Library Culture Picks from Mike Duffy: November 2018
12 November 2018
The Library’s Top 10 Titles
5 December 2018

Library Culture Picks from Mike Duffy: December 2018

Swimming pool designed by Alain Capeillères, Le Brusc, summer 1976 © Martine Franck / Magnum Photos

Two extraordinary photographers:  European Martine Franck and American Dorothea Lange, both concerned with the plight of those who are poor, isolated, marginalized, both of whom took beautiful black and white photographs; both of whom were committed to the putting photography on the same level as other fine arts; both of whom used the power and potential of the camera to create art which is not an imitation of painting but an art with its own techniques and power.


BUT,  Franck preserved a distance, a cool approach, a reserve.  You see discipline, refinement in her work, and this exhibition covers the range of her career, including portraits and landscapes.


Lange was truly an advocate for social change and you can feel passion, commitment, perhaps anger, in her photographs.  This exhibition covers three decades only focusing on the political messaging in her work.


Coming later this week for the third culture pick… Paula Rego’s universe is the personal but in its truly universal dimensions.  Her often self-referential works are about psychological realities which, indeed, speak to larger social realities.  One of Britain’s best known artists, still working in her 80s, she also produced wonderful prints based on children’s stories and nursery rhymes; these, too, are filled with deep and sometimes dark psychological messages…

1. Martine Franck — A Retrospective
Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson
to 10 February 2019
The Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson presents an engaging look back over the more than 50 year career of European photographer Martine Franck (1938 – 2012), a humane creator of beautiful images.  There is a quietness in the work which veils the depth of her passions, but her restraint provided the discipline which characterizes these remarkable photographs.
Among Martine Franck’s best works, outdoor and landscape photographs show her care and her craft.  She said that landscape photography was “visual meditation”, and in this exhibition we see two aspects of meditation:  the hard work which goes into it and the calm peace that results.  A carefully composed picture showing only wet, black stone stairs presents a solid, tranquil image, not the most obvious shot of the Moss Temple in Kyoto, but one that illustrates that here are stepping stones on the way to enlightenment.  Similarly, the quiet, empty path on the road which one walks from Tokyo to Kyoto emphasizes the journey, implying but not showing the goal.  In addition, two scenes in cemeteries —  one of lovers amidst tombstones and monuments, the other with power plant cooling towers looming behind —  speak of inevitable death, but also of energizing love and the starkly monumental aspect of contemporary energy production. What is striking in all of these photos is the careful selection and composition of the images along with the play of natural light.  In another scene, a very happy horse turns its head to chomp on some clover in a flowered field while the horizon is cluttered, in fact jammed, with industrial cranes.  There are also photographs of majestic trees, birds in flights and wondrous cloud formations witnessing Franck’s awareness, observation, patience. Franck admitted that this work required significant planning, choosing positions and angles, waiting for the right light.  None of these are casual snapshots of happened-upon scenery.
Widely admired are Frank’s portraits of artists, calm, casual photographs of painters, sculptors, filmmakers, often commissions for magazine articles or books.  Her method reveals both her intention and her consideration.  She asked the subjects to choose where they wanted to be photographed.  Franck would talk with each for twenty minutes or so and when there was a natural pause in the conversation she would take a picture.  The results present men and women looking very comfortable, often not looking at the photographer or viewer, including sculptors Henry Moore in his studio taking a photograph of one of his sculptures (1968) and Diego Giacometti in 1985 at home focusing on his cat climbing between his desk and a table.  Franck also took photos with double images, some reflections through windows or in mirrors, including two interesting photographs presenting artists with self-portraits.  First, there is the painter Avigdor Arkha  in profile in 1976 standing next to his profiled self-portrait, an almost startlingly perfect double. Second is a 1992 work showing her husband, the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.  He is looking at himself in a mirror and using that image to draw a remarkable likeness: person, reflection, drawing all in a photograph of one of the century’s master photographers. These portraits are refined, disciplined even when informal, filled with respect for the person but with some distance between photographer and subject.
Martine Franck returned to certain topics for years, even decades.  Among those represented here:  Buddhist lamas in training; elderly people; China.  From its inception, Franck served as photographer for the famed Théâtre du Soleil. A beautiful 1968 photograph of Ariane Mnouchkine, the theater’s founder, bent over her notepad while intensely focused on actors who are not within the frame as well as two 1980’s full color magazine covers in a display case showing actors in magnificent make-up hint at her involvement and love for this innovative endeavor.  In addition and especially notable are her pictures of Tory Island, one of the poorest parts of the European Union whose residents have been threatened with forced relocation.  The photos displayed here show not dire poverty or desperation; rather we see happy children cooling off in a brook, crashing ocean waves, an artist through a window.  “It is not my aim,” Franck said, “to tell stories but to evoke situations and people.”  One writer described her work as “infused with … humanity…simplicity…self-respect…respect for others.”  Each of these elements shines through in these photographs and throughout this exhibition.
Martine Franck cared deeply about women’s rights, refugees and the marginalized, but she worried about exploiting her subjects or being a voyeur.  She was neither as personally engaged at the street level as was the great French photographer Willy Ronis with his beloved Paris neighborhood, Belleville, nor as dramatic in portraying poverty and despair as was Dorothea Lange in her photos of the Great Depression in the United States.  She said, “I want to communicate my empathy  I am not very critical.  The world is so complicated.” She chose to create beautiful pictures, careful, well composed.  The more than 140 images on display only highlight the great range of her passions and her work and make us wish for more.
2. Dorothea Lange, Politics of Seeing
Jeu de Paume
to 27 January 2019
Seeing people lined up for food or meagre unemployment benefits changed Dorothea Lange’s career, her life and the course of documentary photography.  Although educated by those who wanted to transform photography into a fine art, Lange supported her family by taking portrait photos of bourgeois San Franciscans until she was struck by the desperate situation of the unemployed in the Great Depression.  She abandoned her traditional career to become one of the foremost chroniclers of poverty and injustice in the United States as well as of the social and economic plight of African Americans and women.  Her beautiful but unglamoirized photographs, widely published in newspapers and magazines, showed the stark reality of the lives of destitute migrant farm workers and their families. The clear focus of her utterly realistic work became the standard for news reporting and documentary photography.  Politics of Seeing at the Jeu de Paume focuses on what the committed advocate Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965) saw and photographed during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s though the presentation of very fine original prints.  This is an excellent, very moving exhibition of her work.
In the 1930s, Dorothea Lange took sharp, detailed photographs of dispossessed men, women and children, giving a very human, often very weathered, face to the Great Depression. Among the many photos of individuals and families, two have become icons of the era.  White Angel Bread Line (1933), a man in a bread line, his hat dominating his face and downcast eyes, represents Lange’s awakening to the dire situation of many out-of-work people.  Here is a truly modern photograph:  the common man as subject; the focal image in the lower left corner rather than the center; the angled fence line at the bottom.  Lange’s most famous photograph, Migrant Mother (1936), showcased here, reveals the anguish of a mother of seven living in a tent in a bean field. The several photos taken of the woman and her family reveal the depth of their poverty as well as the nature of editing and selecting images.  A newspaper editor chose this one photo for publication and it is credited with pushing the Federal government to rush aid to this encampment.  The national government had, in fact, employed Lange to document the poverty and rough living conditions of America’s rural farm workers across 22 states.  The goal was to convince people that taxes and New Deal programs were necessary to aid the most unfortunate whose livelihoods and lives were being crushed by the economic downturn.  After taking the photo Migrant Mother,  Lange wrote, “I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment.”  Lange not only accepted these professional assignments (along with her second husband, Berkeley economist Paul Taylor), she wanted to move the nation to recognize the need for fairness, for justice, for caring for others.
In addition to photos of individuals, Lange portrayed families posed on front porches, families living in tents or cars, families walking to find work, walking, walking, walking as people moved from town to town or across states when they heard there might be temporary jobs picking crops.  One photo shows people walking along a dusty road next to a billboard advertising the relaxing travel by train enjoyed by the well dressed.  It is as ugly as it is ironic.  You can see, too, how many women and children lack shoes and obviously lack sufficient food.   Surprising are the several very successful photos of people from the back rather than facing the camera, including a particularly a particularly strong field worker, one of the very many of African Americans whom Lange saw as significantly disadvantaged.  These are unvarnished presentations, again truly in the spirit of those who wished to create “pure photos” free of gauzy images typical of late 19th Century works as well as free of the need to mimic painting.
During World War II, Lange captured two very different Americas:  interned U.S. citizens and immigrants of Japanese ancestry versus the large, diverse workforce at the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, Ca.  Contrasting with those in Depression era pictures, the men and women, African Americans and Okies employed assembling Navy ships appear eager, even happy, as they walk into their work place or wait for their paychecks.  Lange hoped these photos represented a future when women would be fully accepted in a racially integrated workplace.  Yet, the hope for acceptance of others was dashed by the harsh circumstances of families of Japanese ancestry who were sent to live in the desert in barracks surrounded by fences, guard towers and barbed wire.  Lange was commissioned by the U.S Army to document the supposedly decent treatment of these interned people, but the photos were embargoed by the government from 1943 to 2006.  There are scenes of people playing baseball, building a garden from desert rocks and plants, or reading in a makeshift library, but there are also photos of families huddled at train stations and piles of baggage containing the very limited possessions they could bring for an internment that was planned to last until the end of the war.  Two striking images present children.  In one, taken in the days before they were to be sent away to be housed in race track horse stalls or hastily assembled facilities, very young school children, including those of Japanese ancestry, are seen pledging allegiance to the flag and in another two small girls are shown wearing tags on their coats as required of all who were being moved, looking like they are ready to be shipped like packages.  Many point out that these photos show stoic people, accepting their strange fates, but today we cannot help but look back and see other camps during the war which were set up to isolate those seen as different, disloyal, or ethnically undesirable.  One truly great photo of the camp at Manzanar in California shows the desert, the barracks, the American flag flying against a backdrop of high mountains and clouds, magnificently composed and presented, but as a record of history, disturbing in its beauty.
Continuing her work on justice in America, Lange completed a set of photos focused on the work of a public defender in Oakland, CA.  in the 1950s.  While she shows men in jail or in court, the most notable pictures are two, each of a single woman sitting in an otherwise empty courtroom, apparently waiting to hear the fate of a loved one.  Each is very alone, isolated, not in the center, not looking at the camera.  These moving images were published in newspapers around the country and helped the drive to create public defender offices in states such as New York which did not have them.  (Progressive California had such positions starting in 1914.)
The extraordinary black and white photographs which make up this exhibition along with Lange’s titles and notes offer a truly intimate encounter with American people.  She was an engaged observer and at the Jeu de Paume she engages us today in questions about race and roles, about work and justice, about men, women and families in rapidly changing or difficult circumstances. Lange was a crusader. She wanted her photos to affect the nation, its policies and practices, and this powerful exhibition continues to engage.  It is a superb opportunity to share her enduring insights, vision and artistry.
The Cruel Stories of Paula Rego
Musée de L’Orangerie
to 14 January 2019
Dramatic narratives of relationships involving herself, her family and more generally women at times presented through characters in children’s stories, nursery rhymes, novels and play are the focus of this very valuable exhibition of the work of Paula Rego. She is influenced by 19th century illustrators, including those who produced great editions of children’s stories such as Peter Pan, and the imagery of Portuguese folktales told to her by her grandmother.  Additionally, she plumbs dreams and dream-like states, childhood memories, anxieties and repressed desires. Welcome to the stories of Paula Rego where cruelty may lie just beneath the surface.
Paula Rego (b. Lisbon 1935) reveals the complexities of family relationships through paintings of her father and husband. They are deeply personal, at times disturbing and challenging. Rego’s father, whom she thought kind (unlike how she thought about her mother), is represented in several paintings as the storybook figure Pillowman. In fiction, he so loves children that he smothers them to death so they don’t have to face the cruel world of adulthood.  In one of her typical switching of storylines and characters, she presents Pillowman/father only as a warm, kind, non-threatening figure.  Yet, when her father appears as King Cole in one of the exceptional prints in her series of nursery rhymes on display, he is anything but a merry old soul.  Her relationship with her husband who suffered from a degenerative disease over more than twenty years is the subject of several paintings.  In The Family (1988) painted shortly before his death, he sits helplessly while being dressed by Rego and one of their daughters. Portrayals of Joan of Arc and Saint George, symbols of courage and strength, appear on a piece of furniture.  This is a picture of love, devotion, courage as his family dresses him in a suit and tie.  In The Dance (1988) made shortly after his death, Rego presents, I believe, the arc of their relationship through a spiral of dancing figures:  first with her husband when they were young; then as a married couple expecting a child;  then only with her mother and daughter; finally Rego dances not necessarily sad but alone in his long shadow after her husband’s death. Reminiscent of Medieval or early Renaissance works which presented a story across time in a single canvas, Rego captures in one painting love, birth, absence through disease, death, starting again alone.
In her work, Paula Rego strives to understand and present women through works influenced by Goya, Walt Disney, and even Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as by her understanding of the workings of the human psyche and the revelatory nature of dreams. Often, as in dreams, she converts victims to victors and changes male characters to female or animal characters to human.  In an extraordinary 1995 series, she presents the model she has painted almost daily for more two decades in the role of the dancing ostrich in Disney’s animated feature Fantasia.  She challenges the viewer with a short, overweight, older woman posing in a tutu.  These are pastel works, both Disney and Degas inspired,  which challenge notions of beauty, grace, appropriateness and assert the right of this woman to seize any role she wishes.  Hanging nearby is a painting of the same model, an initially disturbing picture of a crouching, animalistic figure, Dog Woman (1994), which Rego sees as proclaiming the strength and individuality of the figure. In a 1987 piece Rego takes a sexually charged Mapplethorpe photo of a man polishing a large, black leather boot and  changes male figure to female.  With only one figure shown, the painting reeks of domination and submission and is titled The Policeman’s Daughter.
Her long fascination with the 19th century shows in her adaptation of the style of illustrators of children’s books — people with small bodies and large heads or toys and small animals scattered throughout her works — and in the story lines which feature cruelty, frightening adults, strange beasts.  Among the outstanding prints of works for youngsters, you might be frightened by the big, scary spider alighting beside Little Miss Muffet I (1989) and shrink away from the grasping Captain Hook and the Lost Boy (1992). In a Portuguese tale, a pig saves a scarecrow by putting out a threatening fire, but later the scarecrow, tethered to a post,  cannot help when the pig is in need.  Rego paints this scene, but her scarecrow is a woman unable to help the pig not because she is tied to a post; she is crucified. In Blue Fairy Whispers to Pinocchio (1995) a naked, rigid little boy, hands behind his back,  typifies Rego’s sense that education of children involves punishment and restrictions as they are bent to the expectations of adults.  Yet, her view of children is not of little angels frolicking in Eden.  Look at Prey (1986), two young girls are hurrying off but one looks back with a wary or threatening glance.  It isn’t clear who is the predator and who is the prey.
A remarkable feature of this exhibition is the display of items from Rego’s studio and of works by artists who influenced her.   Look carefully at the display atop the ledge to your right as  you enter. These are props — dummies, ladders, and more— that you will see in many of the works in this exhibition.  Even when she is not working with a live model, she works from objects in front of her not from abstract ideas. Adding to the richness of this exhibition are works by Goya, Degas and others whose work directly inspired Rego and you can also appreciate her move from oil painting to the quicker, expressive technique of using pastels in the 1990s. In all, you sense how she works, how she adapts and creates her unique style, her masterful presentation of the human figure, her challenging understanding of the roles women play in relationships and in society.
Painting in London for decades, Rego’s place is clearly among the foremost (but very different) 20th and 21st century British figurative painters including Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and David Hockney.  While the three men are globally recognized as major artists, Paula Rego remains less well known.  This surprising exhibition, the first solo exhibition of a living artist at L’Orangerie, is an overdue step toward moving Rego to the top ranks of awareness and appreciation.

Comments are closed.