Saturday, July 27, 2019

Le modèle noir: de Géricault à Matisse

Marie Guillemine Benoist, Portrait of Madeleine, 1800

This exhibition was quite the talk of the town when it opened in March, and I am sorry it took me so long to go see it. And now it is unfortunately finished, so there’s no chance of going back. I don’t know about other visitors, but for me, the highlight came in the first rooms. Marie Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of Madeleine, 1800 is one of the first and most exquisite works on display. From its first exposition at the salon in 1800 until its hanging in this exhibition, the painting of the servant of the artist’s brother-in-law was titled La Negresse Noire. Thanks to the research done for this exhibition, she now has a name: Madeleine. I have always loved this painting and often stopped in front of it on my way to see Ingres’ bathing women at the Louvre. The young woman’s confrontation of the spectator with her eyes, the fact that she is sitting in a luxuriously covered arm chair, as well as her allusion to Raphael’s Fornarina (or boulangère) always makes me think of her as the secret revenge on the dominant white male world of her household. Artist and model come together to flout the rules of painting and of social relations – a woman painting a black servant posing with all the richesse of the bourgeoise household would not have been approved of by many.

Théodore Géricault, Étude de dos (d'après le modèle Joseph),
pour le Radeau de la Méduse,
We all know the importance of black figures in the most famous French paintings – the man carrying the flag on the Raft of the Medusa (who we now know Géricault painted from the model Joseph) and the servant woman carrying flowers to the supine Olympia in Manet’s painting to name just two. And we have all pondered the orientalism of Matisse’s Tahitian women and Baudelaire’s adoration for his young mistress. However, what comes together in this exhibition is the concentrated focus on the black model, particularly by the students attending the Ecole des beaux arts in the nineteenth century. And none of the paintings give any indication that these figures are depicted as white figures with black skin. On the contrary, a whole new colour palette is developed, the luscious effects of light on the black skin, and the demands of definition of the figure are all celebrated. It’s also interesting to see how ideas of beauty were developed in the nineteenth century, particularly when the black body was its focus.
Théodore Géricault, Portrait de Joseph, 1818-19
In the following rooms, we find Géricault’s sketches of the torso of the black man rising up with the French flag in hand from The Raft of the Medusa. Géricault’s model was a man named Joseph – no known last name – who posed at the salon for a number of years. Apparently Géricault found Joseph in a troupe run by an acrobat – Madame Saqui — and became his model of choice, even after having introduced him to the Ecole des Beaux Arts as a model. In one sketch, Géricault’s sensitive drawing of the model’s back is stunning for its observance of the colour of his skin, beautifully depicting its contours under the falling light. Like Délacroix, Géricault revels in the opportunity to work with new colours and cloth in his portraits of Joseph and his other black models. The light effects on the dark skin present new possibilities of experimentation with and exploration of their medium.
Marcel Antoine Verdier, Le Châtiment des quatre piquets dans les Colonies, 1849
 Not all of the works on display are great paintings, and thus, we can be forgiven for walking past them in the Louvre on any other night. Nevertheless, here they are critical documents in the narrative of France’s abolition of slavery. Most notably, we learn of the compassion of the artist for the black slaves. Along these lines, one of the most disturbing images in the exhibition is Marcel Antoine Verdier’s impressive, Le Châtiment des quatre piquets dans les Colonies, 1849. A lithe young black male body lies face down, chained to the ground. His arms and legs splayed as one of his own raises the whip that will come down on his back. A young white family watches on the left, and another slave looks to comfort the little girl who is frightened by the scene before her. The image is horrifying because there is no evasion of what is going on here. The man splayed, face down on the ground is isolated in the centre of the image and we cannot escape confrontation by his fate.
Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
As I say, there are some not so remarkable paintings, but also some amazing old photographs of black and white prostitutes. We note the difference of the black women thanks to their exotic dress—but not photographic representation—thereby witnessing the orientalism that comes to the fore at the end of the nineteenth century. The photographs also show a stereotyping of black sexuality: audacious, available and larger than life. Similarly the photographs of images of black models posing for students at the Ecole des Beaux Arts are horrifying with the white male students ogling their black models.
Félix Nadar, Maria of the Antilles, 1856-59
Once the exhibition moves out of the nineteenth century, I did not find it to be as revelatory, primarily because of the coming together of colonialism, slavery and the revolution as the inspirations for artists in the first half of the nineteenth century century. Of course, there are Cezanne’s images and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal inspired by his mistress. And Josephine Baker who takes back her sexuality and her body on the stage, but still within the frame of entertainment in the 1920s. Nevertheless, the early artistic treasures, together with the historical details make for a compelling and fascinating documents, if not always great works of art.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Sally Mann. A Thousand Crossings @ Jeu de Paume

Sally Mann, Deep South Untitled (Scarred Tree), 1998
Sally Mann is one of my favorite photographers, and so I was excited to see the touring exhibition, Sally Mann. A Thousand Crossings come to the Jeu de Paume. It’s apparently the first full scale exhibition of her work, ever. It may be that all the photographs did not travel to Paris, but for the first full scale exhibition of Mann’s work, I was surprised at the relatively small scale. Indeed, a number of the photographs of her children that I find most interesting were not included; images of the children without clothes, provocative, performing precociously for the camera. When Mann first published these photographs a controversy raged that accused her of making pornographic images of her own children. The images included of her children in Sally Mann. A Thousand Crossings are much easier to view, their naked bodies placed further into the background of the photograph, thus ensuring the contemplative, as opposed to confrontational, status. 
Sally Mann, Deep South, Untitled (Stick), 1998
That said, for me, the highlight of the exhibition was her photographs of the deep south landscapes. In the 1990s, Mann set out with her 8 x 10 inch camera and tripod, journeyed alone through the land of the country that gave her a white privileged identity: Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and of course Virginia where she grew up. Mann went searching for the violence, suffering and death that her country was built on. The results are hauntingly beautiful landscapes, filled with ghosts and spirits, sometimes looking like burial grounds, at others as though the dead souls still hover over the earth. In addition to being about death, destruction and injustice, the images of the south are about time: their surfaces show the time it takes to shoot a photograph, and we cannot help but notice the time that has passed since the events that scarred the land. And because her camera seems to capture the spirits still breathing, we are confronted by the fact that time has stood still, nothing has changed since Emmett Till and his people were brutally slaughtered.
Sally Mann, Emmett's Story, 2007
A particularly profound photograph shows a tree with a scar that may have healed, but looks as though the wound could open at any moment. The tree bears the open wound of an America that has never made reparations for its treatment of its African American slaves. Let alone all those who were once and continue today to be beaten, savaged, provoked, and murdered. The tree is a direct reference to Gustave Le Gray’s Beech Tree (1855-57) both for a composition that cuts off the top of the tree, and also for the tree’s animation as the sign of all that it has witnessed. Mann’s debt to the nineteenth century is also underlined by her use of the albumen print process for this series, a process that enables her to invoke the presence of the past on the surface of the photograph. 
Sally Mann, Blowing Bubbles, 1987
In the early 2000s, Mann went in search of the battlefields of the American Civil War. Again, because America has never formally acknowledged its racial history, particularly the murder of those who fought in the civil war as well as the flogged and the lynched, the raped and the stolen, of course their sprits continue to haunt the landscape. It is as though Mann waits, sitting still in the silent landscape, until the past and its secrets come to her camera. The power of these haunted landscapes is so overwhelming that I felt tears well up in my eyes. History is caught in a broken branch, a shadow falling across the image, and also, in the flaws of the image that come with the nineteenth-century collodion process. For this series, she began her process of coating a glass plate with collodion, taking the photograph before it dries, and then bathing it in silver gelatin, to bring light to the exposure. The uneven distribution of collodion on the plate, the leftover presence of dust and other impurities on the glass, and the chance of the drying process give birth to the spirits that ravage the landscape and the surface of the image. While many of Mann’s images show a radiant light, even in the darkest of landscapes, the images speak the tragedy of America. 
Sally Mann, Memory's Truth, 2008
Later in the 2000s Mann started to photograph her husband’s body deteriorating from a muscular dystrophy. However, what is most striking about his body is not any revelation of its fragility, but its vulnerability and fragility in the eye of his wife’s camera. Knowing of their relationship, the photographs take on added power. Because in his naked body revealed to the world, it is as though their intimacy and love, his trust of her and her respect of him are made visible. His atrophying body is nothing like the image of strong, powerful men we are told are attractive, and yet, because his body is infused with Mann’s love, respect and tenderness, it is powerful. In the fall of light on his back, the delicate curve of his torso, or in the discovery of the veins on his arms, this body is so overwhelmingly beautiful. 

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Thomas Houseago @ Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Thomas Houseago is said to be a major figure in international sculpture, and though his work is certainly unusual, I was somewhat disappointed by this exhibition, Almost Human. The first couple of rooms were exciting because the works were so unique: deformed, misshapen sculptural creatures, desperately trying to move through the world in uncomfortable bodies. The figures were like a cross between Georg Baselitz’s enormous wooden sculptures, crying out to be noticed, Constantin Brancusi’s sensuous human corps without faces, and survivors of Dante’s inferno.

In the first room, I was enthusiastic about the discourses Houseago engages with: questions of the fragility of the human body, abjection, the body as a shell that, contrary to how we behave towards it, offers no more than flimsy, if any, protection. Houseago’s bodies stand awkwardly in their own skin, painfully aware of their disfigurement, thus inciting our compassion. I also enjoyed seeing  the unique way that he uses plaster and other materials. Plaster enables Houseago to mold and manipulate unfinished figures, figures that the museum text called sculptural sketches. Certainly, the notion of the sculpture as a living, breathing, always unfinished process, or an abandoned object was innovative. Also, Houseago’s plaster, hastily covering hemp with exposed frayed edges, filled with graphite scratches and scribbles contributed to the unique notion of sculpture as drawing. In a later room, a series of black paintings placed opposite masks scrawled on white canvases, extended the suggestion of sculpture as a scribble, as an idea in gestation.

Other works in the exhibition that I found conceptually, if not aesthetically, interesting were Houseago’s masks. Some were sculpted, others carved into two dimensional painted surfaces, still others scribbled onto canvases. The masks in wood, plaster and steel were said to refer to African cultures, particularly because they made no reference to or discourse on the face behind the mask. Rather, they engaged sculpture as a performance, or perhaps even an expression of the unconscious, or a symbol of life stages. Visitors will also see Picasso’s masks and figures in the shapes and expressions of these Houseago masks.

However, the later rooms of the exhibition were less convincing. There were enormous sculptures like creatures from science fiction movies, their faces on extended necks towering over us mere mortals. These creatures were frightening, as were the totem-like figures hacked out of large slabs of wood. There were also pieces that reminded me of the strange spaceships from science fiction movies, looking like wombs with vaginal openings. All around them are weird figures whose forms continue on from those in the earlier rooms thanks to their sense of being unfinished, or abandoned midway through. These later works were distinct though because the bodies were supported with iron rods, suggesting their constructedness, making them verge into architectural structures. They were very strange. As the exhibition moved on, the figures seemed to suggest increasing violence and aggression. Whether it was in their form being hacked out of a piece of wood or a giant head with scaffolding for a body, the works in the later rooms were very unsettling, less compassionate, and for me, less compelling.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Imran Qureshi, The Seeming Endless Path of Memory @ Thaddaeus Ropac, Pantin

Imran Qureshi, Love Me, Love Me Not, 2019 (on left);
Love Me, Love Me Not (Diptych), 2019
Imran Qureshi’s painting, now on exhibition Thaddaeus Ropac’s Pantin gallery, in The Seeming Endless Path of Memory, is an art of opposites colliding, connecting, flowing into and out of one another. No matter how I looked at this compelling exhibition of otherwise abstract painting I saw doubling, splitting, folding, repetition, and contradictions: each opposite comes alive through technique, form and associations both within a single painting and in their turn to the world outside the gallery. It’s a fascinating body of work that, while potentially familiar to audiences in other parts of the world, is little known here in France.
Imran Qureshi, The Endless Path, 2018
Querishi is Pakistani, an identity that influences and shapes the paintings in ways that I am not able to comment on. For example, the titles of a number of the works on exhibition are taken from the poetry of Pakistani Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), and other works are drawn from the ornamental motifs of the miniaturist style that were traditionally commissioned by the Mughal Emperors (1526-1857). 
Imran Qureshi, The Leprous Brightness, 2019

However, even without these references, visitors will be struck by the range of emotional extremes the artist invites us to experience in front of the works. Many of them are about bifurcation, folding and doubling, but on another level, are violent and aggressive, filled with anger and destruction that can be seen in, for example, the explosions of red paint on unsuspecting surfaces. Then, while immersed in the same extreme emotional register, we notice a blooming flower emerging, that, in turn, becomes a heart at the centre of the image, from which waves of serenity reverberate. Over time, the flowers transform into explosions of paint, like fireworks erupting on the canvas. And before we know it, they have morphed into a memory of Anselm Kiefer’s ashen sunflowers hanging their heads before the tragedies they have witnessed. And like Kiefer’s sunflowers, there is always a glimmer of hope somewhere on Qureshi’s canvas. For example, in Love Me, Love Me Not, 2019, a delicate blue line, like a vine filled with life climbs the length of a bloody red stem, suggesting that there will always be regrowth, even after the most tumultuous of blasts. In other paintings, the explosion is so filled with dynamism and movement that there is no question life will continue even before the memories go cold.

Imran Qureshi, Separated, 2019
Speaking of memories, the title of the exhibition, The Seeming Endless Path of Memory, and the obvious references to trauma, death, murder and other violence in the show, would suggest the dominance of the past in the present. However, the application of paint, the sense of a journey to the inside of the human body, or even the impressions left on the canvas that resemble Yves Klein-like bodily movement, bring the paintings into the present. Qureshi’s unique application of paint to large canvases makes it look as though it could have been splashed on just yesterday. The large red paintings are also evocative of birth, of creation, especially when gold leaf covered egg shape supports are splattered with thick red paint, reminding us of ovaries or even unhatched eggs. Like the narrative of birth, the egg-shaped twins are as much the bloody mess of emerging into the world, about separation, division, where no half is ever the same, but always dependent on the other half, as they are about coupling, of unity, of the perfect understanding and fluidity between one half and the other. Like the single canvases which are all actually two stuck together, the paintings are about the yin and the yang, the impossibility of having one without the other: two halves of the same whole. 
Imran Qureshi, Do You Remember Still, How It Was Once, 2019 
And then we learn that some of the works – particularly that of an open Koran splattered in red – remember the shootings at the New Zealand mosque in March 2019.  Even still, it is impossible to enter Thaddaeus Ropac and not be reminded of blood splattered floors and walls that are the result of a mass murder. The red is dripped over the canvas, giving very little density to the paint, even when the area becomes dark. But with the knowledge of the artist’s expression of the Christchurch mosque massacres, the works start to become a serious critique of the ones who killed. The implication becomes that without those muslims, the 49 victims of mass slaughter, the ones who did the killings are nothing. When every half depends on the other for completion, to kill the enemy is to kill one’s self. 
Imran Qureshi, This Day and The Anguish of This Day, 2019

Visitors will also be reminded of Yves Klein’s works. Not only for the resplendent cobalt blue, but the traces, smudges and smearings of paint that recall the mistakes, the humanness of the application of paint. The body, both inside and out – its symmetry, imaged across two canvases is like an echo of Klein’s “Anthropometrie” series from 1960. Other of Qureshi’s paintings have the impression of brightly coloured x-rays. The inside of the body is on full display in blue, red and gold. But it’s the blue that most reminds us of Klein. Blue is the sea, the sky, and that long history of art that privileges lapis lazuli and gold, articulating the preciousness of painting which is, sadly, inseparable from the economic exploitation of painting. Blue is the landscape, blue is the history of a bird flying across the sky, blue is the wealth of the history of painting on a single canvas.