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.

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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.

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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.

georgia-okeeffes-from-the-faraway-nearby-1937-photograph-georgia-okeeffethe-metropolitan-museum-of-artart-resourcescala-florence
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