Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Centre Pompidou

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruxelles, 1932
I was interested that this exhibition opened and closed with images of not seeing. In the opening image, two men against a length of hessian, one with his face to the fabric, the other looking away, distracted by something to his right. As we leave the enormous exhibition on the top floor of the Centre Pompidou, the final image rhymes with the 1932 photograph in Brussels. And throughout, the photographer returns to images in which optical devices are used to not look. The most memorable of these are produced on the occasion of the coronation of George VI, 12 May 1937. In the wonderful array of devices, ranging from simple mirrors through periscopes, telescopes and the eyes of someone else, by turning his back on the procession that supposedly captures the attention of the world, Cartier-Bresson might intend to capture the crowds looking, but he ultimately finds them not looking.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Couronnement de Georges VI, 12 May 1937
Such novelties are typical of Cartier-Bresson’s oeuvre, and indeed, they abound. But the disappointment is that they are never developed to their full potential. In keeping with these momentary insights and delights, Cartier-Bresson is a photographer whose work doesn’t ever set new standards or break new ground; in fact, many of the images in this retrospective are familiar, often because they do what many other photographs in the midst have become famous for. The work of European photographers such as Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Atget, German 1920s photographers, and so on, all produce sustained bodies of work that, because of their focus, seem to have a greater impact on 20th century photography. I say this, and yet, all of a sudden I come across this series of photographs taken at the coronation of George VI and I begin to wonder if Thomas Struth in the museum is so original afterall. At least visually, compositionally, if not conceptually, there are resonances of Cartier-Bresson in a number of the most celebrated contemporary photographers. In a way that I don’t see happening in other, more celebrated experimental photography of the European avant-garde, Cartier-Bresson’s work could be placed as a premonition to the works of Gursky, Struth, Wall and other celebrated realist photographers.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Foule attendant devant une banque pour acheter de l'or pendant les derniers jours du Kuomintang, Shanghai, December 1948.
Cartier-Bresson travelled the world, in a way that few of his generation could have done. Already in early 1930s, he was in Africa, experimenting with the possibilities of photography. And there wasn’t a country he didn’t seem to visit – spending time in Spain, Mexico, Russia, China, long before tourism to these countries was even imaginable. I was struck by the fact that Cartier-Bresson was always on the outside, arriving in Spain at the end of the Civil War, witnessing the last days of the Koumintang, 1948, in Russia after the death of Stalin, photographing Ghandi’s funeral. As if to imagine the perspective of every traveller, Cartier-Bresson was always on the edge, looing in, temporally as well as spatially, a marginalization that is echoed or reflected in his images.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Salerno Italy, 1933
Among the most exciting and interesting are the early works in which he uses walls, surfaces, spaces as screens for the capture of the play of light and shadow. These have to be seen as somehow a premonition for the cinema. The movement of bodies made into abstract figures in spatial configurations of which the subject is light and shadow. Of course, this is the concern of every photographer in the first half of the 20th century, but I admired Cartier-Bresson’s courage to fill most of the photograph with a space or a surface, thus transforming the intention and content of the medium.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alberto Giacometti, rue d'Alésia, Paris, 1961
And then he returns to France and he gives us images and a vision that lies at the heart of French cultural life and history. The image of Giacometti, 1961 in the rain, in the last photograph before he dies has been made famous by John Berger, for example. The young boy with a cheeky smile on his face proudly marching through the streets with wine under each arm has become an iconic image of French life, and that of jumping puddles behind the Gare Saint-Lazare in 1932 have come to all but define the romance of Paris.

But what do we learn by seeing all of the photographs in this huge retrospective? The blurb that accompanies the exhibition claims that there are many Henri Cartier-Bresson’s. It means by this that he worked in a multitude of different genres and styles. I want to suggest that it might mean something else as well: there are times when the photographs appear derivative. At other times, especially with the iconic ones, by seeing them in context, we learn that there might be more going on than a single image can show. Often the themes recur in different periods of his career, still being worked out and revisited 50 years later. We also learn that his work is potentially influential: the so-called anthropological images that show men and machines woven together are a case in point: how many times have we seen this repeated across the 20th century? It’s true that there is nowhere he did not go, both metaphorically and literally speaking. And this exhibition gives us the opportunity to find the jewels in a prolific career, in the same way that he seemed to find the jewels in everyday street life in Paris, both in wartime and at peace.

All images copyright la fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Douglas Gordon, Pretty much every film and video work from about 1992 until now @ Musée d'Art Moderne

10 MS-¹
Douglas Gordon, 10ms-1, 1994
I may have been unduly critical of Douglas Gordon’s work in the past, but I am convinced that the video work from the 1990s is his most interesting. The Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris has just purchased another 43 additional videos by Douglas Gordon, bringing their collection to 82 in total. All 82 are shown in a sculptural installation appropriately titled, “Pretty much every film and video work from about 1992 until now. They are here displayed on 101 monitors perched atop beer crates to create “an overview” of Douglas’ work. But really, it’s not an overview of his work so much as it is a sculptural installation among which we find ourselves in a guessing game. I found myself avidly searching for familiar videos, for my favorite Gordon videos, something to hold onto, images I recognized. It’s impossible (almost) to match the videos to the corresponding gallery guide, not only because the room in the museum basement is entirely dark, but also because the display which has monitors are huddled next to each other, snaking around the space. The choice is either to search for what we already know, or wander around the monitors, looking for the rhythms and patterns across the installation as a whole. There’s very little hope of learning much about individual videos.

© Studio lost but found / ADAGP, Paris 2014
Douglas Gordon, Pretty much every film and video work from about 1992 until now,
Musée d'Art Moderne
There are patterns of interest – repetitions, triptych videos are shown over three separate monitors, the familiar Gordon slow motion, looping, fragmentation and mirroring, the capturing and de-mystifying of iconic moments in Hollywood cinema. All this can be recognized, but identification of the image content can be difficult if we do not know the specific video in advance. A Gordon work I have always loved is 10ms-1, 1994, a video in which he takes archive film of a shell-shocked World War I soldier as he is watched by (we assume) doctors, in some kind of rehabilitation process. Gordon re-projects the footage in slow motion, repeated fragments, reverse motion onto a screen which, when I first saw the work, was placed in the middle of a darkened gallery. If there was once soundtrack on the piece of footage, Gordon has removed it. As the man tries over and over and over again to stand up, failing every time. The silence is deafening. The strip of re-appropriated film raises more questions than it answers: who is the soldier? Where is he? Who is behind the camera? Who is watching from the wings? Does he really struggle or are his actions staged? If only in the manipulation of the film strip? Neither these questions, nor the disturbing effect that the footage has on the viewer are apparent in its display on a television monitor, tucked in among 86 other monitors.

Douglas Gordon, 24 Hour Psycho, 1993
Other thoughts arise from seeing Gordon’s films in one place: I noticed themes, such as, the predominance of the body, much of the time of Gordon’s body. His fascination with hands, with kissing, with the colorful images that cover his body, the film image as a body to be colored, scarred, manipulated, lovingly reproduced, examined, fragmented, violated and stroked. So often Gordon’s images are about the status of the image, a self-examination that Gordon executes through the repetitions, cuts, closeups and other strategies. I remarked that often Gordon’s most interesting and experimental work is done in films that are not so well known. 24 hour Psycho, 1993, his refilming of Hitchcock’s masterpiece and re-projection at 2 (not 24) frames a second, has become cliché now. It was more an event for hipsters than an art work, screened overnight at esteemed institutions such as the Hirschhorn in Washington, and the Hayward Gallery in London. I am reminded of this other life when I see it on the small monitor, an image so small and insignificant, it might be missed.
Douglas Gordon, Pretty much every film and video work from about 1992 until now,
Musée d'Art Moderne
He has also known for his interesting engagement with film history, the Hollywood movies, favorites as well as unknown B movies, the archival films, silent films, and of course, Psycho. Gordon’s representation of Hollywood films is a way for film to turn in on itself, to go inside in a way that is equivalent to the psychoanalytical process of going inside the self. We get to reflect on what film is, who it serves, how it is no more than a representation. Seeing all the works together, I am reminded of this innovation as I take this slightly tongue in cheek opportunity to enjoy over twenty years of Gordon’s videomaking.

All images copyright the artist

Friday, April 18, 2014

Vermeer at home in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

About as good as art gets. (Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam/Getty Images)
Johannes Vermeer,  Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1663-64
Last weekend was my first time in Amsterdam since the ten year renovations to the Rijksmuseum were completed. The renovations are impressive, with the Gallery of Honour and that designed specifically to showcase the museum’s most prized possession — Rembrandt's The Night Watch — particularly resplendent. The restored passage that connects the two sides of the Atrium through which visitors enter gives priority to bicycles like the rest of the city. I must say, however, I was a little disappointed that the two inner courtyards, enclosed by the Atrium, into which passersby are invited to look, lack the drama and fascination of the Cours Marly and Puget in the Louvre. On one side of the Rijksmuseum’s Atrium we look into the restaurant, and on the other, empty exhibition spaces. 

Crowds flocking to catch a glimpse of Vermeer's lovely ladies
With all the publicity surrounding the renovations, I anticipated a very different Rijksmuseum, so I was a little surprised to see that the highlights of my visit were the exact same paintings that have always drawn me to Amsterdam. With or without renovations the Rembrandts and the Vermeers remain the most compelling examples of Northern painting, and the primary attractions of the Rijksmuseum. The Vermeers, including The Love Letter, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter are unlike any other paintings, ever painted. I have seen Vermeer paintings over the years, many times, but experiencing these treasures lined up together along one wall was a special experience. As I stood there, seeing in Vermeer’s intimate and delicate paintings, things I hadn’t previously noticed, I was reminded of why the paintings are great. When the revelations continue, even in paintings I have seen many times before, when I see them as if for the first time, I have no doubt that they are extraordinary.
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Johannes Vermeer, The Love Letter, 1669

As the curtain is pulled back on an intimate scene in what looks to be a washing room in The Love Letter, we understand we are peering into a private moment, perhaps even catching the lady of the house unawares as she receives the letter from the servant. This is a domestic scene in an otherwise hidden space, raising more questions than answers. The scene has an ambiguity so typical of what brings us back to the Rijksmuseum again and again to see Vermeer’s work. We are led inside worlds we are not really allowed to be witnessing, and then we are teased: whose are the slippers in the foreground of The Love Letter? And why is the woman receiving a love letter when she is presumably the lady of this house in which there are men’s slippers? And what do we make of the expression of the maid? Why is the woman playing the lute in a space that appears to be the washing room?
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Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1660
The delicate, yet muted, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter depicts a woman who we wonder, like critics before us: is she pregnant? A little girl was looking at the painting at the same moment as I was being swept away by the hazy luminosity of the painted woman’s blue dress. The young girl immediately noticed the woman’s shape and announced to her mother: “she’s having a baby”. Her mother was very quick to dismiss it: “no, that’s just the way they painted in those days,” as though affirmation of her daughter’s eye for detail would expose the woman in blue’s illicit escapades and corrupt the child. The applause for Vermeer’s realism from generations of critics was silenced in seconds by a mother made awkward by the inexplicable size of Vermeer’s woman’s belly. Such discomfort in the face of a 17th century painting in which an unmarried woman, apparently pregnant, reads a letter assumed to be from her lover, speaks Vermeer’s achievement: almost four hundred years later, this tiny painting still has the power to invigorate conflictual emotions in a mother and child.
Johannes Vermeer, View of Houses in Delft, date unknown
Most wonderful of all is, as everyone sees and says over and over again, the light. A friend who lives in Amsterdam, but is not from there, tells me that the quality of the light in Amsterdam is very special, it has something to do with the fact that the sea is just there. The city is placed on a marsh that is not meant to be inhabited, and what makes Vermeer so special is that he captures that very light, inseparable from the water that gives Amsterdam its identity and personality. As I looked at these paintings, their delicacy seemed to be given them by a number of factors: by the crowd that huddled around them, overwhelming them, weighing down on them, by the paintings that sit on the next wall, such as de Hooch’s A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair known as a Mother’s Duty. The contrast is astounding: the silence, luminosity, privacy of Vermeer’s paintings are nowhere to be found in de Hooch’s nevertheless famous picture.
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Pieter de Hooch, A Mother Delousing her Child's Hair,
Known as Mother's Day, 1660
Vermeer’s women sit in small, closed, tight, often impossibly claustrophobic spaces. The spaces are closed down, especially the one in Woman Reading a Letter. And yet, the space she occupies is simultaneously opened out by the light falling through the window. There is a clarity of vision that enables this simultaneous opening out and closing down of space, through light. It is often remarked that Vermeer is a progenitor of the cinema. It’s not only his use of light to bring an image alive that binds Vermeer to the cinema, but his creation of spaces that both close in on the characters and open out to bring possibility is translated by a director such as Hitchock who simultaneously pulls focus and tracking out to give the cinematic equivalent of this impossible effect in Vertigo.

Lastly, I have to say, I couldn’t quite get over the crowds in the Rijksmuseum. Not that I didn’t expect crowds around the Rembrandts, Vermeers and van Gogh’s, but everywhere, throughout the museum, the visitors were three deep. This is partly to do with the time of the year, but there is something pokey about the rooms even in their restored state. It’s only as I was bathed in the light and details of Vermeer’s exquisite paintings, that there was any possibility of seeing beyond the feelings of enclosure.