Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Chardin Colloquium, Waddesdon Manor, Waddesdon, Bucks (14 July 2012)

Every so often I find myself in a (self-orchestrated) situation when trying to expand my horizons and broaden my knowledge base, I find myself so completely out of my depth and comfort zone that I question any ability I may have in carving out even a small niche in academia – maybe I’m just not intellectual enough, just not articulate enough.  When two of the papers presented on this study day (or colloquium in Waddesdon speak) were in French and no one in the audience raised an eyelid, in fact the majority of them obviously spoke the language fluently as they laughed at humorous moments or indicated in French certain aspects of the talk, it was no wonder my Eliza Doolittle  complex reared its ugly head in such esteemed company, I’m so downstairs to their upstairs!
So why Chardin?  Why Waddesdon Manor?  I have always admired Chardin’s exquisite paintings of eighteenth century domestic interiors, so precise and controlled and evoking a world far removed from anything I would normally have the time to study in any depth.  Waddesdon Manor is well known to me and I have visited on many occasions, so discovering this study day to mark the end of its exhibition of a number of Chardin paintings to celebrate its recent purchase of Boy Building A House of Cards (1735) seemed a perfect opportunity to find out more on the artist and compare and contrast various presentation strategies and areas of specific research of the speakers.
The very high calibre of speakers was enthusiastically received by the suited and booted audience of Chardin enthusiasts.  I learned the most from Colin Bailey’s (Deputy Director of The Frick Collection, New York) paper Upstairs/Downstairs: Dress, Status and the Imaginary in Chardin’s Genre Paintings and Emma Barker’s (Senior Lecturer in Art History, The Open University) Chardin’s Images of Women: Representing Domesticity.  Unfortunately despite the presence of renowned experts René Démoris and Charlotte Guichard, as these were the papers given in French, their content will remain a mystery to me.
In any event, this was still a wonderful day, in a wonderful setting, seeing a world of upper echelon academics whose ranks I will never join, but who fascinate me nevertheless.

Intense Proximity: The Paris Triennale 2012, Palais de Toyko, Paris (20 April-26 August 2012)

Perhaps with hindsight, it was a mistake to jump from seeing two exhibitions typifying the joie de vivre of La Belle Epoque in archetypal romantic Paris locations straight into one with  hard edged twenty first century contemporary globalised art!  It may have been too much of a stylistic and conceptual leap with a touch of exhibition exhaustion thrown in for good measure, but this Triennale (the first such event I have ever visited) really disappointed. Even my friend living in Paris did not know it was taking place and no publicity was seen around the city during my stay.  We walked around the cavernous interior of the Palais de Toyko desperately hoping to come across something interesting, exciting or even controversial, but nothing materialised.  Even the dilapidated architecture of the 1937 building proved more interesting that many of the exhibits.  With 120 contributors, the Triennale brochure talked of the show being inspired by early to mid-twentieth century ethnography and exploring the nodes where art and ethnography converge in a renewal of fascination and estrangement, an intersection of the French art scene and global sites of production…….!
These motifs were apparent in a number of the work on display (for example from Carrie Mae Weems) but the challenge was rooting these out from the relentless assault of sub-standard unmonumental installations, gratuitous female genitalia and unengaging video work, most of which teetered on the edge of disappearing completely within dilapidated building.
Despite a number of big names (Chris Ofili, Adrian Piper, Ellen Gallagher) sprinkled around the contemporary French artists, there were only two highlights for me in this entire show – Annette Messager’s Motion/Emotion (2009-2011) and Dominik Lang’s Sleeping City (2011) installations, oh and the very funky café and delicious coffee (so all was not lost)!..........

Berthe Morisot, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris (8 March-29 July 2012)

Housed in a former seventeenth century hunting lodge and inherited by renowned eighteenth French art historian and collector Paul Marmottan in the rue Louis Boilly in Paris, Musée Marmottan is equally as charming although not as jaw dropping as Musée Rodin.  The museum was exhibiting the first retrospective ever(!!) of impressionist artist Berthe Morisot.  Extended due to public demand, a chance spotting of the publicity poster on the Metro, lead me to this fascinating exhibition.  Morisot, along with Mary Cassatt, are known as the female impressionists and to an extent suffer the same critical neglect or unfavourable comparisons to their male counterparts as sculptress (and their peer) Camille Claudel.  Morisot, like Claudel was an attractive woman and features in many of Manet’s paintings (indeed she married his younger brother).  However, greater investigation of her life and work show an engagement with artistic concerns and debates of her time, which deserve revisiting.
The exhibition presented a huge volume of her work, many paintings within which were not completed.   Those that were, lit up the room.  Yes, most of her paintings depicted domestic scenes of upper middle class domesticity and portraits of family (particularly her daughter, Julie), but this was the only world available to her.  But what paintings – luscious and seductive brushstrokes combined with sumptuous colours evoke the most delicate of impressions of modern life (as was).  For me, she is at her strongest when painting suburban Parisian scene en plein which equal (and in some cases pre-date) the work of Monsieurs Monet, et al.  Equally striking are her studies of women at their toilette – another favourite subject of her male counterparts.  Can we perceive a female set of eyes watching these models?  Do they differ from the gaze of a male artist?  Is the scene less erotic and more empathic or am I just reading too much gender difference within such work?  In any event, a lovely, lovely exhibition to chance upon.

Camille Claudel permanent collection at Musée Rodin, Paris (7 July 2012)

The Musée Rodin, which occupies an eighteenth century mansion in the rue de Varenne in Paris is without doubt the most beautiful stately home I have ever seen.  Its south façade, seen from the bottom of the gardens, is quintessentially French petit bourgeois.  The gardens contain Rodin’s most famous publically commissioned sculptures – Balzac, The Burghers of Calais, The Thinker and The Gates of Hell – all of which are a wonderful feast for the eyes, but it is when you enter the house and wander from one exquisite room into another, each one retaining its original flooring, doors, decorative features of oversized ornate mirrors, carved fire places and cornices, painted ceilings, grandiose chandeliers, etc, etc, etc, that your senses are in real danger of complete overload.  To start with, the history of the building is almost palpable – as if the Master has just left the very room which you have entered.  Then in addition to this, each room contains a selection of exquisite work, predominantly (obviously) by Rodin and his students, assistants and also from his private collection, including pieces from antiquity as well as artists such as Van Gogh, Monet and Bourdelle, all of which are testament to a period in art history which produced sculpture of such grandiose and classical intent and executed with a vigour, passion and skill which is quite simply awe inspiring.  Whether in marble, plaster or cast in bronze and life size or marquettes, there really are not enough adjectives to describe the sheer joy and wonder felt by being surrounded work such as this.  The fact that Rodin himself lived here between 1908-1916, holding his salons, meeting his collectors and dignitaries and artist friends, just adds to the romance of the overall experience.
But it is to see the work of Camille Claudel which draws me here, as the Musée holds the largest permanent collection of her work.  Claudel was Rodin’s most celebrated student, lover and muse, whose undoubted skill and talent have been overshadowed by her relationship with the artist and her subsequent long term internment in a mental asylum.  Her position within art history has been reduced to the same fate as many female artists who were either partners of, or married to, more famous male artists, thus only being of interest for the time of their involvement with their male counterpart lasted.  Their work is invariably seen as second rate copies and being inspired by the artist they were involved with rather than standing by their own merit. 

This visit really was a pilgrimage for me.  I nearly jumped with joy when I finally came upon her work.  According to some guide books, Claudel’s surviving work was once housed in a room dedicated entirely to her ouvre.  Now that same room has rather disingenuously been downgraded and renamed “Rodin’s Circle”, housing works acquired by the artist during his lifetime, which includes not only her work, but paintings by Van Gogh and Monet to name but two.

But what work Mademoiselle Claudel!  Clotho (1893) is a 90cm high plaster piece of a mythological figure from the Three Fates, here depicted as an elderly woman with sagged breasts and protruding stomach, her haggard face enveloped in a mane of hair which binds the woman’s ravished body.
In stark contrast, the youthful figures in the bronze Waltz (also dated 1893) are enveloped in drapery as they sensuously embrace in the rhythm of the dance.

Taking centre stage in the room The Age of Maturity (1899) is a bronze cast of an uncompleted plaster study, which has often been interpreted as an autobiographical work, illustrating Rodin hesitating between his aging mistress and his new young lover – all tormented drapery and high Art Nouveau which nevertheless packs a punch – the fingerprints of the artist and signs of carving remain a visceral pleasure.
Claudel’s catalogue raisonnée in the Museum’s gift shop bears witness to an ouvre which demands much more critical attention than it appears to have received in any great volume to date and whilst this minor contribution is no more than that, it may lead at least one reader to investigate Claudel’s work further and perhaps fall in love with it as much as I have.