Saturday, December 29, 2018

Picasso: Bleu et Rose @ Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Pablo Picasso, Autoportrait, 1906
Picasso is like Mozart; we think we know his work inside out. But in reality, we have seen a handful of paintings and drawings reprinted ad infinitum, quoted by other artists, bandied about, and then, often given a bad rap – even by me. For this reason, I resisted going to the Picasso: Bleu et Rose exhibition, currently on at the Musée d’Orsay for months. And now, I am dismayed at having taken so long to get there. The exhibition is magnificent, challenging all of the platitudes and assumptions that have circulated for years about Picasso's work. Even though the exhibition's focus is narrow—1900 – 1906—the period when Picasso was looking for his identity as a painter, these years tells us so much more about his prolific career as a painter who changed the way we see the world. In the huge display of works from all over the world at the Musée d'Orsay, we see the twentieth century master’s thinking evolve, from painting to painting, from idea to idea, across these productive and creative six years.
Pablo Picasso, Arlequin et sa compagne,  1901 
Pablo Picasso, La Buveuse d’absinthe, 1901 

These years, 1900 – 1906, when he came to Paris for the first time, were a period of experimentation and exploration for Picasso. Intriguingly, he actually visualizes his own search for identity as a painter in the works. He is repeatedly present in the form of a hand, a paintbrush, a palette or as we often see in his photographs of people visiting his studio, in the form of one his own paintings in the background. Alternatively, paintings such as Femme en chemise (Madeleine), 1905 show Picasso thinking on canvas. If we are to see the ambiguous shape of the woman's left arm indicates a change of mind as Picasso covers over and starts again. The many drawings, inks and drypoint sketches from the period also show Picasso thinking, preparing, resolving, putting not yet fully formed ideas on paper. 
Pablo Picasso, Femme en chemise (Madeleine), 1905
Because I am a guilty feminist, I have always believed that Picasso’s obsessive and often objectifying focus on the female body was somehow derogatory to women. Certainly, many of his portraits are of women, and he doesn't hold back from revealing their intimate body parts. However, again and again in this exhibition we see an artist obsessed with form and shape and their technical composition. The body as an erotically or sexually charged object seems to be secondary to his thinking. This reaches a crescendo in works such as Arlequin et sa compagne (1901) or the Hermitage Museum’s La Buveuse d’absinthe (1901) in which the length of the arms, the pose of the contemplative sitter and the otherwise grotesque hands are rendered in the interests of an enclosed sculptural form. In addition, the work's colour palettes are often determined, not by an emotional theme, but as a way to bring the modernist play on surface and perspective to the fore.
Pablo Picasso, Pierreuses au bar, 1902
This enclosure of the body by the hands out of proportion in La Buveuse d’absinthe is also a characteristic that we see from the beginning to the end of Picasso’s career. In such works, the elongated arms, bodies with sallow faces and meditative eyes are clearly indebted to El Greco. Certainly, the blue palette, the withdrawn figures and the resultant sense of transcendence that pervades these figures can only be explained through reference to El Greco. However, whereas El Greco distorts the body for religious or fantastical purposes, for Picasso the same figures are realist expressions of their contemporary isolation. 
Pablo Picasso, La Célestine, Barcelone, 1904
El Greco is not the only artist who influences Picasso’s work. In fact, in his search for a style he looks everywhere. In his paintings, visitors will see Cezanne’s uses of perspective and thick impasto brush strokes, van Gogh’s crazy lines, Toulouse Lautrec’s cartoonish caricatures of women he finds in the bars and clubs of Paris, the introspection of Manet, and the style of Monet. In the later works in the exhibition, we also recognize Ingres and his fascination for women, particularly seen from behind, in the bath houses. Similarly, in Picasso's paintings of women on the street, the impoverished, and imprisoned, we see Daumier’s social realist cartoons. Indeed, Picasso doesn't leave all this behind until he begins his cubist work from 1907 onwards.
Pablo Picasso, Toits de Barcelone, 1903
I haven’t yet said anything about blue. It is true that after the death of his dear friend Casagemas, the blue takes over his canvas entirely. The blue palette is often said to be indicative of Picasso’s depression in the wake of his friend’s death. Similarly, critics claim that blue is the colour of melancholy and grief on Picasso’s canvases at this time. However, the exhibition also demonstrates that Picasso turned to the blue-green shades even before his friend took his life. When he arrives in Paris and is excited and inspired by the artistic energy and experimentation all around him, Picasso picks up a blue paintbrush. The historical trajectory here, therefore, strongly suggests that we need to expand our interpretations of Picasso’s blue. I am not a Picasso scholar, and any ideas I have about this are pure conjecture. But, judging from Picasso: Bleu et Rose, it does seem that he chooses blue, and later rose, as a way to pursue his painterly concerns without the distraction of the impressionist (and later Fauvist) colours that are all around him at the time. Viewers will also note that Picasso’s blue remains a dusty greeny-bluish hue. It never takes on the brilliance or richness of the lapis lazuli that had been used so prolifically throughout the history of art. It is indeed an El Greco blue. However, it can’t be equated with El Greco’s use of the color because Picasso uses blue in so many  more different ways: in portraits, street people, for city scapes, lovers and jesters. And, as I say, Picasso brings all of this subject matter into his contemporaneous moment.
Pablo Picasso,  Acrobate à la boule, 1905
There is much more I could say about this exhibition—I haven't even mentioned his use of thick impasto paint in a challenge to the two-dimensionality of painting from the very beginning of his career, his exquisite manipulation of light, the omnipresent divisions in walls, cafes, indeed all the background spaces. And then there are all the possibilities for exploration that Picasso finds in the circus—his attraction to performance, but not on a stage, rather, in the backstage moments of reflection when the jester shows his humanity. To say nothing of Picasso's radicalization of the portrait. And there are many other extraordinary revelations to be had at Picasso: Bleu et Rose.  This exhibition is a must for anyone who thinks they have seen enough of Picasso's painting. Like me, you will come away with renewed excitement about the magic of this twentieth-century master's work.   

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Wang Bing @ Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

Wang Bing, Traces, 2014, 28 minutes
Single Channel Video, 35 film transfer to video, b + w, sound

Many people will have not heard of Wang Bing, but that doesn’t mean his films aren’t brilliant or don’t need to be seen. Quite the opposite: he is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. There are no heists and no stars, no pyrotechnics and none of the other familiarly seductive technical wizardry that seduce us into the reality of the film world for a couple of hours. In fact, Bing’s film’s sometimes don’t have characters, and —perhaps most egregiously for the average film fan —they don’t obey the usual two hour time constraints. His most recent Dead Souls, 2018, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and screened at the New York Festival runs at 8 hours and 25 minutes.

Three of Wang’s films are currently screening at Galerie Chantal Crousel, and I recommend setting aside a day for full immersion in the 7 hours of film screening. For those not up to a 5 hour Beauty Lives in Freedom (2018)—a documentary film of a philosopher turned political detainee, activist, and exile, that tells the history of post-cultural revolution China at the same time—the shorter film, Mrs Fang (2017) is a great introduction to Wang Bing’s work.
Wang Bing, Traces, 2014
Installation @ Magician Space Beijing
I personally enjoyed Traces (2014), a short 35 mm work made on film and video before being transferred to digital. Bing has long turned his camera on the suppressed history of China’s former forced labour camps. He began filming Traces while working on The Ditch (2005), a film about the struggle, adversity and death in the Jiabiangou forced labour camp in the Gobi Desert. When he was invited to present the work at the Centre Pompidou in 2014, he went back to the desert, filmed in video, and wove the footage together to make Traces.

The film is disorienting, no less so because it is placed on the gallery floor. Rather than sitting down to watch comfortably, we stand over jerky, disorienting, at times, blurred or overexposed images shot through a handheld camera—the shadow of which periodically comes into the frame. As we watch, we become unsteady on our feet. In a Q & A with the filmmaker, in response to a question regarding his opinions on the effect on the work when it is exhibited  a gallery space (as opposed to cinema), Wang Bing said he hadn’t thought about the differences. I am sure that Traces would be a whole other experience if we were sitting stadium style in a theatre. It would certainly lose its dizzying effect.
Wang Bing, Traces, 2014
The themes of unearthing history, of time passing over a never buried past, of the living tensions between then and now permeate Traces. These discourses are raised, not only through the camera’s discovery of dirt covered pieces of clothing, an old empty bottle, and skeletal bones scattered across the desert floor. But the 35 mm film is made visible through its deterioration over the years; we see frequent patches of bleeching, fading, blistering and other signs of wear and tear. Similarly, the familiar lines of video projection are identifiable on the surface of the film. Thus, in the material itself, time passing becomes visible. While change is depicted through Bing’s long production, processing and exhibition of the film material, the lives of the prisoners have become fossilized in the desert earth. Even though the camera is constantly searching and only stops when it discovers a trace of life cut short, the stagnation of the desert comes to reflect the intransigence of a history not even fully hidden by the wiles of government. The bodies and the memory of their persecution are indelibly imprinted on the landscape.

The desert is vast, arid and uninviting. Its floor is covered in rocks, scrub and fossils that might be human or might be the remains of other animals. It’s not always possible to tell. The black and white footage often shot through exaggerated apertures, with a hand held camera produces shaky images that only sit still when the camera finds a trace that we attribute to the past incarceration of humans in the Gobi desert. This style underlines the harshness of the desert environment. And yet, the landscape is the real hero of this film. In spite of the ominous sound of the wind, the crunch of pebbles under the foot of the cameraman, and that of the film running through the projector, there is, at times, a peacefulness to the landscape. The long static shots in which the camera stares at a relic of another life, whether it be that of an animal, a human or a machine, suggests that this land holds secrets about crimes it has witnessed, crimes we didn’t even know happened. Only the desert knows the full history of what took place there. The film depicts the loneliness of a world in which no other human being is seen.