Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Eva Besnyö. The Sensuous Image @ Jeu de Paume

Eva Besnyö, Untitled, 1931
Eva Besnyö’s photography sits squarely within the international photographic avant-garde of the 1920s, and even more specifically, it communicates directly with the work of her compatriots László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes. Her work has all of the same influences of the German New Objectivity, the post-Revolutionary Soviet Realist film, as well as the French photographic sculpture in light. Like a lot of photographers from this era, forced into emigration and exile by the rise of National Socialism in Europe, as Besnyö kept moving across Europe to political freedom, her photography went through a number of different parallel phases.

Eva Besnyö, Untitled, (Magda, Mátyásföld, Hongrie), 1932
By far the most compelling phase of her photographic output is that done in Berlin and the Netherlands in the early 1930s prior to leaving Germany under the threat of persecution. The Berlin photographs are, like those of her contemporaries, fascinated by shadows, light, the possibilities of perspective, composition, and the social function of compositional choices. All of these concerns are explored on the empty streets of Berlin, giving the city a deserted, but eerily magical quality. When Besnyö moves to the Netherlands, she takes her fascination with the aesthetic as it is carved in light and shadow with her. The images produced into the early 1930s are all very expressive in spite of their foregrounding of composition, and they have a clarity of vision that is only matched by the most skilled photographers of this time. While in Berlin, the urban environment becomes a canvas for artistic experiment when Besnyö gets to the Netherlands, she uses her photographic technique to echo the flatness, stillness and silence of the Dutch landscape. I kept thinking that her use of the medium was the photographic precursor to Mondrian’s early paintings of the Dutch landscape from the same period.

Eva Besnyö, Untitled, 1933
(John Fernhout, Anneke van der Feer, Joris Ivens, Westkapelle, Zeeland, Pays-Bas)
What is striking about the later photographs is the flattening out of the background in her images so that the frame becomes filled even when there is apparently not so much going on in the frame – the beach, water, walls, snow covered (or not) ground, the sky, tiles on a roof become the abstract substance of the photograph. Besnyö then grades the surface of her image and gives texture and an intensity to the surface of the objects and spaces she photographs.

Eva Besnyö, Untitled, 1931
Coalman, Berlin
In keeping with this tendency, people are not so important as human beings. Rather, in an echo of the “sensitivity” in the title of the exhibition, through the images of people we see the sensitivity of the medium, and the gentle, loving carvings in light and shadow that render human figures. The people always turn their back to the camera, or Besnyö photographedf them from behind. The result is that when the figures are more than shadows on a compositional surface, they occupy their own secret world, with very little, if any, connection to the viewer. And if the figures are more defined than a shadow in light there is often something placed in the foreground that screens the world before the camera off from ours as we look into their world. Moreover, in many of the images, especially at the beginning and end of her career, the shadows form a barrier, reinforcing the isolated world of the people in the image. In this quality, she underlines what it is about modernist photography that makes Chamberlain’s photographs sixty or seventy years later, still resiliently modernist: this was an era before there was a concern to establish a connection with a viewer. 

Eva Besnyö, Der Monteur am Ladenfenster, Berlin, 1931

During the 1930s she worked as an architectural photographer and in the 1970s Besnyö used her camera to militate for the feminist movement. These works demonstrate great skill with the camera, but are more rigid, less expressionist in their search to document. And so, it is the expressionist works at the beginning and end of her career that I found so individual, compelling, and ultimately, “sensitive” in their artistic use of the medium. 

All images copyright Eva Besnyö

Monday, August 27, 2012

John Chamberlain, Photographs @ Galerie Karsten Greve

John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1989

I am very familiar with John Chamberlain’s imposing and powerfully present sculptures made of car scrap metal, and had been enchanted by their exhibition at Marfa in Texas when I visited a couple of years ago. But I didn’t know the photographs that he has been making since the 1990s, and yet, he has produced a substantial body of photographic work over the past twenty years or so.

John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1995

Of course, the images are gorgeous. I say “of course” because one of the binding characteristics of the art produced at Black Mountain College where Chamberlain studied briefly in the mid-1950s is the exploration of a certain modernist aesthetic that, in turn, emphasizes the pre-eminence of that same aesthetic. It is true that in the case of minimalist works of artists such as John Cage, Allan Kaprow, or even the not-yet-realized Abstract Expressionism of Rauschenberg, they have pushed the aesthetic into unknown and impossible places, pushed towards removal of all aesthetic ornamentation. However, the work of this generation of artists tends to reinforces the beauty of a modernist aesthetic, albeit a different kind of beauty. Thus, it is not surprising that Chamberlain’s photographs are sumptuous, discrete objects that, within their frame, ask that we stand outside of them and admire their aesthetic exploration.
John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1996
What is innovative and what makes Chamberlain’s photographs exciting is their mode production. He works with a Widelux camera, a fully mechanical swing-lens panoramic camera first developed in Japan in 1948, and used to document rural and urban landscapes. The camera has a pivoting 26mm lens that enables a 126 degree horizontal view: the resulting image can best be described as a representation of time in motion. 
John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1996

In their beauty, distortion and their push towards abstraction, Chamberlain’s photographs reminded me of Cy Twombly’s photographs – another Black Mountain College alumni. There is something painterly and ethereal in the way that the camera and Chamberlain’s process renders light in motion across the scene of a public space, at night, and at times, in broad, bright daylight. At times, in images such as both of the Untitled, 1996 above, light in motion becomes the echo of a brushstroke as it passes eloquently across a canvas. The reminder of Twombly’s photographs aside, the clear progenitors of Chamberlain’s photographs are the Hungarian André Kertesz’s distortions of the female body. That said, the visual coincidence and the visual abstraction of concrete form is all that connects them with Kertesz’s mirrored de-formations. Chamberlain is interested in a more expansive, more public landscape, namely urban environments and locations.
John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1992
In keeping with their pursuit of abstraction, though the photographs  — at least the ones exhibited at Galerie Karsten Greve — are typically taken in urban environments, namely New York City, Paris, they are very much in keeping with what Chamberlain does with the car metal. Like the sculptures, these images come to resemble organic forms and natural worlds: curvilinear distortions that might be water flowing and reflecting, or sunsets reflecting on mirrored lenses. Human beings, often Chamberlain himself, also flow and morph into forms and shapes that have nothing to do with the complications of urban sophistication.
John Chamberlain, 888 Light, 1990
For all of the beauty of Chamberlain’s photographs —and every visitor will be charmed by these images — I am still not convinced that there is anything after the techniques and formal distortions. The colors and manipulation of light are mesmerizing, but the images of New York are not so different from those of Paris, to the point where I wonder if he is not perhaps doing the same thing over and over again? But again, given the clear modernist pursuit of and fascination with the medium and aesthetic renderings, perhaps this is just the point? And, to be sure, I can't think of any other artist who is collapsing the interstice between painting, photography and cinema with quite the same degree of innovation and sophistication. 

All images courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve and the Artist  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reign of Terror, dir. Anthony Mann, 1949

D'Aubigny meets Madelon in Strasbourg having killed Duval
In response to my blog on The Dark Knight from last month, my colleague Peter Stanfield told me “anyone who thinks The Dark Knight has anything to say worth hearing has an enfeebled mind” and instructed me to watch Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror, 1949. As a fan of Mann’s westerns and not familiar with the two historical dramas (Reign of Terror and The Tall Target, 1951) the very turn to the French Revolution as subject matter was a surprise to me. Although Reign of Terror has more redeeming qualities than the latest batman film, I wouldn’t go so far as to hail it as the final word on the French Revolution. Indeed, Mann’s film is as opportunistic in its use of Robespierre as a character as Nolan’s is in its reference to his genre of juridical process.

I wonder, but am not convinced that Mann would have thought he had anything to say about post-Revolutionary France in Reign of Terror. Rather, the subject matter – as most critics would have to agree – is no more than the perfect vehicle for the signature Mann indulgence in an excess of style and the creation of a twisting and turning narrative of suspense. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that Reign of Terror does not seem to have anything at all to do with France, the Revolution, or its post-Revolutionary “reign of terror.” Moreover, the film doesn’t even pretend to be a vision of post-Revolutionary France through Hollywood eyes. If it is about anything — though I am not convinced it is — the film creates a political drama that speaks to the turmoil of the United States at the time of the HUAC hearings that were escalating at the time of the film’s release. The “reign of terror” in the title is prefaced on the possession of a black book with the names of all Robespierre’s enemies , the ones who must be killed for their wont to disagree with his dictatorship – sound familiar? What makes the connection to the mid-century Hollywood blacklist is the absence of any explanation of what those on the list might have done to arouse Robespierre’s ire, other than question his decisions. Even the apparently faithful, but mercurial Fouché is discovered to be on the list.

But as I say, the depiction of the French Revolution and the obvious reference to the HUAC hearings is not what makes Reign of Terror worth watching – 

D'Aubigny's femme fatale, Madelon, in captivity
The film is, in many ways, a narrative of pure form: it becomes about the deceits, mistaken and hidden identities that drive it forward. And what makes it brilliant is that all of its narrative twists and turns as they follow the search for the black book, and then its transfer like a baton between Robespierre and the revolutionaries, and back again, are drawn in the most extraordinary use of light. If Reign of Terror is a film fuelled by double-crosses, not looking, mistaken identities, deceptions, escapes, and instant retribution for those who are held momentarily in the beam of the torch, all of this is communicated through lighting, or more often, the lack of it.

Throughout, the set is cloaked in so much darkness that, rather than racing through the streets of a recognizeable Paris, we are thrust into a claustrophobic, ominous world of unpredictability and threat. The film is also filled with closeups in which the one being looked at cannot be seen, thus creating a whole drama of not knowing, not trusting, not revealing that, once again, is echoed through the use of chiaroscuro. And extreme angles match the excessive lighting, as do the lines and objects that facilitate deception and detection, entrapment in the frame and in the secret passageways of Robespierre’s headquarters. Who is in the shadows, who can’t be seen, who is behind a curtain or an invisible door? Who is really someone else? Who looks like someone else, but is really who they say they are –all of it is enabled by the lighting. 
Robespierre at his desk
To give just one example, D’Aubigny, the revolutionary hero who will save the day, poses as Duval, a prosecutor with blood on his hands from Strasbourg, who D'Aubigny kills before appropriating his identity to get close to Robespierre. And D'Aubigny's only mask is the shadow cast over his face when he meets an old lover who can bring him to Barras, the one man who can stop Robespierre assume the seat of dictatorial power. And again and again throughout the film, D’Aubigny will escape the clutches of the psychopathic Robespierre because he has the camera and the lighting on his side, which in this film means, turned away from him. 

I am not sure why Peter told me to watch the film, but I am sure that in its extreme and sometimes brilliant uses of light and lighting, Reign of Terror reaches towards a baroque parody of film noir even before the classical period has run its course. Which, unlike, The Dark Knight, makes Reign of Terror ahead of its time.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Gerhard Richter, Panorama au Centre Pompidou

Gerhard Richter, Cage I, 2006, 897-1
Having been really excited by the major retrospective at the Tate Modern, I anticipated disappointment when it moved to the Centre Pompidou. Indeed, in its new installation, the organization of Panorama is not only disappointing, but problematic. Though the exhibition begins in chronological order, by room 3 or 4, it becomes simultaneously chronological and thematic, thereby claiming that the Richter oeuvre develops thematically. For example, by the time we get to the large abstract paintings, the hanging of Panorama at the Centre Pompidou would want us to believe that in the late 1990s, Richter is only painting oversized abstract canvases. And as was the most resounding revelation of the hanging of the same exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, albeit with some variance in the paintings on display, this could not be further from the reality. In reality, Richter has always privileged the reinvention of painting. And he has done this via the interrogation of its interface with photography, with architecture, theatre, sculpture and other arts, on the uncertain relationship between representation (painting) and reality. In turn, these concerns have always been explored on multiple canvases at any one time, on canvases that are big or small, through abstraction and figuration, in vibrant color, in the subtlety of grey, with giant squeegee or brush, with all manner of variation. What matters for Richter is not whether the painting is abstract or figurative, large or small, red or grey, what matters is the problem of how to perpetuate painting.

Gerhard Richter, Cage II, 2006, 897-3

The hanging of one series of paintings in particular bothered me. I know Cage I-VI (2006) well having visited the six paintings numerous times in their home institution of the Tate Modern. In their exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Cage I-VI were placed in line along a single wall isolated from each other, as though they are happy to exist as discrete images. Simultaneouly, the space between them and the temporary viewing spaces opposite was crammed: it was virtually impossible for the viewer to stand back and be in conversation, or to establish a connection with each of the paintings. Like all of Richter’s series, Cage I-VI is a community of paintings, and perhaps more so than any series other than the Bach I-IV (1992), the Cage paintings behave something like a family.

Gerhard Richter, Cage III, 2006, 897-3
Their home institution of the Tate Modern exhibits Cage I-VI on the four walls of one room. When I stand surrounded by the Cage paintings in London, I am immersed in the middle of a community of paintings, and I watch them interact with each other, primarily on the level of their grey surfaces. I engage less with them individually, than I watch them engage with each other. Together, they create the tone and temperature of the room – cool, refreshing, light. As an ensemble, they make me feel light, bright, carefree.
Gerhard Richter, Cage I-VI, 2006 @ Tate Modern
In their current exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, they are quieter, more somber, somehow more intellectual in their progression from light to darkness. Their placement in line, on one wall underlines their aloofness and their refusal to be understood. When they line a single wall, the invitation to be immersed in the world they create is withdrawn, the symphonic rhythms and vibrations give way to a battle with what distracts our attention in the temporary exhibition spaces behind us. And as Cage I-VI withdraw, they lose their command over the viewer, their stoicism and resolve. In line on a wall, gone are their symphonic and atonal rhythms that I experience when they surround me in London. 

Gerhard Richter, Cage I-VI, 2006 @ Tate Modern
On my visits to Cage I-VI at the Tate Modern, the room has always been, appropriately, empty and silent. The crowds are usually upstairs at the temporary exhibition, drawn in by the publicity of the importance of the occasion, with no need to wander the halls of the permanent collection. At the Tate Modern, I am reminded of the pregnant silences and emptiness of the paintings’ namesake, and of the orchestral sounds they produce when they come together. The exhibition of Richter’s paintings in Paris has drawn big crowds, and their relationship with each other, as well as mine with them were interrupted, broken off by the movements, pauses and comments of the other visitors.

Gerhard Richter, Cage I, 2006, 897-4
As we walked to dinner afterwards, I hesitantly asked James what he thought of Richter’s paintings — not this exhibition, but the oeuvre itself. I knew James wouldn’t respond with a simple “it’s great” or “I liked it” which was why I asked him; I need to know that Richter continues to challenge and excite, especially for someone who is a relative newcomer to the oeuvre. And indeed, he asked me “where is the doubt in Richter’s paintings?” With a smile of relief I was able to reflect that this is what makes Richter great: as a painter, he has no doubt. He paints in the utmost confidence, without ambivalence and possessed by the knowledge that what he is doing matters. Moreover, Richter’s own certainty of his process and of what he is doing allows him and his paintings to embrace the uncertainty of what will be and is realized when he puts paint onto a canvas. There is so much in these paintings that cannot be controlled, but Richter’s confidence and mastery of the material enables him to sit comfortably with the unforeseen, the ineffable of a painted canvas, and the unpredictability of what will happen when we stand before that canvas.  
Gerhard Richter, Cage V, 2006, 897-5
So for all my doubts about the hanging of paintings such as the Cage series at the Centre Pompidou, James' question reinforces that clearly, it’s still worth going to Panormain its Paris installation. If the paintings still have the capacity to provoke such a question, then we still have much to learn from them, even in spite of how they are exhibited.

Gerhard Richter, Cage VI, 2006, 897-6