Thursday, October 31, 2013

Serge Poliakoff, Le Rêve des Formes, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Serge Poliakoff, Composition en Rose,1954

The first thing to say about the Serge Poliakoff Exhibition that has just opened at the Musée d’Art Moderne is that it’s huge. And it’s an exhibition that requires patience and persistence. I found the delight of these works revealed itself slowly, across the entirety of the exhibition, to the point where it wasn’t until the final rooms that I was able to understand what Poliakoff was doing, or rather, what he was searching for, across a career in which many of the paintings looked the same.
Serge Poliakoff, Espace Orange, 1948
In so many ways, Poliakoff’s work is the quintessential abstract painting. The radicality of the non-representation is, at times, incredible. I could count on one hand the number of times I imagined figuration, when I saw objects or things in the coloured shapes and forms. In this, I was reminded of the late Mondrian as he came closer and closer to a pure abstraction. I was completely preoccupied by the unusual and unexpected colours, their texture, the geometricality of the forms, the arrangement of colours, the tonalities, energy. And as the exhibition developed, there was no visible dimensionality to the forms as they vibrate and move around the picture plane.
Serge Poliakoff, Forme, 1968
Like Mondrian’s search for balance and rhythm and vibration in silence, Poliakoff is doing something outside of tradition was at the time he was painting. Unlike Mondrian, Poliakoff’s medium is in the relationship between form and colour, rather than that between line and color. But it was only in the end when, in paintings such as Forme, 1968 in which a colour that breaks the rhythm of the surface in the centre of the composition, that I realized this. By the end of the exhibition, this relationship of colour to colour has become the subject of the paintings. The other characteristic of the paintings that I admired for its approach to pure abstraction was the lack of emotional response that was asked of me. This is not to say the works are cold, they are not. On the contrary, the colours are warm and there is such luminosity, but I don’t feel anything, just the stillness and silence of the space they create around them.
Serge Poliakoff, Composition Murale, 1965-67
What do they look like? The surfaces are dense, textured, and the musicality he talks about in relationship to his painting can be felt as we stand before the forms always in unusual colours. Poliakoff talks about the influence of Egyptian sarcophaguses, and the spare, rough texture of his own-ground paint can be felt and smelt. Poliakoff apparently ground his own pigments, and with minimal oil, created a fresco like texture to the paint. As well as being influenced by Egyptian sarcophaguses and as well as seeing the history of nineteenth and twentieth century painting in these canvases the influence of Russian icons cannot be mistaken. As well as the more obvious references of a wall of paintings such as Composition Murale, 1965-67, the iconoclastic reverence for colour as absence of representation, is a constant reference throughout the exhibition. Moreover, the influences of the history of art are everywhere — not just the obvious Monet, Malevich, Mondrian, but the less obvious of Turner, Whistler, Rothko, even at moments when he overpaints with a lighter colour, leaving the darker colour underneath to demonstrate luminosity, tone, a silencing of colour, the works reminded me of those of Jasper Johns.

As I wandered through room after room, I kept wondering what he was doing, where he was going with the forms. I saw different coloured forms, different relationships between the undercolours and the forms, I saw the same vibrations between colours, the same imperfection of the forms. But for all intents and purposes there was little change across the oeuvre. One thing I did notice was that the effect and result of the different materials was visible. When he painted on wood he emphasized the separation of colour, the canvas paintings enabled the distinction of brushstrokes. And then everything fell into place in a small through room, leading to the final rooms where three paintings that were remarkable for their difference from all of the others were displayed. Needless to say, they were painted in grey. In Diptyque, 1961 and Gris Bleu, 1962 these so-called allover paintings summed up all there was to say in this prolific body of work.
Serge Poliakoff, Gris Bleu, 1962
These two works are an anomaly because they resemble dust storms, whirlpools, they are much more organic. It’s the effect that Poliakoff finds in some of the forms, but in Diptyque and Gris Bleu it has been elevated to the entirety of the canvas. Everything feels very churned up. Gris Bleu looks radical because of the blurring or misting of the edges of the forms where in every other painting they are defined and certain. Then we ask, is it grey? Is it blue? It is neither and both – always these in between colours where colour is as abstract as the form. In these two works, everything coheres, because for the first time, we see synthesis, coherence and are encouraged to look back on fragmentation, monumentality objectively.

All this said, I still came away wondering, is Poliakoff’s work radical? And still, I am not sure. I think to answer this question I would need to go back to the beginning and start again, with the clear knowledge of where the exhibition ends.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Voyage dans l'ancienne Russie, Sergei Procoudine-Gorsky at Musée Zadkine

Sergei Procoudine-Gorsky, Tour de Signal à Boukovo, 
Just when I thought I knew every museum in Paris, I find one I have never previously even heard of. The Musée Zadkine at Vavin is the former studio of the Cubist sculptor Ossip Zadkine. As I wandered through the light-filled rooms, looking out onto a peaceful garden filled with Zadkine’s sculptures, I could only imagine the inspiration of such a space.

Garden at the Musée Zadkine
I found this hidden Paris treasure because the museum is currently exhibiting a series of photographs by Sergei Procoudine-Gorsky, taken between 1909-16 as he travelled through Tsarist Russia from the Urals to Samarkand, from Volga to Siberia, documenting his discoveries in three-way colour glass transparencies. The display of the images at the Musée Zadkine is moving and creative. They are interspersed with Zadkine’s sculptures in light boxes attached both to the wall and to the floor. The wonder of the photographs is that they are in colour, the result of a process that was, at the time, unheard of. It is only because Procoudine-Gorsky had access to the most avant-garde scientific developments — read wealth, education and power — that he was able to document this vast and, for many, unforgiving land. Eventually, Procoudine-Gorsky was commissioned by the Tsar himself to take photographs and bring them home for all to wonder at.

Images on display at Musée Zadkine

Procoudine-Gorsky documents Russia as it was, as I learnt, knew it, and as I like to think it was meant to be. His images are a document of Russia before the world pulled it to Moscow and St Petersburg, when Russia beyond the two cities mattered. This is Russia when science and technology valued the arts, when there was a concerted effort to take technology and science to the farthest outreaches. It was a time before the revolution, but of course, these images show none of the persecution, violence and struggle of Tsarist Russia.

Sergei Procoudine-Gorsky, Habitants du Daghestan, 1904
In ThroughAmateur Eyes I discussed the early developments that enabled some of the first colour photographs produced in Nazi Germany around the late 1930s. That means that Procoudine-Gorsky’s transparencies are made 30 years prior. So the photographs themselves are of historical interest as well as the interest in what they photograph. In 1948 they were taken by the Library of Congress left in archives until 2000 when they were restored and digitally transferred. What isn’t made clear by the exhibition is the extent to which they were remastered in the LOC’s digital scanning. Given the clarity and density of the hues, I am assuming there was some colour enhancement. Nevertheless, the display on light boxes shows with extraordinary clarity every detail of the scene, every blade of grass and every straw of hay is discernible thanks to the three colour process. The delicate reflections on water, and the soft clouds in the sky can almost be touched, they are so crisp in reproduction. With this comes the flaws and deterioration of the images, the bleeding of colours, the fading of cyan blue from the stock that leave a reddish brown.

Sergei Procoudine-Gorsky, Church of the Resurrection in the Grove, Kostroma, 1910
What I loved most about the transparencies is their capture of the stasis and silence of Russia, not only as this vast land was on the cusp of industrialization and pre-Revolution, but also its stasis that continued into the Brezhnev years and the Cold War.  Long distance landscapes and shots of villages nestled into the bend in a river, endless skies and untouched green fields on perfectly clear days, the spires and domes of Orthodox churches, local inhabitants posing for portraits in long shot, workers in fields, nothing seems to move in this timeless world. The agrarian nature of the land, the apparently idyllic world also reminded me of Tolstoy’s Russia, at least, those parts of his world that have not been touched by the pressures and distortions of the society he critiques.

Sergei Procoudine-Gorsky, Procoudine-Gorsky on the Karolitskhali River, Georgia

To start visitors off on the romantic journey into Russia of yesterday, the museum offers tea out of a samovar at the entrance. The whole experience was one of walking into the dream of a world that always looked much better in representation than reality.

All Procoudine-Gorsky's images copyright Library of Congress, Washington

Friday, October 18, 2013

Washington without a Government

I arrived in Washington DC to do research at the National Gallery, the Smithsonian, the Hirschhorn and the Library of Congress exactly 90 minutes before the government shutdown. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would be prohibited from my research thanks to a handful of angry Republicans. After the initial anxiety and frustration grew tiring, I set out to spend time in places I know and love in Washington, as well as discover new ones.
El Greco, The Repentant St Peter, 1600-1605
Although I have been to the Phillips Collection on a number of occasions, this seemed like the opportune time to return. It’s a wonderful collection that reminded me a lot of some of the private collections in Europe, in particular the Lehnbach Haus in Munich. There are both lesser know, but not necessarily minor, paintings by well known artists —Juan Gris’ Still Life with a Newspaper 1916, Georges Braques’ Birds, 1956, Corot’s View From the Farnese Gardens, Rome (1826), El Greco’s The Repentant Saint Peter, c. 1600, a wonderful Soutine Portrait, all of which made an afternoon at the Phillips Collection a treat. For me, however, the collection stands out for its evidence of a common American tendency: the mixing together of French paintings with the works of significant Americans – Sir John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, some wonderful Georgia O’Keefe works that really demonstrate the surrealism of her early painting.

Sir John Sloan, The Wake of the Ferry II 1927

There was a lot to love about the collection, to name just one painting, Sloan’s The Wake of the Ferry II 1927. I loved it for it’s greyness, for its vision of the cold, silent air, the loneliness of being on water. The tilt of the ferry also speaks the drama of the ocean, and I was fascinated that the line between ferry and ocean is blurred, the one becoming the other, painted in the same cold grey paint. There was something very unsettling about this painting: the two ships in the background look as though they may collide thanks to the tilt of the ferry. And that there is no sight of land, for a ferry, is an ominous sign.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1968
My favorite room –unsuprisingly — was that with the four Rothko paintings. As always, the natural movement, vibrations of colour, the lightness and luminosity, together with a simultaneous density of colour, were mesmerizing. Also on display, down the corridor was a room covered in beeswax by Wolfgang Laib with a single light bulb. Despite the closeness of the space, there was nothing claustrophobic about it. On the contrary, Laib’s installation was calm, meditative, even spacious and freeing to be inside. The orange of the beeswax communicates with the orange across Rothko’s paintings as the eye moves around the room designed specifically for the exhibition of the Rothkos. Like Laib’s beeswax covered walls, the Rothko room is surprisingly small. It is always tempting to contemplate Rothko’s paintings from a distance, but this is not possible at the Phillips. This is, of course, how Rothko wanted his paintings to be hung; to create an immersive experience for the viewer. Inside we are surrounded by the paintings, bathed in their light and their dynamic movements. And because they are yellow and orange and red, there is a brightness and a luminosity that makes this small room, like that covered in beeswax, very comfortable to be inside.
Wolfgang Laib, Laib Wax Room, 2013
I shared my time in the Rothko room with a woman who had come to Washington for the Byzantine exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Of course we got into a conversation about the Government shutdown, it’s only natural. At the end of the conversation she reminded me: we are the lucky ones. And she’s right, as much as I am so frustrated and angry at the Republicans for putting an end to my research while I am in Washington, it’s a great joy to be forced to sit in a room, surrounded by Mark Rothko paintings.