Friday, September 30, 2016

Magritte. La Trahison des Images @ Centre Pompidou

See original image
René Magritte, Les Vacances de Hegel, 1958 
This exhibition is superb. I always complain about the blockbuster exhibitions at the Pompidou Centre and after seeing Magritte. La Trahison des Images, I am convinced my complaints are with good reason. Their smaller exhibitions are so much better thought out, more coherent, and like this one, provide an intelligent and innovative approach to an otherwise familiar body of work.

Even though there are various versions of Ceci n’est pas une Pipe and the famous painting is the Pompidou’s focus for a room devoted to the discrepancy between words and things, Magritte. La Trahison des Images convincingly demonstrates that Magritte was not only prolific, but that he did so much beyond this one canonical image. The diversity of images and concerns on display showed just how limited is or was my knowledge of Magritte’s painting (namely its Surrealist sympathies). The thrill of the exhibition is also made possible by the fact that so many of the works have been lent by private collectors, bringing a wealth of unknown images to the French public.

« En 1929, désireux d’affirmer l’égalité entre la peinture et la poésie, René Magritte déclare que “la poésie est une pipe”. André Breton et Paul Eluard s’enchantent eux-mêmes de cette formule. Cette même année, avec “La Trahison des images”, il affirme avec ironie que “ceci, la peinture, n’est pas une pipe, du pipeau, mais qu’elle peut prétendre au même sérieux que les vers de ses camarades”. »
René Magritte, La Trahison des Images (Ceci n'est pas une pipe), 1929
The exhibition is divided into five rooms, each of which is themed. For once the themed organization made sense. Although such curatorial organization usually irritates me, what makes it work for Magritte’s paintings is that his thinking is complex and varied from the start. There is not a chronological development to be traced in thinking or painting across his career. From the beginning he is preoccupied with the representation and expression of philosophical ideas that engage painting and aesthetics. Similarly, as a painter, he doesn’t develop in the way that others do. Indeed, it was interesting to see that even if the works are not particularly painterly, they are always well-painted, and stay that way throughout his career. The exhibition shows that Magritte had a keen sense of composition, color and the behavior of paint on a canvas. This also makes the works somewhat awkward to look at. Before the paintings we are looking at visual puzzles and visual rhymes. So it’s not as though we are looking at a beautiful painting whose magnificence can be contemplated. Nor does anything reveal itself over time. What we see is what we get. Though what we see is rarely transparent.

« C’est un abysse philosophique que Magritte déploie sous nos yeux, illustrant la logique implacable qui associe le début de toute chose à sa fin. »
René Magritte, Variante de la Tristesse, 1957

The four rooms, Words and Images, the Invention of Painting, the Allegory of the Cave, Curtains and Trompe l’Oeil/Composite Beauty each begin from the premise that Magritte was working in response to issues of aesthetics. The exhibition presents his work  as always being in the pursuit of the purpose of art and the primacy of the image over the word, or at the very least, equality. He is also preoccupied with the nature of representation, of the relationship between representation and reality, art and nature. In so many of the paintings, the two are indistinguishable. In a number of them, we see the sea, a landscape, a whole world as it exists behind the painting in the image, and across the same painting within the painting. Is the continuity mistaken? Or is the continuity just the point? That’s where the game begins. 
« En 1936, René Magritte peint un philosophe momentanément distrait de sa méditation sur la flamme d’une bougie. Associée à la lumière d’une bougie, la philosophie en question est celle qui, depuis Platon, discrédite les représentations artistiques du monde. “Les méditations du philosophe maniaque et distrait, un monde mental fermé sur lui-même, comme ici, un fumeur est le prisonnier de sa pipe.” »
René Magritte, La Lampe philosophique, 1936
In spite of the references to Plato, Pliny, classical perspective and representations of the self, Magritte is a painter who is absolutely of his time. Magritte’s conceptions of things and the relationship of painting to the world, his conception of art and representation, of women and the emptiness of their depiction in painting, all of these are truly modern. His interest in still life, the fascination with frames that double as entry ways to the (deception of the) visual world—picture frames, door frames, the abyss beyond/behind the painting and the door—all of which double as the surface of the painting, are modern because they have no interest in a compliance with everyday reality. In addition, all of the relationships he represents are shattered: that between the surface and the value of painting, the object and its image, art and nature, the self and its reflection which, in turn, doubles as the model and the portrait, and the list goes on. When we enter into Magritte’s world of doubt, uncertainty, and the setting free of reason to assume philosophical logic, it feels like nothing is quite as it should be. This, despite its sealed containment on a canvas, within the four sides of a frame.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Rembrandt Intime @ Musée Jacquemart André

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1633

Even if the weather can’t quite bring itself to turn autumnal, the fall exhibitions have now opened. And what better way to start off the season than with a small, “intimate” exhibition of Rembrandt’s painting at the Musée Jacquemart André.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Supper at Emmaus, 1629
As always at this museum, the exhibition on the upper floor gallery is small and crowded but filled with masterpieces. It’s entitled Rembrandt Intime though it’s unclear why this is a particularly intimate look at his work. Innovatively, the exhibition is curated with the museum’s three masterpieces as its focus, and therefore, doesn’t show the history paintings. However, in my eyes, all of Rembrandt’s works are private and intimate. Even The Night Watch (1642) has an intimacy to it because he couldn’t resist putting the people from his life in the portrait of the militia company. And when standing before another public commission such as The Syndics (1662) we feel as though we may have introduced on a private meeting at the Drapers’ Guild. Private or not, some of Rembrandt’s most personal and touching of his paintings are these portraits of his family and friends are among the most.
See original image
Rembrandt van Rijn, Parabole de l'homme riche, 1627
Although I loved seeing certain of the paintings, for example, the Louvre's Supper at Emmaus (1629) and Parabole de l’homme riche (1627), for me the highlights were the generous number of drawings and the portraits together in the final room of the exhibition. The drawings are delightful because in them we see Rembrandt thinking, experimenting, doodling. Beautifully presented, many framed and behind glass, these exquisite metal point and sepia ink and aqua tints capture a force and range of emotions in just a few strokes. Like the drawings of any master, it is with these that we feel closest to Rembrandt.
Rembrandt van Rjin, Portrait du docteur Arnold Tholinx, 1656
Towards the end of his life when the paint becomes looser and he is working with more abstract representations, when the distinction between the figure and the background begin to merge, his palette becomes warmer, the chiaroscuro begins to soften, and the power of the relationship between the artist and sitter is laid out before us. And as Rembrandt steps away from the canvas, leaving it with us, we are invited to connect in powerful ways to the sitter. In their eyes we don’t just see the intensity of why they are, but the soul of the young men and women, his son, lover and friend, as well as the Doctor in Portrait du docteur Arnold Tholinx (1656) is laid bare for us all to experience. These portraits expose a vulnerability of the self that made me feel as though I shouldn’t be looking at them. Even amid the crowds in the small rooms at the Musée Jacquemart André, Rembrandt’s paintings are touching. The exhibition blurb talks about faces being caught in a moment of eternity, but for me, it’s the infinity of the relationship of two souls meeting that makes them feel timeless. And I have to say, as I stood in front of these exquisite and sometimes small paintings that are already 400 years old, I could sense the most profound timelessness in the perfection of paintings so old, and yet so filled with immediacy.  

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Trio (Jannis Kounellis, Arnulf Rainer, Antoni Tàpies) @ Galerie Lelong

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2014
As I wait for the big autumn exhibitions to open in Paris I have been going around some of the smaller galleries, and my pick for the weekend is the small, and sumptuous Trio at Galerie Lelong. It’s an interesting choice to call Arnulf Rainer, Jannis Kounellis and Antoni Tàpies a trio. That said, my one reservation about the exhibition is not always obvious connections between the work of Kounellis and Tàpies, and that of Rainer’s aggressive and dramatic paintings. While both Tàpies and Kounellis are concerned with history and the grand moments that make life painful and require starting again, Rainer’s work is more concerned with himself, the tormented artist. But this is a small disappointment in an otherwise provocative installation.
Antoni Tàpies, Cadira,1983
On the left as we enter the first room, the first striking piece is an untitled work by Kounellis in which ink stained cloth is hung over a steel support. It sets the tone of the exhibition. As in this first piece, the exhibition is bathed in sadness, anger, violence and the residue of trauma. When Kounellis applies paint or ink to cloth or canvas and then places the stained fabric over steel, the steel is softened to the point where it becomes a witness to heartache. And yet, the steel also retains its danger and resilience when the fabric is read like a bandage, the dripping ink interchangeable with blood covering the inflexible steel support.
Antoni Tàpies, Quatre Draps, 1997
The wornness of the materials in exhibition overall i evoke a sadness and melancholy. We see in Tàpies’ Cadira (1983), something like a chair that sits on a pedestal in the middle of the first room. The sense of charred material, incised with a tool, the reminiscence of decay made me imagine the fire or the blast through which this chair has survived. And on Quatre draps (1997), four frayed pieces of fabric that mark the edges of the wooden support covered in what looks like dirt have been attached such that they could be the tape that will turn the front side of the painting into its backside to be put against the wall. We feel the unvisualizeable on the face of the image we do not see. Surrounding the four fragments of fabric, the thick reddy brown surface of mixed media becomes old and ambivalent.
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2014 Installation View
There are always a lot of visual and conceptual associations when looking at Kounellis’ work. The pieces are about art, about trauma, and history, they are about the coming together of art and industry. In a very provocative piece, hessian bags of coal encircle a mound of broken plaster casts of faces and scrunched up newspapers on the floor in the second room. Because Kounellis is as interested in the fabrics of construction as he is in the fabrics of art, this piece invites us to imagine the pain and vulnerability of miners down the shaft in search of these materials that are supposedly in the interests of human comfort and the ease of human life. The piece which resembles the fragments collected by someone after the fact, reeks of hardship, disasters and a trauma that cannot be spoken of.
Installation View with Kounellis' three Untitled, 2014 on the back wall

In my favorite piece/s in Trio, three Untitled Kounellis works from 2014 occupy the farthest wall of the gallery. They are titled and documented as three separate pieces, but it’s impossible not to see them as a triptych hung side by side. Their variations are significant, but their principles are related. Thick black paint is drawn across a white canvas that is mounted on steel. Steel girders, some rusted, some coated are placed on or near the edge of each canvas, once again, reminding us of the inseparability of the material of construction and that of art. And, in all three images, we see Kounellis push both steel beyond its definition as an intransigent material of modern rationalization, and painting as the object of beauty. In the three panels, art and industry bleed into each other, and in turn, with a history of art in which the altarpiece has related the redemptive mysteries of faith. Together with their complex materiality, their multiple symbolic meanings, make these three pieces irresistible.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Andreas Gursky: nicht abstrakt @ Kunstsammlung NRW K20

Andreas Gursky, Rückblick, 2015
It’s difficult to find something new to say about a photographer like Gursky whose work has been so written about. And I am not convinced that I have much to say that I haven’t already said about his work. But neither can I resist the opportunity to mark the occasion of my first experience of Gursky’s work in his adopted town of Düsseldorf. Because I have seen Gursky’s work so often, I was interested in the crowd at Grabbeplatz and their responses to the work.

Andreas Gursky, Amazon, 2016
Andreas Gursky – nicht abstrakt is, as always, a treat. It’s a treat because in spite of its relatively small number of photographs, there are some old favorites, some brand new works, and others that have been re-printed in a different format or different dimensions. So my first reassurance was to note that this is a body of work that is constantly changing. I was also delighted to see how challenged the viewers around me were. They looked a distance, stood up close, asked each other what exactly they were looking at, tried to find human figures and in general, make sense of the image. How did he do that? And before an image of the Amazon (2016), they realized their own consumerist desires were being examined in the photograph. I was heartened by their engagement and their constant questions.

Viewing Amazon, 2016

I saw Rückblick (2015) for the first time and was immediately impressed by its layers of complexity. The enormous photograph shows the heads of Germany’s four living chancellors‑Gerhard Schröder, Helmut Kohl, Angela Merkel and Helmut Schmidt--along the lower edge, sitting before Barnett Newman’s 1950–51 painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Newman’s painting overwhelms Gursky’s image and the figures of the Chancellors, just as it was intended to overwhelm its viewers in 1950-51 when it was first exhibited at MoMA. The possible interpretations of Gursky’s photograph are endless: Newman’s reference to “Man, heroic, sublime” in the title of his painting, or his use of red taken out of context as a strategy to strip away the social constructions and connotations of the Latin meaning of the title (and the power of the four figures), might be the point. Alternatively, Newman’s paintings have a reputation and a legacy in Germany since Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV (1969-70) was attacked soon after it was bought by the German government in 1982. The culprit claimed it was a rip on the German flag and therefore, thanks to its title, deliberately provocative.

Andreas Gursky, Untitled VI, 1997

And then, we can turn to Gursky’s photograph in which these significances become further complicated by the history of the Rückenfigur in German art, photography, and film. The Rückenfigur supposedly overlooks a vast landscape and as viewers we are invited to fall into this re-created space with the viewer in the image. Of course, this becomes ironic when the Rückenfiguren in Gursky’s photograph sit before a Barnett Newman painting. Because it is clearly a painting within a photograph, there is nowhere to fall into, to overlook, to create. In a gesture which could likewise be interpreted in a number of different ways, the right “panel” of the painting, and perhaps the photograph, is joined to the rest of the image with black tape. The tape both repeats the zip for which Newman is famous and which maintains the viewer’s eye on the surface of the painting (and here the photograph). In addition, it isolates Helmut Kohl from the other figures which may be read as a political statement. It reminds us that we are seeing a photograph of a photograph of a painting, that the image exists nowhere but in the image before us, under glass in the Museum. And because the photograph hangs next to Untitled VI (1997), a reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, (1950), we immediately ask questions about authenticity, reproduction, the absence of originals, the value of the photograph as art work, the role of the museum and the artmarket in all of these as they are played out in exhibitions of photography like the one we are seeing.

Andreas Gursky, Les Mées, 2016

I focus on this one photograph in the Andreas Gursky – nicht abstrakt exhibition to illustrate a point. Recently, Gursky has been criticized for trivializing the pursuit of photography, making his images bigger and slicker and with this, the claim is that they have become more superficial and less relevant to the image world in which we now move. However, even if they were bourgeois intellectuals, students and tourists, the visitors who I shared the gallery spaces with were so intrigued by the playfulness, the complexity, ambiguity and impossibility of the images that Gursky created. Which is to say, Gursky may not be saying anything about photography (though I would argue contrary to the critics that he is) but his preoccupations with the role of the image in all its manifestations are as culturally relevant as anyone else working in the medium today.

Images courtesy Sprüth Magers/the Artist