Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Les Nadars - Un siècle de photographie @ Biblithèque nationale de France

Félix Nadar, Self-Portrait, 1865

Les Nadars exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale Mittérand is wonderful for its evocation of an era. I am slightly—okay, very—fascinated by this period of French history in particular thanks to its inventions and changes that led to the birth of cinema. Understandably, then for me it was a treat, not only to see the development of the medium of photography from the 1850s through to the 20th century, but to see the cultural who’s who and their haunts of the late nineteenth century in Nadar’s images. Like all the inventors of still and moving photographic images, Felix Nadar didn’t just take photographs, he built a whole world around him. Our contemporary idea of the photographer who goes out into the world and takes photos could not be further from the métier of early inventors such as Nadar. He was an entrepreneur, an engineer, a performer, a salesman, a caricaturist, and he managed to pull everyone in his life into the business. Nadar’s wife, brother, friends and eventually his son, were all central to the development of the Nadar name.
Félix Nadar, Charles Baudelaire, 1855
There is a danger that we might look at Nadar’s photographs and see them as conservative portraits of the cultural radicals of the period. His photographs of Baudelaire, Sarah Bernhardt, Mallarmé and others are well known and their reproductions are still in circulation today as most quoted portraits. But a closer look at the portraits in exhibition reveals how involved Nadar was in the use of the photographic image for the creation of star culture. The display text quotes Félix Nadar claiming that there is an intimacy in the images. However, I wouldn’t call it intimacy so much as an immediacy that results from the photographic process. Indeed, there is an immediacy that would have been totally unimaginable before this moment, an immediacy interpreted as intimacy in the portraits’ capture of a fleeting moment in time. For example, a portrait of Alexandre Dumas shows him laughing, caught in an instant, in a posture that would never have been reproduced in a painting. But this doesn’t make it intimate, especially given the emphasis on performance that is clearly alive in this and other images.
Nadar, Victor Hugo on his deathbed, 1875
Others show the sitter posing and performing for the camera, and still other photographs are very carefully staged. For example, Eugène Delacroix sits still and has a very stiff posture in an image that does the very opposite of give away anything of the man’s inner life.  Perhaps in the mid-nineteenth century the portraits expressed intimacy, but through today’s eyes, they are all about a nineteenth-century realism that was the basis of the developing medium. It is a realism that finds its fullest articulation in Nadar’s photographs.

Félix Nadar, Marie Laurent de dos, c. 1856

As the century wears on, and as we move around the exhibition, the photographs show Nadar’s increasing expertise with the manipulation of light. Until the point where Victor Hugo on his deathbed is the most exquisite example of an image crafted through light. Every hair on the corpse’s beard is shot with a clarity given it by the refined and skillful use of a fill light. It is as though the old man is brought back to life by the medium of photography. That said, his use of the medium as an artform begins early on. For example, we think of the radicality of a portrait shot of the sitter from behind, and here in 1856, in the photograph of Marie Laurent de dos, Nadar shoots the most exquisite portrait showing the woman’s bare upper back and neck. It is erotic, suggestive and beautiful.

Nadar Studio @ 35 Boulevard des Capucines, 

Also, on exhibition are the photographs of Nadar’s studios on the Boulevard des Capucines and in the rue d’Anjou, locations that are in the centre of the literary and artistic world of nineteenth-century Paris. The multi-storey atelier at 35 boulevard des Capucines shot from both inside and out is a whole world of discovery and possibility, filled with exotic plants, props, people and stages. Similarly, his early hot air balloons enabling previously unimaginable bird’s eye views over Paris are a discovery for anyone interested in the period. We see his fascination for science, medicine, hot air balloons and railways—Nadar using the camera to engage with all the miracles of his time.
Félix Nadar, Paris, Champ-de-Mars, 1863
Lastly, there are works on display that are treasures in the history of photography in their own way, by his brother and son. Félix Nadar’s son, Paul, in particular, contributed to the developments of the instruments of photography, by producing the apparatus needed to democratize the medium. He designed lighter cameras and less cumbersome processing methods to enable the camera to move outside of the studio and document modern life. But it is Félix Nadar with all his energy, and obvious sense of the importance of his discoveries that steals the show at the BnF.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Orsay par Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel between van Gogh and himself.
I always admire museums that invite contemporary discussions of their historical collections. It seems especially courageous of the Musée d’Orsay to invite an artist such as Julien Schnabel to engage with its collections given that, at face value, his work appears to be derisory of the history of art, particularly when it is a history that is as entrenched as the one we think of being displayed by the Musée d’Orsay.

Théodule Ribot’s Le bon Samaritain, vers 1870
However, after seeing Schnabel’s curation of paintings from the museum’s collections side by side with his own, I realized how quick I am to jump to conclusions about the art in the Musée d’Orsay. Because the Monets, Manets Van Goghs and Courbets find their way on to placemats, tea towels, silk scarves and mouse pads, I think I have seen them all too often. However, these images are poor reproductions that should not be associated with their originals. Indeed, Schnabel gives us a whole new perspective on a number of works by the museum’s celebrated artists. And in this, he offers a new perspective on the works themselves, and along the way, on the history of art, and on historical art.
Carolus-Duran, Le Convalescent, vers 1860
For all the intellectual enlightenment usually associated with the paintings Schnabel has chosen as companions to his own, the visitor to this exhibition will be struck by their emotional outpourings. And to be precise, the emotions are all those of suffering men. There is enormous pain, agony and plain old melancholy in works such as Théodule Ribot’s Le bon Samaritain, (vers 1870) a naked man fallen by the wayside, but not dead. Even the Fantin-Latour still life example on display, Chrysanthèmes dans un vase (1873) is filled with sadness and melancholy. Schnabel places the Ribot’s fallen man next to the extraordinarily moving image of a man who is hurt but not dead in a glorious red bed shirt by Carolus Duran. Above the two images, Schnabel places his own Accatone (1978) mimicking the red, the sick and castrated through limbs in residuum on a nevertheless powerful male torso. In Schnabel’s installation, the history of art has not been kind to ailing men and their sickly—yet powerful—bodies.
Henri Fantin-Latour, Chrysanthèmes dans un vase, 1873
Fantin-Latour’s flowers against a blank background sit together with Courbet’s enormously tender self portrait and Monet’s turkeys. The flowers, perched on the edge of a table from which they might fall, could have also been placed with a sketch by Toulouse Lautrec, Panneau pour la baroque de la Goulue, 1895. The swathes of empty space surrounding figures in motion, watching, performing, sometimes barely outlined, demonstrating Lautrec’s understanding of the richness of a line on a canvas could illuminate Fantin-Latour’s precision in the depiction of space. Indeed, the two artists play between flatness and volume as though the one might have influenced the other. Which is to say, the connections and conversations of the installation run much deeper than those obvious ones given us by Schnabel’s placement of paintings on the wall.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Panneau pour la baroque de la Goulue, 1895
It was unclear to me if Schnabel had chosen to bring the pain and suffering of men, and their consequent tragedy, into the foreground because this is the emotional narrative that best gets to the most profound levels of being human. Put differently, does Schnabel focus on the tragedy of male life for its ability to access something profound about the history of art? Or is he simply drawn to the tragedy of absence, despair and death that he believes weighs on his gender?
Julian Schnabel, Artaud (Starting to Sing Part 3), 1981
Whatever the answer to this question, the power of this small exhibition can be found on a number of levels. Schnabel gives new life to otherwise familiar artworks, inviting us to see their different aspects, in different positions on the walls. And we find new threads between Manet and Velasquez and Goya, all of which are the preface to everything that appears on the modern painting. Ultimately, I came away not only questioning the linearity given to the history of painting by a museum such as the Orsay, but through the odd juxtapositions Schnabel effects, seeing it reinforced.