Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Guide to Aix-en-Provence, or, What I Learnt On My Research Trip

Aix-en-Provence isn't the most obvious place to go for research... unless you're studying French colonisation, in which case, like me, you'll be spending a lot of time here! Aix lives up to all the clichés, with buildings the colours of honey, an almost constant scent of lavender and sky that turns pink and then blue at twilight. The stone can be explained by the town's proximity to the Bibémus Quarries and the lavender can be explained by all the shops and street stalls capitalising on tourist expectations, but the sky is seriously just magical. It's also 100% blue most days.

So Aix is ravishing beautiful*, but Cezanne's studio is the town's biggest tourist attraction and that takes less than an hour to visit if you examine absolutely everything in the room with a magnifying glass. It's smaller than Cambridge and the museums can't even slightly compete. There isn't much to do. 

Strangely enough, this is a good thing.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Exploratory Road Trips: the 1961 Cambridge Afro-Asian Expedition

A while ago, a series of intriguing photographs popped up on Retronaut, showing an old VW van plunging into rivers and pausing in front of mountains. The writing on the side of this van read 'Cambridge Afro-Asian Expedition'.

Images: I B Tauris Publishers, via Retronaut
I was intrigued, but there's not much written on the 1961-2 Cambridge Afro-Asian Expedition. There is a book on the subject being published soon, which is where these photographs have surfaced from. Otherwise, the only information on the trip I can find are the notes of those working on the book. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

First Impressions of Nice, in Pictures & Some Words

Nice is filled with flowers, cacti, pebbles and modern art, but you can easily step off the bus and into the ruins of a Roman capital. There are ferries to Corsica and a waterfall tumbling over the side of a medieval keep. 

I still need to think about the city a bit more politically, because obviously a city so built for leisure and luxury only operates that way for some segments of the population. In the case of Nice, the city has -since the 19th century- essentially been hijacked by wealthy travelers in search of sun, and I can't imagine the impact on locals has been wholly positive. 

But I was only there for two days and the sun and the sea (which really is as fantastically and mysteriously colored as one reads in Scott Fitzgerald novels) and all those palatial buildings and gardens filled with flowers can be a bit too immediately seductive... 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Notes on my PhD (Part 1)

My notes for my PhD currently read (direct quote):

How did Europeans generally perceive Indochina in the 1920s?
Opium opium opium syphilis

This is why I have not posted on this blog for the last few weeks. Everything's been a bit hectic and I need to do more work. But hopefully I'll succeed at that soon, and then I can write something about said work.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild & Villa Kérylos

I went today to St Jean Cap Ferrat and Beaulieu sur Mer to see the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and the Villa Kérylos. While different enough as to avoid direct comparison, the two houses are well-paired for more than just the (lovely) twenty minute walk between them. Both, obviously, overlook the mediterranean and were built at the beginning of the twentieth century (1902-8 for the Villa Kérylos, 1905-1912 for the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild). They're both primarily two storeys in height, centred around internal courtyards (though one is closed and the other open); both have striking ceilings and intricately tiled floors in parts.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Paris: Palais des Glaces, 10th Arrondissement

Paris has more than its fair share of beautiful theaters. My favourites are usually those from the 1920s (with an exception made for La Pagode). The Palais des Glaces was constructed in 1924, replacing an earlier theatre on the same site.

The Palais des Glaces was named for its facade, originally covered with mirrors. I'm not sure when the mirrors were removed from the building's facade. I believe the small frames that cover much of the facade must have originally held these mirrors, and it must have been quite exciting to see light strike them and bounce off into the Rue Faubourg du Temple. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Nôtre Dame du Raincy

Nôtre Dame du Raincy is an quick and pleasant RER trip away from Paris. It's easy, free, and definitely the most striking building by the Perret brothers in the Paris region. Built in 1922-3, Auguste and Gustave Perret created a lastingly beautiful church that acts as a link between the gothic and the modern.

Au Louvre, Wim Delvoye

Delvoye himself has (in a brilliantly amusing interview with Art in America) termed his current exhibition at the Louvre "Wim Delvoye for Dummies," but this lack of vocalised respect for the majority of the Louvre's visitors has nonetheless culminated in an intelligent show that manages a difficult task in a difficult setting. 

On until September 17th, Delvoye's combination of the luxurious and the irreverent works remarkably well in the Richelieu Wing.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

France in New Zealand: Pompallier Mission House

The Bay of Islands is one of New Zealand’s most historically significant places. It’s the place where Captain Cook first stepped ashore, where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed and home to the country’s first capital.

But most of this history is English. When France is thought of in the Bay of Islands, it’s often in reference to the creation of the Treaty of Waitangi, NZ’s founding document, which was partially prompted by British desire to claim the area before the French. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find a place where French Catholics printed bibles in Te Reo Maori.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

An Ode to Auckland's Wynyard Quarter (on its first birthday)

I wrote my NZ News UK column this week on the projects from New Zealand that are nominated for the World Architecture Festival Awards. I really felt, though, writing the article, that it was a definite case of images going much further than words. And I couldn't really express, in that format, just how grateful I am toward Taylor Cullity Lethlean and Fearon Hay for their beautiful work in the Wynyard Quarter.

Auckland is, of course, built around the water. When you fly into the airport, you fear that you're about to land in the water. Sometimes, people ask "what's your nearest beach?" when enquiring as to where you live. It's more likely somebody catches the ferry to work each morning than the metro. This is all wonderful. Both in tourist brochures and in reality, Auckland is the City of Sails. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Christchurch Cathedral and the City's British Past

I wrote this article for NZ News UK; it was originally published on July 24th, 2012. 

It seems certain now, for most New Zealanders living overseas, that George Gilbert Scott’s Christchurch Cathedral won’t be there when they return. While protests over the decision continue, work to demolish the building began in March. The Cathedral’s loss, however, marks the reshaping of a new identity for Christchurch.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Fireworks & Eiffel Tower, Bastille Day

I've spent much of this year looking forward to Bastille Day and, as it drew closer, the fact that I was leaving Paris just a few days later heightened my anticipation. I was especially looking forward to the fireworks. I love fireworks and I love the Eiffel Tower and I was pretty sure that the combination would be even more incredible.

And it was! In fact, I'm pretty sure it's the only time a fireworks display has ever brought tears to my eyes (maybe partially due to my imminent departure). The fireworks went on for half an hour, with a soundtrack that included a disco version of 'La Vie en Rose'.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

100 Sculptures Animalières at the Musée des Années Trente

Paris seems to have animals on its mind this year, from January’s amazing Bêtes Off! at the Conciergerie to the Grand Palais’s current show. And so, it seems, does the city’s neighbour, Boulogne-Billancourt, where the Musée des Années Trente is currently host to 100 Sculptures Animalières.
This museum is quite big, but the exhibition itself is a comfortable size, full enough to satiate without overwhelming or causing fatigue. 100 Sculptures Animalières focuses roughly on the period between 1910 and 1950, with a final section showing contemporary art.
It’s easy to forget about the animals at the Jardin des Plantes, but the beginning of this exhibition is a good reminder of their importance before the internet made it easier to approach unusual species. Many of the animal sculptors working in the early twentieth century sought their models at the Jardin des Plantes. The sculpture from this period, with which the show begins, is remarkably lifelike, particularly in terms of capturing the personalities of different creatures. Maurice Frost’s 1934 ‘Tête de Cobra’ is terrifying, and one can imagine Rembrandt Bugatti’s 1906 ‘Kangarou’ bouncing out of the exhibition and into an Australian landscape.
Soon, animals become stylised, a subject ripe with experimental potential. It’s interesting to watch this progression in the exhibition, particularly in seeing which animals are focused on particularly. In general, there seems to be a move away from the exotic. Paris’s ubiquitous pigeon show themselves as stylishly modern creatures in Joel and Jan Martel’s geometric ‘Pigeon’ and Bela Vöros’s ‘Pigeon Bouland’. The bison’s unusual shape also lends itself well to sculptural interpretation.
The abstraction of the animal perhaps reaches its height with Jacques Lipchitz’s ‘Forme Animale’ from 1921, where specifics are abandoned in favour of expressing an essence. Jean Arp’s ‘Animale de Rêve’ is similarly intriguing.
The show ends with contemporary animal sculpture, which continues the trend toward animal-as-medium in a different way. Here, animals are used as devices to comment on human vulnerability, possession and faith. Wim Delvoye’s famous tattooed pig, now art object rather than living animal, is here, along with a piece by Jan Fabre, the first contemporary artist to have a solo show at the Louvre (in 2007). Alain Sechas’s ‘Le Petit Baldaquin’ is both cute and poignant. Rose K and Rose K’s ‘Le Porte Pyjama,’ a horse lying on a bed beneath a hologrammed face, ear flicking against a feather, surrounded by scissors, ends the exhibition on a rather chilling note.
In tracing the way in which animals have been used -given identities naturalistically or through stylisation, converted into geometric forms or as conduits for human concerns- over the last century, this exhibition gives the visitor a lot to think about. The pieces in the show illustrate the strength of animals as a subject for artists, but don’t entirely explain what it is that lends these varied creatures their appeal. This mystery adds to the aura surrounding these sculpture, and the appeal of this show.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

'Promenades Indochinois' at the Musée Guimet

Many photos of South East Asia have been taken in the last 150 years, and there always seems to be an exhibition of some of them on somewhere. Nonetheless, the Musée Guimet's 'Promenades Indochinois,' which mounts a small selection of Pierre Bonnet's photographs of the area in the 1920s, is very interesting.

Pierre Bonnet, La façade ouest du temple, vue prise du milieu de la chausée reliant l'enceinte IV à la pyramide, 1930

Some shots are predictable. The photographs Bonnet took at Angkor in 1930 are so much like those taken before and after his time that I initially wondered if I'd seen them before. But no, I've seen John Thomson's photographs (the first of Angkor, taken in 1867) and Emile Gsell's and the exhibition at the Musée Cernuschi in 2010... 

This isn't to say, though, that Bonnet's images aren't worth looking at or that they shouldn't be included.  His photographs show his points of interest, and it's seeing when people make different choices, and when they don't, that's fascinating.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Brief Architectural Tour of the 17th Arrondissement

These pigeons will be your guides to the delights of Paris's 17th Arrondissement.
The 17th arrondissement is largely residential and often overlooked due to its lack of obvious attractions. This only serves to make it a more pleasant place for strolling, far from extreme traffic and footpaths crowded with tourists carrying backpacks on their stomaches. Paris's north-west is peppered with more subtle pleasures than its centre, but with pleasures nonetheless.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Briefly: Valencia, Spain

I went to Valencia this weekend to see my brother who is visiting Spain during his university holidays. This is the first time I've been to Spain, and I really liked it, though I was so afraid of my inability to speak Spanish that for the first twenty-four hours I ate only jambon iberico and bread.

Valencia overflows with decoration, from the facades of baroque mansions to the interiors of space age metro stations. It's in some ways a disjointed city. Areas compete in the same way that a scribbled tag and a refined shop sign compete; strong identities shout to be heard, struggle to push one another aside and never quite succeed. The city feels a little like a Battle of the Bands contest, with different personalities displayed on multiple stages.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Architecture: Ocean-Liners in Paris and Boulogne-Billancourt

This is a reworking of two of my articles on architecture for AngloINFO Paris, on Pierre Patout's 15th Arrondissement paquebot building and Georges-Henri Pingusson's treatment of the same theme in Boulogne-Billancourt, both constructed in 1934.

Georges-Henri Pingusson, 5 Rue Denfert-Rochereau.
Cruise ships were a frequent influence on modern architecture, with flat white walls, interior balconies, simple lines and stepped terraces often inspired by transatlantic travel. Oceanliners were glamorous, like international travel itself, and so provided architects with inspiration in combining luxury and compact living. Often you have to really look at a building to see the influence of ocean-liners, but at other times you're sitting on the tram, tired and staring vacantly out the window, and your eyes almost fall out of your head as a huge ship sails toward you. 

This is the case with Pierre Patout's apartment building on Boulevard Victor in Paris's 15th Arrondissement.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Babar Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, and the Politics of Kingdoms for Children

The Babar exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs presents a charming set of images and a lot of material to think about, though ultimately failing to look at Babar as more than a child’s entertainment means that it doesn’t do justice to its fascinating subject. It is, however, an opportunity to look at the original drawings and to see glimpses of Babar from across decades, by both Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff, gathered side by side.

This is a relatively small and uncomplicated exhibition, but nonetheless quite a sweet one. The Musée des Arts Decoratifs have primarily pitched their Babar exhibition at children, even to the point of hanging drawings at very low heights, which is somewhat disappointing. Both Babar, and the drawings in this exhibition, are likely to give as much pleasure to adults as to children, if not more.


L’Histoire de Babar, le Petit Éléphant is an unusual book for children. Illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff in 1931, a young elephant named Babar witnesses a hunter killing his mother, runs from the forest and finds a city. Babar acquires clothes and goes to school and when he returns to the jungle becomes King, following the death of the previous King. He marries his cousin, Celeste, and founds the city of Celesteville; the other elephants begin to dress in the fashions of early twentieth century France.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Le Corbusier's 'Cabanon' at Le Bon Marché

If you’re not already mad at the sky for being cloudy, go to the small exhibition on Le Corbusier’s beach cabin at Le Bon Marché, on until June 23rd.

The furniture department at Le Bon Marché is generally something of a museum of twentieth century design, but at the moment their displays are centered around a reproduction of Le Cabanon, the small wooden beach house that Le Corbusier built for himself and his wife at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in 1952. Only eleven square metres, it fits neatly under the department’s leadlight roof.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Lovely Cinemas: La Pagode, 7th Arrondissement

I haven't written anything on this blog recently (though I have written on Len Lye and the Venice Biennial for NZ News UK and Docks en Seine for AngloINFO Paris), mostly as I've been really busy and also really tired -I barely managed to buy groceries today before curling up in a corner. Luckily, I had more energy when a friend visited last week. We ate pizza by the Canal Saint Martin, met goats at Versailles and were invited to (and attended) a fashion school défilé. We also went to see On The Road at La Pagode.

La Pagode is a small cinema housed in a pagoda. It completely lives up to expectations.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

On the Restoration of Notre Dame de Chartres

I came across a rather scathing article on the restoration of the Cathedral at Chartres recently, which reads along the lines of ‘go now, before it’s too late’. In actuality, as I discovered when I visited earlier this week, it’s either too late or too early to see the building at its best, but now might be the perfect time to visit if you want to evaluate the restoration work itself.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Daniel Buren's Monumenta, Grand Palais, 2012

Daniel Buren's installation for Monumenta 2012, at the Grand Palais, is a particular dream if you're fond of taking photographs. There are so many colours and so many angles and so many details and so many people wandering around looking at everything.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Rue Mallet Stevens, 16th Arrondissement

Robert Mallet Stevens is one of only a few twentieth century architects to have a street in Paris named after him, and yet some who walk past it to visit the Fondation Le Corbusier don’t know his name. This is a pity, as Mallet-Stevens is one of France’s best interwar architects, and the street bearing his name also contains five of his houses.
All photos author's own.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Highway Art Tourism: Elmgreen and Dragset in Texas and Callum Morton in Melbourne

Today I am daydreaming about the town of Valentine in Texas.

Prada Marfa Valentine

If you're interested in contemporary art, you have probably seen pictures of Elmgreen and Dragset's 'Prada Marfa', a fake Prada store set up on the side of a highway in West Texas. Prada supplied the shoes and bags on display, but the store isn't intended to sparkle as one expects a luxury store might. The doors don't open, welcoming potential shoppers. Instead, Prada Marfa is to be left untouched, deteriorating and gradually becoming part of the desert landscape.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Election Night in France

Seemingly all of Paris walked to Bastille tonight to celebrate Hollande winning. It was amazing!

Sur les Toîts

One thing I find kind of interesting about living in Paris is that it seems that people get younger the higher up they live in their building. I think this is largely because so many buildings (including mine) don't have elevators; people don't want to walk up stairs, but are more willing to when they're young.

As my street is very narrow and the building opposite has very large windows with balconies, I see my neighbours (across the road) almost every time I glance out the window. I'm sometimes reluctant to look out the window lest they think I'm creepily watching them. The girl living on the top floor (who has good taste in music -sounds carry) looks younger than me, the two inhabitants just across from me look about my age, the couple on the floor below seem to be in their thirties and live beside a couple in their forties. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Akseli Gallen-Kallela at the Musée d'Orsay

The Musée d'Orsay's exhibition of works by Akseli Gallen-Kallela may seem a bit simplistic to those very familiar with the artist and his work, but makes a good introduction to a fascinating painter for those who don't know him. My own art historical education neglected Finland entirely, and I'm very pleased to have now discovered the works of this turn of the century artist who captured his homeland, and places abroad, beautifully.

It's a bit disappointing to find the exhibition in the galleries at the back of the top floor -unless visiting specifically for the show, may of the Musée d'Orsay's visitors will reach it tired, at the end of their visit, and Gallen-Kallela's work perhaps won't have the impact it otherwise might. It is very good to see the museum, which generally focuses on French artists, giving exposure to an artist from outside central Europe, but wonders why it couldn't have been billed over the more familiar 'Degas and the Nude' exhibition on the ground floor. Nonetheless, those without fondness for the gloomy temporary exhibition galleries on the ground floor may prefer this new space for exhibitions, less cavernous and with windows overlooking the Seine and the Eiffel Tower.

The Gallen-Kallela exhibition takes a more or less chronological approach to the artist, which also has the effect of carrying audiences increasingly away from their Left Bank starting point: first are Gallen-Kallela's paintings from Paris, where he studied, followed by his paintings from Finland, and finally paintings from his trip to Africa in 1909. The last twenty years of the artist's life are something of a mystery, with the exhibition ending somewhat abruptly on the room of paintings from Africa.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ricardo Bofill: 1980s Classicism in Paris

Ricardo Bofill is the kind of architect who often divides opinion. In France, he’s most famous for the Antigone quarter in Montpellier, of which you can find a model in the Cité de l’Architecture, and large estates on the outskirts of Paris. His project in Montparnasse isn’t as well-known, but still offers a good sense of what he’s like as an architect.

Bofill has done all sorts of buildings, from Spanish airports to skyscrapers in New York, but is best known for his public housing projects. Most of these are in France and use classical architectural language on large scales.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

'Les Deux Plateaux' by Daniel Buren at the Palais Royal

Daniel Buren’s ‘Les Deux Plateaux’ has been in the Palais Royal for over 25 years and still doesn't look outdated. The controversy that ensued when it was installed in 1986, though, might be foreign to audiences of today; the installation is now often listed amongst highlights of central Paris.

This is Buren’s best-known piece, but he’s been creating works and controversy for over fifty years. In 1969, recognising the significance of the exhibition ‘When Attitudes Become Form,’ held in Bern, Switzerland, in which he had not been invited to participate, Buren added his artwork to the city unauthorised, covering billboards with his stripes. Two years later, the Guggenheim removed one of his works from a group show the night before the opening after other artists began to argue that it was having a negative impact on their own works. In 1972, Harald Szeeman, the curator who hadn’t chosen Buren’s works for ‘When Attitudes Become Form,’ included Buren in Documenta 5, one of the most significant exhibitions of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Henri Cartier Bresson/Paul Strand, Mexique, 1932-1934

“One could say that [Paul Strand] was the antithesis to Henri Cartier Bresson,” wrote John Berger in 1980′s About Looking. The two photographers both worked in Mexico in the early 1930s and both went to New York in 1935, where they became involved in the same cinematic groups. While their paths at this point were very similar, the outcomes were very different.
The Fondation Cartier Bresson’s study of the two photographers in Mexico is superb. The juxtaposition of two figures treating the same country so differently - and producing such different results - encourages the visitor to see both Strand and Cartier Bresson’s practices clearly. The sparse curatorial style helps with this, as does the small size of the exhibition, which encourages depth of study.
The exhibition is divided into two rooms. The first focuses on Paul Strand’s work in Mexico. The American photographer was invited by the Mexican government to work in the country, producing The Wave, a film about oppressed fisherman in Alvardo that Strand termed “docu-fiction”.
Strand’s photographs of Mexico are painterly. Portraits are composed similarly to Renaissance or European 17th century portraits. Strand often asked people to pose for him and altered details while preparing shots. Everything, in these photographs, has its place; nothing is left to chance. Strand's figures feel removed from daily life; it’s their essence, not their activity, that Strand distills. They’re perfectly still, particularly striking shown alongside photographs of sculpted religious figures.
Strand’s photography uses light for dramatic effect. Often, as in ‘Boy in White Shirt’, a hat will obscure the face of a subject in deep shadow. The intensity of this is heightened by the white blaze of his shirt.
‘In the Market’ shows a girl in a dark shawl leaning against a white wall. Strand captures the textures of such backdrops beautifully, as if the viewer can almost feel the rough warmth through the image, but the heavy, forbidding shape of the shawl marks the girl's world as inaccessible. Similarly, in ‘Women at Gateway’ four women are shown huddled together -the photographer is not among them but set apart, and three of the four figures are turned away from him. Facial features are rarely clear, often shrouded in shadow, and Strand’s subjects often avert their eyes from the camera pointed at them. Where they do meet the camera’s gaze, it’s hard to tell what they’re thinking, as in 1933′s ‘Boy’. The child’s look seems knowing and concentrated, but to what does it refer?
Landscapes, too, are studied. Strand’s photographs are intended to be viewed together -in one section images are displayed in the order Strand originally arranged them for a portfolio. Landscapes and religious sculpture seem intended to give a deliberate context for people, placing them in an aloof, lonely land. Strand shows churches and desserts, not the shops and homes of daily life; the environment constructed is timeless and biblical. Churches are often glimpsed through gateways - again, the viewer is positioned outside the alien world at which Strand’s photographs hint.
Henri Cartier Bresson, eighteen years Paul Strand’s junior, spent a year in Mexico following work on a French ethnographic mission in Argentina. While there, he took photographs for publications, spent time with artists and intellectuals and, in March 1935, showed his work in an exhibition with Manuel Álvarez Bravo at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Strand himself later wrote of his differences to Cartier Bresson, commenting on his practice as being about “a different sort of moment”. Where the older photographer used long exposure times and is heavy on intentionality and composition, Cartier Bresson’s work throws the audience into the middle of Mexican life.
Cartier Bresson’s work is very immediate. It feels less studied and less removed. In one shot from 1934, a man looks over his shoulder as if about to speak to the photographer. In his shots of prostitutes from the same year, women lean toward him, laughing, or eye the camera directly.
Cartier Bresson’s subjects are usually very close to the camera, but are never posed like paintings. This is life as it appears; in one shot, a child’s face fills half the frame, her mother’s body cut off at the neck. Subjects are asleep or lying on the ground. In others, children laugh with the photographer or attempt to hide their bodies.
Cartier Bresson’s shots are about action rather than silence. They’re about documenting daily life through the events that occur, while Strand’s photographs are more psychological, constructed, deliberate.
The difference between the two photographers is even clear in Cartier Bresson’s one landscape displayed. There’s nothing alien about the fields he shows. Nothing is in shadow or shown at dusk, eliminating the sense of isolation that permeates Strand’s deserts.
In 1935, Strand returned to America. Cartier Bresson came to New York soon afterward, invited by gallerist Julien Levy to show his work. Both were interested in film and both joined Nykino, the left wing film collective which later became Frontier Film. Cartier Bresson returned to France in 1936 to work with Jean Renoir. Strand also later moved to France, driven from the USA in 1951 by McCarthyism.
In 1952, Henri Cartier Bresson cemented his name in photographic history with the publication of The Decisive Moment. It’s clear, though, in this exhibition, that these same instincts for capturing life as it happened were at work in the 1930s. “Photography is not like painting,” he told the Washington Post in 1957. For Paul Strand, though, photography was very much like painting. In this show, neither approach stands above the other; two brilliant photographers capture, or create, beautiful portraits of Mexico in the early 1930s.
Henri Cartier Bresson/Paul Strand, Mexique, 1932 – 1934 runs at the Fondation Cartier Bresson until April 22nd.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Architecture of the Fondation Cartier Bresson?

I went to see the 'Paul Strand & Henri Cartier Bresson: Mexico, 1932 - 1934' exhibition today. It's a really good exhibition, especially the room of Strand's work, but it's the building that's stuck with me all day. I was walking up the stairs thinking about how nice a building the Fondation Cartier Bresson was when my eyes fell on what was unmistakably a chair designed by Robert Mallet Stevens.

"Of course," I thought, "this building has to be Mallet Stevens!"

I guess it's kind of like how when you miss people you start thinking you see your friends everywhere, but as soon as the thought occurred I saw Mallet Stevens in every detail.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Somerset House in Spring

I went to London for my birthday, and after a morning interviewing a photographer for the NZ News UK, I spent my afternoon at Somerset House, where they have filled the courtyard with clay flowers. There was an illustration fair on, too, with lots of lovely stuff. 

Paris, Life, Et cetera...

The weather and atmosphere in Paris is really perfect, with everybody reading in the parks all the time. I was in London for my birthday; I had afternoon tea at the Intercontinental and ate cake in a garden, interviewed an artist for NZ News UK, went to the ballet and then, almost immediately after arriving, returned to Paris.

I've spent my morning writing an article on the Villa Savoye. I've also started writing a blog on Art in Paris for AngloINFO Paris, so most of what I've had to say about art for the last week has gone there rather than here. I've also put more photos on my photo blog

When I first realised winter was really over (after only a minute) I was sad and started looking up train timetables to Mont Blanc, because I love winter, but it's hard to resist all the happiness of Europe in Spring. It's not dusk until nine and the light is so beautiful. And it's now less than a month until the Palais de Tokyo reopens with the Paris Triennial!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Treasures of the Louvre: L'Amour Menaçant, Etienne-Maurice Falconet

Crowds may flock to see the Mona Lisa, but I always head first to Étienne-Maurice Falconet’s L’Amour Menaçant, which sits in the much quieter sculpture wing. This 1757 sculpture charmed me so much when I first visited, in 2007, that I returned to Australia to write a dissertation on it.
Musée du Louvre Département des Sculptures
Photo: Musée du Louvre Département des Sculptures, Inv. RF 296.

Falconet’s sculpture depicts Cupid as a lifelike child, older than a baby yet younger than an adolescent, holding a finger to his mouth as he reaches to pull out an arrow. You can walk around the sculpture in the Louvre, and in the process Cupid goes from sweetly silent to threatening silent as he draws out the arrow before your eyes, perhaps about to aim it at another gallery visitor.
I’m not the only person to have been this impressed by Falconet’s Cupid. Madame de Pompadour, the original owner, was so enamoured of her new acquisition that she had Falconet make a second copy. She displayed one in her foyer and another in her garden.
In the end, Falconet made three full-size versions of L’Amour Menaçant. They now stand like ambassadors in some of the world’s best art museums. There’s one in the Hermitage and one in the Rijksmuseum. On top of this, you can see Falconet’s sculpture painted by Fragonard in The Happy Hazards of the Swing (in the Wallace Collection, London) and the porcelain factory at Sevres mass-produced smaller copies for those who lusted after Madame de Pompadour’s prize possession.
Cupid, playful yet dangerous, was a central God to eighteenth century art. In earlier times he had been either moral allegory or decorative feature, often shown as a passive indicator of romantic theme or as mischievous toddler scolded by his mother, Venus.
In Falconet’s sculpture, Cupid is an independent actor. He is a child with adult knowledge, both mischievous, toying with those around him, and powerful, as the quiver he reaches for reminds audiences.
He is secretive, and the finger to the lips suggests a command to viewers, too, to hold the silence. This silencing gesture shows he is aware of his own abilities, but still he acts as he pleases, playing no heed to social niceties. The contrast between Cupid’s infancy and calculation heightens his power, marking him as god rather than child.
Cupid’s ability to capture the excitement and threat of pleasure, powerfully felt yet ultimately defeated by time, made him relevant to an aristocratic society preoccupied with the transience of pleasure. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, under Louis XIV and XV, the aristocracy were stripped of political power and distracted with luxuries. The period was one of increased licentiousness and escapism, but while extra-marital affairs became a badge of pride for the powerful, social codes were still strict.
Cupid’s moral ambiguity appealed. He warned audiences of the dangers brought about through his games of temporal desire whilst simultaneously reassuring society that surrender to his power was natural and unavoidable, a means of pleasurable escape. Cupid allowed his followers to absolve themselves of individual responsibility.
Madame de Pompadour, though, bought Falconet’s L’Amour Menaçant, after she saw it as a plaster model at the 1755 salon. In 1750, Pompadour’s status changed from King’s mistress to King’s friend. Madame de Pompadour regularly used her art purchases to regulate her image and so, after this, many of the pieces she commissioned focused on elevating the status of friendship in court.
Why, then, a sculpture depicting Cupid, a symbol of physical love?
It’s likely that Madame de Pompadour used the popular figure as an agent for gaining power. By owning Cupid, and a popular version of Cupid by a celebrated sculptor, she was securing his power and branding it with the Pompadour name. Cupid, an unruly god, became her subordinate.
In addition to this, Cupid’s silencing gesture is key. Pompadour initially changed the piece’s name fromL’Amour Menaçant to L’Amour Silencieux. The finger to the lips suggests discretion being exercised with regard to intimate affairs and Madame de Pompadour surely would have sought to discourage gossip following her change in position.
Over 250 years later, this Cupid won’t give up her secrets.
In the Louvre, a smaller piece by Falconet shows Galatea as she comes to life before Pygmalion’s eyes. The subject, taken from Ovid, was a popular one in the eighteenth century. Falconet’s version tries to answer an interesting question: how do you depict a marble sculpture coming to life through the medium of sculpture?
In Pygmalion et Galatea, Falconet’s answer involves a plinth, a small Cupid and naturalistic rendering, but L’Amour Menaçant can also be seen as a response to Ovid. Falconet’s Cupid is a lifelike young boy made from cold, dead marble. Even the hairs on the feathers of his wings are finely chiselled. In this corner of the Louvre, it’s not Venus magically bringing a sculpture to life; it’s the sculptor, himself, giving life to a god through his own craftsmanship.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Bits & Pieces of Belgian (20th Century) Architecture

I was in Belgium exactly a year ago. It was a strange experience; I was there by myself and so briefly (two days in Antwerp, two days in Brussels) that it felt like a dream. The weather was perfect and much like Paris in spring, with that same magical energy that people write songs about. Belgium was as beautiful as a dream or a song, too, and I found some of my pictures earlier today and thought I'd note down some places I'd recommend to others. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliothèque Nationale Richelieu

A unicorn horn isn’t the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a museum, much less a museum attached to a library. Nonetheless, it’s one of the many peculiar treasures you’ll find at the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Museum of Coins, Medals and Antiquities. This is a strange museum. It feels, when I walk in, as if it’s a place where time has stopped.
This is the oldest museum in France, started by Henri IV as the ‘Cabinet du Roi,’ a place for kings to display their treasures. I’d recommend visiting before things change; this Bibliothèque Nationale’s Richelieu site is undergoing an extensive refurbishment for the next five years and the future of this museum is uncertain. It may be closed completely. Whatever happens, it’s unlikely to remain the quietly magical place you’ll find at the moment.
The Entrance to the Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliothèque Nationale. Photo Author's Own.
The Entrance to the Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliothèque Nationale. Photo Author's Own.
Some pieces may seem a touch grotesque to 21st century eyes, like the antlers of a deer carved with depictions of the hunt. These were carved in Germany in the 17th century and mounted; they’re from the collection of Louis XIV and have been in the museum since 1797.
Louis XIV and Louis XV seem to have been quite the collectors and the items they were given or chose to keep provide insight into the interests of their eras. There are painted medallions of all the popes up to Clement XII, over 200 faces. Most antiquities are Greek or Roman, though there are some Egyptian pieces. A small slip of paper in one of the cases tells me that the first Egyptian objects were given to Louis XV by the Comte de Caylus between 1752 and 1765, though most such items entered the museum’s collections in the 19th century and were subsequently deposited in the Louvre in 1907.
The four rooms are crowded with cameos. There’s a small sardonyx carving of an angry bull from 100 AD – 100 BC. There are bracelets and rings with tiny portraits and mythological figures. The head of Minerva is carved in bright blue lapis-lazuli.
Ivory, too, is everywhere. Aside from the Unicorn Horn (actually from a Narwhal, for those a bit suspicious of the unicorn’s existence), there are countless carved elephant tusks and an interesting consular diptych carved in Constantinople in 525. Most fascinating, though are the collection of sixteen ceremonial ivory chess pieces originally from the Abbey of Saint Denis. Originally thought to be Carolingian, legend had it that the Emperor of Baghdad had given them to Charlemagne as a coronation present. The pieces are, in fact, from the 11th century and made in Italy, though they’re made no less impressive by the later provenance.
Ascending to the second level of the museum, one finds the dated eighties display cabinets sitting underneath a gilded ceiling. It’s quite a contrast. The items inside the display cabinets remain fantastic. There are roman dice, beautiful early twentieth century Bulgarian plates and an enameled copper cup depicting Noah’s ark, with all its animals, made by Jean de Court at Limoges in the 16th century. There are also French coins from the 6th to 20th centuries; having first visited France after the euro came into place, I was quite excited to see a fifty franc coin.
It’s primarily the display that makes these objects so fascinating. The cabinets seem outdated, but they’re not fussy and you can look at objects closely. Looking at the pieces inside them I felt a real sense of wonder that the 21st century, with all its computer simulations and online photographs, often numbs. These pieces aren’t accompanied even, really, by much context. They’re just intriguing, astonishing pieces with their subject, material, date and place written on a slip of paper beside them. This might be why they fuel the imagination: items aren’t cushioned in explanations but are simply mysterious objects from other times and visitors are left to marvel at the craftsmanship.
The reason that this free museum is so quiet is the shortage in resources; there isn’t much budget for publicizing even temporary exhibitions. The exhibition spaces have already been cut; I was a bit disappointed not to see the Salon Louis XV, painted by Boucher, Natoire and Van Loo. There’s currently a petition to save the museum from being closed. For the moment it’s open every afternoon and is captivating.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Neon: Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? at Maison Rouge

There haven’t been a lot of major exhibitions on neon, despite Laszlo Moholy-Nagy noting its artistic potential in the 1930s and the medium really coming of age with Bruce Nauman’s work in the 1960s. Neon has generally been treated as a novelty or an outlier, despite being relatively mainstream for over forty years. The title of Maison Rouge’s exhibition is both a quotation from a piece by Maurizio Nannucci and a taunt to all those institutions who didn’t take up the challenge of putting together this important survey.
The focus here is firmly on neon as art, looking primarily at the 1960s and the last ten years, organised thematically. Fittingly, the exhibition begins with Franck Scurti’s 2003 ‘TABAC,’ a playful way of acknowledging the medium’s relationship with the city street whilst planting audiences firmly in the fine art world.
The way in which the art world has generally treated pieces in neon means that pieces in museums are often seen in isolation, giving the strong seductive impact of neon lighting priority over how the medium is being used. Not yet accustomed to the glow, people either apply their critical faculties too much or too little, which is perhaps why neon art has had trouble being wholly accepted. The Maison Rouge’s exhibition groups a large number of neon works together, and so works can no longer shirk judgement through virtue of standing out.
Carlos Cruz-Diez, 'Chromosaturation' (detail). Photo Author's Own.
Carlos Cruz-Diez, 'Chromosaturation' (detail). Photo Author's Own.
If everything’s neon, a work can no longer succeed just by being neon. This isn’t to say that the pieces chosen by the Maison Rouge fail. Rather, most succeed on their own terms and show that neon isn’t a tool to render the banal exciting; it’s an important artistic force that’s often used both beautifully and intelligently.
In the opening rooms of the exhibition, François Morellet’s pieces stand out. ‘Néon dans l’Espace’ is a three-dimensional storm that celebrates the medium’s energy and potential, flashing and dancing with electricity. It gives you a headache, but it impresses simultaneously. Nearby, his ‘Enchainement No. 8′ is an abstract composition over a canvas, showcasing neon’s materiality and linking it to art history.
Some works, like Tracey Emin’s ‘Just Love Me,’ aren’t intended to be seen alongside other neon pieces. In another setting, viewers see the sharp contrast between the tubes of gas, more known for strip clubs and all night eateries than private moments, and the intimate words they illuminate. Emin’s signs are poetic and usually quite potent, but their impact rests on the viewer’s associations, numbed by an exhibition that normalises neon. It’s hard to see how this problem could have been avoided.
Generally, the exhibition is hit after hit. Jeff Koons’s ‘Pot, the Pre-New Senses’ shows that well-known artists can’t necessarily master every medium, but Cerith Wyn Evans, Mai Thu Perret, Maurizio Nannucci and Joseph Kosuth all present works that stand up to scrutiny.
Another favourite is Carlos Cruz-Diez’s ‘Chromosaturation,’ an installation occupying a small room. Neon tubes are used to magical effect, hovering just above the heads of visitors. The lights change surfaces and dimensions; everything has a flat, unreal quality, and colours fading into one another appear like sunsets. Cruz-Diez gives the light something to play with in the form of two walls dividing up the space and two cubes suspended from the ceiling. The way that light spills from section to section and hits particular sides of the cubes means that the space itself controls when colour transitions are sharp and when they’re more subtle. If Morellet’s ‘Néon dans l’Espace’ gives you a headache, this room feels like a health tonic.
‘Chromosaturation’ is the crescendo of the exhibition, and it’s right then that you’re taken back out into the foyer, with its central courtyard, for a pause before the second half of the show.
This begins with a section entitled ‘Les Pionniers’. As in the first half of the show, there are plenty of familiar names. There are works by Lucio Fontana and Dan Flavin; Bruce Nauman greets you with his irreverent twist on a handshake. There’s another work by François Morellet, which links neon tubes to a clicking foot pedal; the composition changes with viewer interaction.
The last three rooms are entitled ‘Songe, Éclipse, Extinction’ and are in the Maison Rouge’s basement, which acts as a sort of underworld. Claude Lévèque’s charming ‘Rêvez!’ hints colourfully at the potential of dream, and is followed by a darker sort of sleep from Stefan Brüggemann, whose piece reads (against a black wall) ‘This Work Should Be Turned Off When I Die’. Laurent Pernot’s ‘Captivité’ especially appealed to me; the moon is neon and caged, tiny and powerless in a dark corner.
The exhibition closes with Delphine Reist’s surprisingly chilling ‘Averse’. In a small, dark room, the audience sit and watch an empty room on a video screen as, one by one, all the neon tubes providing light fall from the ceiling and smash violently.
When all the lights have smashed and the room is dark, it’s hard not to feel moved. This is a fantastic exhibition; it’s thought-provoking, well-organised and has enough range in artists to ensure most will encounter artists they haven’t heard of and artists they know well. The exhibition takes you on a journey through varied neon terrain and should convince even the hardest sceptic that neon art is something to which we should pay attention. Neon: Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? runs until May 20th and is certainly worth seeing.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Taking Hemingway's Advice: Musée Delacroix sans alimentation

"You could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry."
               -Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

It's so easy (and so clichéd, but also so fun) to become a bit obsessed with Hemingway when you're in Paris. He captures it all so well and you walk past places he mentions so often that the whole city makes you think of Hemingway and, if you're me you end up living half in the 1920s, looking for the Paris of your imagination (which isn't really that hard to find). I especially start to think of Hemingway when I'm hungry.

It's surprisingly easy not to eat in Paris. One Sunday, I realised that I had no food in my cupboard and found almost everywhere closed. Another day I went for a walk, intending to buy groceries, and saw a man walking along the street carrying two cages with talking parrots inside. I felt obliged to walk in the same direction as him, was distracted by the (wonderful) Bêtes Off! exhibition at the Conciergerie and then the Sainte Chapelle... and found at dinnertime that I hadn't had breakfast or lunch.

Today, I confused coffee with cereal in the morning, assumed at two that it was late enough that I must have had lunch and realised with a jolt of hunger in the first room of the Delacroix Museum, looking at a Fantin-Latour painting of a vase of flowers, that I'd once again forgotten to eat. I decided to take the opportunity to evaluate Hemingway's idea that hunger strengthens your perceptions.