are at work. However, as I stood before even these paintings, the darkness was in the execution of the background only. And that gray background is as exciting because it exists hand in hand with the light that inflames the canvas. Even in the stillness of the moment of reading, these paintings are about the motion and emotion of the experiences of the readers. What makes Goya so outstanding is the energy and kineticism of his paintings, at a time when portrait-like paintings were all about stasis and sitting still.
It is said that Goya bridged the classical and the modern. And if his work does indeed venture into the modern period, it can be seen here. In the use of light as though he knew that the cinema that was on its way. And like the cinema, Goya externalizes emotions in a way that painting had not yet thought to do, at least not in Spain, and never with the use of a loose, undefined brushstroke. Again, the openness of Goya’s brushstroke in these works is exciting. In official portraits and paintings of the period, the painted world is still hermetically sealed, closed off from a viewer. Thanks to the looseness of the brushstrokes and the light, these paintings reach out to us, beckon us into the painted world in a way that painting would not do for anything up to another one hundred years.
Lastly, the thing which makes Goya so exciting is that, like Velasquez, Goya’s most memorable, and powerful paintings are not the ones that are done on commission for royalty. It’s the ones he does behind their backs, the paintings he executes in contradiction of the violence that is going on in the world around him. Included among the black paintings are the bitter and horrific image of Saturn devouring his son, but there is so much more to these fourteen images than a dark depressive vision of an old deaf man.