Monday, June 27, 2011

Manet, Inventeur du Moderne. Musée d'Orsay

Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1862
Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

The only way I could bear the crowds I knew would be at the Musée d’Orsay for the Manet extravaganza was to go with a friend, her 12 year old son, and his friend; at least I could go under the illusion that I was on a mission to educate the boys about one of France’s greatest painters. Of course, the boys raced through the exhibition at breakneck speed, while my friend and I wove our way in and around the crowds to devour the luscious paintings, some of which were familiar, others I had never seen in the flesh, and still others I didn’t even know existed.
Henri Fantin-Latour, Hommage à Delacroix, 1864
I was swept up in the size of the exhibition; it was huge in terms of the number of paintings on display as well as the reach of its claims. Though I am not convinced it was fully successful, the exhibition attempted to sketch the world of late nineteenth-century modernity with Manet’s paintings at its center. The often superficial references to those in Manet’s midst — Baudelaire, Zola, Renoir, Monet, Mallarmé, and so on — didn’t fully capture how radical and controversial all of these thinkers, especially Manet, really were. Similarly, to my surprise, there was no mention of the other inventions that were revolutionizing the principles and philosophy of visual representation in Manet’s time: photography and the pre-cinematic. This, in spite of their obvious influence over his aesthetic and working process: the fragmentation of the image, the face in closeup, the consistent use of grey paint, the breech of representation toward realism.  On another level, I enjoyed the sketch of nineteenth-century artistic and intellectual Paris because it left me yearning. I felt like a character in Minuit à Paris (the Woody Allen film I had seen the night before) dreaming of how much better it would have been to live in Manet’s generation. How inspiring to move in this rich cultural moment, to spend my days visiting artists and writers, sitting in Paris cafés discussing politics and culture, and most importantly, not having to go to work! If only ….. 

Edouard Manet, Les Bulles de Savon, 1867
Jean-Siméon Chardin, Soap Bubbles, 1734

Even though the works on display were predominantly those from French collections, the sheer size of the exhibition makes it impossible to summarize. Nevetheless, there were a few images that completely enchanted and fascinated me. One of my favorites was Les Bulles de Savon (1867) a painting I had never seen before. Like Chardin’s better known portrait of the boys at play, Manet’s is surely engaging with the transience of life, and the ephemerality of the image in modernity. As in so many of Manet’s portraits, the boy is alone against a grey background, performing for an audience that might be on the other side of the wall that separates him from us. With its grey palette articulating luminosity, energy and ephemerality, together with the gesture towards realism of the depiction, I was reminded that this and the other portraits of this period are the siblings of the photographic medium being developed contemporaneously. In the next room, the well-known Le Balcon reinforces the performance of life as representation that is, on Manet’s canvases, painting itself. Painting is a performance, a representation, that is mirrored in the boy blowing bubbles and the three lonely figures on the balcony, figures who are  themselves the audience of a spectacle we do not see. Perhaps they watch the (absent) spectacle of modern life. 
Edouard Manet, Le Balcon, 1868-69
Throughout I was struck by the looseness, and the speed of Manet’s brush stroke. Even his most revered masterpieces are painted with a very fast, and free brush. And there are moments when the technique is so extreme that he makes paint look like a sketch, or alternatively, allows it to verge into abstraction. While the history paintings are under-represented by the exhibition, the one, unfinished version of The Execution of Maximilian, 1867 reveals these aspects of Manet’s working process. Even if the work is unfinished, its characteristics are nevertheless similar to the version in the National Gallery in London in which we see the Hapsburg Emperor being executed by the Mexican firing squad. In the version on display in this exhibition, we may not get to see one of the great delights of the London version — the folds of the fabric of the executioners’ trousers — but we see the wonderful abstraction of the rifle smoke that becomes air which turns into the men’s hats, and then merges with the earth in the other direction. T J Clark talks about the blur as the ambiguity of modern life as it is captured in the smoke from the rifles. And in this unfinished version, we find all of the uncertainty and instability of a world at war echoed in the vagueness of an image painted at such a speed.
Edouard Manet, The Execution of Maximilian, 1867

My favorite moment of the exhibition was when, standing before Manet’s masterpiece, I asked the two 12 year old boys whether or not they knew the myth of Olympia? They pointed to her, “who her?” and giggled. At the end of the exhibition wanting to engage them in some discussion of the paintings, Anne asked what Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (1962) and Olympia (1863) had in common? More sniggers, and the response: “they both have a naked lady.” The confrontation of her gaze, the symbolism of the black cat, Olympia’s demi-monde existence as a prostitute, and the critique of colonialism through the presence of the black maid, all of it was lost on these young boys. And it made me wonder; how many men look at these paintings and see the exact same thing: a naked woman? Likewise, I wonder if the excitement and sheer radicality of Manet’s work has disappeared for a contemporary audience? Not for me. If I could face the crowds I would go back and savor more of these extraordinary paintings that still make me want to dive headlong back into the mid-nineteenth century.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kees van Dongen, Musée de l'art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Kees Van Dongen, The Corn Poppy, 1919

I knew very little about Kees van Dongen's painting before I visited the current exhibition at the Musée de l"art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. I had seen and loved The Corn Poppy, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, but as we all know, one work in isolation usually does not give a clear perspective of an artist's work. And for the most part, my introduction to van Dongen's oeuvre was colored by high expectations and inevitable disappointments.

My overwhelming sense of van Dongen's oeuvre was of its derivation. I saw a painter who was swept away by artistic trends and tides, an artist who did not create an overall sense of development through his oeuvre, but rather, one who went from style to style in search of how best to express himself. This lack of coherence was identifiable not just in the influence of the great French fin de siècle painters — Monet, Cezanne, Manet, Gaugin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Rouault and the list goes on — but the influence of their German counterparts such as Kirchner and Marc, was also alive on van Dongen's canvases. Even more than an influence, one might even claim that van Dongen imitated their style and concerns. Whether it is in the thick and short, textured strokes of Cezanne, Gaugin's vibrant colors. or Kirchner's thin, elongated female figures, the styles of all the painters in his midst overwhelms van Dongen's canvases. 
Kees van Dongen, Trouville, la mer, 1904
All of that said about the originality of van Dongen's paintings, I was nevertheless enchanted by the skill with which he painted water throughout his career. Every time van Dongen turns to a body of water, whether it be the sea in winter, figures battling the rain in the streets of Paris, or a lake  at dusk, the light reflected on the water makes the canvas glistens, as though it was painted yesterday. In Maisons à Amsterdam, for example, the light is so delicately reflected off the buildings through his use of coagulations of white paint, we might easily be mistaken to believe that the rain just fell and we start to smell the sweet, still damp air. Often when he paints water, nothing else in the image matters, and the focus on water tends to lift the representational into the abstract as though the canvas is a receptacle made for color and light. In a 1905 work such as La Nuit, the rain literally takes over as the subject of the painting. The figures struggling through the thick sheaths of rain are somehow only present to illustrate the density of the water as it fills the air, colors the buildings and floods the streets. And when he paints Le Carroussel also in 1905, the weilding of white paint The technique of weilding white paint to articulate motion at night the image not only becomes abstracted, but the canvas is transformed into a three-dimensional sculpture through the thickness of the paint. 
Kees van Dongen, Paris La Nuit
My favorite room in the exhibition however is the final one in which a series of 1920s portraits sit grandly. Unlike the women of the street, dancers, prostitutes, circus women that van Dongen from nobodies into royalty in the 1900s and 1910s, the women in the 1920s portraits are already women of an elevated social standing.  But it is not their social place that makes these paintings interesting, and for me, nor is it in the flattening out of all perspective so that the figure appears suspended on the surface of the painted world. Though it must be said, the compositional features of these final works in this exhibition are noticeable for their realization of concerns that have recurred throughout the past twenty years of painting: the elongated bodies, the gesture towards the diagonal, the clear compositional and conceptual engagement with the concerns of modernity and modernist painting. However, what is striking is that in the final room of the exhibition this is all painted in grey. The clothes are grey, the furniture and fabric in their midst is grey, their backhgrounds are grey.
Kees van Dongen, Portrait de Ms Jean McKelvie Sclater-Booth, c. 1920
And I want to know, why does a painter who has spent a lifetime seeing the world and its women in a palette of rich, sensual, passionate colors, all of a sudden, turn to grey? The standard interpretation of the grey palette is that it somehow reflects the depression and melancholy of the world in its midst, considered to be a non-color by many art critics, it is used in the face of a Beckettian nothingness, or at best a communication of the negative. And yet, here in van Dongen's grey men and women, there is nothing depressing, grim or non-existent. On the contrary, these greys fill the paintings with a luminosity and an energy that appears to have rippled out from the bodies of water in the earlier work. These portraits that echo the very personality of modernity, typified as it often is as the period of industrialization, are nuanced, they are as rich in their complexity as any of the earlier work in color. 
Kees van Dongen, Le Sphinx, 1925

Monday, June 13, 2011

Burke + Norfolk, Photographs from the War in Afghanistan, Tate Modern, Level 2

John Burke, Timur Shah's Mosque, 1879
Hidden away on level 2, in a tiny gallery on the Thames side of the Tate Modern is, for my money, the pick of the temporary exhibitions currently on display: Burke + Norfolk: Photographs From the War in Afghanistan by John Burke and Simon Norfolk.
John Burke, Khyber Pass, 1878
Contemporary British photographer, Simon Norfolk returned to Afghanistan in the footsteps of John Burke, a nineteenth century apothecary who smuggled himself and his camera onto the battlefield of what was the second Anglo-Afghan war between 1878-1880. Burke’s photographs are dreamy: a wet plate collodion process that produces creamy browns and reds, a spectrum of color and movement in the photograph that has no equivalent today. The image is textured, detailed, and yet, soft and silken. There is no way to reproduce the delight of Burke’s images and Norfolk doesn’t try. Instead, what fascinates Norfolk is that Burke does not take photographs of the battlefield itself, perhaps because he does not want to show the British in a bad light, decimated by the Afghan army. Perhaps Burke shows no dead bodies and no exploding bombs because the expense of the labor intensive photographic process and prints meant there was too much to lose by taking a camera to the frontline. In the end it is not important why Burke photographs the Afghan war beyond the battlefield such that there are instances when (as my friend James pointed out) we could be looking at images of nineteenth century Texas. What is important is the immense and unending vision of the nineteenth century apothecary’s camera. 
Simon Norfolk, A dumping ground for an abandoned Russian-era bomber
that has now been incorporated into the car park of "Shamshad TV", a new media company
supported by American money
, 2010-2011
And for all of Burke’s sense of possibility and permanence as it is given to the camera by nature, Norfolk matches it with a transience and a foreshortening of the perspective to emphasize that today, in the midst of another war in Afghanistan 130 years later, the same landscape has become scarred with the detritus of man made disaster. The detritus that collects, not of war technology itself, but in the support of war – containers, makeshift buildings, camps, man made junk – scars an otherwise perfect landscape. These structures and objects as the consequence of war re-articulate a vast, once glorious landscape so that it is now one huge capitalist clutter.
Simon Norfolk, Afghan Police Trainees, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand, 2010-2011
When there is a perspective, as in an image such as one that shows “Afghan police trainees being taken to the firing ranges by US Marines, Camp leatherneck, Helmand” the line of vision goes nowhere. In this example, the column of trainees walk into the distance, across the desert, with no purpose, for no apparent reason. As is so often the case in Norfolk’s depiction of Afghans, added to the irony of an image that echoes the structure of a nineteenth-century composition, and empties that composition of all significance, the Afghans here are configured like prisoners. The visual language in Norfolk’s image is identical to that depicting trains of prisoners herded across Europe first by the Nazis and later by the Red Army in World War II Europe.
Simon Norfolk, Internet Café, Herat, 2010-2011

John Burke, Main Street Jellalabad, 1878

Simon Norfolk, Kabul "Pizza Express", 2010-2011

Norfolk’s photographs are brilliant, not inspite of the fact that he does not show the war, but because of its absence. Norfolk flattens out the photographic vision in order to underline the loss of hope, possibility, infinity as it was captured in the vanishing point perspective of nineteenth century landscape photography. Norfolk’s frontality, the use of lenses and filters, reinforces the disposability of life in a makeshift environment.  In exhibition at the Tate Modern Norfolk’s images sit side by side with digital prints of Burke’s – the same dimensions, which are themselves, no longer found in photographs today. Not only do we see photographs of an Afghanistan that look strange because of their difference from the thousands upon thousands of news reportage from the war, but the photographic form itself is made strange, of another era. In a compelling juxtaposition, Burke’s version of the main street of Jellallabad showing the covered bazaar sits in between Norfolk’s of pizza express behind of the bus station in Kabul and the Rasa internet café in Herat.  The internet café is tacky, a tack emphasized by the lenses and the printing process, the gloss of the photograph, all of which push the colored facades and the intense sunlight into the realms of the plastic and the absurd. Where once the merchants in the bazaar may have been poor, but their commerce had dignity and logic, today, the internet cafés and pizza joints of downtown Kabul and Herat are a different story. Moreover, the comparison through juxtaposition makes the trash and gloss of today absolutely frightening. The psychedelia of Norfolk’s images somehow comes to stand for the absurdity of the war that is being fought. Norfolk’s is a caustic commentary on the violence of war and colonialism.

John Burke, Landholders and LaborersKabul, 1879

Because Burke also photographed groups and portraits, Norfolk does too. These are some of Norfolk’s most disturbing photographs, again in their juxtaposition, their dialogue as he calls it, with Burke’s. The group portraits are powerful and searing in their critique because they are subtle, unsettling because they are so different from the way that war is photographed in the twenty-first century. And so they enable us to look at this war that we have seen countless times before, from a completely different angle.

Simon Norfolk, Media Operations Team, Camp Bastion, Helmand, 2010-2011
Groups of people, both Afghans and contemporary British, are proud and made regal by Burke’s camera, against backgrounds of nature that expressed their dignity. Today through Norfolk’s viewfinder, groups engaged in the war effort are awkward in their poses, disinterested in the fight they are waging, performing in a play whose script they don’t believe in. Even though they take on poses familiar from nineteenth century representations of official groups, Norfolk’s actors are placed on a stage that might collapse at any moment, and clearly have no notion of what they are doing. Norfolk’s work functions on so many different registers: it is ironic and poignant, in places revels in the absurdity of what it can see, in others it is tragic. Even though they never show the war, the photographs look its tragedy and futility in the eye, making it both innovative and highly political. 
Simon Norfolk, Pro-Taliban Refugees, 2010-2011
My one disappointment is the exhibition itself. The accompanying catalogue (with superb reproductions) indicates that only about half the series is on display in the current exhibition. This, together with its location in a tiny gallery on Level 2 of the Tate Modern is a source of considerable frustration. Upstairs, occupying prime real estate on level 4 are Taryn Simon’s photographic archives. Simon’s photographs trace the “bloodlines” of the living dead, terrorists, Nazis, rabbits, genocide victims and an array of other international curiosities. As far as I could see, the photographic series and repetitions meant to “map the relationships among chance, blood and other components of fate,” were superficial form without substance. They were admittedly beautifully presented, but nevertheless, pieces that did not penetrate the consequences of portraits in their series. Why, I wondered, was this second-rate work by an unknown New Yorker given precedence over the compelling and complex, politically acerbic, morally urgent images of a young British photographer? 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mitch Epstein, American Power, Fondation Henri Cartier Bresson

Mitch Epstein, Gavin Coal Power Plant, Cheshire, Ohio 2003
Epstein’s latest photographs, American Power, big, shiny and new, represent the way that “power” in its most extreme and varied forms, is threaded through the very fabric of daily life in the contemporary US. Inspite of their aesthetic appeal, the images are frightening. There is nothing upsetting or shocking about the photographs themselves; on the contrary, they are pristine, meticulously composed, slick and sometimes beautiful photographs. However, what the photograph is and what it shows could not be further away from each other. Inside the highly aestheticized images, we see scarey worlds in which, for example, a group of worshipers baptize one of their number with the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant in the background in Herald California. Life is shown to carry on as usual, while power plants, nuclear reactors and all manner of industrial monstrosities spew waste, fumes and poisons. Thus, these images so upsetting.

Mitch Epstein, Fort Pierce Florida, 2005
In one of the most difficult images, a man with an artificial leg, cigarette in hand, his stomach bulging as he chats with his friend, nonchanantly guards his fishing line. But this is not the most prominent element of Fort Pierce Florida, 2005. What matters is the offshore drilling platform in the background. It is not only bigger than the human, but the machinery is centered in the frame, and overwhelms the human. Our first thought when we look at this image is that the men are fishing in the same body of water into which the waste of the oil rig will spill. Does he really think that he will catch fish? And if so, who is going to eat these fish? Probably you and me. Only after being unsettled by the idea of the polluted waters in which he fishes, do we begin to think about the fact that his leg is artificial. And whether or not it is the case, the immediate assumption is that he must be a Vietnam veteran.
Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond West Virginia, 2004

In another striking image, the Amos Coal Power plant is literally the backdrop to a tenderly cared for yard in Raymond, West Virginia. What is so frightening here is the tension that emerges between the traces of the human that tell of the enormous care and love of home, garden and environment and the promise of deathly waste from the coking plant that will infect the air that these same thoughtful people breathe. In this and other images, the tensions and contradictions emerge between the photograph and what it pictures. Again, the crisply lit scene, the perfectly composed frame, the clarity of vision become undone by the horror of what lurks in the background of the same scene.

Mitch Epstein, Ocean Warwick Oil Platform, 2005

This tension reaches its ultimate articulation in those photographs that resemble —even to the most casual of viewers – the Romantic landscapes of Casper David Friedrich. We cannot help but compare the beauty of Turner’s clouds with the Gavin Coal Power Plant. And in the Ocean Warwick Oil Platform off Daupine Island we are not mistaken when we see Casper David Friedrich’s Eismeer (1824). But whereas in Friedrich’s painting it is nature that triumphs, at war with the world and peacefully at rest, content with itself, in Epstein’s photograph, the victor is of a different ilk altogether. With its saturated blues and purples marking the end of the day, this platform is the monstrosity we have created and left to poison the sea. And thus, in Epstein’s worlds, we have reached a moment when nature will no longer survive the violence of our manipulations.

Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007

What is so impressive about Epstein’s photographs is that they neither celebrate nor condemn the power and industry that has destroyed the natural environment and the manmade ones we inhabit. Epstein’s refusal to judge or critique comes thanks to the hyperrealism of the images. Their presentation of "what" is enabled by the tension between the aesthetic perfection of the photograph and the devastation that surges within its frames. Similarly, the matter-of-factness of these images comes courtesy of the eternal present that is the American way of life.  My interest in and familiarity with representations of similarly insidious destruction wrought on the environment by industry in the Ruhr Valley in Germany makes the “nowness” of Epstein’s photographs easier to identify. In Germany, similar images are aware of a past in which the industrial was to be celebrated, and a future in which it is to be phased out. However, in Epstein’s photographers there is nothing outside of the present. There is no sense of nostalgia, no sense of anything every being different, ever, and no call for a different future. This is the way that life is.