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

Advertisements

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

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

With this quotation by Ansel Adams, I want to propose a little historic perspective and some contextualisation. Quoting extensively from Art Historians and photographers, I would like to take the opportunity to share my admiration and love for them.

“The invention of photography provided a radical new picture making process – a process based not on synthesis but on selection … But he (the photographer) learned also that the factuality of his pictures no matter how convincing and unarguable, was a different thing than the reality itself. Much of the reality was filtered out in the static little black-and-white image and some of it was exhibited with an unknown natural clarity and exaggerated importance. The subject and the picture were not the same thing, although they would afterwards seem so. This was an artistic problem not a scientific one…”

John Szarkowski The Photographer’s Eye The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966

“Embracing the vernacular as a model, Walker Evans dispensed with the sophisticated markers of craft that distinguished the artistic photograph from all others and swept away the barrier that had encircled modernist photography’s privileged subjects. For the first time, the photograph as-a-work-of-art could look exactly like any other photograph – and it could show us anything, from a torn movie poster to a graveyard overlooking a steel mill. The photograph’s claim of artistic distinction relied solely upon the clarity, intelligence, and originality of the photographer’s perception.

This profoundly radical idea more than the example of Evans’s work itself is the wellspring from which later flowed the very different work of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. For them, neither the choice of what to look at, nor the way in which to look at it, nor the sense of what it might mean to look at such a thing in such a way was dictated by a pre-ordained rule.”

Peter Galassi American Photography 1890–1965. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995

“… Szarkowski called them “documentary photographers” and believed them motivated by “more personal ends” than those of the preceding generation, sharing “the belief that the world is worth looking at, and the courage to look at it without theorising” (qualities that also suggest William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, and Nicholas Nixon, among others)

At the time when the practice and history of photography were making their way into academia, Szarkowski stubbornly defended an anti theoretical and non academic approach, which he described – betraying a taste for provocation – as “the easiest of the arts”: “Putting aside for today the not very mysterious mysteries of the craft, a photographer finally does nothing but stand in the right place, at the right time, and decide what should fall within and what is outside the rectangle of the frame. That is what it comes down to.”

Quentin Bajac. In Photography at MoMA: 1960–Now. The Museum of Modern Art, 2015

And, if I may add my own “pinch of salt”as the French would say, I will venture that the reason why these choices made by photographers (moment, light, framing), are interesting for us to discover and admire, is that they are guided not only by their brain, but by their soul. And some people have been graced with the talent to let the direct link to their soul express itself by producing, what we commonly call, Art.

 

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

Pierre “Fatumbi” Verger: le désir de l’autre

En 1957, à la demande de Théodore Monod, Pierre Verger publie “Dieux d’Afrique”, étude “Ethno Documentaire” sur les cultes religieux d’origine Yoruba. Dans ses notes Pierre Verger nous révèle:

“A partir de ce moment là, j’étais perdu pour la photo. En effet j’étais obligé de rédiger et d’essayer de comprendre les choses…Ma vie jusque là était détendue, je ne cherchais pas à analyser ce que je voyais. Je me laissais aller à mes impressions, je passais sur le déclic de mon Rolleiflex de temps en temps. Pas d’explication, les explications ne m’ont jamais intéressé. Ce que je voulais, c’était voir les choses et jouir de la beauté des choses”

C’est donc ce qu’il a fait avant 1957 qui est intéressant, tout ce qui est, non pas le produit d’une commande, mais le fruit d’un esprit libre et curieux.

Pierre Verger naît à Paris en 1902 issu d’une famille de grands bourgeois, il participe à la vie de l’entreprise familiale (imprimeries) et mène dans les années 20 la vie d’un jeune dandy aisé.

L’année 1932 est décisive, il acquiert son premier Rolleiflex, puis au décès de sa mère, décide d’assumer son plus ardent désir, celui de devenir un voyageur solitaire. Depuis la mort de son père et de ses deux frères, sa mère était son dernier parent, une personne qu’il ne voulait nullement blesser par le choix d’une vie errante et anticonformiste.

De Décembre 1932 à Août 1946, ce sont quatorze années consécutives de voyages autour du monde, au cours desquelles Pierre Verger vit presque exclusivement de la photographie. Il négocie la vente de ses images avec des journaux, des agences et des institutions.

Quand Pierre Verger entreprend son premier grand voyage, il traversera lentement d’immenses territoires. Il a pour but Moorea en Polynésie Française, sur les pas de Paul Gauguin dont il admirait le parcours et l’oeuvre.

L’Europe et la Russie des années trente sont sous le joug de régimes totalitaires qui imposent une représentation figée d’elles mêmes. Volonté de puissance et d’ordre, l’architecture même reflète ce désir grandiose de conformisme mortifère. Les premières images de Pierre Verger en sont souvent imprégnées. Construites et composées, habitées par des lignes droites, des angles, des carrés.

Au fur et a mesure qu’il se dirige vers des pays chauds, ces lignes seront brisées par des courbes, des personnages en premier plan, le désordre, la vie.  Au fil des années, ce qui est rond, langoureux et sensuel prendra toute sa place. Magnifique hommage à une habitude hélas oubliée, les impudiques dormeurs de sieste à Bahia seront un beau reflet de ce nouveau vécu.

Une photo est le résultat d’une série de décisions, conscientes ou inconscientes; on choisit un point de vue, un cadrage, une lumière, ce que l’on voit, ce que l’on espère transcrire.

L’objectivité n’y est pour rien, le choix du cadrage qui en soi réduit ce que l’on voit strictement à l’instinct du photographe, peut être encore transformé au moment de l’impression du tirage. Dans la chambre noire on peut encore recadrer, recouper, jouer avec intensité de la lumière et ainsi renforcer ou alléger le propos.

L’invention de la Psychanalyse à la fin du 19ème siècle s’intéresse à expliquer l’idée du conscient et l’inconscient, le moi et le sûr-moi. Toute création est le produit de ce mélange. Equilibré ou déséquilibré, peu importe la raison du doux mélange, le résultat en est l’émanation.

Au 15ème siècle, Cennino Cennini, peintre Florentin, sera le premier à évoquer de manière simple le processus de création. Ainsi, lorsqu’il demande à deux élèves de son atelier de dessiner un cercle sur du papier, il constate que même en s’appliquant du mieux qu’ils peuvent, il est impossible que ces deux cercles soient parfaitement identiques. Cennino Cennini en conclut que la main n’est pas dirigée par l’esprit mais par l’âme.

Pendant quatorze années d’errance, porté par le désir, Pierre Verger va nous inviter à partager son regard pudique sur le monde à la découverte d’émotions qui le transforment. Le reflet d’une âme en paix avec elle même, libre et curieuse, s’intéressant à l’autre, au lointain, elle ira même jusqu’à devenir l’autre.

La fascination de l’Asie; son mélange de rigueur et de débrouille, il se rendra notamment au Japon, en Chine, au Vietnam, au Cambodge et au Laos.

L’appel de l’Afrique; particulièrement le Golfe du Bénin, ses peuples divers, ses croyances et ses rituels dont il sera le témoin privilégié et le principal divulgateur.

La révélation du Brésil enfin, ou son âme trouvera refuge à Salvador da Bahia. “Baie de tous les Saints”, point d’encrage de Pierre Verger de 1946 jusqu’à sa mort cinquante ans plus tard. “Baie de tous les Saints” enivrant et goûteux mélange, parfait reflet de ses désirs. “Baie de tous les Saints” métissage de couleurs, de religions, de musiques, de chaleurs et de chaleur humaine.

 

(Extraits de la conférence que j’ai donné pendant l’exposition: Pierre Verger: Oeuvre Photographique, Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 2005)

All images copyright Fundaçao Pierre Verger 

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.”