Monday, 14 July 2014

Modern art in its pomp, I do like

Les Quatre Races, Ozenfant
Another day, another gallery. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, since we took a day off on the Thursday, heading for the Jardin des Plantes to amble among flower beds and the menagerie (I saw a baby vulture!), enjoy a decent lunch and, frankly, get absolutely toasted in the glorious sunshine.

But with rain promised for the Friday, we had planned for the Pompidou, which was a mere 10 minutes away on foot from the garret.

There was no need to fret about queues: a relatively short one disappeared quickly within minutes of the centre opening its doors at 11am, while we sat opposite supping coffees at a café.

Europe, de la Serna
On our previous visit, we’d seen an exhibition on architect Richard Rodgers, who had co-designed the Pompidou itself, and had also taken in some of the most modern exhibits.

Now to be quite frank, I have little memory of what we saw of the latter – other than a Jackson Pollock – because my feet were in the process of murdering me.

So this time, I was determined to see the key collection covering the 70 years of the 20th century.

Thus we headed to the top of the building to find ourselves at the start of a walk into artistic modernity.

It begins with two works by artists previously unknown to me.

First, straight ahead as you enter, is Les Quatre Races, a vast piece by Amédée Ozenfant from 1928, which uses highly simplified human forms and interesting, architectural textures to create an optimistic view of a post-WWI future.

Girl With a Black Cat, Matisse
The architectural aspect is not surprising when you read that Ozenfant was, with Le Corbusier, a co-founder of the Purist movement.

However, we then find Ismaël de la Serna’s Europe – painted in around 1935, as Spain was on the cusp of the civil war – and this is something altogether less hopeful: a view of a continent being handed, once again, to death.

It’s a disturbing canvas, brilliantly executed.

Beyond that, one of the next things to see was a Matisse canvas – Girl With a Black Cat (1910), which was posed by his daughter, Marguerite, and had been in a private collection until last year.

And through a door next to it was an entire room – albeit a small one – full of nothing but works by Matisse, including Portrait of Auguste Pellerin II (1916-17) and Portrait de Greta Prozor (1916).

Femme nue couché, Picasso
Beyond that was a larger room, hung on one long wall with a couple of dozen paintings, like the rooms of early 20th-century Parisian collectors such as the Steins.

High up were a couple of works by artists who were very clearly trying to emulate Matisse and, in effect, reproduce the likes of Luxe, Calme et Volupté and others.

The colours merely managed to look garish – providing an excellent illustration of just how good Matisse really was.

We avoided the one tour party that was breezing through and then enjoyed another Matisse.

Still Life With Arums & Mirror, de Lempicka
Luxe I, which was painted in 1907, provided an opportunity to appreciate what I’d learned when reading Hilary Spurling’s excellent Matisse biography.

In this case, the hills in the background are those marking the south of Collioure, while it was painted in the hills above the village, beyond the railway line, because the rather religious inhabitants would not have been impressed by nude models.

Moving through initial rooms, the art gradually abstracted, while The Other Half got vaguely excited by a replica of the Tatlin Tower.

And since the museum was so generally quiet, it was with great pleasure that we able to sit down and contemplate Picasso’s Femme nue couchée (1936) without interruption for some time.

Perhaps I’m wrong or simply linking the blue of the Blue Period rather too greatly with Picasso’s entire oeuvre, but the green background seemed to lend the work a very different tone to many of those I’ve seen.

The Journalist Sylvia von Harden, Dix
Since you cannot go wrong with a spot of Art Deco, I also enjoyed seeing works by Tamara de Lempicka, and while the portrait style might be familiar, It was nice to see Still Life with Arums and Mirror (1938), which showed the style in a less-familiar way.

We also found Otto Dix’s iconic and absolutely wonderful Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden from 1926, which seems to so utterly represent the Weimar period that it’s no surprise that it was recreated fleetingly in the opening titles of the 1972 film of Cabaret.

Henry Valensi’s Symphonie verte from 1935 and Symphonie vitale from 1952 are both non-figurative canvases that I took to instantly, simply because he makes the colours work so well.

These were works that further increase the question in my own mind of just what constitutes ‘art’, and I see no reason why decorative works are not, in some minds, considered as highly as figurative.

Symphonie Verte, Valensi
We found a Max Beckmann – an artist we’d first really encountered at a Tate Modern exhibition some years ago – and Édouard Pignon, whose paintings wed discovered at the Museum of Modern Art in Collioure, just last summer.

If there was a disappointment, it was that we didn't see any of the Centre’s works by Léopold Survage – but you can't have everything.

In another gallery, we came across an industrial scene by Bernard Boutet de Monvel (1881-1949), a French fashion illustrator and society portraitist.

View of Pont-Aven, de Monvel
His View of Pont-Aven (1928) is hardly an obvious fit with that sort of portfolio, but it is a striking image that made me think of Metropolis. It has an interesting perspective and use of angles that creates movement in an apparently deserted – dehumanised – industrial landscape.

In the same room were two canvases by Alexandre Hogue (1898-1994), an American painter whose work focused particularly on landscapes during the Dust Bowl, with an ecological message at its core.

Drought Survivors from 1936 has a naive style that completely belies its theme, with signs of man-made life dead or rusting as the man-made ecological disaster rolls in.

Petrol in the Dunes (1944) may not have the same immediately haunting impact, but it’s still a striking and impressive work with the same underlying ethos.

Drought Survivors, Hogue
The entire floor has been recast in recent years under a heading of ‘multiple modernities’, which seeks to explore modern art from across the world and also by there: there is, for instance, a room dedicated to anti-fascist art.

Tarsila do Amaral – usually known simply as Tarsila – is considered one of the most important figures in Brazilian art.

Her A cuca (1924) is another deceptively naïve work, but stays in the mind – and is certainly shown off particularly well in a snakeskin frame that was made especially for it at the time.

A cuca, Tarsila
The way in which the works have been organised does create surprises.

It was more than a tad unexpected to round one corner and find yet another Matisse – this time, Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background (1925-26), which presented an opportunity to look at how the artist incorporated his love of decorative fabrics into his own works.

Brought up in a weaving area of northern France, Matisse later collected and carried around with him snippets of fabric that he had spotted and liked.

The final corridor, which takes you back to where you started, brings with it several pleasures – not least, Picasso’s Woman in a Turkish Turban (1955) and Giorgio di Chirico’s Il Ritornante (1918), which has all the typical strangeness of that painter’s metaphysical works.

Il Ritornante, de Chirico
Unfortunately, the light from the windows makes it difficult to really see one of Dalí’s myriad masturbation paintings. Perhaps that was a deliberate little joke on the subject matter?

And to finish, a pair of Chagall’s, one of which, Double Portrait with a Glass of Wine (1918) showed him ‘riding’ on the shoulders of his wife as way of showing how she made him feel.

We were delighted to be able to ‘get’ it without looking at the labels, on the basis of what we’d discovered at last year’s Liverpool Tate exhibition.

The Pompidou serves up a wonderful walk through the first 70 years of the 20th century – and three hours had been whiled away so easily and pleasantly.

And it also leaves the visitor with plenty to think about.

Portrait With a Glass of Wine, Chagall
To talk of ‘modern art’ is, really, such a dreadfully clumsy way of indiscriminately lumping together myriad different styles and approaches to myriad different subjects and questions.

That might not be what the Pompidou was attempting specifically to address with its exhibition title of ‘multiple modernities, but it is certainly one way of looking at such a wide range of artistic endeavour over almost three quarters of a century.

Picking just a handful of pictures of the works we saw to illustrate this post is evidence of the breath of ‘modern art – and that doesnt even bring us slap bang up to date.

By the time we were ready to conclude our visit, we’d not seen anywhere near all the exhibits, but I had reached a point of recognising a Rothko but feeling no great need to go and examine it in detail. 

But while a stand-alone trip is hardly problematic, a visit to the Pompidou is a perfect way to continue an exploration of the modern that began with some of the art thats on display in the Musée dOrsay, given that Manet is seen as the painter who began modern art.

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