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.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Doisneau Les Halles at the Hôtel de Ville, Paris

The main problem with the free exhibitions at the Hôtel de Ville is their popularity. Queuing becomes a test of stamina and often by the time you’re at the front of the line you long for a cup of coffee and a seat. Nonetheless, if you’re interested in Parisian history or in photography, the Doisneau exhibition running until the 28th of April is fascinating. Robert Doisneau is a photojournalist best known, interestingly enough, for his 1950 photograph of a couple kissing outside the Hôtel de Ville. You can now find inside the building his attempts at documenting the market at Les Halles, central to Paris life for over a hundred years, before it was moved to Rungis in 1969.

The difficulties Doisneau had photographing Les Halles are noted at the beginning of the exhibition: “lack of light, reflexes slowed down by tiredness, so many possible images! And it was intimidating.”

“But I stuck with it,” Doisneau’s quotation continues, and the result is a record of Les Halles as it was in 1968, its last year as Paris’s wholesale market.
The exhibition begins with details of Victor Baltard’s pavilions, built between 1852 and 1870 and demolished in 1971. It must have been hard for Doisneau to capture the intricacy of the iron rafters and ceilings, some areas of which would have been naturally lit and others receding into shadow, but he succeeds both in showing the buildings clearly and in giving visitors a sense of the space’s majesty. This is all the more impressive given he was working in an era before digital photography and instantaneous adjustments.
With the stage set, the exhibition is given over to photographs of the people at Les Halles. Vendors are shown alongside their products, some smiling, some laughing, some more serious. Proprietors of the bars and bistros that surrounded the market are shown behind counters. Girls are shown eating snacks in the street. There are men, women and small children; all manner of characters who once would have met at Les Halles are documented. A butcher, severed pig’s head beside him and knife in hand, stares directly at the camera. This photograph has been blown up to a large size and, in the context of the much maligned loss of the market, feels accusatory and menacing.
A series from 1953, earlier than most photographs in the exhibition, entitled ‘Le Saut du Caniveau’ (The Jump of the Gutter) captures a variety of people in motion leaping over rubbish in the gutter. It’s a clear nod to Henri Cartier Bresson’s 1932 photograph of a man in the Place de l’Europe, used to illustrate the idea of the ‘decisive moment’ at which the shutter clicks. It’s also an amusing reworking of Cartier Bresson’s photographs, taking an image with a somewhat magical aura and illustrating the movement as it is replayed for practical reasons in daily life. The series seems popular with visitors; more visitors lingered here than in any other part of the exhibition.
Halfway through the exhibition, a small room of colour photographs bursts out at you. Butchers in blood covered white push red carts against the dark, rain soaked pavement. Green vegetables are spread across the ground. A lit pavilion at night has a fairground atmosphere to it while lines of flowers, clumps of colour and light, have their transience captured through ill-defined, impressionist forms.
After this, it’s back to black and white, but forward to the demolition of Les Halles. ‘Les Oiseaux’ (The Birds), from 1973, is especially effective, casting the hole that Les Halles has become as a wilderness, abandoned by humanity. Nearby are photos of people lined up to look at the hole, seeming slightly comical in their interest in the abyss.
The exhibition ends at Rungis, where Paris’s wholesale market moved in 1969 and remains. Here, things appear to be all business and no life: there is no produce to be seen and serious expressions have replaced smiles on the faces of Doisneau’s subjects. The light is still beautiful, but in a sombre way, suggesting the sun has set on the world of Les Halles and these are the last rays lingering.
Alongside these are photographs from the 1979 opening of the Forum des Halles, filled with people who, in sunglasses and sandals, seem very different to those from the market days. Coming after the earlier photos, these crowds seem rather unreal. Doisneau has shown the market in sunshine and in rain, in daylight and at night, and photographed workers both with produce and at the pissoir; it’s Les Halles of 1968 that seems permanent.
Doisneau’s photograph’s, many of which are much livelier in reality than in reproduction, succeed in evoking the sense of Les Halles. It’s hard to believe something that feels so real can have disappeared. Leaving the Hôtel de Ville and seeing again the queue outside, I felt I’d been to an altogether different place than an exhibition hall.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Notting Hill: The Museum of Brands & The Prettiest Public Toilet in London

This suburb is like a piece of cake: dainty, rich and iced in pastel colours. There are bowls of flowers hanging from lamp-posts and prada dresses sell for hundreds in the windows of gritty second hand shops. Even glances through housing estate windows reveal art deco lamps and photographs of grandchildren in neatly arranged silver frames. It's as quaintly charming as you'd expect, but with some unexpectedly quirky aspects.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Thoughts on Social Housing in London, in Paris, in Theory and in the Cité de l'Architecture

I used to be really excited about social housing but this has waned a bit lately. When I arrived in the UK after living in Australia, a country that's all backyards and space, compact living had a sort of thrill. Large estates seemed so urban, the opposite of suburbia, the epitome of togetherness. My first real encounter with British social housing was the writings of Alison and Peter Smithson, too, and the idealism of Robin Hood Gardens was perfectly pitched to my political sympathies.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sept Fois Plus à l'Ouest: Yann Kersalé at the Fondation EDF

I have a new favourite artist. I'm lucky to have seen Yann Kersalé's exhibition at the Fondation EDF; I had heard of neither him nor the venue until I stumbled upon a blog mentioning it as a postscript and looked it up. I probably wouldn't have gone to see it (knowing almost nothing about the artist or the space) if it hadn't been both free and on a street I pass regularly. I'm so glad I went, though, and I'm certainly going to go back again before it closes on March 25th.

I don't even know how to describe this exhibition. It begins as soon as I open the door to the Fondation EDF; the space is pitch black. I follow swirling arrows suggestive of primordial winds, walk past text that could easily be poetry and enter the closest thing an art gallery can be to a wilderness. It's sort of more than a natural wilderness, too, because there's the sense that there could be otherworldly monsters lurking in dark corners. In the darkness, nothing but the works themselves are visible. I fear I'm about to bump into a stranger or trip on something.

Photographs don't really capture this exhibition; so much of it is about movement and sound and being in the space.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Hotel Lutetia, Paris

The first in a series of posts which will focus on historically/architecturally significant hotels (i.e. preparatory PhD research).

Stepping off the Boulevard Raspail and into the Hotel Lutetia is an experience akin to time travel. I'm not sure what the rooms themselves are like, having seen only public areas and a salon open for a small art show, but the lobby, eateries and corridors are filled with interwar splendour.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Antipodean Houses, Cross-Promotion and Kitschy Restaurants

I've been writing an arts column for NZ News UK since January and thought that my most recent article, on Amyas Connell, might be of interest to readers of this blog. It's primarily on High and Over, Connell's first building, and its impact on Britain in 1931.

Basil Ward, Connell's partner, is also from New Zealand; George Checkley, too, was born there. I find it interesting that three architects so known for their houses and for using reinforced concrete in the UK were all from New Zealand. I've noticed, generally, that there's an emphasis on the house (as a building type) in New Zealand that doesn't really exist in the same way in the UK.