Andy says Happy Easter !

Wishing my followers and readers a happy Easter and thanking you for your enthusiastic support : )

 

All images ©Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

Saper vedere: Knowing how to see

One of the most exciting aspects about art is the pleasure we get from learning about what we are looking at. “Allegory of Passion” painted by Agnolo Bronzino  (circa 1545) contains a cornucopia of symbolic characters whose meaning is no longer familiar to us. Understanding who they are and what they mean, enriches our brain, heart and soul, adding a little spark of fun to the banality of our daily lives.

Let’s set the scene: In 1525, a German genius, Albrecht Dürer, describes in a book the perfect human proportions: a head fits seven and a half times in a body. The Italians, as always”over the top”, prefer an idealised version of proportion: a human head fits twelve times in a body. Abandoning any possibility of verisimilitude and liberating form and movement, they invent Mannerism. Think of Michelangelo‘s (Renaissance’s temperamental Leather Queen) ever twirling sculptures, the fabulous elongations of Parmigianino, or Pontorno‘s impossible contortions.

But, let’s add a little gravitas to our discourse and quote from those who took the time to enlighten us: “…The Antique male nude is like a Greek temple, the flat frame of the chest being carried on the column of the legs; whereas the Renaissance nude is related to the architectural system that produced the central-domed church; so that instead of the sculptural interest depending on a simple, frontal plane, a number of axes radiate from one center.”

 Sir Kenneth Clark – “The Nude, A study in Ideal form” – Princeton University Press, 1953 

Aha ! “a number of axes radiate from one center.” Let’s keep that in mind as we look at this particularly busy and convoluted flesh-a-thon: “An Allegory of Passion” also known less romantically as “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid”.  In it we see this really white chick who’s nipple is being squeezed by this weird looking kid with a funny looking butt. She is surrounded by these scary looking guys who don’t look all too happy. Ok, but if you were to take a pencil and place it at the nipple squeeze, then, clockwise start drawing bigger and bigger coils, you would see that the position of every arm, leg, face and eyes radiate from that central action. To understand who these characters are and what they are doing, we need help from a fundamental luminary of art history: Erwin Panofsky.

“Iconographically the picture does show the pleasures of love ‘on the one hand’ and its dangers and tortures ‘on the other’, in such a way, however, that the pleasures are revealed as futile and fallacious advantages, whereas the dangers and tortures are shown to be great and real evils…

In the main group, Cupid is shown in bracing Venus who holds an arrow and an apple. The apple is tendered to the eager boy and the arrow concealed, perhaps implying the idea ‘sweet but dangerous’…. This impression is sharpened by the fact that Cupid is shown as a quasi-sexless being, although the myrtle plant appearing behind him is the classical symbol of love, and the two doves at his feet signify ‘amorous caresses’.  …The picture shows an image of ‘Luxury’… This is corroborated by the fact that Cupid kneels on a pillow,  a common symbol of idleness and lechery…

On the left of this exquisitely lascivious group appears the head of an elderly woman madly tearing her hair. She is the symbol of ‘Jealousy’…. On the right is a Putto throwing roses who on his left foot wears an anklet adorned with two little bells, to him the terms ‘Pleasure’ and ‘Jest’ may be applied. However his promised pleasures are signalled as futile and treacherous by the ominous presence of two masks, one of a young woman, the other of an elderly and malevolent man. Masks that symbolise worldliness, insincerity and falsehood…

Emerging from behind the playful Putto is a girl in a green dress; ‘Deceit’. The dress cannot fully conceal a scaled, fish-like body, panther’s claws and the tail of a dragon. The entire group is unveiled by ‘Time’ and ‘Truth’. Time characterized by his wings and hourglass, and the female figure on the left who helps to draw the curtain from the whole spectacle is none other than ‘Truth’ ‘ Veritas filia Temporis’ “

Erwin Panofsky – “Studies in Iconology” – Oxford University Press, 1939

I told you, riveting stuff  : )

 

All images ©The National Gallery, London

In Praise of: Keith Haring

As I am about to marry the man with whom I have been living for the past 23 years, my heart cries in memory one of the most loving, generous and talented human beings that I was fortunate to have known: Keith Haring

I first met Keith in 1982 when he was living with Juan Dubose in their small railroad flat on Broome Street. I tagged along to a party at their place with my cousins Luca and Mahen Bonetti (THE it couple of ’80’s) and Maripol; taste maker extraordinaire, Fiorucci stylist, Grace Jones transformer, schlepping along with her a tiny, noisy, insufferable and ferociously ambitious fake blonde from a fly-over state who wanted to make it in the music business: Miss Ciccone. The atmosphere was one of immediate ease, relaxed and sexy. Booze and Quaaludes were plentiful, Juan was deejaying a gentle form of hip hop, the girls were loud, the boys magnificent.

Over the years, many more days and evenings were spent together. Either in SoHo with his New York dealer “the Iranian Stallion” Tony Shafrazi, or at night, late at night, surrounded by a posse of brutally sexy Puerto Ricans, at Paradise Garage, Danceteria, or at my absolute favorite; Area 

To see Keith work was simply thrilling. Always surrounded by a BoomBox or wearing a Walkman, a form of dance would ensue. He would begin on the upper left of the paper, canvas or wall he was undertaking, and, with nervous but perfectly controlled rhythmic movements he would reach the lower right of the piece. Never breaking away or taking a distance from it. Never erasing or starting over, a joyfully eruptive flow of perfectly proportioned forms would fill the space. Many public murals, often painted surrounded by friends and passers-by, remain visible in New York and across the world.

“Haring frequently said that “art is for everybody,” and he meant it. You could see that belief in his crowded Pop Shop, where he sold Haring art that anyone could afford, on buttons, posters, T-shirts, and more… Anyone, any age, anywhere can understand a Haring. His pared-down, instantly recognizable iconography—from crawling babies to men bedding men—is vibrant with a profound sense of social engagement. Yet it also represents a moving personal and collective journey, especially when it comes to issues of self-acceptance, which were such a big part of the gay movement in the late 70s and early 80s. Perhaps this explains the work’s surprising, haunting beauty. Idealism shines out of every one of Haring’s bold, sure lines—even in one of his last finished paintings, titled ‘Unfinished Painting’, which has a vast passage of emptiness, as if to signify all the great work that his death meant he’d never have the chance to do.”  

Ingrid Sischy, Vanity Fair, October 13, 2008

Keith kept a diary for most of his life, and, sensing his battle with death coming to an end, he wrote:

 “No matter how long you work, it’s always going to end sometime. And there’s always going to be things left undone. And it wouldn’t matter if you lived until you were seventy-five. There would still be new ideas. There would still be things that you wished you would have accomplished. You could work for several lifetimes….Part of the reason that I’m not having trouble facing the reality of death is that it’s not a limitation, in a way. It could have happened any time, and it is going to happen sometime. If you live your life according to that, death is irrelevant. Everything I’m doing right now is exactly what I want to do.”5

“All of the things that you make are a kind of quest for immortality. Because you’re making these things that you know have a different kind of life. They don’t depend on breathing, so they’ll last longer than any of us will. Which is sort of an interesting idea, that it’s sort of extending your life to some degree.”6

"Unfinished Painting", 1989 ©Keith Haring Foundation
“Unfinished Painting”, 1989 ©Keith Haring Foundation

On February 16, 1990, surrounded by sweet unflinching Gil Vasquez, his last love and heir, Keith died from complications of AIDS related illness in his New York bedroom recently redecorated like his favourite suite at The Ritz Hotel in Paris, he was 31.

 

All images ©The Keith Haring Foundation

Bettina Rheims: Scratch-and-Sniff

Bettina Rheims started taking pictures to impress her father. Believing she was not pretty enough for his standards, she took photographs of beautiful women to get his attention.

“Someone who doesn’t like museums is someone who doesn’t love women”, her connoisseur father Maurice Rheims declared grandly as he caressed the lower back of a Rodin sculpture. Doctrinarian and somewhat overbearing, this short yet handsome figure shared his knowledge and passion with young Bettina for, among many, François BoucherGustave Courbet, and Auguste Rodin; other men’s interpretation of feminine abandon.

Pretty girls behaving badly have a natural appeal, and images of the type of girls mothers warn you about are quite enticing. Naturally, Taschen did a big book on it. They specialise in making books filled with images meant to titillate the simplest common denominator, but can one blame them? It sells like hot croissants. Bettina deserves better.

No man could photograph women with such intimacy. A photographer’s eye is by definition a voyeur, in situations of naked vulnerability it becomes a predator. This adds sexual tension to an image. Not here, Bettina obtains an abandon of her subjects that is the result of her personal savoir faire; a mix of cajoling and directive handling of her voluntary prey. Like a dressing-up game, little girls making-up games, games that become a little naked, a little kinky. The result is a particular form of eroticism of a woman looking at another woman as she gives herself to the camera.

From a different generation, and maybe because it lacks the sexual tension and thus a shared purpose, it is unfair to compare Bettina’s fashion work with Guy Bourdin‘s glorious layers of provocation in full frontal color or Helmut Newton‘s elegant 50 shades of grey. But both were friends and, as the Old Masters of her youth, obvious inspirations.

Her garish, “look at me” images are attractive but somehow something is lacking. They remain in one’s mind as highly staged and richly produced pictures in a magazine. Bettina offers the best of herself in her personal and more introspective work, photographing the slightly off-kilter and interrogating the transient nature of all living things, as in her 1982 Animal series of formal portraits of stuffed animals chosen from Deyrolle‘s taxidermy collection. Or in 1990’s Modern Lovers, with her gender-questioning series shot after the death of her 33-year-old brother. True, these images seem perhaps harsher, less appealing at first, but there is something lasting and powerful that emanates from them: soul.

There is something inherently stifling about growing up in a powerful high society family. Letting others take precedence over you, never complaining and never explaining is drilled into you until it becomes a reflex. Of Bettina’s generation, Nan Goldin successfully based her whole oeuvre on explaining and complaining. Politeness, unobtrusiveness and prudery are not tantamount to great art. Bettina got to break that natural instinct through her work. She has proven that she could make her mark among the brutal world of fashion and advertising. Now, older, and still beautiful, it would be wonderful if she could just do more of what she does best: scrutinising our fragility and yearning.

Bettina’s life story, character and natural empathy are particularly endearing. An example can be found in a double page in the back of the Taschen book, where a facsimile of an early contact sheet of photographs taken for the celebration of the 90th birthday of her grandmother’s Nanny. Albeit not great photography, but simple, caring and revealing of herself and her love for others. That’s the necessary Bettina that I love and admire. As Rosine Crémieux, my very Parisian psychiatrist once said to me: “stop trying to charm me, now, tell me about you”.

Bettina Rheims runs at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, until March 27th, 2016. All images ©Bettina Rheims

Published in SuperMassiveBlackHole Mag. 03.03.16

 

In Praise of: Jerry, 1931

Magic Realism, how beautifully this painting reflects these two words. That fleeting, warm, moist, intimate and impudent moment when the object of your love and desire looks at you with confident requited love. The moment may be real, but it sure feels magic.

Paul Cadmus painted a portait of his lover Jared French in Mallorca while travelling with him through Europe to study the likes of Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna and Peter Paul Rubens. Influenced by the narrative and techniques of the Old Masters, Jared French and Paul Cadmus were later to return to America to paint large murals in public spaces for the Works Progress Administration. In turn surrealist or expressionist, bodies either mannerist and elongated, or rotund and sensuous, Paul, Jared and their contemporary George Tooker, created a new and personal style later coined as Magic Realism.

Jeux Interdits”: Paul, inspired by his revered Old Masters use of symbolic elements in paintings, instilled a little riddle in his portrait of Jared. Could the prominent display of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book banned in America, be a subliminal message for “the love that dare not speak its name”?

In Brazil, thirty five years later, Sergio Mendes put into his own words and music this universal feeling of awe and gratitude

“The look of love is in your eyes
A look your smile can’t disguise,
The look of love is saying so much more
Than just words could ever say.                                                                                                                            And what my heart has heard
Well, it takes my breath away !”

 

Paul Cadmus, Jerry, 1931, Oil on canvas, 1931. 20 x 24 in. Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio

In Praise of: “A Subtlety, or the Marvellous Sugar Baby” 2014

“An Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant” 

Fathom a gigantic (35 x 75 feet) sculpture of a strange Deity made from 5 tons of melted white sugar. She rests surrounded by thirteen little black boys. Each 60 inch tall sculptures of small Blackamoors made from sugar and molasses are enlarged versions of ceramic blackamoors still made in China today. These small figures melting slowly as the exhibition progressed.

At first one is overtaken by a sense of awe at the enormous undertaking and sheer size of the space. Quickly as we grasp the context it evokes, our initial feeling is replaced by wonder, empathy, and a deep sense of unease.

Kara Walker‘s storytelling is made of attractive, energetic, undulant and playful imagery that carries, on closer inspection, a violent and powerful message.

Regal, this beautiful slightly menacing Mama Sphinx bearing generous breasts and an Aunt Jemima knotted kerchief, looks down at us. She sits proudly, her body the shape of a Lioness resting serenely on her paws. As we walk along her monumental body, we discover her impudent and magnificent “Ti Bounda“.

Offered as it where, to our embarrassed or attracted view, large and perfectly proportioned heart shaped round buttocks ensconce protuberant labia. Symbol of the absolute vulnerability and ultimate humiliation of slavery: rape.

Slavery functions on the premise of the complete annihilation of self, you have no name, no family, no identity other than the one of the Master to whom you belong.

This horrific “droit de cuissage” had obvious consequences. It created new beings with undefined identities. They were neither black, nor white, neither Master nor slave. Born ostracised, they later became the ruling Bourgeoisie. Sprung from violence, the new Establishment, perhaps to atone from the seed of the original sin, created a fresh layer of humiliation and self hate within its own structure: skin tone, the lighter the better.

The triumph from these bleak realities is the result of the most admirable and powerful human ressource: resilience. Through a project such as this, Kara Walker inspires, educates and enriches our culture. Cultural history and knowledge gives perspective, culture is identity, identity is power.

 

A Subtlety was made possible by the munificent generosity of CreativeTime

Robert Mapplethorpe: Ad Maiorem Corii Gloria

In 1983, I was working as a trainee at Christie’s in New York in the Modern Paintings department. One of my duties was to be on the exhibition floor making sure clients inquiries would be attended.

One particular winter morning I see, from behind, standing intently in front of a Magritte, a perfectly coiffed blue rinse bouffant. As I approach to offer my help, I notice a frail heavily bejeweled hand clasping a small alligator bag against a fluffy white Lynx coat.

” May I help you, Madam?”

“Madam?! “ Alexander Iolas screeches, “Oh not Madam yet Darling!”

Alexander Iolas was a Greek art dealer who had made a very good life for himself selling, among many other classics, late Picasso’s to Greek shipping tycoons with Swiss residencies.

Albeit our awkward beginnings, I spent a lot of time with this ageing “Grande Dame” of art dealing prone to peremptory sayings:  “A Great work of Art is Always equally very simple and very sophisticated, mon Chéri !” 

The first time I saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s work was at Le Palace in Paris in the winter of 1980. A very grand and very chic party was held in the “it” place of the day. Do remember that the idea of a “Gay only” disco was just not in style yet…

A slide show of the X Portfolio was projected on the immense screen above the stage. Golden showers, fist fucking and many other intricate delicacies were glanced sideways by smoking luminaries, granting a Gallic shrug at what was to become a seminal work of contemporary photography.

Andy Warhol had introduced me to Robert at a “kids” lunch at the Factory in early 1979.  I, blond Park Avenue cutie part of Andy’s “chickens” was simply of no interest to this sexy, energetic, intense looking, leather clad, ambitious waif from Long Island.

But, as chickens tend to follow roosters, we arranged to meet Robert for a late dinner followed by a visit to one of his favorite places TheAnvil.  Andy left early, others, bewitched, bothered or bewildered, did not.

The essential image: “Man in Polyester suit”, just imagine the sheer terror or delight this image conveys! The manifest crass cliché it implies: primal and poor black men in polyester suits will rape our wives and molest our boys with their huge cocks!

The Political implications of the image in Ronald Reagan’s America as in Barack Obama’s are manifold. In simply taking a photograph of what Robert loved and knew intimately (Milton Moore, one of his trysts), he threw a spongy bomb in the face of all the prejudiced, racist, homophobic, and fear mongering prophets.

Ultimately, Robert created an image that fits the standards of a great work of Art; simple in its “raison d’être” and concept, formidably sophisticated in the interpretations and ripple effects they cause.

Also, time has proved, it had staying power, historically and economically. Did Robert know he was making great art? He certainly always intended to.

Robert used all that New York can give with gluttony. Re-invention; by meeting all the right people, loosing those along the way that are no longer profitable, and quickly becoming the “Enfant Chéri” of the Uptown swells, photographing pretty flowers and making portraits of their children.

He reminded me of Lou Reed’s brilliant evocation of an earlier down town:

“Candy came from out on the Island
In the back room she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, “Hey, babe,
Take a walk on the wild side.”

In 1987, I went to one of his last shows at Robert Miller Gallery in New York. An emaciated, leather clad old man, looking at me through eyes clouded by malady, flashed his carnivorous smile at me, his slow burning and wiry intensity still glowing softly.

Robert’s generation, such as Peter Hujar or Lynn Davis, with the help of their dealers, were pivotal in the transformation of the Photography market, from an infinitely reproductive process into the controlled and limited edition Fine Art we know today.

His images can be interpreted as staged, cold, manipulative, pornographic, violent, too classic, scary, and gross or boring, but they are crucial. For Photography, for LGBT studies and for a global understanding of the mortiferous mendacity of the eighties, Robert is an undisputable and unavoidable icon.

XYZ, the current show at Thaddeus Ropac Gallery in Paris is an absolute must see!    (Three Portfolios were made, X for SM sex, Y for floral still life and Z for African-American male nudes)

A masterful selection of the portfolios, show beautifully printed images that are powerful, raw and disturbing.  Exactly how Robert should be remembered.

Oh, and last but not least, the Ropac exhibition is curated by Peter Marino, über Architect of the grandest fashion names and 21st century’s living representation of the glorification of leather!

 

Written for and published on UK’s most read Photography Blog SMBHMag            (warning: seriously “Not Suited for the Meek” images on there)

All images ©ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION 

In Praise of: St. Francis in the desert

Giovanni_Bellini_St_Francis_in_Ecstasy

Dawn, vulnerability, submission, Faith: if ever an image was “on message” this would be the one. A serene contemplation of the ultimate act of love: the gift of Francis’s life to God symbolised by the bruises in the palm of his hands and feet mirroring the suffering of Christ on the cross (the stigmata).

A brilliant cinematic “mise en scène”: Dawn, a soft blue light spreads its misty hue. The moment of the day where our soul is filled with hopeful anticipation of what is to come. Our mind is not totally focused on the “self” yet, we are more in tune with what we “feel”rather than”think”.

“Make me an instrument of your Peace.” Aloft, repeating his monotonous toil, a shepherd takes his herd to pasture, the day begins. As a donkey, a bird and a rabbit look on, Francis lifts up his head to the sky, opens his arms in submission and starts to pray.

Unlike many later religious paintings, Giovanni Bellini does not seek dramatic effect and heavy handed Pathos to tell his story. Rather Zen, this painting is a bit like the magnificent sculptures of smiling heads of Buddha, eyes closed, gently glowing with the knowledge that they have found resolute inner Peace.

This absolutely necessary painting while evoking the celestial brilliance of a Cantata by Bach, reminds us that love, be it Holy or terrestrial, begins with, is built upon and remains, an act of faith.

 

Giovanni Bellini (Venice, circa 1430-1516) Frick Collection, New York

In Praise of: “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972

Today I am starting a series that will show up regularly on ArtWise: “In Praise of” is a short tribute to a particular work of an artist, contemporary or historical, that constitute the wide pantheon of sustained enthusiasms of my ever curious mind. Basically, they “Rock my World” and make it ever so enchanting!

Hockney peter by pool

 “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972

David Hockney takes time to work on his canvases, so indeed this particularly beautiful California view, which shows Peter Schlesinger at the edge of the pool and John St Clair swimming, was painted in his London studio. His technique of using various photographs, taken indifferently of time or place and then re-organising them, is a form of masterful manipulation of the eye.

Playing with our perception and distorting perspectives has always been a key element of Hockney’s work. We can see that in his very early work, his photography compositions of the ’80’s or his magnificent late large canvases of English landscapes.

Having been in love with the California sun and the boys glowing under it since his childhood, in 1964 as soon as success came about, David left his native dreary England for Los Angeles where he would live, love and work, off and on, for a large part of his life.

“Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972, is a dreamy composition imagined by Hockney. Peter Schlesinger, young Art student at UCLA, then David’s lover, stands above the pool, considering, looking, without looking at another human being gently swimming silently underwater. A sense of foreboding in this idyllic surrounding impregnates the painting: Peter was becoming more distant and moved out while David was painting it. This magnificent canvas filled with yearning reminds me of a short poem by Constantine P. Cavafy, (poems from which David would make a series of illustrations):

“I was always struck by beauty, moved by it’s perfection, it was always there, other, and I, here, flawed.”

 

Guy Bourdin est essentiel

 

Guy Bourdin est à la photographie ce qu’Andy Warhol est à la peinture, un iconoclaste incontournable qui changé notre façon de voir. Bourdin est le produit d’un esprit Français,  éclairé par Laclos, Voltaire, Zola, étudiant le monde et ses acteurs en artisan averti. Son art en est le reflet; juste, fort, certainement pas dupe. Un regard à qui l’on “ne raconte pas d’histoires”. Un regard qui nous séduit en étant plus malin, plus inventif, un peu troublant.

Bourdin est aussi le reflet d’une société en pleine ébullition, en pleine révolution. Les chocs de Sartre, Beauvoir, Genet, Vian, Barbara, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, les Rolling Stones, la guerre au Vietnam; mais aussi le féminisme, une nouvelle idée de la sexualité, de Mai ’68 à Mary Quant, de Cacharel à Paco Rabanne et Yves Saint Laurent.

Ses images se lisent sur plusieurs plans, ont toujours une histoire dans l’histoire, plusieurs degrés de lecture. Premier degré, agréable, aguicheur, drôle, beau; deuxième degré, un peu douloureux et certainement coquin. Qu’est qu’être coquin? être drôle, spirituel; simplement réaliste, le contraire du romantique. Bourdin n’aime pas édulcorer, il met en lumière, il met en “couleur” le sentiment humain. Il a besoin d’inventer, changer l’idée du chic, en redéfinir les normes.

L’intelligence et l’humour de Duchamp, l’inventivité de Man Ray, le formalisme structurel de Rodchenko, la modernité du Corbusier et les aplats de couleurs de Nicolas de Staël sont plus proches de sa vision. Révolutionner la photographie en introduisant la couleur pure, violente, insolante, fondamentale à la structure et à l’équilibre de l’image.

Le contraire absolu de l’école d’Henri Cartier-Bresson qui nous raconte des histoires simples, lisibles au premier degré, imprimant sur le papier jusqu’aux marges marges noires du négatif pour nous expliquer que “ceci est une photo”. Bourdin casse tout cela et nous dit “ceci est une image faite de lumière et d’aplats de couleur, comprenez ce que vous voudrez”. En faisant cela il transforme à jamais la photographie, lui permettant d’exister non seulement par le fond, mais aussi par la forme, ouvrant ainsi la porte à un produit de l’esprit, à l’Art.

(publié dans le magazine Best, Paris, Juin 2003, à l’occasion de la retrospective Guy Bourdin au Victoria & Albert Museum, Londres)

All images Copyright Guy Bourdin Estate