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Sunday 9 December 2012

Exhibition : La Collection Michael Werner - 5 October 2012 to 3 March 2013

La Collection Michael Werner

Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Palais de Tokyo – 5 October 2012 to 3 March 2013

Michael Werner and the world of contemporary art

One of the glories of the French eighteenth century Enlightenment, was the attempt by a group of French intellectuals to synthesise the entire knowledge-base of humanity into one accessible publication generally referred to as the Encyclopédie Diderot-d’Alembert. The twentieth-century version of this endeavour would be the incredibly wide-ranging and very affordable series of books that make up the “Que-Sais-Je” collection published by the Presses Universitaires de France since 1946. Each book is devoted to one of approximately eight hundred topics, is exactly 128 pages in length and is written by a specialist in the field under study. They are intended to provide a good, basic grounding for the layman in whatever the topic may be. Unlike the Encyclopédie which was published only once, these books are regularly re-issued and updated as the knowledge evolves. In the 1992 edition of the Que-Sais-Je devoted to L’Art contemporain, Anne Cauquelin takes on the perilous task of attempting to explain the art of the moment without getting bogged down in yet another history of twentieth-century art, i.e. Picasso, Duchamp and all the others. In a world where art can be words painted on a wall, or a video projection, or just about anything, how does one determine what is and is not art? By its very nature, contemporary art lacks the benefit of hindsight to establish a pecking order of ‘important’ versus ‘forgettable’ art. So what are the criteria? The authoress came up with a brilliant and credible if somewhat cheeky answer : although she phrased it differently, the gist of her answer was that contemporary art was whatever New York art-dealer Leo Castelli († 1999) said it was. If he was willing to sell it, it was art. And if sold by Leo Castelli it was ipso facto ‘important’ (i.e. expensive) art.

If Castelli can be said to have had a European equivalent in terms of influence, he would be the German gallery-owner Michael Werner. So much so that when the latter decided to set up a New York branch for his gallery, he moved it into Leo Castelli’s former digs on East 77th Street. Thirty years ago when I worked for a gallery here in Paris, the craven servility of Parisian gallery owners (and indeed the entire microcosm of French contemporary art) used to make me cringe : always looking to Leo Castelli in New York or Michael Werner in Cologne to tell them who was hot and who was not rather than exercise their own judgment and look for their own artists here in France. It was all the more shocking because as a rule, the French (and particularly in matters cultural) prefer to set their own agenda. But my more mature self today understands that the gallery owners had businesses to run, they needed buyers and said buyers wanted either the Leo Castelli or the Michael Werner seal of approval before handing over rather more-than-handsome sums of money for, well,... For what? That was the question, wasn’t it?

Michael Werner’s collection

Let me eat my humble pie upfront. When I heard of an exhibition of some 900 (yes, nine hundred!) works from Michael Werner’s personal collection (including 60 of the 127 works that he recently donated to the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris) I expected something slightly vulgar, a sort of sales catalogue intended to boost the price of his collection. I thought to myself: ‘he must be getting along in years (after all, his first gallery opened in Berlin in 1964) and probably he wants to cash out’. The best way to do that is to organise a couple exhibitions before remitting the collection to Sotheby’s or Christies for disposal. Of course I expected it entirely to be made up of the German artists such as Bazelitz, Immendorf, Lüpertz and Penck who remain the mainstays of the gallery. The very last thing I imagined was that this exhibition would turn out to be a luminous embodiment of aesthetic intelligence, a journey through an expression of personal taste, happily free from the hackneyed litanies that tend to crop forth whenever debate turns to the art of the twentieth century. One of the greatest strengths of this exhibition is that it contains not a single Picasso, Miró, Pollock, Rothko or Warhol—not to mention Buren or Koons—whilst nonetheless managing to span the entire century.

Thanks to the large number of works on display, although some forty artists are represented, each one is well represented by several pieces. And unlike what tends to happen in provincial museums and some private collector’s houses, more often than not the pieces on display precisely are not those with the ‘iconic’ hallmarks of the artist : André Derain is represented by a series of twenty-one fantastical bronze busts but not a single fauve painting; amongst the works of Lucio Fontana on display, not a single slashed canvas is to be seen; for Joseph Beuys, not a trace of felt or a red cross anywhere; the only Yves Klein on display is red. This is refreshing, to put it mildly.

The scope of the exhibition is equally surprising : whilst I was expecting only works from the Eighties, Nineties and Noughties (and there are plenty of those), here are works by Fautrier, Derain, and Picabia as well as German Expressionists from the Twenties and Thirties, and even older works by Willem Lehmbrück as well as the abstract sculptor Otto Freundlich. Mercifully nothing is presented in chronological order : this is not a lecture on the history of art in the twentieth-century, this is a selective wander through some rich by-roads of a tumultuous artistic century ; a meander, as it were, through an artistic meadow where one encounters the solid, monumental bronzes of Markus Lüpertz, whose Daphne stands like a mighty oak-tree upholding the sky; the ethereal, conceptual works of Marcel Broodthaers could play the role of Queen-Anne’s lace and the joyful buttercups would be the prodigiously elegant, calligraphic ink-on-paper female nudes of Jean Fautrier. And speaking of meadows, two whole rooms are turned over to Per Kirkeby, including his luminous landscapes from the Sixties, before he had defined the style that today we think of as proper Kirkeby.

Amongst the other delights to be discovered I would count Eugen Schönebeck. He was closely associated with Baselitz, Michael Werner’s star artist since the very beginning of the gallery, but unlike Bazelitz, Schönebeck stopped painting and turned to other things. There is also the weird and wonderful Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern, and so many others, some less than prominent, some overly famous, but all benefiting from the unexpected highlighting of this exhibition, perhaps none more than the proteiform Francis Picabia.

In a word, this is a must-see exhibition, even if you think you don’t like anything later than the Impressionists. This is not yet one more ‘blockbuster’ exhibition, filled with the endlessly recycled works of one of a handful of ‘major’ artists that will nearly identically re-surface in a few years in another venue. No, this is a one off, a very rare opportunity to fathom one man’s vision; literally to see a brilliant mind at work. Michael Werner may be a consummate salesman, but he also is a collecting genius.

This exhibition provides an added perk for the frustrated, queue-weary tourist: on the day I went to visit, there were perhaps thirty people in the entire, huge exhibition, counting the staff. If you are not prepared to queue to get into the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay and elbow your way to the masterpieces, then just buy a post-card of Mona Lisa or a Monet hayrick and head over to the Palais de Tokyo for an altogether different, less predictable experience. I promise not to grass you to your neighbours back home: they will never know that all your swooning and gushing over La Joconde is just a put on...

Sunday 17 April 2011

Madame Grès at the Musée Antoine-Bourdelle, 25 March to 25 July 2011

In today’s world of international, mega-‘luxury’-brands, it is not surprising that Madame Grès should have slipped from our global fashion consciousness : in the 1970s, when all the other couturiers were busy launching their ready-to-wear lines and building the marketing industry that would underpin them, Madame Grès did not feel so inclined. She carried on creating ‘couture’ clothing. (For the younger generations who think that ‘couture’ just means over-hyped, ridiculously expensive, ill-fitting and mass-produced products churned out by companies that claim some historic tie to the Parisian fashion industry, it may be helpful to remember that back then, ‘couture’ meant bespoke tailoring for women, in other words, custom-made clothes fitted directly on the person who was to wear them.) It caused me great pleasure to learn that the Musée Galliera was organising the first retrospective exhibition in Paris dedicated to the career of Madame Grès and that it would be at the Musée Antoine-Bourdelle, just a stone’s throw away from my office at the Victoria Palace Hôtel.

Germaine Krebs, a.k.a. Alix then Madame Grès first came to public notice in the 1930s, when the Art Déco style was in full swing and no doubt this was one of the reasons why this exhibition has been organised at the Antoine-Bourdelle museum : although he was considerably older than Madame Grès, Bourdelle’s aesthetic lies at the heart of the Art Déco style in sculpture and one would be hard-pressed to name any other sculptor whose works better embody that style. Much the same holds true for Madame Grès in the world of fashion. Their works have much in common : the Greek, or rather Grecian influence; the elegant, elongated figures ; the sensuality and reverence for the body. (Sadly, in practice the juxtaposition doesn’t work quite as well as one would have hoped : the frailty and delicacy of Madame Grès creations are somewhat overwhelmed by the monumental, virile strength of Bourdelle’s work. Silk jersey meets bronze : bronze wins.)

The retrospective includes some 80 pieces of clothing, most of which are variations on Madame Grès’s most characteristic style : tightly pleated swaths of jersey artfully draped in complex patterns over the upper part of the body (often with strategically placed openings to reveal glimpses of flesh) then allowed freely to flow from the waist down to the floor. In order to achieve her signature pleat, the so-called ‘pli Grès’, she had the jersey especially woven in widths of over nine feet, and then shrank it down to widths of 2 ¾ inches by close and careful pleating. Most of these creations are in off-white and light greys and the differences between them are subtle, however the careful observer is rewarded with a sense of wonder at the complexity and variety of the structures she used. These gowns are the clothes that first spring to mind when one thinks Madame Grès and their influence was such that today still, and especially amongst certain American women, the epitome of glamorous elegance for an evening gown seems to be a sort of silky, slinky, floor-length peplum-cum-négligée. This long-standing influence notwithstanding, when observing the young, fashion-conscious public studying Madame Grès’s shoulder-less or daringly exposed gowns, an evil spirit kept whispering in my mind’s ear : ‘What would Madame Grès have thought of all these young women allowing the straps of their brassieres to show on their shoulders, as is the current fashion in France?’

The exhibition also includes a somewhat smaller, but still notable selection of her later creations for such fashion luminaries as the late duchess of Windsor : coats, day dresses and suits which illustrate her mastery of a very different range that continued until the end of her career in the 1980s.

If ever there was a designer whose work needs to be seen in movement and on real flesh, it is Madame Grès who draped he clothes directly onto her clients. The Stockman mannequins used in the exhibition sadly cannot do them justice : a great effort of imagination is required properly to fill out the limp, sagging clothes and restore their flowing movement. Fortunately, the exhibition also includes photographs as well as a fascinating selection of Madame Grès sketches and notes so one can see how these creations were designed to flow and come alive on flesh-and-blood women. With a little added spice : if ever you wanted to know Paloma Picasso’s exact measurements in 1984, this would be the opportunity, as Madame Grès notebook is open to that page!

Madame Grès never had the colourful, inventive showmanship of an Yves Saint-Laurent : she was to such exuberant designers as Racine would be to Edmond Rostand or as Agnes Martin would be to Rubens: Madame Grès’s creations are in some ways minimalist verging on the austere at first glance, but they contain a whole universe of creativity and dedication to the female body if one manages first to achieve the inner quiet they need for their voice to be heard.

Monday 13 December 2010

France 1500 : Entre Moyen Âge et Renaissance

At the Grand Palais
6 October 2010  to 10 January 2011

If one is weighing up the merits of different exhibitions, trying to determine which is the ‘must see’ one, the Parisian status-conscious visitor will first and foremost pay attention to the venue and the dates. The highest dignity the curatorial establishment can bestow on any project is to house it in the Grand Palais during the Rentrée. The Grand Palais is that enormous building with the magnificent glass roof located between the lower Champs-Élysées and the Pont Alexandre III, built during of that high-water mark of the Third Republic, the 1900 Universal Exhibition of blessed memory. The Rentrée is another name for the Autumn, when serious matters resume after the summer lull : be they labour disputes, political wrangles, horse racing, dinner parties, the opera season or exhibitions.

This year two exhibitions were thus singled out for prominence : one devoted to Monet and the other to art in France around 1500. As a matter of course, I do not visit Monet exhibitions ; not through any dislike of Monet’s painting, but rather the contrary : in order fully to enjoy his painting, one must be able to view it from 10 to 20 feet away, which is quite impossible in a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition owing to the obstruction occasioned by innumerable bobbing heads forcing their way to the front. So I turned my attention to the other one.

France 1500 is an extremely ambitious exhibition : its stated intent is no less than to reverse a century or two of art historians’ misreadings of the transition from mediaeval art to the Renaissance. The curators propose to do this both by demonstrating the vigour of late Gothic forms around 1500 and also by demonstrating the presence of characteristically Italianate features even before king Louis XII’s conquest of the Duchy of Milan in 1500. I suppose someone, somewhere does care deeply about this sort of nomenclature and loses sleep over issues such as the precise date on which the artistic foundations shift from Late Mediaeval to Renaissance. I’m not so sure that the general public really does and I like to think that any art historian worth his or her salt already knows how arbitrary and meaningless such distinctions really are.

A word of caution...

Unfortunately, two mistakes were made in regards to this exhibition and they do it a great disservice. First, the choice of its name, France 1500. One would be hard-pressed to imagine a less-thrilling and evocative title. I can’t help myself thinking that it sounds like an administrative report on the outlook for local industry in the city of Aurillac with a typing mistake to boot (1500 instead of the proper postal code 15000).

Secondly, the curators made the unfortunate decision to lay out the exhibit using the same intellectual architecture that underpins the catalogue. This is a disaster : an opening section showing changes between 1460 and 1480, is followed by a second section organised by locale , a third section explores iconographic and technical innovations whilst a fourth section purports to show the interplay of Italian and Gothic influences. The result is a confusing hotch-potch which does demonstrate the variety of artistic media and influences in the late 15th century, but in a completely mish-mashed way. One stumbles hopelessly from one jumble of sculpture-cum-painting-cum-tapestry-cum-manuscript-painting, etc. on to the next without any obvious rhyme or reason. It is, all in all, rather unenlightening. Of course one understands that the intent is to show the numerous cross-currents of coexisting styles and to illustrate that France is simultaneously drawing in artists and works both from Italy and the Low Countries, and that the very distinction between our categories of Late Gothic and early Renaissance is completely artificial. Although perfectly suited to the catalogue, this lay-out does not work on the exhibition floor.

Go anyway!

Be that as it may, this exhibition should not be missed : its scope is immense and the variety of works and techniques on display is simply mind-boggling. In light of my criticisms above, I recommend the following strategy : forget any art-historical discourse and just focus on the artefacts, one after the other and immerse yourself in the sheer enjoyment of such an abundance of riches brought together and put on display. The highlight for me was the incredible display of painted manuscripts, because these fragile, precious works are so rarely shown. This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to see them in context with other art forms ; because of our post-Renaissance obsession with easel-paintings, we tend to forget that some of the greatest artists of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance were in fact manuscript painters and that these precious, portable volumes were major commissions in their own right and highly valued. Through their daily use, their relationship with the prince or sovereign who commissioned them was a physical one, intimately connected to the sacred person of the prince himself. The manuscripts alone make the exhibition a ‘must see’. But add to that the grouping of paintings by Jean Hey, a.k.a. the Master of Moulins : they have travelled from Autun, from Brussels, from Chicago, from Glasgow, from Munich, from New York and from Paris to be reunited here and are they a feast for the eyes which probably will not be available again soon, unless you choose to follow the exhibition as it travels on to Chicago. This exhibition is also a rare opportunity to see several important works of stained glass all in one place. Owing both to its innate fragility as well as its exposure to wanton changes in taste, religion or style, much stained glass has been lost and it is easy to forget what a vibrant and vigorous art from it was in the late Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance.

With all due respect for Monet next door, of the two major exhibitions of the season, this is the one you must not miss.

Monday 6 December 2010

D'Or et de Feu : Musée de Cluny until 10 January 2011

D’Or et de feu : L’Art en Slovaquie à la fin du Moyen Âge
(Of Gold and Fire : Art in Slovakia at the end of the Middle Ages

16 September 2010 – 10 January 2011

Those of us who grew up in Cold War Europe unavoidably have a somewhat skewed vision of the middle and eastern part of the continent. This is owing to the devastation wrought by the mind-boggling, indescribable horrors of the first half of the twentieth century followed by the Iron Curtain which then divided the continent for so many years. The nineteenth-century concept of Mittel-Europa—which brings to mind slightly ridiculous characters straight out of Chekhov, Kafka or Gogol—was followed by that of Eastern Europe : impoverished, oppressed, culturally non-existent except as manifested in the ponderous, backward-looking events of officially sanctioned culture. So it is always delightful to discover or re-discover that in other times, these countries not only were not the under-developed, far-flung borders of our world but were at the very heart of European civilization. This is made abundantly obvious in this small temporary exhibition dedicated to art in Slovakia at the end of the Middle Ages being held at the Musée national du Moyen-Âge ( National Museum of the Middle Ages, a.k.a. Musée de Cluny).

At the start of the exhibition, it is explained why Slovakia never appeared in any of the ancient maps of Europe : although a Slavic land, for centuries is actually was northern Hungary before becoming in the twentieth century the eastern half of what was then Czechoslovakia. With this information alone, one of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle falls into place and helps both geographically and culturally to situate this country at the crossroads of Europe where Germanic, Magyar and Slavic currents intermingle, brought together by the presence of goldmines.

The exhibition is given over to religious art and includes works of painted and gilt wooden sculpture, paintings, goldsmith’s work and manuscripts. It is not a huge exhibition, but neither is it tiny : it takes up the entire frigidarium of the ancient Roman baths. (For those who are familiar with the Cluny museum, that is the very large room all the way at the end of the ground floor given over to Gallo-Roman sculpture and where the famous Pilier des nautes is on permanent display.) This is a real exhibition, not just a travelling display case.

The most remarkable works are the wooden sculptures : the Nativity of Hlohovec for instance combines the rather imposing figures of the Holy Family with charming, bucolic scenery depicted with a daring, quasi-cubist rendering of space and perspective. Whilst the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph appear in normal space, right above the latter’s head there is a whole landscape in which great liberties have been taken, one of which is to depict a hill-top meadow full of sheep seen from a directly vertical viewpoint, as if one were flying over them in a helicopter. As for the poor baby Jesus, he is ostensibly being cradled in a sort of hammock carried by angels, but in complete defiance of all the laws of gravity. Clearly there is something to be said for divinity and superseding the laws of Nature!

Some of the gilt wood draperies are a sheer delight for the eyes, and none more so than Master Paul of Levoča’s Crucified Christ : the billows of the loincloth catch and play magnificently with the light, providing a stunning contrast to the stiff, white, blood-drenched figure itself. (Another work by the same artist, the Crucifixion of Malé Ukrižovanie has a loincloth in a very different style forming two elegant, evenly draped and supremely decorative swags.)

The paintings are somewhat more uneven in their quality and no doubt this partly is owing to the diversity of their origins : in the late Middle-Ages, in Slovakia as elsewhere, works of art were not necessarily local creations. Sometimes artists would travel in response to a commission, sometimes the work would be created elsewhere then moved to the locale and sometimes, the principal figures would be commissioned from a famous master then inserted into a setting created by local artists.

The most remarkable painting in the exhibition is the Adoration of the Magi by Master MS, both for the unexpected use of sharply linear perspective in the background and for the vivacious and highly individualised rendering of the main figures in the foreground.

The few pieces of goldsmith’s work on display clearly demonstrate the links with Hungary, especially through the very characteristic shape of the chalices, some of which are of exquisite workmanship. The impressively large monstrance of Spišska Nová Ves (117 cm high, or if you prefer, 3ft 10in. Egad!) as well as some of the chalices, include decorative elements such as foliate scrollwork of remarkable vigour and naturalism, particularly when contrasted to the sometimes overwrought and overly fussy workmanship seen in some of the other European centres at the same time.

In a nutshell, this is a delightful exhibition that absolutely deserves a visit.