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!