Two very different 19th Century approaches to life along with an exhibition tracing 5,000 years of art and design in Latin America are highlighted in this month’s Culture Picks by Mike Duffy. The art-for-art’s sake, mystical loner Fernand Khnopff is featured in a comprehensive, intriguing show at the Petit Palais, while the Nadars, a family of entrepreneurial, technical experimenters in photography, appear in an outstanding presentation at the Bibliothèque Nationale François Mitterrand. Mythology, arcane references and a bit of self-absorption are notes throughout the former, while connections to celebrities, cameras and even hot air balloons show off the externally focused family which spanned most of the first 100 years of the history of photography. At the Fondation Cartier Southern Geometries brings a wide range of artworks, from several thousand years ago to several weeks ago, including pottery, painting, prints, textiles and more all employing geometric designs in a lively, cheerful, color filled display.
1. Southern Geometries, from Mexico to Patagonia
Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain
to 24 February 2019
With more than 200 works in a variety of media by 70 artists from 13 countries and many indigenous cultures spanning five centuries, Southern Geometries, from Mexico to Patagonia is difficult to summarize but not difficult to enjoy. The overarching theme is geometry, that is, conscious design, repeated fundamental patterns such as triangles or squares, some intuitive, others inspired by theory. Whether in volcanic stone figures more than 5,000 years old, in a finely made Incan wool and cotton vest from around 1500 or in subtly beautiful 20th century Mexican pottery, the standardized forms and lines give a serious, thoughtful aspect to some of the works. In others, bright colors bathe us in warmth and positive emotions as in the contemporary building facades in photos by Anna Mariani (b. 1935) and in the 20th century felt-tip pen drawings by Brazilian women based on patterns found among the indigenous Kadiwéu people of Brazil’s Matto Grasso.
Start with the displays on the lower level and en route enjoy the bright stairway mural Vortice Chromatico (2018) by FLIX (b. 1976, Venezuela, lives in Portugal) who adds color to daily life through street art along with painting and photography. Among the many works in these galleries, the six pieces by Mexican ceramicist Gustavo Pérez (b. 1950) stand out for sheer beauty and the intricacy of the design and creative use of the material. There are also anthropological study photographs of building construction, body art and ritual garments from peoples throughout the region. Modern bright monochrome paintings hang alongside additional photographs, prints and textiles, next to cases with nearly 2,000 year old Andean terracotta goblets and vases.
Four artists who work in three dimensions are highlighted in exceptional displays on the ground floor. In very different ways these artists use interesting materials, explore dimensionality, and emphasize enjoyment. The nearly two-storey broken brick and concrete work by Paraguayan architects and artists Solano Benítez (b. 1963) and Gloria Cabral (b. 1982) was constructed of large, open triangles on site. Its rough, earth tone elements create a strong, stable, amazing architectural structure which induces wonder through reflections and shadows as well by its size and elementary materiality. Contrasting with that piece, the 22 works by GEGO (Gertrude Louise Goldschmidt, 1912, Germany – 1994, Venezuela) use thin steel and aluminum wires, twisted and bent by hand, to create lines and open spaces. Light and airy, the not always perfect triangles and squares are investigations of transparency and while very thoughtful they invite smiling reactions as much as thinking responses. Excellent interviews with these artists appear on a small screen in the room where their works are displayed. Finally, there is a wonderful, colorful room built within half of the ground floor area, the work of architect Freddy Mamani (b. 1971) who has designed more than 100 richly chromatic homes in his native Boliva capitalizing on design elements from Pre-Columbian and Amerindian cultures This bright, warm space provides seating so you can watch an interesting video interview with the artist. GEGO once said that she did not think that people should search for the meaning of her works. Instead, they should have fun looking at the pieces she created. That is good advice for all of the works on this floor.
This exhibition presents a vast range of repetition and pattern, of ancient and modern, of serious and joyous. Although tied together by geography, these works share something universal with the creators of geometric designs on ancient Greek pottery, with Annie Albers who wove patterned, colorful Bauhaus textiles, with Malevich and the strictly abstract Russian Avant-Garde. Southern Geometries, which runs through 24 February, gives us an opportunity to explore works of artists little known in Europe, an opportunity to be amazed at the creative variety of geometric designs found in the Southern Hemisphere.
2. Fernand Khnopff (1858 – 1921)
to 17 March 2019
In a broad and rich exhibition the Petit Palais presents the Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff who embodied in his art and in his life late 19th Century aestheticism, mystical spirituality, occult and mythic symbolism, and idealization of women. His world was dreams, fantasy, withdrawal from reality to seek the deeply real that lies beyond physical appearances. In the end, his world was himself, his ideas, his dreams. This fine exhibition of 150 works—paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs — shows the range of his interests and talents and truly captures this particular slice of fin-de-siecle Europe.
Khnopff believed that there was a more real world closer to divinity or the divine spirit which was reflected but not fully revealed in nature. His paintings of outdoor scenes, generally devoid of people, draw one into nature. In Fosset, under the pines (À Fossett, sous les sapins,1894) depicts tall trees lining a path which calls the viewer into a dark distance. It does not lead to a bright revelation but, instead, to a mysterious interior. In Still Water (L’Eau Immobile, 1894) nature is reflected in the water in a quiet, meditative scene — reality and its reflection — but, perhaps, also asking whether nature itself in a reflection of another, deeper reality. Later remarkable paintings of gray, dreary Bruges contain great detail reflected in the waters of canals, an idealized escape back to Khnopff’s childhood in that town.
In paintings of people, we see even more Khnopff’s remoteness, lack of contact and distance from his subjects. His paintings of women, early on almost only of his sister Marguerite of whom he made thousands of sketches, paintings and photos, show tall, thin, formally dressed people generally looking away from the painter. These are rather cold depictions, clearly influenced by the British Pre-Raphaelites who were similar souls in search of an out-of-reach, abstract absolute. Knopff paints sinewy women with auburn hair similar to those portrayed by Edward Burne-Jones, but these women have no sensuality; they are attractive as remote ideals. (Later paintings of nudes are not as cold.) Their eyes look away or focus on something overhead; they are lost in some other realm. The unsmiling children he painted, on the other hand, stare straight out at the viewer. They are not happy. Are they sad, bored, afraid? Two of the sitters are gripping their chairs, appearing to be very tense. There is no warmth or relationship between painter and these youngsters. In Listening to Schumann (En écoutant Schumann, 1883), Knopff shows his mother shielding her eyes in deep contemplation as a pianist, out of the picture except for his right hand on the keyboard, plays. The music is played by someone placed behind his mother, unseen, and still, she blocks her vision to connect only to the music which moves her into an ethereal world. (In an interesting addition to the exhibition, there are listening stations with music and poetry which also spray different perfumes to illustrate the Romantic idea that sounds, scents and colors are all intertwined.)
Fernand Khnopff wrapped himself in myths, the Ancient World, the occult rather than in the society around him. He painted Hora, the goddess of sleep over and over as well as depicting Medusa in several guises. In his best known, very strange painting called Art or The Caress (L’Art ou Des Caresses,1896) Oedipus communicates with the a woman/animal Sphinx who has a human head and leopard’s body. His home and studio, presented in this exhibition, was conceived as a “temple to the self” to which very few were admitted and his bookplate motto read “You only have yourself.” He believed that sleep, when one is alone and cut off from the mundane world and dreams reveal the true self, was the closest one could get to the divine. In the somewhat melancholy, silent world he portrayed, some other world is hinted at but not revealed. Khnopff truly drank deep from the waters of the late 19th Century and this exhibition provides an excellent opportunity to encounter this major Belgian Symbolist and the ideas which fueled a generation.
3. The Nadars — A Photographic Legend
Bibliothèque nationale de France François Mitterrand
to 3 February 2019
A remarkable display of original photographs, equipment, posters and prints presents an amazing family of pioneers of professional photography at Bibliothèque nationale François Mitterrand. The Nadars (plural) created, as the exhibition’s title has it, “a photographic legend” (singular). In the distinction between the number of Nadars highlighted, three, and the historic legend of the family and their studios lies the yeoman’s work done by the curators to disentangle the individual work of Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar; his brother Adrien, sometimes known as Nadar jeune (young Nadar); and his son Paul who struggled to be known not only as Nadar’s son but took over the named studio as his father pursued other interests. This excellent exhibition recognizes and honors the contributions of all three to the development of photography — artistic, technical, commercial—over the course of nearly a century of producing family photos, portraits of the famous and the bourgeoisie, as well as the earliest aerial and scientific pictures. It showcases the intertwined threads of art and entrepreneurship, innovation and invention, which marked the 19th Century’s creation and rapid development of photography, much of that through the energy of the Nadars.
While the work in photography began with Adrien (1825 – 1903), the many stories begin with his older half-brother Félix (1820 – 1910), a hyperactive whirlwind driven by desire for fame and constant need for money. He went from being in debtor’s prison to becoming a celebrated caracaturist and writer; to being a serial photographic entrepreneur with no regard for the business side of things; to being a seeker after the famous and a completely self-made celebrity who created the name, the logo and the brand Nadar; to trying to take pictures and make money from very early hot air balloons. He claimed to have 5,000 friends and it was said, “There is not in France a greater notoriety than his.” Among the earliest pictures on display are family photos taken by Félix, including wonderful self-portraits, and among the best is an 1890s photo of his wife, elderly and ill, holding a spray of violets. It is a moving testimony not only of Felix’s talent but also of his concern and affection for Ernestine who nurtured the family and the business and even sustained injuries in the crash of a hot air balloon during one of her husband’s publicity-seeking ventures.
Adrien was educated as an artist, studied photography with the earliest practitioners, and opened a professional photography studio in the early 1850s at a time when there was an explosion of such businesses in Paris as many sensed there would be a lot of money to be made from portraits of the burgeoning business class. Félix would soon smell the opportunity for profit and joined Adrien in this venture. Adrien remained more the artist and the two 1854 – 1855 self-portraits under a broad brimmed display a genius that wasn’t commercially driven. He continued to paint, inaugurated the field of scientific photography with pictures of various types of cattle and developed techniques to enlarge photographs. The relationship between the brothers, perhaps always a bit strained, broke apart when Félix won the exclusive use of the Nadar moniker in a court battle and took the rights to photographs which may have been jointly made by the two or made by Adrien and sold under the Nadar studio brand. This is one source of more than 100 year confusion in identifying the individual contributions of the various Nadars along with the fact that portrait photos of the not-so-famous were often taken by assistants but stamped with the Nadar name.
Paul (1856 – 1939), while wanting to create his own reputation, clearly stood on the shoulders of his father and uncle. By the time Félix granted him the use of the Nadar name after insisting for some time to his exclusive right to exploit the brand, he continued the studio, the innovative nature of the family’s work, as well as the creation and exploitation of new technologies. The surprisingly modern early aerial shot by Paul built on and developed his father’s earlier work. His introduction of Kodak film to Europe and invention of new equipment continued the family’s role in the rapidly evolving field and his photographic chronicle of his exotic travels mark a significant expansion of the field outside of the studio.
While there is a generous display of caricatures, the early successes of Félix, the main event starts with portraits. In Félix’s portraits of the famous whom he courted, Baudelaire, Berlioz and George Sand, for example, he was still working like a caricaturist capturing profiles and faces partly in shadow to show off the obvious identifying features as would have been important in his newspaper drawings. Later there are three groups of portraits, one for each of the Nadars, and viewing each set from several steps back provides a valuable vantage point to see the development of technique and technology which impacted photography during the 19th Century. There is a surprisingly modern look to many of Félix’s photographs, such as the sharp profile An Unknown (Un inconnu, 1861) or the full-face 1855 -1860 picture of a contemporary comedian as well as in the work of Adrien and Paul. Adrien’s 1854 – 1855 full-length photos of the famous mime of the period Charles Deburau are worth a careful look to see how enlargement of photographs could change the visual impact and how photographers and entertainers would mutually benefit from this new medium. The photos of Sarah Bernhardt by Félix in 1864 and by Paul in 1883 clearly show the latter’s movement away from Romanticized presentation to something more 20th Century.
You can see the effects of the changes in film, paper and eventually electric lighting as clothing moves from being mostly black fields to appearing finely detailed. (Salt paper provided more delicate tones while newer albumin prints showed much finer detail.) You can also see the introduction of artistic elements in the photos of Gustave Doré and Gérard de Nerval and the continuing attempts to capture the individual’s personality (or psychology as Félix would have said) by standing close to the subject and often avoiding full-length, formal portraits. In 1861 Félix began exploring the use of electric lighting in photography and in 1865 he took hundreds of interesting photos in two of the modernizing works of Second Empire Paris, the Catacombs and sewers.
On display are examples of Adrein’s medical and scientific work as well as displays of Félix’s hot air balloon ventures , Paul’s travel photography and successful commercial work including a type of calling card which included a portrait photo. The range of the displays is great as was the output of this prodigious family. Their archives totaled 60,000 negatives and 500,000 photos when acquired by the French state. For all of the broad sweep, though, there is a chance to see each of the Nadars individually and to appreciate many of the examples of the dynamic changes in photography during its infancy. This is simply an outstanding exhibition.