Saturday, April 22, 2017

Josef Koudelka, The Making of Exiles @ Centre Pompidou

Josef Koudelka, Ireland, 1976
The exhibition of a series of Josef Koudelka’s photographs at the Centre Pompidou focuses very intently on what it means to be in exile. How to define an exile? It’s a question I have thought about for over 30 years. I was raised in a middle class suburban oasis where the closest thing to political upheaval was the queen’s dismissal of the Prime Minster, and where war was practiced on the parade ground by the university regiment. I left an apparent paradise by choice. I have always thought of myself as an exile, geographically removed from any place I could call home. But others would say that’s ridiculous, exiles have no choice. But even if we are not fleeing war or dictatorship, famine or poverty, sometimes what looks like a choice, is a necessity. La fabrique d’exils confirms my self-understanding as exile.

Josef Koudelka, France, 1980

The Czechoslovakian, Koudelka wandered around Europe in the 1970s and found a world in exile, not just people displaced. The photographs themselves exquisitely portray not belonging through light and shadow, mainly throught the overwhelming coldness of shadow, the sparsity of the background, the solitude of the human figures. As he travelled, Koudelka found poverty even where there was none in Europe: in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, France. In images of shadows on the Paris cobblestones that another photograph would make romantic, the cropping of the image at the legs of the human figures empties out the humanity and leaves everyone alone with his shadow as he walks in different directions.

Josef Koudelka, France 1987

There is also a silence and a stillness to a continent better known for its congestion, intensity and noise. In the many shots filled with snow, the stark whiteness made by the weather also expresses a passing of time, in a familiar world seen from a different perspective. The snow photographed, is example of how even the weather makes for a Europe in exile: Koudelka represents the sumptuousness of light and shadow on stark white snow made visible literally in the grain of the image, thus giving texture to exile. Shadow in some images becomes the substance, and not just at the end of day. An image of hard shadows in Italy next to a worn piece of fabric in closeup makes shadows violent, the torn fabric striated by its own tears.

Josef Koudelka, Gypsies, 1975

For someone photographing exile and nomadism, there’s an ironic focus on place. Every photograph is given a title and every title consists of the country where it is taken. This complicates their curiosity because we don’t recognize, Spain, Romania, Yugoslavia, Italy or England in any of the images. The Europe Koudelka discovered is poor, empty, fragile and filled with sadness. And because this is what he is looking for, the images could be taken anywhere, and yet, he insists on naming their location. I know this: home becomes even more important when there is no home, when home is a place we cannot go.

Josef Koudelka, Autoporträt, 1986

And in an addendum to his photographs of the exiles, there are a series of previously unpublished images of Koudelka himself. When he was sleeping rough with the gypsies, on friends’ floors, park benches and under a solitary tree, Koudelka found home wherever he went. Home was where he lay for the night in his sleeping bag. And this I have found to be true as well: as exiles, we make home wherever we are, but also, find it inside of us, away from any physical place that might give us meaning. These photographs and the Europe they represent capture a concept of exile that is defined by the metaphysical place-less-ness experienced by those who leave, irrespective of the reason why. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Vermeer, et les Maîtres de la Peinture de Genre @ Le Louvre

Johannes Vermeer - Woman Holding a Balance - Google Art Project.jpg
Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1664
Unfortunately, the defining aspect of this exhibition is the crowds. I have never seen hoards of this magnitude at the Louvre before. So the first thing I have to say about Vermeer, et les Maîtres de la Peinture de Genre is that if it’s Vermeer’s paintings you are interested in, I would suggest a tour of Europe’s major museums bookended by the National Gallery in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum. Because while the dozen or so Vermeer’s on display here are exquisite, getting close to the small, intimate images is virtually impossible.

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Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer, 1668
However, in usual Louvre style, the exhibition is remarkable and there are other reasons to wait in line. Not only are the Vermeer paintings beautiful, but the exhibition opens up to the world of Delft in the 17th century, and the wealth of genre painting in Vermeer’s midst. Vermeer favorites such as Woman Holding a Balance (1664), The Milkmaid (1659) , The Astronomer (1668) and others are shown in their contemporary environment of works by Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen, Frans van Mieris, Gerard Dou, Nicolaes Maes and others. Usually in exhibitions of this kind, the works by contemporaries pale in comparison to the master whose name is all over the publicity material. Here that is definitely not the case. The contemporaries seemed to me to be as significant as Vermeer, and we are treated to a glimpse of the rich world of 17th century Delft painting. Needless to say, there was no crowding around the lovely works of Vermeer’s contemporaries.
Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker, 1669-71
Perhaps most surprising is what we learn about the artistic world in which Vermeer was working. He was certainly no genius working in a vacuum; everyone was painting lacemakers, women with love letters, astronomers and geographers. Moreover, the exact same iconography is used by all of the contemporary painters. With regards to the content and iconography, there is nothing original in Vermeer’s work. Maps and globes are everywhere to signal the dawn of the age of travel and modernity, it was common to show women alone in pursuit of their activities, as it was to see music lessons, marriage propositions and curtains pulled back on intimate scenarios.
Samuel van Hoogstraten, View of an Interior, or The Slippers, 1658
So what is it about Vermeer’s delicate and intimate portraits of every day people doing everyday things that has the Louvre filling up like a football match 350 years later? It’s probably a number of things, including the glimpse into women’s intimate lives, seeing them in quiet reflection, tenderly working the lace, or playing a lute. These works evoke a rare calm that transports us as viewer into the eternal presence of the scenes. They offer a meditative reflection, away from the clamour of history painting, and the grandness of 17th century narratives. However, with the exception of Samuel van Hoogstraten’s layered spaces that evoke rather than depict human activities, all the works in this exhibition could be said to embrace the viewer with their calmness. It's not unique to Vermeer's works.
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Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1667-68
This question of what sets Vermeer apart pursued me around the exhibition. There is his use of color, particularly the signature blue and yellow, which are not so vibrant on other painters’ canvases. Then again, the silks of, for example, Gerard ter Borch’s, Gallant Conversation (1654) or Eglon van der Neer’s Lute Player at a Virginal (1669) are sumptuous and shine in different ways. But what Vermeer does that none of his contemporaries come near is in the nuances of the light. In juxtaposition, we see light falling through windows and gently embracing the woman as she prepares to weigh her jewelry, or holds her pearl necklace to the light as she reflects on her thoughts in Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1662-65). In other paintings of the same genre, the light tends to be more even, and typically harsher. 
Gerard ter Borch, Gallant Conversation, 1654
A lot of effort is made by critics to debate what the women in Vermeer’s paintings are doing, who they are, what class they belong to, and what the narrative that surrounds them entails. On floors strewn with slippers – belonging to both genders – men offering women oysters, or a music lesson, birds in cages and pearl earrings, critics discover adultery, grief, pregnancy out of wedlock, and unrequited love. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter what the paintings represent. What matters is that we are not sure, that there is always a haze of uncertainty cloaking the figures and the objects with which they share the frame. All we can be sure of is in the movement of the light, the mood, the meaning and the emotions it expresses, Vermeer's depictions become sublime. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Cy Twombly, Orpheus, Gagosian Paris

Cy Twombly, Veil of Orpheus, 1968

Gagosian’s exhibition of a selection of Cy Twombly’s works on paper and canvas that focus on the figure of Orpheus is difficult to write about. It’s difficult because the works evoke a sense of mystery and awe in the visitor that doesn’t adequately translate into words. These paintings are about space and silence, about the fullness of white, and cream, and the places on the canvas where paint or markings don’t appear.  In them we see thinking and painting come together, to create space, to create a canvas or an image that is no more than space and colour rethought. We might be tempted to assert that the void of death—or maybe separation—as it is told by the myth of Orpheus is everywhere here, not in the markings on the background, but in the white, cream and off-colour background as foreground, as the substance and meaning of the image.  And then I am reminded that to isolate meaning is not the point of Twombly’s paintings.
Cy Twombly, Orpheus, 1979

The colour of the ground is like a stain on the canvas, so subtle it could even be mistaken for the dye of aging. Off- white weeps over this canvas, tears falling across the face of the stone-like surface. Again and again, the moment on a painted canvas that appears to be when Twombly changed his mind, and he painted over the blue, or the green, or the red, with white, creates density, texture, history and intrigue in the image. And through these apparent changes of mind we suspect a layering of stories, of time, of space, coming together on every level of the canvas. Then again, the most significant moment of all, that which becomes the pivot around which everything turns is what might be a mistake or a smudge, made by the left over paint on the artist’s hand as he brushes it across the image. History would then be an accident. And then there are the paper images on which Twombly has written in pencil, words, like “NONSTOP,” “set time” or perhaps it is something else, I cannot read. A line is drawn, its measurements taken, though we know from Twombly’s other very famous Treatise on the Veil paintings, that measurements mean nothing, there is no scientific understanding of anything in these images.
Cy Twombly, Orpheus, 1968
Orpheus, the mythical archetype representing the artist and the creative process, must be important for his name is the title or the cycle. The cycle of paintings is, we suppose, a portrait of Orpheus, though there is nothing that represents his story in the substance of the image. We see an “O,” sometimes completed and at others still open, and we can discern the name spelled out sometimes, but that’s as far as it goes.
Cy Twombly, Orpheus, Installation View
Works on Paper @ Gagosian, Paris

The works on paper are exquisite; little drops of paint, their oily constitution staining the paper in a way that looks random, but we know from a familiarity with Twombly’s oeuvre must be extremely precise. A red, uneven letter “E” floats above the drops of paint, separated from its friend, a few soft red lines, falling faintly across the bottom of the picture. On another work on paper, a brown line that might once have been an arrow has been erased, and then reinscribed, on top of the layers of lines that didn’t get resurrected. Orpheus is written above it as if in another change of mind, a decision to name him afterall.

Orpheus, Installation View @ Gagosian, Paris
Rilke must also be important because his 55 sonnets devoted to Orpheus were the apparent inspiration for Twombly’s cycle. And the same myth inspired the French composer Pierre Henry’s The Veil of Orpheus. The music represents the tearing of the veil, in turn a representation of Orpheus’ loss of Eurydice. The tearing of the cloth is so easily transposed by our minds looking for meaning, for something to hold onto, even when it isn’t there. We see the torn veil in the form of Twombly, the artist’s presence on the surface of the canvas in the working and reworking of the paint. The line that falls, more deliberate than the tears, must be from Rilke. But it is not; Twombly might be inspired by Rilke, but he would never translate his poetry.
Cy Twombly, Orpheus, 1968
Twombly’s cycle of paintings is also about landscape. This is a recent revelation, had only when I saw the paintings in the retrospective at the Pompidou. The quietness, the everyday, the infinity of the vision, the ephemerality and the ethereality of the colour and representation are qualities that can really only ever be found in nature. The delicacy of touch that is the brush or the pencil of Cy Twombly must surely speak to the mystery of nature. The colour on the canvas can be so delicate that when in search of a resemblance, only air could come close. There is nothing man made about them. And I want to connect them back to that mysterious Virginia landscape that was all around him, that surrounded his life in the American South as it is so spectacularly captured in the photographs of his friend Sally Mann. Ultimately, though, I don’t know how to interpret the lines, or the joins in the canvas, or even the ground that interrupts and interferes with their trajectory. Maybe they are the tears again, the colour of a painting as it weeps for its unending unknown journey?

All Images Copyright Twombly Foundation