29 October 2014

Niki de Saint Phalle: The Revolutionary Colors Of Joy



"‘On a psychological level I have all that it takes to be a terrorist, but instead I decided to use guns for good, for art. " - Nike de Saint Phalle (1930-2002)







Larger-than-life papier mâché sculptures,  experimental films, performance art (shooting at paint-filled bags against a canvas): from all this, a selection of some 200 works that can fit inside a museum are on display this autumn in Paris at the Grand Palais, all  by the Franco-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle














Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine and raised in New York, Niki de Saint Phalle was the daughter of a French aristocrat and an American heiress.   A teenager with the angelic face, Niki modeled for such international magazines as Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue,  and Life. She refused the role of Queen Guinevere in Robert Bresson's 1974   film Lancelot of the Lake. 
In the meantime, by the age of twenty-three she was married (to the writer Harry Mathews) and the mother of two children, when she had a nervous breakdown.  While hospitalized for six weeks in Nice, she began to paint.  Niki de Saint-Phalle said that painting provided a way to domesticate her demons.   “Without this, I do not like to think of what might have happened to me.”  












Her early canvases were large, featuring drippings on a black background, more like speckles and flecks of color  than the rivulets made by Jackson Pollock. Saint Phalle also pasted various objects  onto her canvases;  her  work  came to be seen as part of Pop Art or the French Nouveau Reailsme, a group in which she was the only female member..  
In 1955 while in Barcelona, Saint Phalle visited the  Parc Guell where she saw the fantastic architecture of Antonion Gaudi, The experience energized her to work, leading in her first exhibition  the next year at St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Her partnership with the artist Jean Tinguely (they married in 1971), which began in 1960 took on a mythical aspect.  They were dubbed  " the Bonnie and Clyde of modern art"   after a series of happenings (Tirs)  where audience members were invited to fire guns at paintings. Their joint creations, large and colorful, occupied public spaces (the Fontaine Stravinsky in front of the Center Pompidou  1983). Her monumental Tarot garden that opened  in Tuscany in 1998 was inspired by Parco del Mostri (Park of Monsters) in Bomarzo and  by the Watts Towers of Simon Rodda which she had visited in February 1962.

I
Saint Phalle had the original idea for  the  Nanas in 1965 while a friend was pregnant. The Nanas undermined the myth oa all-powerful masculinity with glee and seriousness.  The first Nanas, such as Benedicte, was the prototype of these giant sculptures,   multicolored paper, glue, wool and resin. Through their immense bodies  the artist re-imagined  the idea of a matriarchal society.  The largest Nana was Hon, a reclining figure that  filled on entire hall at the Moderna Museet (Stockholm) created with Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvel, in 1966. The figure was destroyed at the end of the exhibition.
The next year at  an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam Saint Phalle announced: "Power to the Nanas.  We have  Black Power, so why not Nana Power? It really is the only possibility. Communism and capitalism have failed. I think that the time is ripe for a new matriarchal society.”

A  dark undercurrent runs through Saint Phalle's work;  she used bright colors and joyous fervor to deal with  painful experiences like  pregnancy, failed love, incest, and  violence. n 1972, when Saint Phalle made her first feature film Daddy  she alluded for the first time to the father-daughter incest she suffered when she was eleven. She wrote about it directly in her book My Secret (1994). She  was  not afraid to express "unfeminine" emotions like frustration and rage at the forces that economic and  gender inequality. She made her art from no small plans.   La Cabeza,a late work inspired by the Mexican day of the Dead, occupies a prominent place in the current exhibition, perhaps the artist's meditation on the respiratory illness caused by the effects of the materials she had worked with for so long.



Art is not timeless, it must transcend time if it is to speak to new viewers, argued Andre Malraux in  Voices of Silence.  The art of Niki de Saint Phalle does.  Saint Phalle lived in a moment of optimism, a moment where possibility seemed to be exploding with a big bang, after being pent up by decdaes or war and depression.  She used imagery and ideas with an enthusiasm that is often absent from art today.  This too is a moment and her work is here to remind us that more things are possible than any one moment can contain.
Niki de Saint Phalle, born October 29, 1930.









Niki en Fete at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais from 17 September to 2 February 2015
Images:
1. Peter Whitehead - Niki de Saint Phalle, 1972, Grand Palais, Paris
2. Niki de Saint Phalle - L'aveugle dans la prairie ou L'homme et la vache (The Blind Man on the Prairie or The Man and the Cow) Pompidoui Center, Paris.
3. Niki de Saint Phalle - Nightscape, c.1958, Sprengel Museum, hanover.
4. Jill Krementz - Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, no date given,  Grand Palais, Paris.
5.Niki de Saint Phalle - Benedicte, 1965, private collection, photo by Laurent Condominas, Grand Palais, Paris.
6.Niki de Saint Phalle -La Cabeza or Head of Death, 2000, Grand Palais, Paris.
7. Nike de Saint Phalle, Temple of All Religions, Sprengel Museum, Hanover.
8. Nikie de Saint Phalle - La fontaine de Nana (The Nana Fountain), c. 1998, Garavicchio.

22 October 2014

My Vegetable Love: Rufino Tamayo















“I woke from a dream that all my friends were scallions
I heard bravos from the lumps of beef I had left behind
From the ground round porterhouse and tartar
As they cleaved like peas and sent out shoots.

The sprouts I had eaten
Rejoiced within the striations of my iris
Arched in delight tickling tight curls of chromosomes.

I read leaves in a wadded lettuce heart
    for news of the world
I dug up sweet tuberous poems
I discovered myself counting the chambers in a tomato
I made ink from spores I signed my checks with it

The day I became a vegetarian
I found letter from all the fish in the seas."

 - Fredrich Steinway, reprinted from Food for Thought: An Anthology of Writings Inspired by Food, edited by Joan & John Digby, New York, William Morrow and Company: 1987.

It is easy to name the sources that plants rely on in order to flourish: sunlight and water, or more poetically, in the words of the French writer Andre Gide, "les nouritures terrestres."  In trying to identify the wellspring of human affections we become Aristotelians; that is we accept his taxonomy of souls (vegetative, sensitive, and rational) and optimistically choose the vegetative because it embodies growth.  This is what the poet Andrew Marvell was getting at in "To His Coy Mistress" (1681) when he described his "vegetable love."
As in Plato's allegory of the cave, the sun is unseen in the paintings of the late Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo but we intuit its presence in the luminous quality that the artist bestowed on his watermelons, painted over and over again but never more effectively than this version from 1965.

Image:
Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991)  - Sandias (Watermelon), 1965, private collection, current whereabouts unknown

16 October 2014

The Exquisite Awkwardness Of Georges Lacombe

















Finistere – finis terre – land's end – the end of Europe.


A peninsula  inhabited by humans for 2.5 million years, Brittany is also inhabited by all manner of mythical characters, pixies, mermaids, giants, and sailors who landed in boats made of leaves or stone. They were missionaries of a rude sort, come to bring a new religion to the locals who proved themselves to be wicked by fighting back with the assistance of demons and serpents.  How apt then is the enduring myth of the drowned the City of Ys, said to be located offshore in the Baie de Douarnenez, a city brought to ruin by a spoiled princess (Dahout) who convinces her father the King (Gradlon) to build her a magnificent churchless city on the waves.  Needless to say, the story ends badly. And can it be only coincidence that the brilliant Breton writer Chateaubriand  (1768 – 1848) gave his 42-volume autobiography the title Memoirs d'Outre-Tombe (Memoirs From Beyond the Grave) ? Here also the ghosts of the star-crossed lovers Tristan and Yseult and the jilted King Marc of the Roundtable roam.



How curious that the French artist Georges Lacombe is best known for one of his least typical works, a painting that translates the rugged coast of Brittany into the visual vocabulary of ukiyo-e prints. In Marine bleue – Effet de vagues the waves breaking on the shore at Finistere seem to have arrived from Japan.   The high horizon,  a certain flatness not seen in realist or Impressionist seascapes, announce the influence of a style the French dubbed japonisme.  Decorative fat pink clouds and peacock-feathered are not typical of Brittany, a land of rocky outcroppings incised by waves whose decorative effect, if that is what it was, whose coast is more prehistoric-looking than decorative.  



What is attractive in Lacombe's paintings is their  liveliness.  Again in Breton Boatwomen we confront a subject that is treated more dourly in paintings of his contemporaries, notably his close friend Charles Cottet.  Here the women are not waiting by the shore for bad news of their sailor husbands and sons;  they come alive through purposeful rhythm as active rowers.  

What is typical of Lacombe the artist is that he was not a Breton native; rather he came from a prominent family of Versailles, no small distinction in a royal seat.  The laying down of railroads from Paris to the ends of 19th century France opened the way for tourism and artists were prominent among them.  For nine years from 1888 to 1897, Lacombe summered in Brittany with his artist friends Paul Serusier and Emile Bernard.  Lacombe was the lucky one, with inherited wealth and an advantageous marriage, he had no need to sell his work.   Rather, he chose to give it away.  If his landscapes look familiar, it may be because the young Lacombe had been a member of Les Nabis, where he got to know Maurice Denis, whose coastal landscapes are similarly colorful.  Unlike the devout Denis, Lacombe was decidedly anti-clerical.
Within the group Les Nabis, Lacombe was dubbed the "sculptor Nabi." Whether working with wood or paint, Lacombe

What is attractive in Lacombe's paintings is their  liveliness.  Again in Breton Boatwomen we confront a subject that is treated more dourly in paintings of his contemporaries, notably his close friend Charles Cottet.  Here the women are not waiting by the shore for bad news of their sailor husbands and sons;  they come alive through purposeful rhythm as active rowers. 
What is typical of Lacombe the artist is that he was not a Breton native; rather he came from a prominent family of Versailles, no small distinction in a royal seat.  The laying down of railroads from Paris to the ends of 19th century France opened the way for tourism and artists were prominent among them.  For nine years from 1888 to 1897, Lacombe summered in Brittany with his artist friends Paul Serusier and Emile Bernard.  Lacombe was the lucky one, with inherited wealth and an advantageous marriage, he had no need to sell his work.   Rather, he chose to give it away.  If his landscapes look familiar, it may be because the young Lacombe had been a member of Les Nabis, where he got to know Maurice Denis, whose coastal landscapes are similarly colorful.  Unlike the devout Denis, Lacombe was decidedly anti-clerical.













Within the Nabi group, Lacombe was nicknamed "the sculptor Nabi."  Whether working with wood or with paint, Lacombe's style owes something to Paul Gauguin's stylized vision of primitivism, but Lacombe was capable or more accomplished draftsmanship.  Existence is one of four panels Lacombe carved in walnut for the bed in his stduio at Versailles.  Created during the decade he when he summered in Brittany, they are  earthy, somewhat crude amalgams of le style primitive and Breton folk art.  The side panels are images of a married couple at the beginning and again at the end of their life together; the headboard shows birth.   

Existence (above) is a compact treasury of archaic references.  It is amazing.  Framed by a serpent biting its own tail (Ouroboros, from the Greek,symbol of cyclic recreation), at the same time the double loop suggests a pair of eyes.  Below the eyes is what looks like a voluptuous pair of lips. Buried within this frame is an embracing couple and the meaning is underlined when you learn that the scored leaf at left symbolizes the female sex organs.  More easily recognizable are the spermatozoids spurting from the four corners of the frame.  This type of overtly sexual symbolism shows up shortly in the mosaic style paintings of women by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. Lacombe never displayed the panels in public and they remained in the artist's family until 1956.

In November, 2012, a rare retrospective The Plural Universes of Georges Lacombe opened at the Musee Maurice Denis, in cooperation with Musee Lambinet at Versailles, a gesture of admiration and affection for the artist and his two homes: Versailles, the heart of royal Franmce and Brittany, its Atlantic extremity, finistere.


For further reading:  Les univers de Georges Lacombe by Gilles Genty, et al, Musee departmentale Maurice Denis, Saint- Germaine-en-Laye.


Images:
1.  Georges Lacombe - Marine bleue - Effet de vagues, 1893, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes.
2. Georges Lacombe -  Falaises a Camaret, c. 1892, Musee municipale, Brest.
3. Georges Lacombe - Breton Boatwomen - c. 1888-99, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
4. Georges Lacombe - Existence, c. 1894-96, carved walnut, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
5. anonymous Breton artists -Sujet allegorique, c. 1500, Musee de Louvre, Paris.