Friday, December 13, 2019

El Greco, @ Grand Palais

El Greco, An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool, 1577-79
Having tried unsuccessfully to see the El Greco exhibition at the Grand Palais on several occasions, only to find it was closed thanks to the general strike, I conceded and saw Toulouse-Lautrec, which was a pleasant, if somewhat exhibition. The El Greco around the corner is, however, magnificent.

The exhibition seeks to create a new narrative around El Greco’s work, departing from the often attributed stereotypes—the mystical genius, accursed artist, ascetic lunatic, early pioneer of Cubism and Expressionism. Instead, the Louvre and the Art Institute of Chicago have curated the works by placing them within their historical moment. The wall texts and hanging are done to identify the influence of Michelangelo on the Greco-Spanish artist’s work, as well as his apparent influence by the Renaissance. There is constant mention of his influence by Tintoretto as seen in the Venetian reds and blues, his particular use of light and shadow, and though there is little mention of it, the obvious influence of luxurious Venetian fabrics. There is also a conviction in the display of El Greco’s copy of Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists with notes in the margins as proof of his commitment to art history.
El Greco, Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino, 1609-1611
For all these efforts, it’s difficult to see El Greco as anything other than an individual who pursues his inner most convictions. The portraits are like nothing else being painted in his midst. The now familiar the loss of perspective coming as early as the 1570s marks his portraits as unlike anything in Rome or anywhere else in Italy. It becomes evident that El Greco’s fascination for capturing ephemeral human soul, creating the the outward expression of internal states, beliefs and morals is what makes his work so unique. But given this individuality, it’s impossible not to see the beginnings of the twentieth century expressionist vision in these canvases.
El Greco, Saints Peter and Paul, 1605-08
Particularly striking is the extraordinary pain and agony of the figures. Thus, even in the religious commissions, El Greco is shown to be more interested in the inner emotions than he is in the biblical narrative. In these paintings with religious figures, the iconography saves him from having to give the narrative details, and instead, to focus on the emotions and relations between characters through the intricacy of their hands. In among the sumptuous clothes of Saints Peter and Paul, what matters is their exchange as it is captured in the reciprocity of their hands, particularly their openness to each other following their dispute.
El Greco, Saint Peter and Saint Paul, 1590-1600
Of course, there are elements in El Greco’s paintings that are unmistakably influenced by the Renaissance. Perhaps the most striking element of the works on display is the use of fabrics. The fabrics frame each figure, dwarfing the figure, cutting the figure off from everything around him, and sometimes her. One gets the sense that if he could have, El Greco would have painted entire canvases of abstract colour fields. The fabrics of the coats and robes are El Greco’s exploration of the folds of fabric, often up close being filled with a multitude of different colours. So often, the fabrics are the most important elements in the image. In addition, the fabrics are not given realistic proportions. All that matters is the expression of the face and hands and then the composition as it is effected through fabric. The backgrounds tend to fade out or comprise a dark grey, rendered minimal and unnecessary to the fullness and power of the moment being painted.
El Greco, Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation, 1585
In an exquisite painting of St Francis Kneeling in Meditation, 1595-1600, El Greco brings together his obsessions with cloth, hands and light. No reproduction can do justice to the way that St Francis’s tender face is gently illuminated by the light of the crucifix. It creates a closed and intimate world, giving us an opportunity to see the deeply personal moment in which St Francis is entirely caught. In the very famous An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool, 1577-79, the light from the candle not only illuminates the scene, but brings the three figures together in a private, perhaps secret activity. It’s this feeling of intimacy that El Greco is able to create, even when he is painting an allegory, that sets his paintings apart. The works are always about something much larger than the figures, but at the same time, they are closed, private worlds. This complexity makes his works extraordinary.  As he continues in his career, the private moments transform into moments of transcendence for the figures. They are always everyday people who are both of the world and ethereal beings.
El Greco, The Pietà, 1587-1600
I sensed the presence of a master as I wandered around this relatively small exhibition, an overwhelming presence that makes it challenging to articulate just how powerful the works are. I have never seen religious commissions and public portraits made to be quite so tender, emotionally subtle, and breathtaking in their realism. And yet, as his works become increasingly mannerist, the elongation of the figures and the distortion of the figures also makes them increasingly abstract. This abstraction is indeed identifiable from the beginning. The proportions of the body are already off in the portraits, the long fingers, skewed angles, the small heads and, for example, Paravicino’s massive book.

Lastly, El Greco’s oeuvre is extremely painterly. From the beginning, we find a pronounced brushwork on the canvas, often in his representations of light. Similarly, paint is used liberally to communicate the turmoil around El Greco. The enormous energy of crowds of people on small canvases stuffed with figures, giving each image a sense of urgency.  Beyond the brushwork, the depiction and use of light, and fabrics, the painterliness is also found in El Greco’s fascination for color. Of course, his Italian ancestors and Spanish contemporaries are also interested in color, but it is not put to quite the same ends.


Monday, December 9, 2019

Antony Gormley @ Royal Academy, London

Antony Gormley, Iron Baby, 2019
What I love most about Antony Gormley’s works is the material from which they are made:  steel. Even though little is written about the significance of his use of steel as a medium, it must be no coincidence that Gormley chooses a material that has enabled every form of modern transport, industrial and economic power, wealth, world wars and eventually the Holocaust. Gormley doesn’t make overt reference to any of the uses of steel in the twentieth century. In fact, as we see in this current exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, he turns the material against itself, throwing it into a whole new playing arena. He uses steel to create a playground in which museum visitors get to experience art, their bodies and their selves in ways at odds with its more conventional experience within modernity and the museum.
Antony Gormley, Clearing VII, 2019
Installation View
Inside the courtyard, we can be forgiven for stumbling over the cast Iron Baby. Those who do stop to examine the piece are asked to begin questioning all that they know about art, about the Royal Academy, about courtyards and babies. My first response was to bend down and look at Iron Baby, its face to the ground, legs and arms tucked under its tiny body. My impulse was to bend down and see if it needed help, to rescue it. This call to our emotive response as a way to connect with his sculptures is typical of Gormley’s art. I had so much fun watching people engage with the casts of Gormley’s naked body, scattered around the floor, walls and ceiling of the room titled, Lost Horizon. The works draw visitors because they are human in scale, form and posture, only to disappoint because they are inhuman in their material of cast iron and their ability to defy gravity. It’s the human in them and the human in us that come together as Gormley transgresses the structural imperatives of the museum. But it is the vulnerability of the baby, and even more so of the Slabworks that I makes them intellectually challenging, throwing us back on our desire to come close. The Slabworks are not even given human form. They are slabs of weathering steel, put together to give the impression of a human form. One piece lies on its side, apparently in agony – or perhaps it is dreaming – another leans against the wall, as if waiting for a light, one is perfectly supine, perhaps about to be delivered inside a full body scan because it is sick. We attribute human characteristics and emotions to steel, this most intransigent and unrelenting of materials. And then, having stepped back as we recognize their inhumanness, the figures arouse our emotions, as though they are reaching out to touch us.
Antony Gormley, Slabworks, 2019
The quality for which Gormley’s work is perhaps best known, is its transformation of spaces – making the gallery into a fun park if nothing else. The piece in this exhibition that most brilliantly does this is Clearing VII (2019) in which something like 8km of aluminum tube becomes a knotted mess, filling the entire volume of one room. The radicality of the work is again in the way that it transforms the gallery space. It fills the negative space of the room, pushing visitors to the edges, challenging us to navigate our way to the door on the other side of the space. We duck and bend, contort our bodies as we try to avoid stepping on the aluminum – because as good museum visitors we have been trained not touch the art work. Of course, the getting lost inside the maze of steel is just the point. There is nothing to see here, nothing to look at because it is just one big steel mess. Instead we have an experience, like that of an obstacle course to navigate. We meet sculpture that pushes us out of the way. The steel is uniform, unyielding, though it can be very beautiful in the light. Other of Gormley’s works are anything but beautiful.
Antony Gormley, Matrix III, 2019
Installation View
I hesitate to say that in this exhibition there is nothing to look at. Particularly because even though the works are about us, about our physical and emotional experience in the art gallery, together with art, they are often challenging our vision. Whether it is the interconnected lattice of squares and frames in Matrix III (2019), or the dark cavernous space of Cave (2019), we are called to see the world differently, to be deceived and to have our illusions removed from before our eyes. And Gormley is contributing to the new world in which we are living by rendering steel as human, steel as our shining light through the mass of what we thought we knew, but by turning all that inside out, we discover we didn’t know. According to Gormley, knowing nothing, is at the heart of our deception.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Hans Hartung, La Fabrique du Geste @ Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Hans Hartung, Untitled, 1955
Like many artists, Hans Hartung spent his first decades with the paint brush copying and emulating the work of other great painters. Visitors to this exhibition will note the influence of the Cubists—both painters and filmmakers—they will see Kandinsky in the lines, the modernist move away from all depth. Only in the 1930s did Hartung find his own rhythms and language of painting.
Hans Hartung, Untitled, 1935
The evidence of his interest in line is present from the beginning. The early work witnesses Hartung’s search through calligraphic forms. He can be seen on the canvas looking for expression in the black line, organization in the chaos, and control of the disorder in all that is going on around him during the years of World War Two. For me, these works made during World War Two when he was a soldier are among his best. The paintings come at the moment when we see him reject all form in preference for creating his signature style of paintings without depth. His fascination with repetition and reproduction, seen from the beginning, also blossoms in this period. Hartung also begins his move away the surface of painting, consciously introducing precision and a sense of flatness to the image. Even though they look to be spontaneously executed, these paintings are fastidiously designed.
Hans Hartung, Untitled, 1947
During the war years, Hartung begins to experiment with lines without beginning and end, entangled, creating a drama on the canvas. A film by Alain Resnais in the exhibition claims that the paintings are about the disorder of our time, the dislocated world in which Hartung was living, from which he was exiled to France. Resnais demonstrates that Hartung’s works are about the anxiety of all men, the pessimism of humankind in this moment, the most difficult of all in the twentieth century. To be clear, Hartung’s paintings are not about the individual, about Hartung, but the “current tragedy of humanity.”
Hans Hartung, T1966-K40, 1966
After the war, Hartung reaches his most exciting and interesting period of production. He paints lines that look like palm trees, works that are his most well-known, particularly for the luminosity of the background that makes them mysterious. There is a quietness in the way that the painting approaches the object on the canvas. These works have a beauty that emerges from the interaction between figure and ground. The shapes in the background, they never touch the sides of the frame, but are left floating in the center. And even when the shape is odd, it is suspended and centered.

There is something very photographic about these paintings. Extremes, opposites of light and dark, black and white, circular and straight lines, adding and subtracting paint, a constantly churning energy continuing on the canvas. In the 1970s, Hartung goes all out, still exploring, reminding me of Yves Klein's work, though what’s striking is the visualization of energy in the work of a man with no leg. A broken body creates these enormous paintings that are striving for a view of the universe from another galaxy, as a unified whole. 
Hans Hartung, 1986-E16, 1986
Towards the end of his life, Hartung starts using different techniques. Grattage, aerosol, different media, searching for the ultimate gesture to achieve the removal of depth. He becomes spiritual, the paintings becoming bigger, and he claims to be exploring the tensions of the  universe and cosmic forces. I wanted so much to see the mastery in these later works, but they were a baroque version of his previous paintings. It’s as though the spray gun allowed him to overcome his physical disability of a missing leg, enabling him to move beyond the gestural use of paint that is so dependent on the body. But this striving took over from the avid modernist adventure that characterizes the earlier work.