Posts Tagged ‘French art’
Part three coming up soon. (That’s the interesting one.)
Watch this space.
Image of the day: Swiss artist Félix Vallotton’s Self Portrait at 20 (1885), currently in the collection of the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne.
Isn’t it enchanting ? – I refer to both the painting (pastel-pretty), and its subject (winsomely wistful).
The Dreams and Reality show now on at the NMS – my review here – includes a later work by Vallotton. The Ball (below), oddly enough for an artist affiliated with the Nabi crowd, seems indebted to the then-still unusual perspectives of the photographic medium …
Image of the day: Elliott Erwitt’s iconic snapshot of a Springer, Paris (1989).
Someone I know is facing one of those dilemmas that seem to crop up in life with almost .. reassuring regularity.
Sometimes a leap – of faith, of courage – is called for.
No better way to break a deadlock than a bold, gravity-defying gesture.
Latest crowd-pleaser at the National Museum: the blockbuster Dreams and Reality: Masterpieces of Painting, Drawing and Photography from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris (phew), where some 140 objects of 19th and early 20th century French art are on display.
I visited twice. The first on the exhibition’s opening day, when I had to stand in line for what seemed like forever just to get in, and, more recently, on a relatively empty weekday afternoon. I went back mostly because I left the first time feeling distinctly underwhelmed. I figured it had to be the crowds; I was in and out in under 30 minutes, and missed much of the last couple of galleries.
Unfortunately, it didn’t get better on a repeat viewing. Sorry, crowds.
Here’s the rub: for an exhibition that’s being touted as the largest showcase of Impressionist art in Singapore so far, Dreams and Reality is kinda small and, well, not terribly impressive. While a couple of masterpieces from the d’Orsay are included here – such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone and Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus – the first thing that leapt to mind was, where’s the rest of it ?! An exhibition drawn entirely from the collection of one of the world’s greatest repositories of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, and this is it ? Sheesh. I’ve never been to Paris or the d’Orsay, but between the latter’s reputation and the hype surrounding the present show, let’s just say the reality, pun intended, was something of a massive letdown. To be fair, the organizers have been pretty candid about the difficulties in securing loans; the show’s curator, Szan Tan, is on record as noting that “… many works in these galleries may not be representative of each artists’ style. And that’s regrettable.” (Read Notabilia’s more generous review here.) The lady’s candour is refreshing, but unfortunately it doesn’t do much to ameliorate what I can only describe as a cheque that didn’t end up getting cashed.
Take Degas, for one, who, aside from a couple of sketches, is represented here by a small-ish painting titled Dancers Climbing a Staircase. I loved it – indeed, it was one of the highlights of the show for me – but we’re talking about an institution which owns literally hundreds of works by the artist, including well-known masterpieces such as Family Portrait, a.k.a. The Bellelli Family; In a Cafe, or Absinthe; The Dance Class; and The Orchestra at the Opera (below). Not a single one in that list made it to our shores. I understand that a retrospective of Degas’ nudes is coming up at the d’Orsay early next year, but this is ridiculous: unless works like the Bellelli portrait and the various paintings of ballet dancers and musicians are being reserved for a show on nudes, I don’t see why works like Van Gogh’s and Cabanel’s, which presumably have high insurance premiums and travel less easily, made the cut, but a more “representative” piece by Degas did not. Gustave Caillebotte is another case in point: he is best remembered for his paintings of streetscapes and urban subjects – including the breathtaking Paris Street: Rainy Day, considered his magnum opus and a masterpiece - produced before his retreat into yachting-related pursuits at Argenteuil. While Caillebotte’s oeuvre is slim, especially in contrast to those of his peers, he is generally regarded these days as a crucial figure in the artistic ferment of the late 19th century; pity then he remains missing from the National Museum show altogether, despite the fact that the d’Orsay owns a couple of great pieces like his Floor Scrapers of 1875 (frankly brilliant; below), or View of Rooftops (Snow).
And then there’s Manet. The Luncheon on the Grass, one of the most controversial paintings in the history of art, is, of course, nowhere to be seen. Neither is Monet’s tribute to Manet’s painting, also in the collection of the d’Orsay (both below).
Does it still surprise at this point ?
I suppose the d’Orsay can come up with any number of reasons why most of these works do not, or rarely, travel out of the country, but the fact that they were willing to part with some stuff but not others, is immediately suspect.* Why the half-gesture ?
* It has since been brought to my attention that perhaps the fault isn’t theirs; a lack of funds on the part of the NM may well have been the deciding factor here. If that is indeed true, then this should be a whole other conversation … A shoutout to Notabilia.
The Orchestra at the Opera (c. 1870), Edgar Degas. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
The Floor Scrapers (c. 1875), Gustave Caillebotte. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
The Luncheon on the Grass (1862 – 3), Edouard Manet. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
The Luncheon on the Grass (1865 – 6), Claude Monet. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
It wasn’t all negative though. Despite the rather glaring gaps, the show had its strong points, a conceptual coherence being the most salient. The viewer is invited to move through a number of themed galleries in linear fashion, from mythological and literary subjects, to depictions of the Franco-Prussian conflict and its consequences, to portrayals of industrial and peasant life, leisure pursuits, Impressionist landscapes and finally, er, existential loneliness. It wasn’t explicitly stated, but the layout of the exhibition is in keeping with the general contours of standard art historical narrative: one witnesses a progression from Salon-approved subjects of academic interest, to a wider artistic scope embedded in growing awareness of social issues like the life of the peasantry, the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the Hausmannization of Paris, to the revolutionary new visual forms of the Impressionists, and finally, what one imagines is poetic tribute to that dimension of life in the age of Marx and capitalism, what later commentators such as Frankfurt School theorists Adorno and Marcuse identified as one of the defining characteristics of modernity: the alienation of the individual …
And on that note, here are my top five moments at the Dreams and Reality show - ample testament to the enduring appeal of the 19th century, when even a curmudgeonly, hyper-critical nit-picker like myself isn’t completely turned off.
Absolutely no pretensions here to any sort of objectivity whatsoever, just a bunch of personal picks:
1. GOING FISHING (1898 – 1900), PIET MONDRIAN.
Before Mondrian starting putting black lines and coloured squares on pristine surfaces, there was a representational phase. I’d never seen one of his early mimetic works before, and this picture of a barge moored on an Amsterdam canal was quite a revelation. Not so much for the fact that once upon a time Mondrian actually deigned to portray subjects from nature, but for the observation that even here one is able to discern the flickerings of his later preoccupation with what Rosalind Krauss dubbed the “flattened, geometricized, ordered … antimimetic, antireal” quality of the grid. The linear patterning of the surface, the ambivalence of the space, the subjugation of the sole human figure to the design of lines and curves that predominate – it’s clear that Neo-Plasticism was but a short ways off.
2. STARRY NIGHT OVER THE RHONE (1888 – 9), VINCENT VAN GOGH.
This one speaks for itself I think. Not to be confused with the more famous Starry Starry Night currently in the MoMA. Anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of viewing a Van Gogh in the flesh knows how little justice is done to his work by mere reproductions; they are vividly, lushly textured surfaces of near three-dimensional proportions, an anticipation of Jasper Johns’ encaustic canvases more than half a century later. Like Johns’ questioning of the iconicity of those signs that populate our everyday lives, Van Gogh’s paintings only seem like unitary images from a distance, breaking up into broad, painterly gestures upon closer inspection – thick, dense brushstrokes of saturated tints roughly applied, a tactile field of chromatic brilliance that only reassembles itself into vaguely recognizable shapes as one steps away … I’ve blathered on about the role of haptics in the visual arts elsewhere on this blog; we don’t need to go over that again, but to quote Merleau-Ponty one more time: “The senses intercommunicate by opening onto the structure of the thing. One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass … One sees the springiness of steel.” (From The Phenomenology of Perception.)
3. SOLITUDE – F. HOLLAND DAY (1901), EDWARD STEICHEN.
The exhibition opens with the oft-repeated quote from Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (a reference to illustrator and watercolorist Constantin Guys): “Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.” Baudelaire’s advocacy of the modern extended only to subject matter, style and – ironically – traditional mediums like drawing and watercolour; he was famously antipathetic to the then nascent technology of the camera. However, with the advantage of hindsight it becomes difficult to abstract photography out of the equation, especially since, in the words of art historian Jonathan Crary:
It is not enough to attempt to describe a dialectical relationship between the innovations of avant-garde artists and writers in the late nineteenth century and the concurrent “realism” and positivism of scientific and popular culture. Rather, it is crucial to see both of these phenomena as overlapping components of a single social surface on which the modernization of vision had begun decades earlier. I am suggesting here that a broader and far more important transformation in the makeup of vision occurred in the early nineteenth century. Modernist painting in the 1870s and 1880s and the development of photography after 1839 can be seen as later symptoms or consequences of this crucial systemic shift …
(See Crary’s Techniques of the Observer.)
This “shift” is located in the operations of the viewing body and the exercise of social power, but the point here is that the binary relationship between the positivist instrumentalism of the camera and the subjective expressiveness of the fine arts in the 19th century is perhaps not so easily dichotomized. Which brings me to Steichen’s image of artist and aesthete F. Holland Day above: the photograph, unusually, is almost horizontal in format, not unlike East Asian handscrolls – no doubt to accommodate the subject’s recumbent pose. Day, in fact, is pictured as a cross between a female nude and a Rembrandt-esque self-portrait. He is shot up close and centre, any suggestion of three-dimensional space banished from the visual field; his black, undifferentiated swathe of a body seems, in fact, to be devouring all sense of composition or perspective within the narrow confines of the photograph.
Is it too much of a stretch to claim that this is about as close to, say, the pictorial abstraction of Matisse as 19th century portrait photography gets ?
4. DANCERS CLIMBING A STAIRCASE (1886 – 90), EDGAR DEGAS.
Like I said, Degas’ piece was a high point for me. Even next to larger, showier pieces like Eva Gonzales’ A Box at the Italian Theatre, this little sliver of a painting holds it own. While the effect of painting on early photography is speculative, the reverse has often been observed; Degas, unlike Baudelaire, took a keen interest in the camera, and indeed the cropped compositions and unusual angles of his paintings tend to be attributed to that fact. One of his most highly celebrated works in that regard is Place de la Concorde (1875), but the present work seems to be even more experimental: the long expanse of almost uninterrupted space that is the wall mimics inflexibly the horizontal orientation of the canvas, an aggressive thrust of solid materiality into the soft-lit space occupied by the dancers in their flimsy, frilly tutus.
5. THE CONVALESCENTS (1861), FIRMIN GIRARD.
I don’t know much about Girard, except that he was an academician, and a pupil of Gerome’s. Judging from the painting above though, I can’t imagine why he doesn’t have more of a reputation. (Or perhaps I’m just ill-informed.) The Convalescents is gorgeous, possessed of a clarity of light and colour that puts me in mind of Raphael – someone whose paintings I was indifferent towards till I saw one in person. More interestingly though, is the sheer geometric delineation of the hospital building in the background: the wall text calls it “perfectly symmetrical”, and indeed the architecture looks pretty unreal in its regularity of proportion, its lines resembling ax-cuts in space. Michel Foucault famously adduced the hospital as an example of the “discipline” of bodies by institutions as a means of social control:
Many disciplinary methods had long been in existence – in monasteries, armies, workshops. But in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the disciplines became general formulas of domination. They were different from slavery … They were different, too, from ‘service’ … They were different from vassalage … Again, they were different from asceticism and from ‘disciplines’ of a monastic type … A ‘political anatomy’, which was also a ‘mechanics of power’, was being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines. Thus discipline produces subjected and practised bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.
The medical supervision of diseases and contagions is inseparable from a whole series of other controls: the military control over deserters, fiscal control over commodities, administrative control over remedies, rations, disappearances, cures, deaths, simulations … Gradually, an administrative and political space was articulated upon a therapeutic space; it tended to individualize bodies, diseases, symptoms, lives and deaths; it constituted a real table of juxtaposed and carefully distinct singularities. Out of discipline, a medically useful space was born.
(See Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.)
Foucault seems almost to be describing the visual contrast, in Girard’s painting, between the broken bodies of the figures – a grouping of individuals locked in their own misery, arranged in a seemingly haphazard design over the pictorial space – and the hermetic uniformity of the architecture in the background, the meticulous pattern of the windows foregrounding the divergence between the disciplined severity of institution and the fractured functionality of the human body.
[This post is the first part of a two-part review.]
Don’t be fooled by the rather routine-sounding name – these guys are huge, and they’re serious.
Spread over all four floors of a revamped Art Deco building on Armenian Street, just across from the Substation, the gallery boasts some 12,000 sq feet of display space. To put that number into perspective, the structure used to house the Mayfair Hotel (below), apparently a pretty classy joint that, by the 1980s, had fallen into disrepute — and, from the looks of it, disrepair. (There’s a short piece on it over at The Long and Winding Road.) That’s right, a hotel. All that space — which, thanks to high ceilings and massive windows, allow for copious amounts of natural light to flood the interior in the day, and suffuses the rooms with an aureate crepuscular glow that slowly dissipates into a cool, dim gloom as the tropical sun sets, the effect an utterly enchanting one — now made over into a white cube just for art viewing.
As someone remarked to me, Art Plural may represent the biggest private gallery in Singapore yet.
I don’t doubt it.
The lives and times of a building:
The brainchild of Swiss couple Frederic and Carole de Senarclens, the gallery certainly lives up to its name; art-wise, the mix is an eclectic, trans-continental one. There were pieces by modernist masters — a Picasso and a couple of Dubuffets were up for sale (which may already have gone off the market, this was a while ago) — as well as a smorgasbord of offerings from contemporary art’s biggest and hippest names. Upon being buzzed into the silent, cavernous chamber, all pristine walls and grey cement floors, with absolutely nothing extraneous to distract the eye, the visitor is greeted by one of YBA-tist Marc Quinn’s monumental flower paintings (below), a canvas of colossal, lustrously-coloured blooms that peer at you as if in an eerily sensuous reenactment of some sci-fi nightmare like The Day of the Triffids, their otherworldly, non-anthropomorphic floral visages seeming almost to present greedy mouths agape, threatening to breach the two-dimensional picture plane and to disrupt the aloof quietude of the environment through the sheer force of alien hunger … Verisimilitude, chromatic brilliance and gigantism is here synthesized to produce a profoundly, potently unsettling effect. Quinn is on record as saying: “I remember visiting a flower market one day and noticing how all these flowers that shouldn’t be available at the same time ……. It perfectly illustrates how human desire constantly reshapes nature’s limitations. The fact that these flowers are always available to us is artificial and unnatural.” (See here for the full interview.)
Well, he’s certainly right there.
The vivid, garish surfaces and appropriated imagery that characterize so much of Pop art — from Warhol’s silkscreens, to Lichtenstein’s jumbo Ben-Day dots, to Richard Hamilton’s collages and, more recently, the many incarnations of Takashi Murakami’s ‘superflat’ figures across a wide variety of consumer products — find a new lease of life in the hands of Indian duo Thukral and Tagra, who are well-represented in the gallery’s collection. The omnivorous, multi-media heterogeneity of T & T, which boasts an iconography of commercial merchandise and figures culled from popular culture, most often found floating in a utopian dreamscape of pastel-hued skies and cotton-candy clouds, rendered on both canvas and three-dimensional, spherical metal shapes (below), has been described as “a whimsical fascination with consumerism—not unlike Murakami— blurring the lines between fine art and popular culture, product placement and exhibition design, artistic inspiration and media hype.” (See here.) Hardly groundbreaking, since their work, as mentioned, may be located squarely in a trajectory extending from Pop’s earliest days to more contemporary manifestations; what does relieve it of an excess of commercial enthusiasm, however, is an ironic self-awareness, artistic tongue firmly in cheek. One signature T & T strategy is the so-called BoseDK trademark, which makes its appearance in quite a few of (or all?) their pieces:
Much of the output of Thukral & Tagra is presented under the brand name of BoseDK Designs. BoseDK, which is an Anglicization of a pejorative Punjabi term, is intended to create an obliquely obscene presence in the art gallery. Branding the artworks, in this way deliberately and ironically commercialises their oeuvre. The brand of BoseDK extends into all facets of their work from design and retail commissions to paintings, sculptures, wallpaper and installations. It has been described as striving ‘for a rootless cosmopolitanism, an instigation to infect all manner of communication with an unexpected sparkle, in the process making life more marvelous’.
(Quote from Initial Access.)
The idea of a spurious brandname — like so much mass-produced consumer chaff — for stuff that actually sells for princely sums, that takes its inspiration from market-oriented commodity culture, is pretty hilarious in the best pomo fashion: a self-conscious cycle of endless referentiality.
Pakistani-born, NY-bred Seher Shah produces intricate, black-and-white graphic works on paper, quite breathtaking in their near-abstract, collaged aesthetic. Shah’s understated compositions, looking like nothing so much as leaves from a draughtsman’s sketchbook filled in by a daydreaming surrealist, are informed by her interest in the visual culture of power, and her experiences as a Muslim woman in a post-9/11 America. Speaking of the use of Islamic imagery in her work, the artist noted:
It was in the midst of this [the aftermath of September 11] that I had started creating a series of works that negotiated between personal photographs, iconic Islamic spaces, geometries and symbols. I wanted to be able to construct works that showed universal connections to certain geometric forms and massing.
The title Jihad Pop came about as a means to construct the idea of struggle of identity alongside images from pop culture and to form a new association with Islamic visual imagery. The meeting of these two words ‘jihad’ and ‘pop’ is the marriage of this exploration of identity and the simultaneous broadcast of imagery of violence, conflict and migration. Using associations and influences from media images, personal travel photographs, animation, graffiti and hand drawings to create the series that unfolds to explore the relationship of Islamic iconography and imagery. I kept the connection open to the meaning of both words, so as to interpret it in a variety of means. Using cultural elements I had grown up with from New York, Brussels, London and Lahore I started constructing and reconstructing images and symbols I was gravitating towards. The Jihad Pop works as of now are mainly constructed through a series of large-scale drawings and several print editions.
(Full interview on QMA’s blog.)
Shah’s preoccupation with the mathematical construction of space, as seen in her Interior Courtyard drawings, for instance (below), seems to channel, strangely enough, the alliance of academicism and orientalism found in the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme. An example of Gérôme’s brand of 19th century exoticization, Prayer in the Mosque (below), set in Cairo’s Mosque of Amr, features a rigidly linear perspective of the site, the system of arches and columns — running in regular rows towards an all too discernible vanishing point on the horizon line — and the schematic description of grid-like beams overhead and patterned tiles underfoot matched only by the disciplined ordering of the human figures within this architectural backdrop. The correspondence between the depiction of social cohesion and the absolute geometry of the pictorial space here no doubt gestures at the overarching presence of Islam in the life of Arab communities, and the role it plays in regulating even the most minute of details. And it is this along this axis of synchronicity, between orthodox perspective and religious diktat, that Shah structures her architectural drawings of interior spaces, while her collages of “personal photographs, iconic Islamic spaces, geometries and symbols” instead functions to de-naturalize the seeming transparency and pictorial logic of linear perspective. On display in Art Plural were The Expansion of the First Great Ornamental Age: Division and Hierarchy (2009; below), both of which feature one of Shah’s favourite devices: the grid. As art historian Rosalind Krauss has remarked, the grid, as a spatial device, renders a composition “flattened, geometricized, ordered … antimimetic, antireal”.* According to her, it negates the contours of the real by imposing a pre-ordained regularity on the compositional surface, and not, as in the case of the interlocking orthogonals of Renaissance perspective, to map a representation of reality on a two-dimensional canvas. Krauss’ objective was to submit the grid, as an artistic tool, to a historical analysis, but as it is deployed by Shah over apparently random agglomerations of bodies, patterns, icons, and landscapes, it foregrounds the constructed nature of rationalized pictorial space — against which, as the artist demonstrates in pieces like The Expansion of the First Great Ornamental Age: Fragmented Landscapes (below), there is only the space of the irreducibly two-dimensional surface.
* Rosalind Krauss, “Grids”, in The Originality of the Avant-Garde, pp. 9 – 22. See p. 9.
Interior Courtyard I (2006), Seher Shah. Image from the artist’s personal site.
Prayer in the Mosque (1871), Jean-Léon Gérôme. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.
Also spotted at Art Plural were photographic prints of the Starn brothers’ Big Bambú: You Can’t, You Don’t, and You Won’t Stop installation (below), which was featured last year at the Metropolitan Museum as part of their series of exhibitions on the roof. Alas, I had already left NYC then, but here’s a short write-up from the NYT:
From April 27 through Oct. 31 the twin artists Mike and Doug Starn will be creating a site-specific installation that is part sculpture, part architecture and part performance. Called “Big Bambú” it will be a monumental bamboo structure in the form of a cresting wave rising as high as 50 feet above the roof. Throughout the summer the artists and a team of rock climbers will lash together an intricate network of 3,200 interlocking bamboo poles with nylon rope, creating on the roof’s floor labyrinthlike spaces through which visitors can walk.
“Big Bambú” is a perpetual work in progress — it will never quite be finished — that will evolve in three phases: first, the basic structure will be completed by the opening day; second, the eastern part will be built by the artists and rock climbers to a height of about 50 feet; third, the team will build the western part to about 40 feet high. Not only will visitors be able to watch the installation as it is constructed and walk through it, they will also be able to climb up the sides.
Big Bambú seems to encompass a number of strands in contemporary art: installation, participation, performance, process. What is interesting in the present instance, however, is that it speaks to Art Plural’s ambitions for its role in the local art scene. Carole de Senarclens revealed in a conversation that their goal is to eventually be able to stage a similarly large-scale, public installation in Singapore — perhaps one of French designer slash artist Thierry Dreyfus’ light shows …
But more on that in part deux.
The Starns’ Big Bambú installation at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, in 2010. Image from Carlisle Flowers.
Big Bambú at the Met. Image from this site.
Big Bambú at the Met. Image from this site.
[To be continued.]
(A Bunny Bonanza, part one, here.)
A couple of weeks back, sitting in a friend’s shophouse, chugging back a couple of expired beers and looking at his portraits of spooky-looking children, I tried explaining to a group of friends the concept of the Eight Characters.
A brief summation: most people know that Chinese astrology assigns an animal to each year, with one’s zodiac animal representing certain personality characteristics. What is perhaps less common knowledge is that the fact that (a) each animal is also accompanied by an element, of which there are five (metal, water, wood, fire and earth), and (b) there is an animal and an element assigned not just to your year of birth, but also the month, day and hour, thus making up one’s personal Eight Characters (4 animals + 4 elements = 8 characters).
And Chinese astrology holds that it is the day of birth, rather than the year, which most accurately describes one’s personality.
Reactions to my er, exposition on the finer points of Chinese astrology was met with the usual gamut of reactions: excitement (SY discovering she was born on the day of dragon); disappointment (MP realizing he was born on the day of the goat, which was too … unglamorous for him); skepticism (everyone else, with AO just assuming I was making shit up <lol>).
And me, I was born on the day of the wood rabbit — or yi mao 乙卯 in Chinese.
August is my month, as it is my country’s; my birthday happens in a couple of weeks, Singapore’s in a couple of days. Which got me to thinking about my fellow bunnies … I got down to some extensive Wiki-ing, and came up with a list of famous people who were also born on the day of rabbit. Curiously enough, quite a few renowned artists featured on the list, including Picasso, Pollock and Rauschenberg. Colour me impressed.
Also — less pleasingly — a couple of complete assholes ……
So, without further ado, I present you with The Brilliant Bunny Wall of Fame, followed by The Nasty Bunny Wall of Shame.
THE BRILLIANT BUNNY WALL OF FAME (artists first)
Gustave Caillebotte, b. 19 Aug 1848 (Metal rabbit). Post-Impressionist painter best known for his Paris Street; Rainy Day of 1877.
Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877), Gustave Caillebotte. In the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Pablo Picasso, b. 25 October 1881 (Metal rabbit). Only the most prominent artist of the twentieth century.
Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907), Pablo Picasso. In the collection of the MoMA.
Man Ray, b. 27 Aug 1890 (Earth rabbit). Artist best known for his surrealist pictures and objects, and so-called ‘rayographs’.
Jackson Pollock, b. 28 Jan 1912 (Water rabbit). Artist of the New York School; famed for his action painting and ‘all-over’ canvases.
Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950), Jackson Pollock. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.
Philip Guston, b. 27 June 1913 (Earth rabbit). Painter; shifted from the Ab Ex style of Pollock to a more personal, pictorial idiom.
Cherries (1976), Philip Guston. In the collection of the MoMA.
Ad Reinhardt, b. 24 Dec 1913 (Earth rabbit). Painter; produced monochromatic (or near-monochromatic, heh) canvases.
Abstract Painting (1963), Ad Reinhardt. In the collection of the MoMA.
Robert Motherwell, b. 24 Jan 1915 (Wood rabbit). Yet another New York School guy. His brand of Ab Ex-ism consisted of rough black forms set mostly against a white backdrop.
Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110 (1971), Robert Motherwell. In the collection of the Guggenheim New York.
Andrew Wyeth, b. 12 July 1917 (Wood rabbit). Realist painter; best-known for Christina’s World, which depicted a polio-stricken young woman.
Christina’s World (1948), Andrew Wyeth. In the collection of the MoMA.
Robert Rauschenberg, b. 22 Oct 1925 (Earth rabbit). One of the most famous of the mid-century, post-Ab Ex artists. His ‘combines’ are his defining works.
George Maciunas, b. 8 Nov 1931 (Fire rabbit). Founding member of the Fluxus movement. One of its most seminal, yet enigmatic, members — due largely to an early death from cancer.
Sonic Youth performing George Maciunas’ Piano Piece #13 (Carpenter’s Piece).
Yoko Ono, b. 18 Feb 1933 (Wood rabbit). Someone else who needs no intro (though for all the wrong reasons). Associated with the Fluxus group as well.
Georg Baselitz, b. 23 Jan 1938 (Wood rabbit). German painter famed for his upside down canvases of the ’70s.
Richard Serra, b. 2 Nov 1939 (Water rabbit). Sculptor famed for his massive cor-ten steel behemoths.
Walkthrough of Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipse IV (1998), in the collection of the MoMA.
Ok, now everyone else (this is of course a partial list at best):
Dwight Eisenhower (34th President of the US), b. 14 Oct 1890 — Fire rabbit.
Bertolt Brecht (playwright, The Threepenny Opera), b. 10 Feb 1898 – Fire rabbit.
Aaron Copland (composer, Appalachian Spring), b. 14 Nov 1900 – Metal rabbit.
Sukarno (First President of Indonesia), b. 6 June 1901 – Wood rabbit.
Henry Fonda (actor, 12 Angry Men), b. 16 May 1905 – Wood rabbit.
Jean-Paul Sartre (philosopher, Being and Nothingness), b. 21 June 1905 – Metal rabbit.
Hannah Arendt (political thinker, Eichmann in Jerusalem), b. 14 Oct 1906 – Metal rabbit.
Jacques Tati, (director, Mon Oncle), b. 9 Oct 1907 – Metal rabbit.
Edwin Land (scientist and inventory, the Polaroid camera), b. 7 May 1909 – Fire rabbit.
Desi Arnaz (musician, actor, The Lucy Show), b. 2 Mar 1917 – Water rabbit.
Michael Caine (actor, Alfie), b. 14 Mar 1917 – Wood rabbit.
Quincy Jones (musician, composer), b. 14 Mar 1917 – Wood rabbit.
Lena Horne (singer), b. 30 June 1917 – Water rabbit.
John Rawls (Harvard philosopher, A Theory of Justice), b. 21 Feb 1921 – Wood rabbit.
Jane Russell (actress, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), b. 21 June 1921 – Wood rabbit.
Jack Kerouac (writer, On the Road), b. 12 March 1922 – Earth rabbit.
Malcolm X (activist), b. 19 May 1925 – Water rabbit.
Bill Haley (musician), b. 6 July 1925 – Metal rabbit.
B. B. King (musician), b. 16 Sept 1925 – Water rabbit.
Robert Fogel (economist, Nobel laureate), b. 1 July 1926 – Metal rabbit.
Miles Davis (jazz musician), b. 26 May 1926 – Wood rabbit.
Princess Margaret (of the U.K.), b. 21 Aug 1930 – Water rabbit.
Allan Bloom (academic, The Closing of the American Mind), b. 14 Sept 1930 – Fire rabbit.
Nagisa Oshima (director, In the Realm of the Senses), b. 31 Mar 1932 – Metal rabbit.
Corazon Aquino (11th President of the Philippines), b. 25 Jan 1933 – Metal rabbit.
Jayne Mansfield (actress, The Girl Can’t Help It), b. 19 Apr 1933 – Wood rabbit.
Karl Lagerfeld (fashion designer), 10 Sept 1933 – Earth rabbit.
Frederic Jameson (academic, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism), 14 Apr 1934 – Wood rabbit.
King Harald V (of Norway), b. 21 Feb 1937 – Earth rabbit.
Jack Nicholson (actor, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), b. 22 Apr 1937 – Earth rabbit.
Dustin Hoffman (actor, Tootsie), b. 8 Aug 1937 – Fire rabbit.
Joyce Carol Oates (writer, them), b. 16 Feb 1938 – Earth rabbit.
Ted Turner (media mogul), b. 19 Nov 1938 – Wood rabbit.
Tina Turner (singer), b. 26 Nov 1939 – Fire rabbit.
Michael Stuart Brown (geneticist, Nobel laureate), b. 13 Apr 1941 – Metal rabbit.
Nora Ephron (screenwriter and director, Sleepless in Seattle), b. 19 May 1941 – Fire rabbit
Julia Kristeva (academic), b. 24 June 1941 – Water rabbit.
Paul Anka (singer), b. 30 July 1941 – Earth rabbit.
Harrison Ford (actor, Indiana Jones series), b. 13 Jul 1942 – Fire rabbit.
Diane Keaton (actress, Annie Hall), b. 5 Jan 1946 – Earth rabbit.
Stephen King (writer, Pet Semetary), b. 21 Sep 1947 – Water rabbit.
Al Gore (45th Vice President of the US), b. 31 Mar 1948 – Wood rabbit.
Clarence Thomas (US Supreme Court Justice), b. 23 June 1948 – Earth rabbit.
Prince Charles (of the U.K.), b. 14 Nov 1948 – Water rabbit.
Peter Suskind (writer, Perfume), b. 26 Mar 1949 – Wood rabbit.
Jamaica Kincaid (writer, Lucy), b. 25 May 1949 – Wood rabbit.
Chris Van Allsburg (writer and illustrator, Jumanji), b. 18 June 1949 – Earth rabbit.
Michael Richards (comedian and actor, Seinfeld), b. 24 July 1949 – Wood rabbit.
Peirce Brosnan (actor, GoldenEye), b. 16 May 1953 – Fire rabbit.
Benazir Bhutto (two-time Prime Minister of Pakistan), b. 21 June 1953 – Water rabbit.
Jerry Seinfeld (actor and comedian, Seinfeld), b. 29 Apr 1954 – Wood rabbit.
Steig Larsson (writer, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), b. 15 Aug 1954 – Earth rabbit.
Annie Lennox (singer and musician), b. 25 Dec 1954 – Wood rabbit.
Rowan Atkinson (actor and comedian, Mr. Bean), b. 6 Jan 1955 – Fire rabbit.
Kevin Costner (actor, Dances with Wolves), b. 18 Jan 1955 – Earth rabbit.
Bruce Willis (actor, Die Hard series), b. 19 Mar 1955 – Earth rabbit.
Chow Yun Fat (actor, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), b. 18 May 1955 – Earth rabbit.
Spike Lee (director, Do the Right Thing), b. 20 Mar 1957 – Metal rabbit.
Ray Romano (actor and comedian, Everybody Loves Raymond), b. 21 Dec 1957 – Fire rabbit.
Ellen Degeneres (actress and comedienne, Ellen), b. 26 Jan 1958 – Water rabbit.
Prince (singer, musician), b. 7 June 1958 – Wood rabbit.
Jim Carrey (actor, The Mask), b. 17 Jan 1962 – Wood rabbit.
Steve Irwin (zoologist and TV personality), b. 22 Feb 1962 – Metal rabbit.
Fandi Ahmad (Singapore football legend), b. 29 May 1962 – Fire rabbit.
Stephen Chow (actor, Shaolin Soccer), b. 22 June 1962 – Metal rabbit.
Anthony Kiedis (singer and musician, frontman of Red Hot Chili Peppers), b. 1 Nov 1962 – Water rabbit.
Bret Easton Ellis (writer, American Psycho), b. 7 Mar 1964 – Wood rabbit.
Wynonna Judd (singer), b. 30 May 1964 – Earth rabbit.
Guillermo del Toro (director, Pan’s Labyrinth), b. 9 Oct 1964 – Metal rabbit.
Teri Hatcher (actress, Desperate Housewives), b. 8 Dec 1964 – Metal rabbit.
Bjork (singer and musician), b. 21 Nov 1965 – Earth rabbit.
Zoe Tay (Singapore actress), b. 10 Jan 1968 – Earth rabbit.
Alexander McQueen (fashion designer), b. 17 Mar 1969 – Metal rabbit.
Faye Wong (singer and musician), b. 8 Aug 1969 – Wood rabbit.
Catherine Zeta-Jones (actress, Chicago), b. 25 Sept 1969 – Water rabbit.
Daniel Handler (writer, a.k.a Lemony Snicket), b. 28 Feb 1970 – Earth rabbit.
Dave Eggers (writer, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), b. 12 Mar 1970 – Metal rabbit.
Lara Flynn Boyle (actress, The Practice), b. 24 Mar 1970 – Water rabbit.
Andre Agassi (tennis player, former world champion), b. 29 Apr 1970 – Earth rabbit.
Uma Thurman (actress, Pulp Fiction), b. 29 Apr 1970 – Earth rabbit.
Ewan McGregor (actor, Moulin Rouge), b. 31 Mar 1971 – Wood rabbit.
Portia de Rossi (actress, Ally McBeal), b. 31 Jan 1973 – Fire rabbit.
January Jones (actress, Mad Men), b. 5 Jan 1978 – Fire rabbit.
Laura Prepon (actress, That ‘70s Show), b. 7 Mar 1980 – Earth rabbit.
Alicia Keys (singer, musician), b. 25 Jan 1981 – Water rabbit.
Hayden Christensen (actor, Stars Wars Episode II and III), b. 19 Apr 1981 – Fire rabbit.
THE NASTY BUNNY WALL OF SHAME (oh, booo.)
Ed Gein, b. 27 Aug 1906 (Water rabbit). American serial killer; the character of Buffalo Bill (Jame Gumb) in The Silence of the Lambs was based on Gein.
Pol Pot, b. 19 May 1925 (Water rabbit). Khmer Rouge leader and mass murderer.
Bernard Madoff, b. 29 Apr 1938 (Metal rabbit). Financial crook, public enemy numero uno of the late 2000s.
Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi, b. 7 June 1942 (Metal rabbit). Libyan leader and dictator.
Gary Ridgway, b. 18 Feb 1949 (Earth rabbit). The so-called Green River Killer. Responsible for the murders of at least 70 women in Washington state.
Bill O’Reilly, b. 10 Sept 1949 (Water rabbit). Big bully, and all-round imbecile. (At least you give folks like Cheney credit for political efficacy and some measure of intellgence/cunning. O’Reilly’s just … annoyingly loud. Like the Westboro Baptist folks. <shudder>)
Tsutomu Miyazaki, b. 21 Aug 1962 (Metal rabbit). Japanese serial killer. Murdered four young girls and mutilated their corpses, partially consuming them and drinking the blood of one.
Dancers in Pink (c. 1876), Edgar Degas. In the collection of the Hill-Stead Museum.
Yesterday, on July 24, 2011, the state of New York passed the Marriage Equality Act, enabling gay men and women from Staten Island to the Adirondacks to legally wed their partners.
This is in their honour: Degas’ Dancers in Pink.
To all my friends in the Big Apple, you guys rock.
[This post is the first part of a two-part review.]
Trying to review an exhibition of video art is pretty insane.
It took me three separate visits to the SAM – which worked out to a total of five and a half hours, not including a curator’s tour – just to finish seeing all the stuff in their latest show, Video, an Art, a History 1965-2010: a Selection from the Centre Pompidou and Singapore Art Museum Collections.
Towards the end, the galleristas were beginning to look at me funny.
Anyways. First, a personal caveat: I’m pretty ambivalent about video as an art form. I’m not saying it can’t be art, but so much of what I see these days isn’t all that different from traditional narrative cinema, or are simply documentary components of larger multi-media projects. Then there are the ones which capture performative works for posterity. This may all perhaps be a bit of a moot point, seeing as how certain art historians and academic departments – not to mention practicing artists – are increasingly situating their work in the space between art and film, under the broad aegis of the visual culture paradigm, but take, say, Chinese artist and filmmaker Liu Wei’s A Day to Remember (below), for instance, which was included in the show. Liu walked around Tiananmen Sq. and the Beijing University campus on June 4th, 2005, asking random strangers on the street if they knew what day it was, and those recorded responses became A Day to Remember. Most of the replies were unsurprising, given the general self-censorship which ordinary Chinese citizens still practice as a means of negotiating socio-political minefields, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the piece, sitting through most of its short runtime of thirteen or so minutes there in the darkened gallery, I couldn’t for the life of me explain to myself why this should be in a museum – as opposed to being aired on TV, say. Because if I didn’t know better, I’d have said it was a clip from some documentary program. Yes, museums regularly play host to film screenings, and, yes, video art and film are perfectly legit subjects of academic inquiry by art historians, but museum programming and the shifting inclinations of academia still don’t explain why some televisual works should be screened on their own in museum galleries as art, when they they might make just as much sense – if not more – when viewed in a theatre or on an educational or arts channel. Which is not to say that video art, especially in it’s early, experimental days, did not attempt to insinuate itself into the realm of mass media, but these days it seems almost as if the mass media has staged some sneaky counter-colonization, asserting its own aesthetics as art …
A Day to Remember 忘卻的一天, Liu Wei (2005). Caution: Unreadable subs, and a minute-long commercial in front.
Perhaps the advent of twentieth-century strategies like abstraction and conceptualism opened a whole stinky can of worms as far as aesthetics are concerned. British artist Ceal Floyer’s Construction, which appeared in the recent Singapore Biennale, pretty much consisted of an empty room with four white walls … and a soundtrack of construction noises that periodically played overhead. When I described it to a friend, all I got was a rolling of the eyeballs. Ok, so it isn’t everyone’s idea of art. If any vaguely aesthetic experience may fall under that label, then why not televisual works like Liu Wei’s as well ? But here’s where a large part of my discomfort stems from, I think: something like Floyer’s piece can only be dubbed (conceptual) art, and very little else. In the manner of John Cage’s pioneering 4’33″, a three-act symphony of utter silence, works based on an aesthetics of absence which explicitly challenge the limits of the experiential categories they operate within – like composed music and ambient urban soundscapes, for instance, or even <gasp> Art – are founded on an interrogation of those boundaries, and thus, while perhaps unfamiliar on a formal basis, nonetheless are works calling themselves art and attempting to do what postwar art does best (at least since the prescriptions that Clement Greenberg laid out in Modernist Painting*): challenging it’s own physical and discursive limits. Liu’s video piece, on the other hand, could be contextualized as art – mostly from being included in an art exhibition – but when something looks like an elephant and behaves like an elephant, housing it in, oh, the aviary, doesn’t exactly make it a cockatoo, does it ? Why call A Day to Remember video art, when it doesn’t a. stage a critical intervention of some sort, b. challenge the parameters of its particular medium, c. function within a larger artistic program, or d. present an aesthetic experience, as opposed to serving a straightforwardly documentary purpose ?
To put it another way, is anything televisual or even filmic a priori admissible as video art these days ?
* To wit: “The essence of modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.”
Having said that though, I have to admit, I loved the show. (The five and a half hours speak for themselves. Plus the extra hour and ten bucks for the guided tour.) As SAM exhibitions go, Video, an Art is massive, ambitious and – in a local climate of continuing conservatism in the sphere of the arts, just look at the dismal response to this year’s Arts Fest. – real ballsy. It was co-curated by the Pompidou’s Christine van Assche (big name, by the way) and the SAM’s Patricia Levasseur de la Motte. Hats off to these girls. I may not agree with every single inclusion, but in terms of it’s depth, daring and breadth of vision, the show is a major step forward for the local visual arts scene – we can’t always be looking at Nanyang school stuff or contemporary reformulations of traditional Chinese ink painting, no offence to partisans of those genres. Quibbles aside, Video, an Art makes a definite attempt to be conceptually coherent: it is divvied into six different categories, starting with “Utopia and Critique of Television”, which looks at the emergence of video art in the ’60s, both as a critique of the totalitarian aspects of network TV and as a new aesthetic medium in its own right. Next is “Identity Issues”, a rather amorphous grabbag of various pieces, some of which seem to me to be pretty tangential to the theme; “From Videotape to Interactive Installation” includes participatory video works, and “Landscape Dreams” – probably my least favourite of the lot, art-wise – feature pieces which reimagine the role of the environment, both natural and built, in our lives. Over at 8Q, “Memory: Between Myth and Reality” offers a take on the role of the media in our personal and collective mental lives, and, finally, “Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Narratives” is pretty self-explanatory.
One of the highlights for me was finally getting to see Pierre Huyghe’s The Third Memory (above), a multimedia installation which excavates the sedimented layers of personal narrative behind the notorious 1972 holdup of a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn by John Wojtowicz and Sal Naturile. A simple bankjacking soon turned into a day-long media circus; it was later immortalized in the critically acclaimed Sidney Lumet film, Dog Day Afternoon, which starred Al Pacino as the Wojtowicz character and the enormously talented but short-lived John Cazale as Naturile. I’ve always been curious about the events behind the film. The bare bones of the story are well-known: Wojtowicz was a man with an ex-wife, two kids and a male lover desperate for a sex change, and it was to bankroll the latter’s surgery that he decided that sultry summer day on his outrageous course of action. The holdup soon became a standoff, and in the ensuing melee the teenaged Naturile was shot and killed, and Wojtowicz landed himself a twenty-year jail term, of which he eventually served ten. He also sold his story – the result was Lumet’s 1975 film – and a portion of the proceeds was used to transform his erstwhile squeeze, Ernest Aron, into Liz Eden.
That’s it though. I never knew much else about either Wojtowicz’s or Eden’s personal histories, and Huyghe’s work goes a long way towards putting together a narrative that positions itself somewhere between real-life occurrence and Hollywood flick, hence The Third Memory. Its centerpiece is a reenactment of the crime with Wojtowicz as director, and juxtaposed against this is actual footage from the film – or at least that’s what I’ve read about it. I sat in the gallery for almost ten minutes, and didn’t see anything of Dog Day Afternoon; mostly it seemed to be a staging by the now rotund, geriatric Wojtowicz of what is presumably his hazy recollections of that fateful day, a performative hybrid of personal reminiscence inextricably fused with cinematic imaginary, and while the gusto he put into it was certainly admirable (cancer was to claim his life several years after this), what little I saw didn’t quite measure up to the work’s reputation. Pity … The rest of the installation was great though. In an adjoining room were reproductions of contemporary newspaper coverage and a Life magazine article just chock-a-block full of details about the crime and its protagonists, as well as a recording of an episode from The Jeanne Parr Show* on which Liz Eden appeared. Wojtowicz was also interviewed from jail, and the breakdown of the relationship between him and Eden gets rolled out and dissected in pretty stark detail.
How I miss Jerry Springer … You’d think I’m kidding, but I’m not.
*A bit of trivia: Parr (above) is a former CBS reporter – who apparently had her own talk show in the ‘70s – and, more pertinently, the mother of actor Chris Noth, a.k.a. Mr. Big from Sex and the City. Is it just me, or does she resemble a younger version of her son in drag ?
[To be continued.]
Another blast from the past. This is a paper I wrote for a 19th-century art class I took as an undergrad, which I particularly liked (both class and paper). A tad purple, the prose, and my syntax could definitely be less labyrinthine, but ah well, juvenile enthusiasm and all that …
Fantasy and Femininity: Delacroix’s ‘Abduction of Rebecca’ and Degas’ The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage’
Painted in 1846, Eugène Delacroix’s depiction of a scene from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe1 (below) presents the viewer with a turbulent, tempestuous moment of high drama: the castle of the Norman knight Reginald Front-de-Boeuf has been set upon by marauding enemies, and with the structure looming in the background as a smoking specter, the Knight Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert, the primary antagonist of the tale, makes a frenzied getaway with the supine, unconscious person of the Jewess Rebecca, daughter of Isaac of York, long the object of his lustful and unwelcome attentions.
The Abduction of Rebecca (1846), Eugène Delacroix. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.
The Abduction of Rebecca, in keeping with the mood and tone of its textual source, is an arrestingly melodramatic work, rendered in agitated, swirling lines, from the billowing clouds of smoke issuing from the castle windows to the wind-roiled movement of the figures’ robes, and the otherwise subdued palette of dark hues, consisting largely of various shades of brown, is brought into stark contrast with the rich jewel tints of the fabrics, and the overcast cerulean of the sky, heightening the already vehement sense of feverish passion that dominates the tableau. More immediately, however, this mood of melodrama confronts the viewer in the main grouping of figures in the foreground, a quartet that consists of Rebecca and her captors, a pair of beturbanned, Saracen slaves, caught in the act, as it were, of unceremoniously hauling her body onto the rearing form of a horse, poised dynamically in mid-motion, its mane and tail whipping violently in the wind, every equine muscle tensed as if ready to break into swift, strident flight at any given instant.
Delacroix was not just a voracious reader—his first exhibited painting, at the Salon of 1822, had its origin in Dante’s Inferno, and throughout his career he would portray themes from Byron, Shakespeare and Goethe, among others—but also a fervent admirer of Gericault (the younger artist apparently modeled for one of the dying figures in The Raft of the Medusa), and the latter’s Charging Chasseur of the Imperial Guard of 1812 suggests itself immediately as one of the visual sources for Rebecca. The similarities are at once obvious and compelling: both horses, pictured from the rear, are caught in poses of active movement, rising up energetically on their hind legs, as are the postures of their riders, turned back perhaps in acknowledgement of another presence (a reading made more explicit in the Delacroix). The settings of both works are likewise remarkably similar, indistinct, smoke-filled battle scenes of carnage, one featuring a fortress set aflame, the other, a burning wreck out of which the wheel of a chariot or carriage is visible; Delacroix seems also to have borrowed the characterization of terrain from the earlier painting, in which the immediate ground nearest in space to the viewer, inhabited by the chasseur and his horse, is marked out by a diagonal line delimiting a raised, narrow ledge of earth. Delacroix employs this division as the first spatial zone in a tripartite composition: the landscape slopes down from where the chief group of figures stands, to a lower middle ground occupied by Guilbert, before rising up again to form the hill on which is perched the castle. Following the visual cues provided by the figures, the viewer’s eye is directed along this line backwards: the Moors turn round to look to their master for instruction; the Templar points towards the procession headed their way, perhaps of enemy soldiers in hot pursuit; the troops snake down the hill from the castle of Front-de-Boeuf, a commanding, towering inferno, a grim silhouette against the murky sky, and the final stop for one’s gaze.
Dissolution of linear clarity is effected with recession; as the space of the painting recedes, so do the outlines and shapes of forms increasingly break down into hazy contours, into loose brushwork and free application of colour, providing the visual orientation of Abduction of Rebecca with an analogue in its subject matter, mined from the mists of history. Its spatial formulation, though running counter to the forward momentum of the chronological narrative of Scott’s novel, highlights the historical dimension of both texts, of the location of moments of discontinuity and flux in the past—Ivanhoe with the rupture between Saxon England and subsequent Norman hegemony, Rebecca with the forceful separation of the heroine from her beloved. Delacroix also engages his source material on another level: both the painting and the book are concerned with the notion of drama and artifice, of history as constructed narrative. Despite its basis in broad historical currents, Ivanhoe’s author was more interested in telling (and selling) a story than he was in observing the integrity of historical fact: “It is extremely probable that I may have confused the manners of two or three centuries, and introduced, during the reign of Richard the First, circumstances appropriate to a period either considerably earlier, or a good deal later than that era.”2 Scott, in the words of one commentator, was “a romantic antiquarian, not a sociologist or an archaeologist.”3
Delacroix was somewhat more scrupulous in the matter of verisimilitude (as evidenced by the accuracy with which he depicts his characters’ costumes), but no less interested in the theatrical aspect of the grand narrative of history, to which the overt melodrama of Rebecca is testament. In his choice of portrayal of a single moment of violence and fissure in the story, the artist also at once subjected the image to a process of stabilization and fixity, by literally foregrounding it, as well as embedding it in a set of dichotomous terms between the inert, defenseless, pale-skinned Rebecca, and the active, swarthy figures of the Moors in possession of her. The terms of the dialectic, however, are less clear-cut than their respective iconographies would suggest, and the differences between Gericault’s and Delacroix’s figures are instructive here, furnishing an example of both the stabilization process and dialectical ambivalence and fluidity. The former’s horse is a creature undeniably horrific and powerful, from the beady, unflinching stare of its single reddened eye, directly confronting the viewer, to the unashamed revelation of the anus, and the outline of its genitals. (Gericault made several drawings of studs where sexual organs were prominently on display, and in which an association between conspicuous, overweening virility and dominance over the feminine was made.4) While retaining the suggestions of movement and vigour, all hints of rude sexual prowess have been eliminated from Delacroix’s horse, its private regions modestly concealed by careful positioning of the tail, just as its head is now averted and its gaze downcast, thus denying the presence of the viewer and rendering the image “safe” for consumption. If an equation between horse and rider can be inferred—what Germer refers to as “powerful fictions of the unity of manliness and animality which invite narcissistic identification”5—then the Moor, who casts his glance away as his horse does, a mimicry of the animal by the human and vice versa, witnessed in the portrait of the chasseur as well, has been rendered impotent, desexualized, a victim of subjugation by the “real”, empowered male. He is, in other words, the Other, as originally the colour of his skin would imply, occupying the same end of the polarity as Rebecca, who is not only female and powerless (her vaunted skill in the healing arts avail her nothing here, serving only to exclude her more firmly from the sphere of the male, Christian warrior), but a Jew at that, reduced to no more than an unconscious figure, the only one in the painting who offers the viewer a full frontal profile but is yet refused the function and power of sight.
Edgar Degas, active some three decades later, was also taken with the themes of artifice and sexual difference in his work. The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage (below), an oil canvas with traces of watercolour and pastel, probably dating to 1874, portrays an intimate moment backstage, behind the curtains: a group of young ballerinas are busy (and not quite so busy) practicing their steps under the keen eye of their master. The figures are aligned along the sides of the stage: to the left is a group of stationary girls, packed tightly together in a frieze-like arrangement, as well as three other dancers absorbed in various personal distractions. One bends over to tie her slipper; another has her face turned upwards in a yawning, Munch-like expression; the third sits on the floor, engaged in what seems to be an attempt to adjust a ribbon around her neck. The figures on this side of the stage include also the dance master, as well as the handles of two musical instruments (violins perhaps, or cellos) that jut abruptly up into the frame of the painting, and by which size connotes extreme proximity to the viewer. On the other side the dancers, divided into two clusters, are all in motion, and one trio of girls, pirouetting in a straight formation, are idly watched by two unidentified men lounging in chairs, by a pillar.
The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage (c. 1874), Edgar Degas. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.
Broken up as they are into disparate groupings along two ends, the human figures mark out an empty central space in the composition, a corridor which proceeds from an uninhabited area in what would be the front of the stage, past the ballerinas towards the back, where the stage sets have been pulled aside to reveal the scaffolding, the nuts and bolts, of the mechanism by which the illusion of reality would later be simulated for an audience. Degas’ painting, as such, is chiefly concerned with the disruption of the ideas of theatricality and glamour, and the worlds of drama and the theatre. Ballet in late 19th century Paris was almost without exception an accompaniment to opera6, and “Garnier’s Palace”, as the Opéra was dubbed, was a grand, ostentatious structure, boasting an interior in which “putti, angels, gods, and muses rolled across ceilings and walls”, and “plush burgundy velvet draped the stage and cushioned the seats”; “foyers, staircases, loggias, and boxes provided endless locations in which to be seen, emphasizing that display was a raison d’être of the building’s existence … So too were the enormous gold-encrusted grand foyer and the more private but still penetrable boxes in the auditorium …”7 While the Opéra might not necessarily have been the precise setting of The Rehearsal, it was certainly the milieu in which ballet dancers of the period moved most frequently, and Degas’ removal of the figures in his painting from that gilded, glittering environment to a far more intimate, personal sphere, a private performance in an arena cut through down the middle by a swathe of empty space, speaks perhaps to the artist’s notion of the hollowness at the core of the world of professional dance. The effect is also one of layering: the painted backdrops are arranged in vertical tiers that recede towards the uncovered triangular space in which the scaffolding is framed, and a dancer’s hand rests on the edge of a piece of the outermost layer on the left side almost in a gesture of peeling back, a signifier surely of the motif of exposure, and revelation.
The scene that Degas portrays is, despite, or perhaps because of, its markedly private nature, one where sexual availability seems to be indicated. While male and female figures are subject to clear colour and sartorial codification—men are dressed in black suits, and the ballerinas in white tutus—the mere fact of the presence of the two men by the pillar, looking for all the world as if they unquestionably belong in what is essentially an overwhelmingly feminine environment, raises issues of propriety and possession. The meeting of male and female is also expressed by the figures of the ballet master and the dancer on the right, one half of the duo nearest to the interior, wearing a red ornament in her hair: her arms are outstretched in a posture of embrace, as are his, and across the gulf that separates them his right hand, by dint of an optical illusion, looks to be touching hers. Degas seems to implicate the viewer as well in his realm of sexual freedom: the immediacy of the musical instruments and the arbitrary cropping of the picture (the leftmost figure is cut in half) implies the natural processes of human vision, and the inclusion of the viewer in the scene being witnessed, an act of male voyeurism that might be explained by the viewer’s inhabitation of the musician’s space, an occupation then equally gender-biased as that of the ballet.
Both Delacroix and Degas, in their respective paintings, are explicitly concerned with the trope of artifice, and, by extension, painting as performance. Delacroix was inspired by literary themes to depict moments of furious drama, and Degas by the rarefied world of the ballerina. Their fictive realms are, at the centre, essentially feminine ones, and problems of gender issues, of the relations between men and women, are encoded in their representations, and one is reminded of Henry James’ comment on the writing of The Bostonians: “… I asked myself what was the most salient and peculiar point in our social life. The answer was: the situation of women, the decline of sentiment of sex, the agitation in their behalf.”8
1 All references to Ivanhoe are taken from Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (New York: Collier Books, 1962).
2 Quoted by Delancey Ferguson in his foreword to the Collier edition; see Scott, Ivanhoe, p. 10.
3 See Scott, Ivanhoe, p. 11.
4 See Philippe Grunchec, Géricault’s Horses: drawings and watercolours (New York: Vendome Press, 1984).
5 See Stefan Germer, “Pleasurable Fear: Géricault and uncanny trends at the opening of the nineteenth century”, Art History 22.2 (June 1999): 159-183, p. 167.
6 See Eunice Lipton, Looking into Degas: Uneasy Images of Women and Modern Life (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1986), p. 74.
7 See Lipton, Looking into Degas, p. 75.
8 See Henry James, The Bostonians (New York: Modern Library, 1956).
Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son (1875), Claude Monet. In the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Picture courtesy of www.joanlansberry.com.
Another personal favourite: Monet’s outdoor portrait of his first wife Camille and their son, Jean (I think). The concluding passage of Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans probably sums up my feelings about this painting best:
But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.
Why the conflation of this painting and this passage in particular ? – I’m not entirely sure. Maybe it’s the worm’s-eye view of the figure, with her wind-billowed dress and her veil-shrouded visage, which reminds me of a Greek marble head of a similarly veiled woman housed in the Met (below). She seems the very epitome of feminine grace and remote allure, quite literally a vision in white and light. And the little child next to her, dwarfed and indistinct … She is unreachable, always already lost.
The image is so lovely it hurts.