Archive for December 9, 2012

Elles: Pompidou

December 9, 2012 Leave a comment
Suzanne Valadon’s, "La Chambre blue," 1923

Suzanne Valadon’s, “La Chambre blue,” 1923

[Jacqueline Hyde, Centre Pompidou]

Two months ago, the Elles: Pompidou exhibition opened at the Seattle Art Museum. I wrote at the time about attending opening night. The program had a late starting time, with a long list of dignitaries (such as the French ambassador to the US) making remarks, as a result of which we weren’t released to see the art until 8:45. This was a weekday night. We didn’t last long. A return visit was called for, and that visit came on Tuesday morning.

Before saying more about that, let me quote once again from the exhibition website, where Marisa Sánchez, the museum’s associate curator for modern and contemporary art, writes:

Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris is a landmark exhibition of more than 130 works of art made by 75 women artists from 1907 to 2007. Organized by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, home to the Musée National d’Art Moderne—the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in Europe—this exhibition is an unforgettable visual experience that will challenge visitors’ assumptions about art of the past century. This survey of daring painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video and installation by pioneering women artists offers a fresh perspective on a history of modern and contemporary art. With humor, disdain, sensuality and ambiguity, these women represent the major movements in modern art—from abstraction to contemporary concerns.

Artists include Sonia Delaunay, Frida Kahlo, Dora Maar, Diane Arbus, Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, Atsuko Tanaka, Cindy Sherman, Sophie Calle, Hannah Wilke, Nan Goldin and Tania Bruguera, among others.

An exhilarating exhibition that has already become a milestone in the history of exhibitions, Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris will excite the casual viewer as much as the hardboiled expert.

What brought us back was a one hour, pre-opening-hours tour of the exhibition for which we had signed up, led by Catharina Manchanda, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. As an unexpected bonus, we were joined afterwards by Camille Morineau, senior curator at the Centre Pompidou and chief curator of Elles, for a fifteen-minute Q&A. She happened to be in from Paris on her first visit to Seattle.

Our walkthrough with Catharina Manchanda was an eye-opener. Where two months ago I saw an assemblage of works that happened to be made by women, this time Catharina placed the art and artists in cultural and historical context. She is a gifted speaker, a scholar who, with an economy of words, gives you the sense that you understand what you’re seeing. There’s a touch of magic to this. On leaving, I couldn’t reproduce what I learned. It was part illusion, yet a most welcome illusion.

I would attempt to demonstrate, but the SAM exhibition website doesn’t offer images of the art for me to use. Well, there’s one image I can copy, from a May 2009 LA Times article on the original Elles exhibition at the Pompidou. It’s the one I’ve put at the top of this post. This painting is in the Seattle show too, and is one that Catharina discussed, relating it to traditional male depictions of women. She highlighted the pose, the clothing, and the cigarette. But again, I can’t reproduce her insights. Let me instead turn to the excellent gallery guide, which one can download as a pdf file. There we read about gallery three, Paris in the 1920s and 1930s:

During the twenties and thirties, Paris was a vibrant heyday of intellectual exchange among artists, writers, and poets; their artistic endeavors defined their age. In addition to the shifting realities of a post-WWI society, the role and image of women began to evolve, due in part to more women entering the work force. The modern woman emerged to occupy an important place within that culture. Valadon’s reclining female painted in 1926 embodies the emergence of a modern woman—one who has done away with her corset and assumes a more confident pose. Many women became chroniclers of their time, advancing their voice in various disciplines, including photography and literature. For example, Virginia Woolf published her influential A Room of One’s Own in 1929 in London.

In Gallery Ten, Genital Panic, we learned about several interesting works, including a video of performance art by Valie Export. Here is part of the guide’s gallery description.

In the politically charged 1960s and 1970s, women artists particularly took to task representations of the female body, challenging conventional perceptions of the figure and acceptable behavior—embodied in works like Valie Export’s TappundTaskino, 1968, and Hannah Wilke’s S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication (MasticationBox), both of which remain raw and startling today. Brought together here under the title of the legendary performance work by Austrian artist Valie Export, in which the artist moved among an audience seated in an X-rated cinema, the works in this gallery offer unorthodox representations of the female body.

The particular video Catharina pointed us to is mentioned in Valie Export’s wikipedia entry:

Valie Export’s early guerilla performances have attained an iconic status in feminist art history. Tapp- und Tast-Kino (“Tap and Touch Cinema”) was performed in ten European cities in 1968-1971. In this avowedly revolutionary work, Valie Export wore a tiny “movie theater” around her naked upper body, so that her body could not be seen but could be touched by anyone reaching through the curtained front of the “theater.” She then went into the street and invited men, women, and children to come and touch her.

The video showed her in a busy central square in Vienna, accompanied by a colleague using a bullhorn to attract a crowd. (Catharina informed us that he is now the director of one of Germany’s major museums.) People would come up, uncertain, and put their hands in the box she was wearing. Catharina commented on the visible awkwardness of one of the men, then ushered us on to the next gallery.

It was a privilege to chat afterwards with Camille Morineau. In describing the genesis of the exhibition in Paris a few years ago, she explained that her initial idea was to have a temporary show of women artists drawn from various museums. What made all the difference was her revised conception of a show installed in the permanent Pompidou galleries consisting of works from the Pompidou collection. By law, state museums can’t deaccess their art. Collections continue to grow, with very little on display. Of course, this is true of any major museum. But Morineau wanted us to understand that many works by women are stored away, likely never to see the light of day. Her idea reversed this, opening half to two-thirds of the permanent exhibition space to women’s art in a sequence of installations over a couple of years.

About a thousand works were exhibited. This created an entirely different challenge for the Seattle show: how to select just a fraction of these works. The show required a reconception, one Morineau hadn’t seen until the day before. Asked what she thought, Morineau claimed to be impressed.

The LA Times article from three years ago that I mentioned above has a good discussion of the original show. I’ll close with excerpts, and urge you to see Elles before it closes on January 13.

Imagine a museum that boasts the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in Europe. Now imagine that an intrepid female curator puts all the men’s work in storage and fills the permanent collection galleries with a new version of 20th and early 21st century art history, the one that women created.

Would she emerge as a champion, finally proving that women artists are as good as — or better than — the guys? Or would she simply expose weaknesses of the museum’s collection and the art itself?

“It’s a risk,” says Camille Morineau, who has organized “elles@centrepompidou,” opening Wednesday at the Pompidou Center. “Excluding men and showing only women is a revolutionary gesture of affirmative action. But the museum is avant-garde. It’s part of the Centre Pompidou culture to do things differently. And we like a lot of drama. This is going to be dramatic in a big way.”


As Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, puts it: “When you have an institution of the scale and prestige of the Pompidou devoting its entire hang of its collection thematically to women artists, it’s making a very serious statement.”


Some of the artists have subtle sensibilities; others deliver a punch. In a text panel by Barbara Kruger, an awe-struck exclamation — “What big muscles you have!” — overlaps sappy terms of endearment such as “My better half,” “My sugar daddy” and “My ticket to ride.” In “Life Size Portraits,” a huge painting by Agnes Thurnauer, female versions of famous male artists’ names — Annie Warhol, Francine Bacon, Jacqueline Pollock — appear on 11 of 12 circles of bright color. But the first name of Louise Bourgeois, a sculptor who has garnered almost as most notice as her male counterparts — has been changed to Louis.

Time will tell how all this is received.

“It’s a very un-French thing to do,” Morineau says over lunch at a cafe overlooking the Pompidou’s plaza, where lovers smooch, sunbathers catch fleeting rays and schoolkids line up for museum tours. “In France, nobody counts the number of men and women in exhibitions. Very few people notice that sometimes there are no women.”

Categories: Art, Museums

Seating Arrangements

December 9, 2012 Leave a comment


Monday night I wrote about Christopher Benfey’s Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival, which I was a third of the way into. As I continued to read it (finishing early yesterday morning), I found story after story that tempted me to write about it again. But if I did so, I would just tell Benfey’s stories, and he does a better job. So do yourself a favor and read the book.

One example. I had mentioned that Benfey’s paternal grandfather was a lawyer and supreme court justice in Germany, and that although Jewish, he had converted to Lutheranism. And I had mentioned the family of Benfey’s paternal grandmother, also converts, who ran the largest publishing company in Europe. Later in the book, Benfey tells the tale of a trip the grandmother’s parents made to Mexico in 1937, meeting the grandmother’s sister and her husband. (The sister and husband happen to be the famous artists Anni and Josef Albers, central to several of the book’s tales, including a visit by Benfey to the site in western North Carolina of their one-time home, Black Mountain College.)

Riding first-class on the Orinoco, Benfey’s great-grandmother makes note of the third-class passengers down below, some fleeing Spain and its civil war. She’s saddened by their plight and by recent news of the bombing of Guernica, but disgusted as well by their appearance. Two years later—well, you can guess. Themselves now refugees, they are once again aboard the Orinoco, down below this time. That they make it out of Europe is something of a miracle. I just now found this article at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website that devotes its last paragraph to the sailing they were part of. They were lucky to get to Cuba.

Meanwhile, I’m on to the next book, one I would have missed had I not seen a link to an article in Salon on “overlooked books of 2012.” Each of fifteen book reviewers was asked to choose one. I don’t know that “overlooked” accurately characterizes some choices. For instance, Jenny Hendrix recommends Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, mention of which I seem to be stumbling over everywhere I turn. I downloaded the free opening portion a few weeks ago and have had it since as the next book in my queue, though I seem to keep finding books that displace it. It’s reviewed in today’s Sunday NYT book review section. And it got one of the New Yorker briefly noted reviews last month.

Then there’s Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, which won the same trifecta: a listing in Slate as one of 2012’s overlooked books, a review in the NYT, and a brief note in the New Yorker. The New Yorker note must not have made an impression on me. (It was the first of four in the August 27 issue. The subject of the fourth was Christoph Wolff’s Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune The review made enough of an impression that I read the book within weeks.) And I don’t remember seeing the NYT review. Thank you, then, to Doree Shafrir and Salon for realizing that I had overlooked the book. Her description:

On the Nantucket-like island of Waskeke, the Van Meter family—upstanding banker father Winn, his wife, Biddy, and their two daughters—is preparing, at their summer home, for eldest daughter Daphne’s wedding. But beneath the surface of this WASPy idyll is a wickedly clever tragicomedy of manners that unfolds with the plotting of a juicy mystery and the sharp eye of someone only too aware the subtle, seemingly pointless class distinctions within the 1 percent. Maggie Shipstead’s novel was my literary beach read of the summer, but it seems wholly appropriate to tote around in any season, and perhaps now that the Gone Girl hype has died down (that ending! Seriously?), Seating Arrangements will get the attention it deserves.

How could I resist? I love Nantucket, after all. On finishing Benfey’s book yesterday, I downloaded the free opening section of Seating Arrangements. A few pages later, I bought it. I’m now just past the one-third point.

Let me tell you, you don’t want Shipstead observing you. She doesn’t miss a glance, a gesture, a jerk of the leg. Her characters are laid bare. And what a fascinating group they are. She’s funny too. I’ve broken into laughter several times. The New Yorker review speaks of her “keen-eyed rendering.” Exactly.

The New Yorker also describes the book as her “satirical debut novel, set on a fictional island reminiscent of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.” Not that it matters to the enjoyment of the book, but there’s no ambiguity here. Waskeke is Nantucket. The Quaker history. Whalers. A lighthouse where the ferry makes its turn into the harbor. A character in salmon pants; another in red pants with embroidered whales. A lighthouse that has to be moved because of an eroding cliff, said lighthouse being white with a broad red stripe around the middle and a black painted dome and balcony. Might it look like this?

Sankaty Head Light, Nantucket

Sankaty Head Light, Nantucket

Yup, we’re on Nantucket. With a cast (and caste) that Gail and I never hang out with on our annual visits. Fascinating folk. The book is great fun.

Categories: Books


December 9, 2012 Leave a comment


What’s up with New York Times columnists? With David Brooks and Ross Douthat repeatedly on the decline-of-culture beat, why did Roger Cohen decide two days ago to jump in? He opened his latest column with news that “oversharing and status anxiety [are] the two great scourges of the modern world.” Cohen continues:

So let us absorb the mass of unwanted shared personal information and images that wash over one, like some great viscous tide full of stuff one would rather not think about — other people’s need for Icelandic lumpfish caviar, their numb faces at the dentist, their waffles and sausage, their appointments with their therapists, their personal hygiene, their pimples and pets, their late babysitters, their grumpy starts to the day, their rude exchanges, their leaking roofs, their faith in homeopathy, their stressing out, and all the rest.

Please, O wired humanity, spare me, and not only the details.

It is tempting to call this unctuous ooze of status updates and vacation snaps seeping across Facebook and Twitter and the rest information overload. But that would be to debase the word “information.”

Fortunately, the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal is on the case. He observes, “I’ve been on Twitter for a long time, Facebook even longer, though in a more limited capacity. And I’ve never noticed these topics permeating my timeline.” To demonstrate, he lists the first 20 tweets on his timeline, all of which sound interesting indeed. (You can follow the link and see for yourself.)

Madrigal’s advice to Cohen:

My diagnosis is simple, Roger: your friends and associates are terrible and boring. Being that you are a smart and interesting guy who would distill only the finest information from any social network, the problem is the garbage going into your feed, which can only come out as garbage in your column. And that garbage is being created by the people who you choose to follow and know.

In the spirit of Madrigal’s post, I will now list the last 20 items on my Twitter timeline. You can decide for yourself if these are interesting. But as Madrigal explains, the point is that his 20 items are interesting to him. If you want to make good use of Twitter, follow people who interest you. No one forces you to follow John Boehner.

Okay, here goes:

1. Link to NYT article on how Tolkien’s manuscripts ended up at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

2. Link to Lee Child piece in NYT on how to create suspense.

3. Link to David Pogue CBS Sunday Morning video.

4. Link to article on Coast Guard airlift to Florida of sea turtles stranded in Massachusetts.

5. Comment on Washington Redskins’ defense (from a politics and technology writer who rarely comments on sports).

6. Link to piece on militarization of domestic police forces, led by Homeland Security.

7. Link to article on a graduate student’s experience as a mass media fellow at Scientific American under a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

8. Um, well, I kind of love the Twitter feed of Miguel Bloombito, who admonishes his followers: “Don’t be un assholero. Givero up tu seat de subwayo to las womaño de pregnanto y los señor citizens.” (This feed is a running joke based on Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts to speak Spanish to summarize what he says in English in public announcements. See this article for background.)

9. A comment on David Gregory’s insistence today on Meet the Press on framing question in the context of going over the cliff, with the observation that this is how false consciousness spreads.

10. More from Miguel, getting into the Christmas spirit: “Doño mi ahora, el gay apparalo!”

11. An excerpt from the diary of John Quincy Adams, from a feed that tells us his doings two hundred years ago to the day while serving abroad as an ambassador.

12. A link to a chart (a “conspectus”) from 1880 on the history of political parties.

13. Sorry, it’s a Sunday. Not too many of the people I follow are active today. Miguel Bloombito again. I’ll skip the details.

14. A retweet by an editor of a link to a blog post at Language Log that I had already read, on some nonsensical piece about alleged decline in vocabulary of students. I may write about this separately.

15. A link to an ongoing discussion about raising the Medicare eligibility age.

16. A retweet of a link to the latest piece by the NYT public editor, which I may also write about separately.

17. Another link (from someone else I follow) to the work of the NYT public editor, sending us to her response to critics of another piece.

18. And, from this same person, a link to the public editor’s latest.

19. A link to The Economist’s best books of 2012.

20. A link to a poll at The Guardian for person of the year. Darn. Too late to vote. It’s closed. The overwhelming winner is Bradley Manning.

As I said, it’s Sunday. This isn’t entirely representative. But I see no evidence of oversharing. Oh, unless this post is itself evidence.

Categories: Culture, Journalism