Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Racławice Panorama, Wrocław

My week in wonderful Wrocław was crowned with a visit to the Racławice Panorama. As a lover and historian of silent cinema and early cinematic technologies, and devotee of late 19th century modernity, I was understandably excited to be visiting Wrocław as home to one of Europe’s few surviving panoramas. Years ago, I visited the a panorama in Stockholm, but Wroclaw’s very own representation of the battle of Racławice is bigger, more dramatic, and provocative thanks to its subject matter and the chequered history of the painting.

Russians Defeated

The panorama was painted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Racławice, 4 April 1794, telling the story of the famous Kościuszko Insurrection. That the Insurrection was ultimately a failure didn’t deter the Poles from holding the battle itself as an iconic memory of Polish Independence.  The painting was originally displayed in what was then Lviv—now Lvov, a city on the Polish border now in the Ukraine—a town I know as the location of some of the most horrendous World War II crimes. When it was in Lviv, the painting drew visitors from far and wide. Then, with the redrawing of Poland’s borders, the panorama was moved to Wrocław after the war. With Polish peasants vanquishing the Russian army in the Battle of Racławice, it’s no wonder that during the Cold War, there was sustained opposition to its renovation and public display in Poland.
Merging of reality and representation
What’s really extraordinary about this panoramic representation is its form as a 19th century mass-cultural representation of history. The 360 degree representation of different moments in the battle is executed and displayed to ensure that the visitor is always placed at the centre of the space within the depiction. In turn, this illusory space gradually merges with our reality. The painted image extends simultaneously into a series of receding perspectives to hills in a distant background, and into real rocks, dirt strewn with swords, fallen carriages and broken trees before us. Thus, because the line between reality and representation is so successfully blurred, we are immersed in an environment that is truly disorienting. The lighting is also expertly crafted to give a disconcerting continuity, but also to give the impression that we are outside, under the luminous sky of the painting. Still today, it is as convincing an immersive experience as any 3D movie. It’s not difficult to imagine how a 19th century visitor would have been in awe of the experience on a Sunday afternoon visit to the panorama.

Lastly, the depiction of the violent and bloody battle is impressive for its merciless depiction of the Russians, and the heroism of the peasants and the other forces of insurrection. With scythes raised and the full force of a charge in motion, the energy and excitement of the vanquisher would have made visitors proud of their nation. At the same time, the painting is more than competent; the slaughter reminded me of Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian. The same clouds of smoke, bloody insurrection, and guns, scythes in the air, enjoys a realism that is completely in the service of the drama of the battle.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Kiefer Rodin @ Musée Rodin

Anselm Kiefer, Auguste Rodin, les cathédrales de France, 2016
The last time I went to the Musée Rodin was in 1984, and my suspicion is, it probably hasn’t changed that much. And yet, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Rodin was so much more interesting than the The Kiss, The Thinker and Balzac. It took Anselm Kiefer to be exhibited in the museum for me to get back there, but it was the Rodin sculptures that were the real discovery.

Anselm Kiefer, Berthe au Grand Pied, 2016 (detail)

I did not know many of the works on display even existed, and I would never have associated them with Rodin. All the famous, very classical, conservative sculptures are shown on the ground floor of the museum that was once his studio in rue Varenne. The most fascinating work, however, is on the first floor. The extensive collection which he donated to the state to establish his legacy includes unfinished bodies charging out of marble blocks, miniature limbs lined up in rows in glass vitrines, plaster dipped cloth covering fragmented bodies in pain, torsos clutching urns, and scenes on oversized columns. Work after sculptural work by Rodin reveals his occupation at the forefront of modernity in a way that I never imagined he would have. His fascination for the body became materialized in sculpture an obsession with its movement, its capacity to express emotion, its convergence with the materiality of sculpture. Yes, he was interested in form, perfect human replication, but at the Rodin was so much more.
Auguste Rodin, Hands of a Pianist, 1909
The exhibition of Kiefer’s works in the downstairs temporary gallery is filled with familiar oversized Kiefer canvases, sculptures speaking the decay and destruction of hope, knowledge, humanity, paintings that glimpse possibility, stairways leading nowhere, nature without promise of regeneration. Of course, the work, particularly Kiefer’s familiar use of lead, is compelling – from the peeling lead on August Rodin: les cathédrales de France (2016) to the ashen sunflower covered in lead – and moving. And in the enclosed arcade gallery, the works in vitrines are exquisite. Nevertheless, I am always ambivalent towards Kiefer’s monumental self-obsession, and this exhibition seemed to reinforce my disillusionment. It all looked very familiarly Kiefer.
Anselm Kiefer, La Conscience des Pierres, 2014
Included in the exhibition is – of course – a series of handmade books that cannot be opened, books that cannot be read. On them are images of naked women emerging from watercoloured marble. The paintings are exquisite and delicate and tactile on the page, but I wasn’t in the mood for naked women with bleeding genitals painted by one of the West’s most successful male artists. However, I was, at least, beginning to see the connection between Kiefer and Rodin. Women’s bodies seemingly floating through air, sensuous and erotic, emerging from marble were convinced by Kiefer may have been inspired by Rodin.
Auguste Rodin, Dernière Vision, 1902
But it was upstairs. On the first floor that everything fell into place. Rodin was in fact interested in all the same preoccupations as Kiefer – not just naked women with exposed genitals. The abundance of casts and fragments of bodies, from delicate fingers to broken torsos in impossible positions, reveal how, like Kiefer, Rodin was always thinking about issues of death and rebirth, of decay and the inevitable dilapidation of life. He was interested in materials, in fabrics, and their fixing in plaster. Rodin, like Kiefer was a collector, and an organizer of objects, placing knowledge in vitrines to preserve, display, categorize, and fix in history. Similarly, they both used the same materials: plaster, metal, fabric, marble. Although Rodin did not reach for lead as often as Kiefer, the same themes of transformation and alchemy are there in the narratives of his sculptural figures.   
A vitrine of body parts
Of course, there were also many differences, aspects of Rodin’s work that did not weigh so heavily on Kiefer. The most obvious being that Rodin was always in search of the inexpressibility of emotion. His sculptures are always looking to capture emotion in the sculpted body, no matter how big or small. Even when the figures are in a narrative or have some kind of historical reference, their purpose is to give form to emotion. For Kiefer, however, making art is always an intellectual process. And his works are formed by the search for the inexpressible knowledge of what it means to be always in the process of dying, and waiting to be reborn. Whether it is his own identity, or that of Germany, World War II or a more distant history, Kiefer always looks to define a lifespan across time.