Monday, January 28, 2013

Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) L'Ordre du Chaos, Musée de l'Orangerie

Chaïm Soutine, Self-Portrait, 1918

My first impression of the Soutine exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie was: colour. For an artist working during and in between two world wars, Soutine’s palette was unbelieveably vital and sumptuous. The greens and blues of the trees and the skies, the intense red that colours everything from clothes to the bloody flesh of meat, even the unusual baby blue backgrounds against which portraits are painted, fill the rooms of the Orangerie with an energy and excitement. I can’t think of a more appropriate place for these paintings to be hung than in the environs of Monet’s Water Lilies.

Chaïm Soutine, Arbre Couché, vers. 1923-24
Soutine’s paintings are about the medium of paint as much as they are about the world that he paints. Working in the three classical genres of landscape, portraiture and still life, Soutine was as seduced by painting as representation as he was  by the painted representation. I am not really in a position to say whether Soutine’s indulgence in the sensuous qualities of the image made critical developments in the genres in which he painted. It’s true that there is nothing quite like Soutine’s paintings in his contemporary Europe. However, one could argue that Monet’s richness of colour and erasure of the horizon line, Ludwig Kirchner’s distorted bodies and the Germans' expression of internal turmoil on the picture plane, their penchant for the dissolution of figuration through a simultaneous colourist exploration, is everywhere on Soutine’s canvases. Similarly, we might want to locate the presence of surrealism in the sinuous, tortuous houses that resemble buildings blowing in the wind. Alternatively, we could argue that the still life sliding off both their table and the picture plane speaks to the surrealist exploration through abstraction of the painterly in a desire to create dream worlds. But this said, I do not get the sense that Soutine’s style contributes to the forward motion of the history of art. Of course, there is a deep commitment to the pursuit of the questions plaguing modernism, but Soutine’s response is apparently singular.

Chaïm Soutine, Boeuf écorché, 1924
What I love most about the paintings is their instability, an instability that is in direct contrast to the vivacity and forthrightness of colour. The idea of endless turmoil painted in bright blue and rich green is so impossible to conceive of that we are left with no other option than to celebrate the contradiction. Moreover, the paintings are filled with uncertainty and anxiety, and yet they are clearly structured, with a background for the portraits, a sky for the landscapes, a table for the still lifes. And they each have a  frame, a clear separation from us as they sit inside their own world on the wall of l’Orangerie; there is no sense in which the insecurities and instability of the world depicted ever spills over into ours. And yet, simultaneously, the still lives are anything but dead: the rabbit screams out for attention, the meat and the wine of La Table (c. 1919) slide off the table in a grand gesture of dissention, and the bloody red flesh fills the room with its odour, as though the carcass has a personality, a personality that it is revealed through its insides.  

Chaïm Soutine, Portrait d'un Homme, vers 1922-23
My favorites of all the paintings are still the portraits. And their most intriguing moment is always the moment of the dissolution of the face, that moment on the canvas where the identity becomes unstable, the self melts into the world around it, in this case the background. In the example of the Portrait of a Man (1922-23) this moment is surprising because it is not the misshapen right side of the face that causes the most trouble on the otherwise peaceful canvas. Rather, it is the moment where the face melts into the sky blue background, the moment where everything is thrown into question. 

Chaïm Soutine, Enfant de choeur, vers 1927-28
Ultimately, the density of the paint makes these works lush and seductive. They are filled with emotion, sensuousness, they are physical, masculine, but not angry or grotesque. In fact, one of the things that makes the portraits so compelling is that the faces are all soft, self-reflecting in the way we imagine a Rembrandt sitter might be. If the sill lives are loud, and their decomposing flesh repels us, the portraits are  quietly troubled because their emotions are internalized, even as the face, and with it the identity, slides off the canvas. Soutine’s style and technique is as suited to decomposing flesh as it is to sitters who simultaneously bare and bear their own disintegration.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Conversations with Georgia

Meeting at Chemin Vert Metro for September Openings

It was in our wanderings around Paris that I really grew to know and love Georgia. Friday afternoons when Georgia was in town was our day.  We took turns in choosing what to see, where to go — the Palais de Tokyo, Jeu de Paume, Louvre, small galleries in the 8th or the Marias, the Pompidou Centre — what mattered most was that we went together. We gossiped and shared the details of our daily lives en route, because once in front of art, our conversations would be focused, inspiring, intellectual, and always about art. Georgia opened my eyes and my heart to so much about art, and along the way, to a Paris I would never have otherwise seen or known. With art as with people, Georgia was patient. She always stopped to look and to listen to what the images were saying, what they wanted us to see. When we saw Giorgio de Chirico, La Fabrique des rêves at the Musée d’Art Moderne, I confidently declared everything after room number 3 to be impoverished: I was ready for the café. Georgia wasn’t so sure, ignored me, kept walking, and insisted we take the exhibition seriously. At room number 5, when I was itching to drink coffee, Georgia quietly turned around and announced, “okay, now we need to think about what’s going on here and why it’s not working.” Again and again, she would push me to know what I was looking at, what it was asking of me, and why I wasn’t prepared to engage in its conversations.

With art as with people, Georgia’s greatest quality was to give everything and everyone a chance. This did not translate to her praise of or attraction to everything she saw. But Georgia always began with a belief in the intentions of a work of art.

Place des Voges

We often disagreed on what we did and didn’t like. We had long arguments over Georgia’s admiration for Alex Katz, Mona Hatoum, Pipilolitti Rist; that genre of postmodern art that apparently disparages the same world it represents, but keeps its concerns on its surface. And my veneration for abstract painting was never shared by Georgia. But in our disagreement, our understanding of what we were seeing, opened up in otherwise unimaginable ways. There were, of course, exhibitions that we loved together. I remember the Jimmy Durham exhibition, Pierres Rejetées again at the Musée d’Art Moderne. The brilliance of this work took time to reveal itself, and as we talked about what we saw, after patiently waiting for the work to expose itself to us, Georgia and I laughed out loud. We discovered such delight in the complexity of Durham’s works, and a humor not meant to be associated with conceptual art. The very well-behaved French visitors tiptoed around the obtrusive and often clumsy objects, casting glances askance at the two foreigners being tickled by Jimmy Durham’s art. For Georgia, art had to be taken seriously, but it was never precious. Her readiness to express her response out loud, to enjoy, to be touched, and to be changed by art, came not from a reverence for it or any mystical quality it may have held inside. Art belonged with us in the ups and downs of our daily lives. In the same breath, for Georgia, everyday life was a work of art.

A typical sight in the Marais at the Openings

For Georgia, the art exhibitions of Paris continued well beyond the galleries and museums. Some Friday afternoons it would take us hours to walk from one Marais Gallery to the next because we had to stop to look, with the same care and attention, at the shop window displays, the dogs in paniers, the door handles, the ladies in all their glory, as life passed us by on the streets. Georgia’s eye was trained to detail. While most of the rest of us march onward to the next gallery, in anticipation of the “real art,” Georgia knew full well that art, like life, was found in the crevices and cracks that gave substance to our everyday.

On our bikes
Georgia’s comfort in the streets of Paris and her love for the people who roamed them spilt over into her conversations with the artists we would meet and interview, either formally or casually at an opening. Together we met and interviewed Harun Farocki and Rodney Graham following the opening of their joint exhibition at the Jeu de Paume. While it’s difficult not to fall into a philosophical intellectualism when talking to Harun Farocki, Georgia immediately set the tone and opened up the most convivial conversation when she warmly shared,  “I like your t-shirt.” And at the Louvre, following a series of films by Mark Lewis and a panel discussion with a number of prominent intellectuals, while the renowned and the published danced around the artist, no one really knowing quite what to say, Georgia went straight up to him, introduced herself and said “I gotta tell you, I felt so nauseous when I watched Forte.” Of course, this was the response Lewis had anticipated, and the two of them went on to enjoy a long conversation about the film. Meanwhile, all the renowned and published stood and watched, incredulously. Why had they not asked that question, they wondered?

There can only ever be a handful of people in one lifetime with whom it’s possible to live and to learn through conversations inspired by art. At least, that has been my experience. Georgia was, for me, one such person. Our conversations were as creative in their process as the art that generated them. Georgia’s generosity, her love of art, her love of life, of Paris, and above all, her enthusiasm for the unique individuals who made innovation happen, were woven into every one of our conversations. Without Georgia, my wanderings through Paris art exhibitions have become a solitary pursuit, but my goal is to keep our conversations alive. I look and I listen, carefully, always remembering with each new work of art to ask myself: what would Georgia be saying to me now?