Thursday, May 31, 2018

Delacroix 1798-1863 au Louvre

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830
If you only know two or three paintings by Eugène Delacroix that’s probably because many of his other works, though they are certainly weird and wonderful, are not always focused or interesting. As I discovered at the Louvre’s major Delacroix retrospective this week, outside of Liberty Leading the People (1830) and paintings such as A Young Tiger Playing with its Mother (1830), there are only a few paintings that reach these standards. Delacroix is clearly an artist whose reputation rests on the magnificence of a handful of works and his favour with the right people.
Eugène Delacroix, A Young Tiger Playing with its Mother, 1830-31
As is the case with every exhibition at the Louvre, the retrospective brings together a breathtaking number of Delacroix’s works, and so the size in itself makes the exhibition worth a visit. The breadth of the work also allows us to appreciate the vastness of Delacroix’s concerns, his constant search for commissions, and his willingness to paint whatever is asked of him. Also of interest is the extent to which Delacroix was inspired by writing and writers, poetry from different cultures, criticism and essays. This can be taken both as a way to account for the heterogeneity of his style and the sometimes tenuous connections of his painting to the history of art. The paintings and written documents are presented side by side to convince visitors that Delacroix was as interested in ideas as he was in painting and visual style.
Eugène Delacroix, Self-Portrait in Green Vest, vers 1837
Liberty Leading the People is a painting that people come to the Louvre to see. It’s the most famous allegory of France, a nation built on the people’s toppling of King in 1830, an event for which the painting is a memorial. I was lucky enough to visit the exhibition with some film colleagues who stood in front of Marianne and were in awe at her power and strength. It’s true, she could be a cinematic diva, rising above the historical details around her, and leading her people over the barricade. Marianne is elevated by the mound of bodies as her pedestal, moving forward and up as if to a celestial place not yet discovered. The painting captures an enormous burst of emotion and energy as its whole composition moves simultaneously forward with her coming into the space of the spectator, and upwards towards the top of her tricolor flag. However, as magnificent as she is, the colours of the flag shine resplendent against the greys and brows of the rest of the painting, leaving no question about the real hero of this painting.

Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827
Movement becomes a theme or an attribute that Delacroix explores throughout his career Horses and other animals are seen in vigorous motion, people are either going somewhere, or engaged in an intense burst of outwardly expressed emotion such as the massacre at full throttle in The Death of Sardanapalus. He’s not interested, or maybe he’s unable to paint, the details of faces, hands, gestures, those minutae that give meaning to everyday life. For Delacroix, the kineticism of Marianne in Liberty Leading the People is indicative of his tendency to put every ounce of narrative into speed and movement. I can’t think of another nineteenth century French painter so preoccupied with the energy of life.

Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers in their Apartment, 1849
Even when he paints the intimate subject of women in their boudoir in Morocco, he blows up the image to the size of a history painting. Not only is the scene is painted on a massive 85 x 112cm canvas, but as the twenty-first century viewers, we can’t help wondering about the ethics of Delacroix’s visit to the harem, painting women unveiled, unguarded and some of them quietly reflective. Surely, the unconventionality of his Morocco paintings must have attracted attention in their day? But given that the resultant paintings are among the clearest of Delacroix’s visions, and we are told that he was invited into their boudoir, I had to overlook my twenty-first century prejudices of nineteenth century images. Nevertheless, visitors to the exhibition will be drawn to the fact that Delacroix’s work is at its most exciting when he paints women in various stages of undress and vulnerability. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Tacita Dean, Portrait @ National Portrait Gallery

Tacita Dean, GAETA, 2015
from, Fifty Photographs plus one, 2015

My biggest disappointment with the Tacita Dean triptych at three London galleries was that the first two installations weren’t on for long enough. I sadly missed the Still Life chapter at the National Gallery, and only saw Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in its final week. Even then, I was disappointed not to see all the films, and only managed the rarely screened portraits of Cy Twombly, Merce Cunningham, Claes Oldenberg and David Hockney.
Tacita Dean, Edwin Parker, 2011
Still from 16mm film
Dean’s portrait films are installed in rooms off a central corridor the walls of which are covered with fifty photographs taken of Twombly’s studio in Gaeta, outside Rome. Dean’s photographs reminded me of Sally Mann’s photographic documentation of Twombly’s Lexington studio in Remembered Light. Dean captures the same spaces, surfaces and everyday objects that are the trace of the painter’s life. However, while Mann is interested in the space and the creation of drama through the fall of light in the studio space, Dean turns her camera to the edges; the post-it notes, a plastic bear sitting between books on a shelf, the roll of paper towel as the unused tool of the painter. Another cheap plastic toy rests at the feet of an exquisite Twombly sculpture. Thus the “everydayness” of the artist is emphasized through its juxtaposition with Twombly’s delicate sculptures both in the image and in our minds.
Tacita Dean, GAETA, 2015
from, Fifty Photographs plus One, 2015
Dean continues her exploration of the scribbles of Twombly’s artistic process in Edwin Parker, 2011. In this film, we see the same cluttered Lexington studio that fascinated Sally Mann. If Mann photographed the loss and created a memory of Twombly through the reflections, refractions and rhythms of light shining into the storefront studio, Dean’s film finds the same in the clutter and simultaneous ethereality of the objects that define the painter.
Tacita Dean, Edwin Parker, 2011
Still from 16mm film
At one point in the film, Twombly, his partner and another man all go to the local diner. People familiar with the few writings on Twombly’s life, will know the local diner as the place where Mann meets and builds her lifelong friendship with the artist. In what might strain the limits of the film medium in another filmmaker’s hands, in Edwin Parker, Dean quietly watches Twombly and his friends through the same reflective camera that sees the slow movement of daily life in the studio. And so, the visit to the diner becomes as integral to the process of creativity as is Twombly sitting in his studio with a book of Keats’s poetry resting on his knee.  Edwin Parker captures Twombly in his everyday life, thinking, touching objects, reading, talking. Dean avoids the difficulty of representing art in a different medium by showing  mundane events as key to the execution of the art. We never see Twombly paint or sculpt, but the small movement of his hand on the cover of Keats’s poetry is as intimate and as essential as the application of paint.

One reviewer writing for The Guardian asks what attracts Dean to Twombly, an old man at the end of his career. To me Edwin Parker leaves little doubt that the two share a passion for collecting. In addition, both artists are inspired by the objects in their collections, finding commonality in objects that might otherwise be seen as worlds apart. Commonality comes in colour, the place of an object on a shelf, their textures, or even their oppositionality.
Tacita Dean, Merce Cunningham Performs STILLNESS, 2008
Still from 16mm Film
Dean’s Merce Cunningham portrait is particularly fascinating, It is an experimental installation in which six screens show Cunningham sitting perfectly still in the centre of his New York dance studio. The multiple images, each lasting 5 minutes, are arranged around the room, requiring the visitor to walk between and around the installation, never able to see all in one glance. The many uses of mirrors in portraits throughout the history of art are of course referenced by the film. Dean takes the references further by fragmenting the image and its reflection, removing all sense of an original, and yet, leaving the body of the dancer whole, if static. Dean has always been interested in the translation of images from one medium to another, and here in Merce Cunningham Performs STILLNESS (2008) she adds the layer of tension between the still image of the man whose art is one of motion—albeit a choreographer who resisted the imperative to have a dancer move—and the cinematic image as single frames put into motion through its projection. For this reason, Dean’s love of and insistence on making and projecting her films in 16mm seems to find its reasoning in the portrait and subsequent installation of Merce Cunningham Performs STILLNESS.
David Hockney filmed in his Los Angeles Studio, 2016
Various reviewers and commentators of this chapter of the exhibition triptych claim that Dean challenges the classical definition of portraiture. I am not convinced of this, particularly as none of these critics elaborate on how she might be doing so. It’s true that the films don’t show each artist in full frontal poses, thereby inviting us to study the physical features as offering a window into the soul of the sitter. However, even the portrait in painting has not done this for over a century. And anyway, there are elements of the classical portrait in all of Dean’s films. The props and location in which the artist is filmed shows us everything to do with his identity. In addition, like so many artists, these aging men are not shown painting, but rather, are reflecting, specifically on the objects that inspire them. Through this reflection, there is a sense in which we do see inside the soul. In addition, the movements, objects, locations and time spent with the artist reveal the personality and intention of his work. Even though this is done in perhaps more modern sense, we see painters and their relationship to their work, not necessarily who they were.

All images courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

Friday, May 18, 2018

Paul Pfeiffer, Desiderata @ Galerie Perrotin

Paul Pfeiffer, Three Figures in a Room, (2015-2017)

Paul Pfeiffer is the master of removal. His films and videos always involve a process of removing elements of found media footage, a process that results in whatever has been removed coming to loom larger than ever over what remains.

In the current exhibition at Galerie Perrotin, one of Pfeiffer’s most powerful series, Desiderata, shows footage pilfered from The Price is Right. Pfeiffer has removed the prizes, all sign of money, the sound, and other narrative elements such as the host, the audience and the music. Pfeiffer’s image depicts empty shelves in gaudy colours, flashing lights and other basic structural objects as the object of the contestants’ desire. The result is frightening. We watch people, sometimes in shorts, flip flops and halter tops, at others all dressed up for the occasion, but always short of breath thanks to the excitement and anticipation of whether or not they will win the jackpot. Because the actual objects of desire have been removed, it looks as though the pent up, sometimes frenzied emotions played out on the contestants' bodies in complete silence are a kind of nervous disorder. Pfeiffer’s removal of the objects, leaving the empty scaffolding that incites their desire, exposes the emptiness and futility of our search for wealth.
Paul Pfeiffer, Desiderata, 2017
The images in Desiderata are of all different sizes, some the size of our iphones, others the size of a tablet. The desire of the technological image is everywhere reflected on these streamlined and seductive screens. And so, as I watched the poor contestants anticipating a windfall, I saw myself caught in the circuit of desire that keeps me watching my iphones, waiting for the never ending narrative to finish. The images on display have no narrative, and we have a narrative that doesn’t finish; it’s all the same because in the end both create false promises. This repetition of the emptiness of our desires and their propensity to isolate us in obsessive behavior is a brilliantly captured by Pfeiffer.
Paul Pfeiffer, Three Figures in a Room, (2015-2017)
In another piece, Three Figures in a Room (2015-2017) Pfeiffer digitally removes the sound from footage of the most lucrative fight ever played out at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 2015. We see the fight on one giant screen (the three figures being the two boxers and the referee) while on an adjacent screen we watch foley artists creating the sounds in a studio. The production of the sounds through the use of everyday objects and homemade props is interesting, but once again, what struck me about the installation was the emptiness of the fight. How much of the excitement, anticipation and thrill of what was billed as the fight of the century is actually manufactured by the sound and presentation of the fight on a television screen. Without sound, the fight was tedious and unremarkable. Pfeiffer’s critique of our seduction by the manipulation of the mass media is once again, a very uncomfortable realization for the viewer.
Paul Pfeiffer, Caryatid (Marquez), 2016

In the final installation Caryatid (2003- ), Pfeiffer removes more than just sound. He edits out one boxer from the image, and manipulates the footage down to slow motion. We see the single boxer’s body shaking as it absorbs the shock of the punches it receives. We see the fluid fly from his mouth, the head thrown back, the body deformed in response to the beating it receives from an invisible assailant. The monitors are on the gallery floor, inviting us to contort our bodies in an effort to see closer up, to get a better look at the impact of one man’s animalistic pulping of another. Even viewers who have no interest in boxing will leave questioning their desire to watch, and keep watching, such violent images. For we can't help but watch ourselves watching in Pfeiffer's haunting installation of images.