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

Mexico 1900-1950 at the Grand Palais

The Grand Palais is an exhibition space of the monumental, usually meant for retrospectives of established names rather than new discoveries. While the momentous title “Mexico 1900-1950” promises headliners such as Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo, it also allows for the opportunity to discover artists and works rarely seen in France, with a crystal-clear agenda: to re-establish the importance of modern Mexican art within an international, avant-garde movement in terms of content and style. The exhibition was made in collaboration with the Museo Nacional de Arte of Mexico and curated by Agustín Arteaga who used to be its director before being appointed this summer as the new director of the Dallas Museum of Art. His outlook mingles the local and the international, placing communities at the forefront of his concerns. This is what this exhibition communicates: the desire to reach out across oceans and reinterpret the way we consider “the avant-garde” as a Eurocentric phenomenon.

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Diego Rivera (1886-1957) Portrait d’Adolfo Best Maugard 1913 Huile sur toile México, INBA, Museo Nacional de Arte Donation de Arturo Arnáiz y Freg, 1983 Photo © Francisco Kochen © 2016 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F / Adagp, Paris

Paris itself, the historic centre of avant-garde activity, is both where this story is told once more and where this story began since it is revealed that the French capital was the centre of artistic production for not only European artists but overseas ones, as Mexican artists were encouraged to discover Old Master legacies and soak up avant-garde influences, leading to unexpected encounters and reinterpretations of romantic nudes and modernist city-scapes. Weaving in and out of the rooms allows us to witness experiments, hesitations and discoveries in style and content. Roberto Montenegro’s Parisian night skies and enigmatic portraits mingle with Angel Zárraga’s dark romanticism full of fateful beauties and cryptic symbols in stark black and white.

 

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Diego Rivera (1886-1957) La Barque fleurie 1931 Huile sur toile Mexico, collection Museo Dolores Olmedo © Schalkwijk, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image Schalkwijk Archive © 2016 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F / Adagp, Paris

The curator artfully allows the Mexican revolution and its consequences to create parallels with the artistic production at the time, without turning the works into props to illustrate a history lesson. While Orozco documents the Revolution with razor sharp insight, Rivera focuses on ways of integrating vaster,  cultural themes into his work while experimenting with modernist forms. Meanwhile, Siqueiros’ thick, dark painting focuses on self-portait and an amplified sense of identity and purpose in his massive figures. What’s missing from this are obviously the murals that were at the forefront of this movement and both required and inspired a simple, powerful style and a flat, vivid way of treating the surface. It is therefore strange that this crucial piece in the puzzle is relegated to a very small screen in a timeline, hardly given the same treatment as the giant screen on which Eisenstein’s “Viva Mexico!”is projected. It seems like a strange oversight to show this Russian viewpoint of the Revolution rather than its iconic murals on a vast screen (a solution that the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery had come across to show the artist’s in-situ works).

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José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) Les Femmes des soldats 1926 Huile sur toile México, INBA, Collection Museo de Arte Moderno Photo © Francisco Kochen © Adagp, Paris 2016

As we weave in between representation of native Mexicans and revolutionary fighters following individual ground-breaking artists within the Mexican society they represent, it is increasingly obvious that the exhibition embraces and lays bare the issues and contradictions that are inherent to its existence. Namely: what makes a particular artistic movement particularly “Mexican”? Would it be easier or harder to claim this label as a Mexican artist without relating your work so intimately to the culture and socio-political changes your country has gone through? It soon becomes apparent that the term “Mexican” art is as vague as “French” or “Spanish” art, and that placing artists like Rivera and Kahlo as the epitome of all things “Mexican” is neither possible nor desirable. Contemporary interventions are not always successful, but those within the exhibition manage to remain relevant to a changing sense of cultural identity. Gabriel Orozco’s work made from graphite transfers from Parisian metro walls resonate with the idea of Parisian influences within Mexican art; similarly, Wolfgang Paalen’s Genius of the species (bone forming a pistol) explores Mexican legacies, stories of death and violence and reinvention.

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Ramón Cano Manilla (1888-1974) Indienne d’Oaxaca 1928 Huile sur toile México, INBA, Museo Nacional de Arte Patrimoine culturel, 1982 © Museo Nacional de Arte

However, the exhibition does have its flaws, and the main one would be the writing, which was very academic and definitely more adapted to a scholarly audience than exhibition visitors. There’s something wrong when, as an art historian, you stumble more than once on a complicated sentence about, for instance “historicist racist undertones” in a portrayal of Native Indian Mexicans without explaining why or how: how is everyone else supposed to feel? Nobody wants to read a catalogue on exhibition walls, as interesting and compelling as that catalogue may be. And this has been a frequent flaw in Grand Palais exhibitions, made worse by small label text which is placed awkwardly low, making the average visitor stoop uncomfortably.

"The Frame"

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) Le Cadre 1938 Fixé sur verre (plaque de verre) Paris, Centre Pompidou, musée national d’art moderne, Centre de création industrielle Achat de l’État en 1939 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planche© [2016] Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Adagp, Paris

There is another flaw which was no doubt well-intended: the entire section of the exhibition devoted to “strong women”. The production spanned landscape, portraiture and still-life, in a range of subjects and themes so diverse that there only defining reason for their presence in the same room was, indeed, womanhood. The reason was allegedly to draw a parallel with the “soldaderas” of the Mexican revolution depicted for instance in Orozco’s work, and the fact that Mexican women artists partook in a new  discovery of their inner selves through painting. However one fact has little relation to the other, and an artistic theme should be defined by the content of a work, not its maker’s gender identity. This problem isn’t new. I’m still waiting for the parody exhibition that will casually show only women artists and then shoehorn a few men in the same room regardless of content! That said, the display succeeded in highlighting women’s practices while escaping the temptation to overpower the display with Frida Kahlo works. I discover Nahui Olin’s fascinating, glittering socialite painting and Lola Álvarez Bravo’s stunning black and white photography, Rosa Rolanda and Maria Iziquierdo’s refreshing confessions through portraiture. This stunning company makes the small corner devoted to Kahlo all the more intense, with its jewel-like, intimate self-portraits, intense The Two Fridas and surrealist depictions of folklore.

This is an exhibition of experimentation and discovery within its content and for its audience. Taking in such a vast and complex legacy in a single exhibition is near impossible but gives a beautiful, vibrant and above all emotional response to the question “what is modern Mexican art?”. All the exhibition can do is use the ambiguous, ever-changing notion of “the modern” and its ties to a country’s artists to draw us in, compell us to find out more, and question our own assumptions.

Mexico 1900-1950 at the Grand Palais till the 23rd of January

Politics over the Public

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Illustration by author

This piece was originally written for the Courtauldian December 2016 issue.

In June, the MA Curating class of 2015-6 I was part of organised a debate within the Courtauld Institute’s Research Forum, ‘Politics over the Public: The Role of Museums’. With director of MIMA Alistair Hudson, Wendy Earle from Birkbeck University and artist Peter Kennard as speakers, chaired by Dr Anna Marazuela Kim, it addressed whether the public museum should remain a neutral space or encourage the inclusion of political art and discussion. The debate raised more questions than answers about where to draw the line about the museum’s role towards the display of art, and within society. Alistair Hudson argued that art is intermingled in everyday life whether or not it labels itself as “political”: the museum is a public space and needs to behave as such. Wendy Earle, in turn, considered that this viewpoint alienated works created for art’s sake rather than as a response to current affairs.

The question of bias loomed heavily over a debate that happened, coincidentally, on the eve of the EU referendum results. Despite museums’ neutrality on the subject, the British and international art world united almost unanimously in the need to foster both British and European unity in the face of rampant nationalism and misinformation. The energy and optimism in the room from people believing in these issues and their vote was running high…and the Brexit outcome the next day was like a hangover following this giddy idealism.

Now, the US election results have sent the art world reeling once more, as people and the institutions they are part of struggle to cope and respond. Many American museums are trying to tread this risky line between neutrality and involvement with varying levels of subtlety. The Brooklyn Museum waived its usual entrance fee on the weekend following Election Day and encouraged visitors to take this opportunity to take a look at their new American Art displays “which embrace an inclusive view of history.“ The Queen’s Museum organised an “open house for unity” with resources for “vulnerable people”. A few days ago, the Whitney Museum respected artist Annette Lemieux ’s wish to have her work “Far Left Far Right”, 1995, made of political placards of photographs of raised fists, turned upside down. For her, doing this to a work about the inherent power of protest in a democracy represents “a world turned upside down”. If the world has turned upside down, maybe it’s time for the supposedly “neutral” museum to face up to the facts and make a complete U-turn as well. Public museums have changed drastically over the course of a few centuries, shifting and adapting to what a society needs the most at any given time.

Pretending museums can still be a bunker-like refuge full of distractions from what is happening outside feels like a privilege today’s society can no longer afford. I don’t want the art museum to coddle and comfort me when lives are at stake, civil rights could take a huge step backwards and people are consciously voting to put homophobic, racist and sexist government officials in charge.

I want the museum to acknowledge what the society it is part of has become, and how its role can evolve within it. However, to do so, it needs to find ways to present insightful art while encouraging discussion amongst a diverse range of people rather than preaching to the choir and then hoping for the best. It needs to educate and discuss rather than point and laugh. Idealistic, left-wing people like me have definitely been trapped in a bubble, ignoring the real scope of populist far-right movements till it’s too late to prevent the consequences. I don’t want this to happen to a space that’s meant to be open to everyone and anyone that walks through its doors with the potential to experience the world in countless new ways and learn something in the process. How? No idea…not yet. Maybe a few. We’ve raised questions, now we need answers. That’s why the debate must go on. And it’s time for young art historians, curators and artists to join the conversation.

Picasso/Giacometti at Musée Picasso

Two stern avant-garde gazes in black and white overlook the stubborn queue forming outside the Musée Picasso in Paris on a cold autumn morning. In the newly refurbished Musée Picasso, which opened once more to the public a few years ago, the new permanent collection alone is usually sufficient to draw loyal crows. Add the name of the Swiss modern artist Giacometti and curiosity mingles with excitement outside. How do you compare and contrast the works of two masters of modern art? How did their paths crossed? How do their works speak to one another?

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Giacometti, Man (Apollo), 1929 and Picasso, Figure, 1928

How? Beautifully so. The selection of works is absolutely breathtaking, as are the dialogues between Giacometti on one side and Picasso on the other, an effortless relation of form and facets which does make me wonder: why did no-one show their works together before? The missed opportunities are vastly made up for here, in the endlessly surprising hôtel particulier housing the Musée Picasso. There is something about the way in which this space mingles both stateliness and luminosity that makes it just right for the Picasso works, and enshrines the Giacometti works beautifully. The juxtapositions are stunningly crafted, as the eye slides effortlessly from form to form, from curve to sharp angle. Whoever conceived the display has a strong and intent eye for the silent correspondences between objects that bring them to life in a new way, without being heavy-handed or hasty. Most importantly, this is an exhibition with enough space to sit, wander, think and stroll. The main reason for this is that every temporary exhibition occupies the space of most of the permanent collections, save a few floors, an important point in terms of flow and time. Popular exhibitions can often become a tiring and back-aching business of shuffling and queueing to see a work stuck in a corner within a jam-packed room, which was far from being the case here.

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Giacometti, l’homme qui marche II, 1960 and Picasso, The Shadow, 1953

However, the beauty of the works could not always make up for the themes they were organized within. I felt as though some topics, such as “death”, “love” or “women”, made a good job in distinguishing particular interests within avant-garde scenes at the time, but little to focus specifically on topics directly relevant to both Picasso and Giacometti, like two fascinating people brought together under vague premises but nevertheless creating a beautiful conversation out of the situation. Then again, the tone is universal, and does not force itself to peer too deeply into the content in order to let the form breathe. The nudes and skulls feel like a surface concern for the deep concern about the human form, personhood, identity.

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Giacometti, Femme qui marche I, 1930 – Picasso, Nude in red armchair, 1929

As much as I loved the stunning formal juxtapositions between Picasso and Giacometti, I felt as though something was lacking: their viewpoint on each other, and historical proof of what sounded like mutual influence and conversation. I would have preferred more substance and less style, in the most literal way possible, or perhaps simply a more subtle balance between the two.The beginning of the exhibition thoughtfully ponder upon the fact that their work has never been curated specifically together yet avoid historical reasoning or sources. I therefore spent most of the display confused about whether or not Giacometti and Picasso ever crossed paths, or if this is a beautiful and creative reinterpretation of a fictional relation.  Both cases are just as interesting and valid in my opinion, but the vagueness is not, and it does feel a little strange that it is only revealed towards the end of the exhibition that they did, indeed, cross paths in 1930s Paris, often meeting at one of these mythical little cafés where artists remade art history in their image, one drink at a time.

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An enthusiastic and friendly guide is leading a class visit, with completely absorbed children who are eagerly participating; the discussion is about value judgement, realism and beauty in art and how Picasso and Giacometti aimed to change the “traditional” viewpoint at the time. They make the full creative impact of their juxtaposition come to life, showcasing the works as relevant keys towards understanding how artists departed from established, surface-deep notions of “realism”, and why. It suddenly becomes obvious that beyond the duel between the two artists and beyond the art historical sources, this is what truly matters: two paths intertwining, often crossing yet never clashing, searching for a new means of expressing reality, ugliness, beauty and the sublime.

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Persona at the Musée du Quai Branly

This is a fair warning and confession: I am not the bravest person as far as the “horror” genre or at the very least the uncanny is concerned. The latest embarrassing example dates from just this Halloween when I finally decided that one of the oldest horror films of all time, Nosferatu by Fritz Lang, could hardly faze me as much as, say, the trailer for The Woman in Black. I subsequently slept fitfully without being able to get the 1920s vampiric visuals out of my mind.

All the same, despite my much-mocked inability to sit through The Exorcist, I am convinced that the exhibition Persona at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris has been one of the most disturbing exhibition experiences of the year, with a creeping sense of unease which could be felt within visitors all around. The fact that the range of the unsettling varied from a computer programme to a ouija board as well as a 19th century wax anatomic model followed by a robotic gesticulating statue of a Buddha also makes it one of the best interdisciplinary exhibitions I have seen this year. Its blend of anthropological artifacts, historic and contemporary art, popular culture and historical documents make it a stunning and bizarre exploration into what makes us animate entities and most important, how this status can encompass a variety of other objects, such as machines, objects of devotion and artworks.

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The exhibition requires an attentive ear and at the very least an open-minded spirit, since from the onset it pulls us into strange new territories about personhood and presence, starting with hallucinations and invisibility, macrocosms and microcosms. What does it mean to exist? Can people exist while being minuscule or invisible? The selection becomes slightly odd at times, with for instance the juxtaposition of a video of a “flea circus” next to a NASA video of infinite space. However, the exhibition never forgets its roots at the centre of the permanent display of the Quai Branly, letting the artifacts from African, Asian, Latin American and Oceanian countries and cultures speak most eloquently about the fragile line between inanimate objects and receptacles for spirits and souls. Most importantly, these objects and their relation to presence, hallucinations, spirits and the relation to the animate is never condescending or a prop for a point. Roseline de Thélin’s Man Homo Luminoso (2015) made of optic fibers, above, talks to Ernst’s the temptations of Saint-Anthony, a BBC documentary on hallucinations following sensory deprivation, and an Oceanian mask.

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© musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, photo Gautier Deblonde

The exhibition manages to skillfully tie in our fascination with spiritualism and detecting the invisible presences around us with the fascination in creating or imagining this artificial presence through robots both fictional and imaginary. A display of Edison’s documents on a machine capturing the frequencies of ghosts leads to a showcase of chilling ghost-hunting equipment (including a medium hand with a broken index found next to the body of the medium show-runner ‘s husband and a revolver), and Artaud’s “Radio Momo” – a contraption by Jean-Jacques Lebel involving a real skull, a radio and antennaes to capture the dead playwright’s presence. HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey sings in a screening in the background while we interact with ELIZA, one of the first artificial intelligence program from the 60s. By this stage, it is sufficient to say that everyone is understandably spooked, but the exhibition decides to take it up a notch with the uncanny valley corridor, a true horror-trove exploring how and why we express disgust and fear when an inanimate object resembles an animate body too much, but without the spark and soul of life, including robots, sugar skulls and theatre puppets. Moving onto the sole question of robots veers into bizarre, amusing and often oddly sexual territory concerning attraction, companionship and increasingly hybrid organisms.

If the exhibition would have a main advantage and drawback, is that it addressed such a vast range of subjects and concepts that I immediately wanted to write down everything and read anything on the subject as soon as I left. However it also means it was quite wordy and also had the ambition of sifting through millenia of anthropology, art and history around personhood and artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, this exhibition is haunting in more ways than one: much the content it addresses is intentionally conceived to disturb and subvert our traditional concepts of personhood and asks open-ended question which we may only be able to answer in a century, with nothing to calm the existential dread about a robot takeover in the meantime. However, asking these questions forces us to shine a light upon our perception of what it means to be a person, altering our vision of the world and placing us in a strange space between the supernatural and the factual, wonder and understanding. Beyond the spiritualism and science-fiction undertones, we are face to face with our own limitations and potential as living, thinking, feeling entities. And I’m left with a few Pink Floyd lyrics:

Hello,
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?

Persona is at the Musée Quai Branly till the 13th of November

Georgia O’ Keeffe at Tate Modern

Georgia O’ Keeffe must be spinning in her grave: even though she actively protested against the interpretation of her close-up flower paintings as sexual organs, the easiest way to make someone’s face light up with recognition at the mention of her work is usually by adding “you know – the vagina-flower painter”. Tacky, perhaps, but a memorable selling point – furthermore, a feminine selling point that the artist Judy Chicago wanted to add to her work in establishing a list of notable women artists for a long overdue feminist reinterpretation of art history. However, this is a tagline Tate Modern forcibly brushed away with an exhibition which focuses on her entire legacy and her desire, at heart, to represent two recurring obsessions: the American landscape and the intense contemplative nature of still life.

The exhibition starts with a historical reconstruction of her Whitney Museum retrospective in 1946 in which O’Keeffe presented her work during her lifetime, complete with sightly kitsch showroom-like curtain-tables. This had the advantage of setting the tone for the rest of the exhibition – a reappraisal of her work without additional reinterpretations and frills – but falls slightly flat visually in such a large opening room. It then leads on to little-known abstract works from the early 1910s, working towards representing music through abstract colour and form. The vibrant colours and organic shapes are captivating and mysterious, drawing us into contemplation of the flat, yet infinitely expressive surface. Of course, they seem to announce the future, worldwide famous flower paintings but less with the nature of these “sexual” or “feminine” soft folds and colours, and more with a way of looking. As we move from cosmic colour-music to tulips, jimson weeds and orchids, a quote by the artist is particularly strong and resonates through the display of flowers, their delicacy made monumental and contemplative.

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932, Oil paint on canvas, 48 x 40 inches, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

O’ Keeffe herself commented upon the risks of her union with the photographer Alfred Steiglitz overshadowing her own work and recognition and it seems strange, therefore, that so much room would be devoted to his photography as well. There is certainly a risk in making his work and its influence on her such a large part of the exhibition, while including so many photographs of her as his “muse” in an exhibition meant to give O’Keeffe’s work room to breathe. Nevertheless, the photographs are striking, powerful testimonies to their relation and evade any risk of O’Keeffe becoming a passive subject in any given scenario.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II, 1930, Oil on canvas mounted on board, 24 1/4 x 36 1/4 (61.6 x 92.1)Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

The most captivating elements of the display were not the ones I expected nor the ones I knew about at all. O’ Keeffe spent a vast amount of her time painting the dry, warm, rocky landscapes of New Mexico. Heat and visions of a wild, untamed America rise from the canvas in bold yet subtle shaded of black, grey, orange and pink. Another striking surprise: the paintings of animal skulls which mingle with depictions of desert flowers. O’Keeffe, once again stubbornly rejecting Surrealist or symbolical readings of her work,  celebrates instead the vitality of these bones she considers as more alive than the animals themselves through their surface and formal dynamism. They are strange and compelling fixations, like O’Keeffe’s strange obsession with the doors of houses from New Mexico and the semi-abstract shapes they create. As far as symbolism or states of mind go, the rocky landscapes are often far more telling but also more ambiguous, with warm folds which can also become menacing chasms.

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Georgia O’Keeffe’s From the Faraway, Nearby, 1937. Photograph- Georgia O’Keeffe/The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence (c) DACS

Yet as frustrating as it may be for the artist, interpretation and symbolism is inevitable. The exhibition does not aim to guilt us into rejecting any way we may consider O’Keeffe’s work whatever she may think, but simply gets rid of any pre-conceived notion that we have had before finding ourselves in front of the work. Ultimately, whether or not O’Keeffe’s work is to be analysed in terms of sexuality or femininity is not primarily relevant to who she is and why she paints. The fact that her work was not intended as a celebration of  a restricted version of “womanhood” does not make her work any less feminist and revolutionary in the way she bares a raw, unadulterated and complex vision through a unique way of painting and looking. As O’Keeffe herself said, in a quote far more memorable than any ire about flowers being compared to vaginas: “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”

Visit the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern until the 30th of October

Seydou Keïta at the Grand Palais

“You look beautiful like that.”

The sentence that accompanies the visitor through a richly patterned door into the Seydou Keïta exhibition was the Malian photographer’s proclaimed tagline, one he perhaps repeated to countless subjects that posed for him from the 1940s onwards in his studio in Bamako, in the space of a few decades in which his work extended to neighboring countries and achieved worldwide recognition. Many photographers distinguish themselves through the diversity or eclecticism of their subject-matter, from portraiture to genre and landscape; Keïta was not one of them, focusing solely on portrait photography of a seemingly formal nature. Yet, it is through this uniformity and simplicity that Keïta acheived some of the most complex, sensitive and multi-layered portraits of the 20th century. The formal premise is that of his photography business: subjects drop in to have their photograph taken either within his studio or outside, due to his constant preference for natural light. The backdrops are usually  patterned cloths, changing over the years, which become Keïta’s only means of placing a date on them. Entering the exhibition space is to enter an airy, vast space of soft pinks, whites and reds which delicately complement the black and white pictures, blown up almost life-sized, as though to transport us back to the precise moment in which Keïta achieved his perfect vision for the shot. Notoriously meticulous about poses and gestures, the results he achieves are not spontaneous or candid yet they capture the subject with startling intimacy and sincerity.

Vue de l'exposition (4)Scénographie Gare du Nord architecture © Rmn-Grand Palais / Photo Didier Plowy, Paris, 2016

The effect is both striking and contemplative, in rooms that allow enough space for the photographs to breathe, but also convey enough intimacy for these anonymous faces to speak out to us. Anonymous, because Keïta’s way of working (footage shows people queuing up to be photographed one after the other) does not leave room for official records and names. We are left to guess thoughts and relations from one subject to another. As fashions change and intermingle, between Malian fashion and European suits and skirts, a portrait of a country in the midst of change and shifting identity, between images of tradition and modernity, is etched but never quite grasped. At the time, Bamako was still the capital of French Sudan; the year 1962 marking the independence of the Sudanese republic marked the closing of Keïta’s studio, as he was asked to become the first official photographer of the Republic of Mali.

72 DPI-2. Sans titre, 1949 51Untitled, 1949-51, Genève, Contemporary African Art Collection © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo courtesy CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Genève

Moving through the space, the sense of continuity and familiarity between different photos is through not only textile backdrops, but another theatre-like feature: props. Sunglasses, handbags and even an elegant white Vespa pop up in different pictures, as ways for subjects to play creatively with the composition, and also, significantly, the way in which they wanted to be seen and represented. Keïta’s portraits are sincerely realist, yet they also belong to the realm of fantasy and aspirations, on the public status level of a busy neighborhood of Bamako where photographs were usually taken in front of a noisy crowd of peers, and on a deeply personal level.

72 DPI-9. Sans titre, 1952-55Untitled, 1953, Genève, Contemporary African Art Collection © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo courtesy CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Genève

The final room of the exhibition brings us back to the small-scale level of the photographs that would have been taken home by subjects; since Keïta did not keep his own copies of the photographs, most of them were found abandoned or forgotten by clients of the framer’s shop, who also took care of colouring certain accessories. The contrast with the impeccable large-scale portraits is stark; many of them are torn, yellowed or stained. Yet, a deeper sense is given of them as artifacts and keepsakes, fragments of family memories and personalities. They mingle with the confident and light-hearted words of Keïta himself, through footage of his work and interviews that draw smiles and laughs from visitors. The photographer’s pride in his work and confidence in its perfect execution is communicated through his warmth and charisma. One of the quotes peppered throughout the exhibition states proudly and poignantly:  “You can’t imagine what it was like for me the first time I saw prints of my negatives in large-scale, no spots, clean and perfect. I knew then that my work was really, really good. The people in my photos look so alive, almost as if they were standing in front of me.” This heartfelt exhibition left me with no reason to disagree with him.

72 DPI-16.jpgUntitled, no date, collection André Magnin, Paris © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo François Doury