The Japanese House at Barbican Centre

A chaotic queue of people leaving their luggage at the cloakroom and half blocking the doors to the exhibition entrance created a strange contrast with the calm and minimalistic atmosphere I found there when I made it past the doors. As a display text unfurled on the right, a white staircase awaited ahead, underneath which I noticed a neat little kitchen, as though I was about to intrude on someone’s breakfast. It takes a few moments to adjust to the clever and artfully executed premise of The Japanese House: an exhibition and an installation rolled in one, both explaining the particularities of Japanese postwar architecture and showing it through an impressive to-scale reconstruction. Ambitious, sleek and beautiful, the exhibition is as flawless in design as it is dense in terms of information, providing an insight into the newfound creativity of architecture as an extension of Japanese art, traditions and ways of life.

Indeed, the display works best when objects and models give us an insight into the tension and harmony between tradition and innovation, continuity and change exemplified by the post-war years. Kiyoshi Seike’s furniture and design is compelling in its use of the codes of Japanese craft interconnecting seamlessly with modernist minimalism. Less is more, but is no less complex and multi-layered in its approach to Japanese history and international contemporary trends. However, another aspect of Japanese architecture and design is revealed, revolving around a messier, more organic approach to the home. Concrete may be associated closely to urban spaces but in Junzo Yoshimura’s Mountain Lodge A the concrete foundations raising the wooden lodge up to counter the risks of humidity and create a continuity with the forest floor. The lodge was for Yoshimura’s own personal use to fulfill his wish of living “like a bird atop a tree”. Further along, a surprising but welcome fashion element adds itself to the mix, as we encounter Kosuke Tsumura’s Final Home unisex coat, a transparent plastic trenchcoat covered in pockets which are padded with cloth and newspaper for insulation. The designer describes cloth as a protective element, creating a “mobile house” for the urban wanderer (surprisingly, issues relating to homelessness are not taken into account.). A particularly insightful room gives the usually dry experience of viewing architectural models a new twist, in a spectacular display showing experiments in house forms as a form of playfulness, experimentation and spirituality. Yuusuke Karasawa’s s-house, for instance (below), attempts to absorb and emulate references from the computer and cybernetics in order to incorporate them into a housing design. The result is a small, delicate and thoughtful masterpiece, presented like a jewel-like relic in dramatic lighting in a dark, immersive environment. The house appears as the site for not only an established way of living, but as part of a wider network of proposals for new, utopian lifestyles.

3. The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation, Miles Willis, Getty Images (1)

The main talking point of the show, however, is not its content but rather its design. The Barbican Centre acheived the impressive feat of reconstructing the rooms from the Moriyama House designed by architect Ryue Nishizaw on a 1:1 scale. The meticulous care taken in recreating the house’s atmosphere extends to every tiny detail, every book or trinket placed with delicat, minimalistic care. Walking through these rooms at the centre of the display is oddly soothing and satisfying. The exhibition’s greatest acheivement is the way in which it seamlessly managed to navigate between this experience of the Moriyama House and the information on display about post-war Japanese architecture. Circling around the space makes the visitor alternate between reading the text and viewing the displays and models, and looking down into the garden with glimpses into some of the rooms, as the lighting subtly changes from dawn to dusk. This allows the notions to distill quietly and reach their full potential when you walk throughout the space.

6. The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation, Miles Willis, Getty Images (32)

The installation is impressive, smart and unapologetically Instagrammable…not that there is anything wrong with that. I was happily snapping away with other people and was already reimagining my quaintly minimalistic lifestyle, complete with a nonchalant pile of Jean Cocteau poetry books next to a potted plant, beneath a Nouvelle Vague poster. It almost tempted me to pick up Marie Kondo’s The Magic of Tidying, before I realised I would never commit to keeping only the items which “sparked joy” and would instead commit to keeping countless quantities of years-old museum tickets and used-up pens as I do now. The immersive act of living and walking through the house is strange in its familiarity and remoteless, like a space half lived-in but somewhat unattainable.

The exhibition has pulled off a second ambitious installation with the presence of Terunobu Fujimori’s teahouse, custom-made for the purposes of the space. It is a strange liminal space in the display, navigating between its function as a ritual space for tea and as a dream-like bubble made for dreaming and silence. The sensitivity and sincerity of the space is palpable in the behind the scenes snippets Barbican Centre have provided on their blog.  People must queue, remove their shoes at the entrance (only six people at a time). A boy is staying there and playing on his phone, as people come and go. I feel as thought he has probably accidentally grasped the concept of passing time and contemplation inherent to the Tea House better than most other visitors have. The paradox of a queue of people waiting five minutes for one minute of serenity in a small designer teahouse is not lost on me (flashbacks from the overclogged cloakroom return). Perhaps this is the main issue. It is difficult to appreciate these spaces as a user rather than a fleeting visitor. I do not feel as though they could be lived in or experienced as anything other than a exhibit without a single object left out of place. Ironically, it felt as though the aesthetic of the exhibition left no room to consider its potential or intended inhabitants. There is more “architecture” than “life” in the display as a whole.

12. The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Barbican Art Gallery, photo by Ben Tynegate

Furthermore, while this unique and ambitious installation and design made much to recreate the experience and aesthetic of “the Japanese House”, it became difficult to grasp its deeper meaning and emotional reach. It even ran the risk of vehiculating stereotypes about Japanese culture based on an incomplete stories and a few fleeting assumptions, whereas the house itself was quite one-of-a-kind. The Moriyama House was a special commission for a hermit-like owner, so the house is quite a unique reflection of his contemplative and seculuded life. Yet, there is no information at hand in the exhibition itself to explain the kind of conversations and changes that may have taken place between the architect and the homeowner. It does have the advantage, however, of making an architecture exhibition feel more accessible and less dry: seeing children play and enjoy the garden and changing lights while their parents read the information is the best argument for the installation alone.

The exhibition’s main argument is that there is not a “single” Japanese House however the access to information about other housing types is not explored sufficiently in-depth for this to become the main point to carry away from the display.  Kosuke Tsumura’s coat and Junzo Yoshimura organic lodge are in fact good examples: they both spark curiosity in their singularity but there is too much to cover for a focus on the slightly stranger examples of architecture, design and its cultural impact on visual culture. The best way to navigate the exhibition is to cater it to your intersts, jot down as many names as possible and construct a strong basis for further research. This said, the full extent of architecture’s impact on film is excellent, with two separately screenings showing live-action and animation sequences respectively (viewing Miyazaki film extracts in a zen-like artificial garden was just as serene an experience as the tea house – if not more so). Great length are taken to explain the social and political symbols behind architecture in terms of openings, enclosures, entrapments and shifts in the structures and their use on screen.

With a fascinating range of design and architecture, the exhibition shines through its flawless design and aesthetic but experiences issues when it comes to condensing its selection, which could have provided more information with more focused examples. As the architectural stars of the exhibition express all too clearly after all: less is more.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, at the Barbican Centre until the 25th of June.
Between 14 and 25? Check out the free Young Barbican membership for exhibition discounts. I essentially signed up in five minutes on my phone and got in for five pounds. 

Credits for all images: The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation View, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 23 March – 25 June 2017, Photo by Miles Willis / Getty Images

BLU’s street art animation

Street art mocks permanence and stillness. Even though there may be a documented trace of a graffiti on a wall, nothing can predict the length of time it shall stay up, whether it will stand its ground for years or barely a night. It could stand the test of time or end up covered in countless other layers of street art or censoring paint. However, the power lies in its creation and its interaction with a space that remains unclaimed and untamed, without artistic boundaries. Perhaps, then, it made sense that street art would meet animation within Blu’s work.

Blu is an anonymous Italian artist, who has been doing street art for years, working with white housepaint and black outlines to convey monstrous, changing figures with social and political sharpness, adapting to the architectural space and political mood of the city to his murals, always created within a space for free. Even though Blu has been noticed by museums and galleries alike, collaboration has not always been successful: he was invited by the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Francisco to paint a mural for their “Art in the Street” exhibition which was promptly covered up the next day. Most recently, his animosity towards street art within the museum took a distinctly radical turn. Upon learning in March about the exhibition Banksy: Street Art & Co in Palazzo Pepoli, within his home town of Bologna, in which his street art featured amongst many others that had been removed from the street without their artist’s consent, he painted over 20 years’ worth of his street art within the city. The gesture was a defiant sign of protest against the commodification and hoarding of art that ought to remain within the public realm. He has also painted over his own work to resist an area’s gentrification because of it.

Resisting stagnation and fears of destruction, sometimes conducting it willingly in order to move forward, it perhaps made sense that Blu would look towards animation. The animated mural he worked on in Buenos Aires, MUTO, took him a year to complete, for seven minutes of film.

It is a disturbing and dynamic metamorphosis in constant evolution, which maps the walls of a run-down part of the city, spreading into rubble and derelict buildings. Just as one painting replaces another to create movement on the walls, the effects of this creation are left visible, through the white paint residue of erased artwork and the time-lapse of the sky, moving cars and passers-by. The effect is not “clean” or seamless, on the contrary letting us peer through all the cracks, breaking the illusion. In another animated mural, BIG BANG BIG BOOM, the painters themselves are left as part of the final effect. This only adds to the effect when the paintings interact with actual objects; here, Blu also plays with stop-motion animation on city objects and detritus of the everyday, as well as some passers-by turned actors.

Animation has no rules – except, perhaps, the constraint of expressing a succession of images in sequence. The original animations  were made on Ancient Egyptian murals so that charioteers riding past at full speed could see different images following each other at such a rate that persistance of vision would blend them into a movement. In the same way, Blu’s EVOLUTION OF MAN , while not a video in itself, would probably create an animated effect at a faster speed – or would slow the process of animation and change down into a thoughtful, contemplative walk alongside the walls of an anonymous street to follow the stories of an anonymous artist.

Blu’s animated stories have only one space in which their display reflects their true spirit: the street. Attempting to preserve a fragment of the story warps its driving creative force, the power it draws from the ephemeral, the city and its fleeting encounters.

Jake Fried

Defining where animation ends and where it begins starts with the trickiness in defining what is “animated” and what is not. Is the “illusion” of movement all it takes? Or are there more subtle rules at play? Or is there simply a way to make everything animate itself depending on how you see it? Time-lapses of paintings have a fascinating animated quality as the drawing’s process makes it comes to life, layered over time. In the same way, adding and subtracting becomes movement.

This idea of process and change is at the heart of Jake Fried’s work. His animation is defined by his beginnings as a painter seeking a way to record a painstaking process in constructing his works, before realizing that the evolution itself was the artwork. He uses ink and white correction liquid among other materials to let his work animate itself through constant, breathless changes, never suggesting movement but letting the collage of patterns and fantasies create it anyway in our mind.

The excruciating detail is barely admired before it is already lost into layering, adding and taking away as the accumulation of details creates the animation rather than any distinct element. His work is face-paced and feverish, playing with chaos and melancholy as well as paradoxes and surrealism. Dürer and Escher come to mind in terms of greyscale and precise layering, accompanied by a certain sense of claustrophobia. Even Jacques Villeglé’s work, creating new meanings and narratives by lacerating advertising posters, seems to resonate with this work.  A new kind of engraving or collage that is paradoxically both immobile and in motion emerges in Fried’s work, one white-out line at a time.

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Jacques Villeglé, Les Présidentielles, 1981
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M.C Escher, Cycle, 1939
Melencolia I (B. 74; M., HOLL. 75)*engraving  *24 x 18.8 cm *1514
Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514

Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield

You could be forgiven for not knowing about Wakefield, but not about giving up on visiting one of the most visually stunning museums inYorkshire, if not the UK, just because it’s about two hours from London by train. That’s almost as much as it takes to cross London during rush hour, and the destination will yield far more surprising and satisfactory results. The gallery was created purposefully to house Barbara Hepworth’s gigantic, spectacular plaster casts, with an architecture opening up the building to the light. At the turn of a nondescript cluster of outlet stores, coming across this serene block moored in the midst of the river is like coming across a strange alien structure fallen out of the sky. It is all the more arresting in this particular context, after a long pilgrimage from the station, with a suitcase and 9 hours of travelling behind me. This is a space which has the rare quality of being as breath-taking on the inside as it is compelling on the inside, its functionality and openness making the works breathe and live within the space with complete effortlessness, far from being a sterile white cube. There is something unique about gazing upon the river below through a Hepworth as evening falls and the light changes. I fell in love at first sight. And as if that were not enough, Hepworth Wakefield then reunited me with a long-lost love – fashion and art curated together.

It’s not that I do not like fashion exhibitions or the complex and fascinating ways in which art history has informed the design, history and evolution of fashion. It’s purposefully because I do care deeply about fashion that I feel dissappointed when art-and-fashion juxtaposed together do not do each other justice. Art inspiring fashion is more than a Mondrian dress, just as fashion inspiring art is more than Jeff Koons’ “Fashion Loves Art” line with H&M (or his more high end collaboration with Vuitton only recently). None of these elements are bad in themselves, but they barely skim the surface of a entire range of possibilities and issues. These are the issues which the designer JW Anderson manages to sum up with a simple premise unfurling into a range of beautiful visual questions: the human body through 20th and 21st century  fashion, design and art. It reads like a love letter to the transformation, sublimation and subversion of bodies, beyond the beautiful or the aesthetic.

Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield Photo Lewis Ronald Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield
Installation shot of Disodebient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates the Hepworth Wakefield. Photo Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

While ambitious, the exhibition never seems to work too hard for anyone’s approval. The prestigious selection has Henry Moore, Louise Bourgeois and Sarah Lucas alongside Rei Kawabuko (Comme des Garçons), Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Dior in strange, quiet conversations allowing you to work and question juxtapositions rather than face anything too literal. Design is not left out of the equation either, as Eileen Grey’s chair rests faces Jean Arp’s S’Elevant (Rising Up) sculpture expresses the fluidity and ambiguity of human bodies, and earthenware by Mo Jupp reacts to Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig Zag chair. It’s not always neccessary to search too far for answers sometimes. Henry Moore’s Reclining Nude irreverently leads to an iconic pointy-breasted bodice by Jean-Paul Gaultier. A cluster of Sarah Lucas’ eerie ragdolls draped on chairs is juxtaposed with JW Anderson’s trio of elongated knitwear jumpers (above). Softness and transparency, protective armour and movement form categories whose boundaries blur into each other. The text is limited to a simple booklet to allow the visitor to wander through rooms thinly delimitated by Anderson’s vintage fabrics, structuring the space. I usually take it upon myself to only read the booklet after visiting the exhibition, and it’s refreshing to feel as though the display can work as a free association of ideas around the body, without the explanatory text. Interestingly, the rooms are divided up in themes shown in the booklet like “disrupting classicism” and “casting skin. exposing and protecting” but these are not followed by lengthy room texts, simply regrouping a cluster of works and allowing for an extended labels for each. This was excellent in creating some kind of narrative thread without drowning the reader with heavy-handed thematics. There were a huge amount of creators I did not know and learnt from in the exhibition; the booklet still provides a stable resource for me to lean on. I learn from the same booklet that the architectural conception was meant to evoke “an intimate social gathering in someone’s home”. While I’d be absolutely terrified to discover a Hans Bellmer doll (above) in my home, I appreciate the sentiment. It’s all the more interesting to remove art from its stately pedestal and remove fashion from the runway in a display that craves intimacy rather than glamour. There is only one installation in the exhibition: JW Anderson’s 28 jumpers, creating an odd forest of soft, colourful knitwear to wander through.

Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield Photo Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield 7
Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo: Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

Maybe the influx of names can sound a bit intimidating, but that feeling is quickly overtaken by curiosity. In a display of the unpredictable, inhibitions are dropped in favour of discovery. Rather than name-dropping, the exhibition allows us to encounter new names and see familiar works in a new light, like old friends talking about a seldom-talked aspect of themselves. This quote while encountering the fabric and steel work Untitled (1998) by Louise Bourgeois stood out for me:

“Clothes are about what you want to hide. Garments can hold memories and they become specific to a certain time and emotional connection.”  

This exhibition is the first that made me think sincerely about the idea of motion and stillness in looking at clothing – the sense that these are shells waiting for life to be breathed into them by the wearers, for a performance and attitude, and that every choice in tailoring and textile will modify and inform the body it covers. The desire to touch was strong, in order to grasp the power of textile to transform and enhance this sense of motion and create a particular vision of the body.  It was the first time that I stopped seeing fashion items in an exhibition as “exhibits”, and started seeing them as living, breathing entities, interacting with the world around them. In short, I started seeing them as works of art outside of the gallery space, meant to interact in motion. Motion is also at the forefront of Anderson’s concerns in portraying the human body within the exhibition, since a powerful range of videos complete the display and infuse it with particular purpose. Merce Cunningham’s Scenario from 1997 (below), shows the immense influence of the choreographer on modern art as well as fashion (his work was also shown in the recent Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern, as the two men collaborated extensively in terms of staging, clothing and set design).

It would have been interesting to see some of the fashion display items in motion via videos for instance. However, this would have made it a historical fashion exhibition, which was neither the case nor the intention. The exhibition did not neccessarily feel like a fashion history or an art history lesson, nor a design one…and that’s a good thing. Too much encompassed within the intimate space, and too much context weighing down on powerful objects would have overkill. This also has the added purposes of letting contemporary art, design and fashion dialogue peacefully, neither overpowing the other.

Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield Photo Lewis Ronald Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield 2.jpg
Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo: Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

More than an art-and-fashion exhibition, this is an exhibition with a sincere and powerful message in allowing for us to experience powerful and experimental interpretations of the human body. More than a learning experience it is a unique journey into being aware of the power of object and design to extend our own bodies and reflect them. Like Anderson’s interlocking jumpers, it draws connections in ways you would expect the least, tweaking and subverting expectations. I do feel that in more ways than one this exhibition did change a certain awareness I had about my own body and my relation to it, in its presence, transformation and absence. Being able to create this awareness and experience is the sign of an exhibition which will stay with you for a long time. After a long, physically demanding pilgrimage to a museum as unpredictable as it is beautiful, this experience seemed more than fitting.


Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates the Hepworth Wakefield is on till 18th June. Free entry 

Also in Wakefield, The Art House provides an excellent visit, with opportunities to discover emerging artists’ practices, and a Migration residency initiative on at the moment seeking to explore issues related to the refugee crisis. This coincides with Juan DelGado’s installation Altered Landscapes. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is also not that far away via a bus or a car if you want to encounter a beautiful open-air gallery to experience sculpture outdoors, as well as discover the current Tony Cragg exhibition.  More culture and contemporary art in Yorkshire.

 

Eli Lotar (1905-1969) at the Jeu de Paume

The first photographers of modern life did not only have an entire realm of subjects and spaces  at their fingertips waiting to be captured on film for the first time . In more ways than one their angles of vision created an entire new language in order to grasp, understand and reflect the world in a new medium. When this language is channelled with enduring sincerity and intensity, its message seems ageless. In a period of crisp smartphone snapshots capturing the energy of places and people, Eli Lotar’s analog black and white photographs from the 20s through to the 60s keep the same timeless power.

“Eli Lotar” might not be a household name in terms of modern photography on the same level as Man Ray or Henri Cartier-Bresson. However, the Romanian photographer’s importance and vision as one of the first photographers of the Parisian avant-garde cannot be doubted. His first retrospective in the 90s at the Centre Pompidou, two decades after his death, started a new reappraisal of his legacy. While the level of knowledge and expertise is apparent throughout the display, it operates extraordinary restraint and clarity, managing to operate an overview of Lotar’s work which is complex yet accessible through a hundred photographs from the Centre Pompidou’s archives as well as private and public collections worldwide. The co-curator of the exhibition, Damarice Amao, completed her thesis on Eli Lotar at université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), adding particular strength to the narrative of the exhibition in which different projects and pathways undertaken by the photographer intertwine without ever tripping us up as readers or visitors.

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Eli Lotar, Untitled, c. 1930-40, donation by M.Jean-Pierre Marchand 2009, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar

In a setting of greys and whites with space for the black and white works to breathe and for the visitor to wander, we encounter Lotar’s modernity for the first time through his photographic reports for different magazines since the 1920s. As a student of the photographer Germaine Krull, Lotar shares her avant-garde vision: one in which through the photographic lens, the photographer transforms the city into a living, active system of shapes and people.  The “New Vision” titling one of his photographic reportages is one in which the viewer redefines the world through his viewpoint. Nothing could be clearer through the creative angles and compositions Lotar creates, adding to written narratives and creating his own silent stories. This vision is steeped in everyday social life and the streets; despite a few  The most notorious series of magazine photographs is a report on the slaughterhouses of La Villette. More than any other imagery, it captures the eery in-between gaps between the realistic and the fantastical buried in the mundane. A picture of a young man staring down at a pile of entrails rubs shoulders with a series of cows’ legs lines against a wall. Surrealism and a certain strand of the supernatural is shown as a particular viewpoint, not only on a street corner but in relation to the world.

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Eli Lotar, Quinze-Vingt Hospital, 1928, purchased through the patronage of Yves Rocher, 2011. Ancient collection Christian Bouqueret, collection Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar
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Eli Lotar, At the Slaughterhouses of la Villette, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (c) Eli Lotar

It is rare to see an exhibition which manages to strike such a good balance between its contents and its design, making the discovery of Eli Lotar’s complex and consequent life work readily accessible to the visitor by breaking down different parts of his life and career expertly. There are many inconveniences that slightly pollute an exhibition’s enjoyment which, here, are solved with simplicity. The simple case of getting rid of archival casings to present facsimiles of magazine cuttings on the wall is perfectly adapted to the exhibition. Purists might not enjoy the fact that the original documents are not on display, but the clutter of documentation in cases which you crowd around and lean over awkwardly is avoided here, to go to the essential. In this context you actually have time to read the cuttings and understand the context in which Eli Lotar’s photojournalism operated. Similarly, the secion of the exhibition related to Eli Lotar’s documentary work is treated with skill, allowing for a cinema space in the midst of the display rather than a separate room, managing to srike a balance between the darkened cinema space with benches and time to reflect and the meanderings of the visitor.

The large screen displays his documentary on Aubervilliers in collaboration with Jacques Prévert in the 1940s; the shots and narrative manage to mingle lyricism with realism, popular songs about the children of Aubervilliers punctuating a scene in which they play and barthe alongside dead cats in the river and the ruins of working-class homes. On the side, a bench and headphones allow for a more intimate experience of Tierra sin pan, the documentary of the Hurdes region in Spain by Luis Buñuel in collaboration with the photographer. The shots were in black and white, but remembering them makes me feel as though they fully captured the sun-drenched colours and lights of the region. The extreme poverty of the people portrayed is emphatic and prompts for revolution rather than voyerism, as their stories mingle with legends and customs lost between pagan rituals and Christian values.

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Eli Lotar, Las Hurdes, c. 1935, donation of Anne-Marie and Jean-Pierre Marchand 1993, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar

The thematic choice of the exhibition as allows for a clear overview not only of Lotar’s versatility but also the way in which connections unfurl beween his different projects. These subjects and themes loosely flowing into each other show a problematic at the heart of Lotar’s work floating between documentary and poetry, the objective and the subjecive in order to eventually choose or compromise on neither. From surrealist photomontages, we then encounter his set collaborations with absurdist and satrical playwrights such as Alfred Jarry. A photojournalistic voyage to Greece shows his attention divided between the portrayal of the Greek landscape and its inhabitants and the representation of Cycladic statues. At the very end of the exhibition, we then encounter a particular sculpture staring back at us. Few exhibitions escaping traditional chronology would have chosen to end rather than begin with a spectacular bust of Eli Lotar by Giacometti, yet here it was by the exit, in a silent conversation with a strange self-portrait: a photograph of the bust by Lotar himself, somehow infusing it with his own presence and viewpoint. Lotar was Giacometti’s last male model, and in return Lotar would confer a particular vision upon the sculptor’s work, made visible in the exhibition through contact sheets exploring his workshop. The relation between the sculpture and the photograph taken of it merges with that of the sculptor and his model. The writer Giorgo Soavi described the complete immobility of Lotar, captured in sculpture:

“[Giacometti’s] gaze shone with a strange glimmer, his body vibrating from head to toe, only able to follow the impulses guiding his hands, his arms, his legs: he was in ecsasy. Observing closely the two faces, I understood the secret allowing Lotar not to breathe: Eli was the perfect model for this sculpture because Eli was dead. He did not breathe, he did not think, remained concentrated till the very end. An electric current linked the artist to the model, uniting them in true complicity. They played together, without a ball, or a racquet, or a net.”

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Eli Lotar, Giacometti, bust of Lotar, 1965, donation by Anne-Marie and Jean-Pierre Marchand 1993, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar
In many ways it takes this outsider’s insight on Eli Lotar himself to start to understand who he is as a person raher than a photographer. The particular aura around the bust itself is elusive, his gaze vulnerable yet mysterious. Like Lotar’s own work it promises the opportunity to look back again with a new insight and interpretation every time. The “New Vision” lives on.

Alighiero Boetti at Tornabuoni Art Paris

You might be forgiven for considering that many commercial gallery spaces look the same, however the perfect antidote might be a venture down to Tornabuoni Art in Paris. Like many Parisian galleries, it has perfected the art of hiding itself in plan sight. This one in particular can be found in the Passage de Retz courtyard within the Marais district, a few steps away from the National Archives and the Centre Pompidou. A cobbled courtyard leads us to a series of compelling art spaces; in the case of Tornabuoni Art, entering the building cases the traditional vast white cube space of the gallery to unfold, with its own peculiarities nonetheless – a winding metal staircase, a glasshouse glimpse of the sky, and a small garden, oddly intimate in proportion to the momentous space. There, I discover and rediscover Alghiero Boetti, and the shifting, exacting, myriad aspects of his work. Tornabuoni has a 20-year relationship with the Italian artist and it clearly shows: this exhibition presents itself as one of the most impressive retrospectives put together by a commercial gallery, drawing upon a previous exhibition at Tornabuoni London, and building up to a major exhibition at the Fondazione Cini during the Venice Biennale.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Alighiero Boetti was an Italian conceptual artist whose legacy is complex and multifaceted. His initial allegiance was with the Arte Povera movement, a group which attempted to address and deconstruct the art world’s obsession with costly, inaccessible materials by relying on objects considered “poor” from a material viewpoint, or unconventional, with simple, everyday objects and concepts. It encompassed the idea that art was part of life and nature, intertwining into the everyday. This definition is most likely to change in relation to the major artists who became part of the movement, such as Jannis Kounellis, who passed away recently, or Giovanni Anselmo. Boetti started to delve into Arte Povera with a variety of “unconventional” industrial materials, while also focusing on creating monumental works on paper from the simplest materials. However, this part is not quite explored in the exhibition, privileging what Boetti did after distancing himself from the movement while keeping some of its key values and aims.  Mettere al mondo il mondo, 1972-73, a work using a blue ballpoint on paper laid onto canvas (below), creates a stunning example you get lost into within the display. What comes out of this is the sheer diligence and discipline in Boetti’s work, led by a concept which was then executed by others (in this case, friends and family), and rife with codes and puzzles centred around the alphabet.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

The fact that the exhibitions is classified by different works and mediums rather than a strict chronology allows for several small pocket displays to wander around before visiting the more monumental rooms. One of these includes a series of “Postal Works” (Lavoro postale (Permutazione), 1989, below) consisting of enveloppes with postage that Boetti has sent to various friends and family repetitively, with variations in writing that create a strange pattern as they are displayed side by side, creating art out of everyday habit and process.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

The most visually iconic example of Boetti’s works are his embroidered world maps, and this exhibition definitely does not disappoint. A vast selection of them are brought together, allowing for a contemplative insight into the way the maps reflect political change across the globe in a collaborative embroidery process, carried out of 500 Pakistan and Afghanistan artisans over a period of several decades from 1971 to 1994. Their lo-fi, artisanal quality emphasizes the “arte povera” ideas of simplicity that Boetti hung onto but also capture the human, intimate side of this mapping in the face of vast geopolitical changes beyond a single individual’s control.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Surprisingly, however, the maps are not neccessarily the main focus of the exhibition – or rather, their familiarity comes as a visual comfort or reminder, rather than a first shock-encounter. For me, this shock encounter occurs in front of Tutto 1992-94 (belowan immense embroidered, multicolour accumulation of shapes, objects merged into a dizzying tapestry.This effect is only strenthened by the light spilling in from the overhead windows, giving the impression the work is glowing from within.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Venturing upstairs in a spiral metal staircase, both oddly charming and out of place, pursues this encounter with a series of embroideries combining basics colours, letters or numbers to create a coded, crypic patchwork in which phrases and proverbs in Italian can sometimes be deciphered (Alighiero Boetti, Untitled, 1984 ca., marker pen on lithographic print, below). They draw the eye as beautiful material objects as well as conceptual objects of design used by Boetti in an attempt to classify and catalogue the world, an exploration of the gap existing between design and execution with its beautiful flaws, changes and perumutations. This exhibition allows for a quiet breathing space to come to terms with Boetti’s work and grasp its enduring significance. More than anything, it reminds us that outside of the often intimidating and confusing lingo surrounding conceptual art is a simple aim through simple means: to connect collective ideas and emotions like the many pieces of a patchwork embroidery.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Alighiero Boetti at Tornabuoni Art Paris, till the 8th of April

Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton

The Louis Vuitton exhibition on the Shchukin collection reveals the ambiguity of art collecting in its form as well as its content, through its attempt to reconcile the personal quirks, contradictions and passions of a Russian collector with the immense role his collection came to adopt within modern art history. This rich textile merchant amassed an impressive collection of art for his Moscow palace between 1898 and 1914 at a moment during which collecting outside national, traditional painting was frowned upon in Russia. Considered scandalous at the time, Serguei Shchukin only fanned the flames by allowing young Russian artists to view this work and draw inspiration from it. The rest is art history: the exhibition’s aim is to not only show this fascinating, ground-breaking collection, but to portray it alongside the works of Malevich, Rodchenko, Tatlin and Popova. Just as Shchukin provided an exceptional opportunity for a glimpse of Western art introduced to Russia, the reverse dynamic is now taking place in Paris with a rare look at the contents of the Ermitage and Pushkin collections, amongst many others.

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Installation shot (c) Martin Bureau/AFP

The display starts off with a bang – a series of portraits and self-portraits, Derain’s Man with a Newspaper facing Cézanne’s Self-Portrait,  a gripping Van Gogh adjacent to Wan Krohn’s portrait of the collector himself, a celebrity art history who’s who enticing us foward.  In a darkened room, the commissioned art work “Shchukin, Matisse, dance and music”, by Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke is an immersive multimedia installation which imagines a conversation between the collector and Matisse, subverting the idea of an introductary documentary with a larger-than-life touch of kitsch, humour and energy. The history of his commission of the painting “The Dancers”, followed by “Music”, touchingly captures Shchukin’s own boldness, contradictions and earnestness as he commissions, relents, censors and finally goes through with his presentation of the work alongside the rest of his collection to a new generation of Russian artists. With theatrical kitsch and colour, the work comes to life, as does Shchukin’s whose actor transcribes his words with poignant emotion despite his stutter: “Art must be a psychological shock” – a “sharp blow”.

After this vibrant first encounter, the rest of the exhibition reads like a stroll through Shchukin’s mind to understand this emotional and spiritual shock to the system he descrives, as well as a lesson in influences and tributes in art history. From portraiture to landscape and still-life through to nudes, it’s impossible to predict Shchukin’s tastes, as they seem to vary wildly from the slightly boring pastel Maurice Denis paintings or Burne-Jones tapestries through to daring bursts of colour with Gauguin and Matisse. The exhibition masterfully weaves a journey from Impressionist landscape through to Fauvism and Cubism in order to explain how this diverse selection of works, from traditional choices to daring ones, inspiring a revolution within the Russian artists Shchukin invited to view his work. Their works appear, bold and bright, in the last rooms, their sharp abstract shapes reflected vividly in Daniel Buren’s multiclolour shapes on the Louis Vuitton Foundation by Frank Gehry. The avant-garde experiments in colour and form are a rush of blood to the head, increasing in intensity and pushing boundaries, creating silent conversations and interconnections across rooms.

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Installation shot (c) Martin Bureau / AFP

Despite the fact that it presented a huge selection of 160 works over 14 rooms, over three stories of exhibition space, the exhibition itself never has the length or exhausting effect that these blockbusters usually have on my feet and mind. The exhibition scenography is designed around the idea of an airy, temple-like space of suspended time, in glowing grey walls, subdued lighting and arched doorways. It regulates the flow of people and allow for a leisurely, contemplative pace, with room to sit and even stand next to a Picasso for awhile without having to shuffle to leave space for more people. The Matisse room is serene yet bubbling with energy, with enough space to stride, wander and dream amongst masterpieces.

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Matisse,  Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908, Hermitage Museum (c) Succession H. Matisse. Photo (c) St-Petersburg.

The selection of works is breathtaking in its sheer amoung and diversity, making a quick summary neither possible nor desirable. Amazingly, in spite of this, there are some gaps, some understandable and others more complex. It would have been optimistic to assemble more than 130 items from the initial 274 works that composed Shchukin’s collection, to recreate this initial “psychological shock” – even though we would have loved to see Matisse’s “Dance” and “Music”, their very rare removal from the Hermitage Museum is justified by the iconic status they have gained. It is impossible to recreate the astounding accumulation of works of Shchukin’s original palace in a single exhibition – for instance, the original “Gauguin” room also had a few Matisse works and the Edward Burne-Jones tapestry. This website in the link above is an impressive summary of the original display as well asa compilation of the entire collection in collaboration with FLV as well as museums and archives – sadly, only in French and Russian yet intuitive enough for a clear encounter of Shchukin’s curatorial decisions.

Sadly, this is a resource I find only later – and whose pedagogical clarity seems to be missing from text panels and resources. Amongst varied opinions on how to pronounce “Shchukin”, I also hear vague confused mutters about the wall text which is, sadly, not quite accessible to a non specialist audience. Unfortunately, this does not improve as the exhibition veers away from representations of lanscapes and picnics into Malevich’s black squares and Popov’s abstract shards. “What is pantocrator?” “What is iconostasis?” “What is suprematism”? “What is postcubist ambiguity?” As an art historian, I spend my time explaining (and looking up “pantocrator”, because I’m not a latinist). I can feel that some of this lingo is muddying people’s instinctive, empassioned response to the artworks…and worse, intimidating. The panels read like a exhibition catalogue extract, with a very academic tone which could be easily amended by a glossary and a few explanations. These terms are not easy to understand for people with some understanding of modern art, let alone novices…and this is a recurring complaint when I visit French exhibitions with friends and family alike.  French museums are not yet on par with the level of attention given to learning and interpretation in the UK or the US. At least, these texts are all assembled within a beautiful booklet that can be brought home and deciphered – often useful when you want to focus on the works first and the explanations later. The audioguide file is also freely downloadable and accessible on the Louis Vuitton Foundation app, a refreshing change from the traditional clunky and expensive devices. The amount of videos and presentations by the curator Anne Baldessari on the website, as well as a free symposium on the exhibition were also welcome additions that perhaps needed to be exploited more in the display itself.

Another lingering feeling is that we never quite get to glimpse the person behind the legendary collection, or capture his personal rather than artistic intentions between his works and the theatrical portrayal in Greenaway’s commission. The eccentricity and contradictions become muted by concerns about intentions feeding into a clear pattern and design. It’s hard to work out to what extent he is truly a “collector-hero” and “collector-experimenter” (in the Russian critic Alenxander Benois’ words) who devised a very precise fresco of modern art, or the extent to which he was an eccentric and empassioned amateur who sometimes went all out and sometimes played it safe, following his own heart and instincts. Perhaps this is only a feeling we can grasp wordlessly through his paintings, with the rush of adrenalin at the glimpse of a Cézanne or a Picasso followed by quieter pauses facing a Monet or a Courbet. Audiences’ reactions and preference vary and diverge amongst themselves, creating a mix and match effect where some visitors will glance over some artists and spend ages in front of others. Ultimately, despite some questions left unanswered and some answers perhaps made too complex, the initial rush of excitement and passion constantly beats below the surface. As I hear mutters of delight and scorn amongst the audience, I believe the “blow” Shuchkin described still resonates, challenging contemporary artists and collectors to remain unpredictable, daring and provocative in spite of the status quo.

“Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection” is on display at Fondation Louis Vuitton till the 5th of March

The Shchukin Collection website