Rencontre avec France Mitrofanoff

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Depuis ses débuts dans les années 70, France Mitrofanoff n’a cessé de peindre. D’abord inspirée par le mouvement Cobra, avec ses créatures étranges, elle s’en dégage pour peindre dès Villes, constructions chaotiques où se cachent les habitants, ombres dissimulées derrière les murs. Plus récemment elle a porté son regard sur la nature, en particulier les arbres. France Mitrofanoff aime les profondeurs de là forêt tantôt sombre, tantôt blanche et lumineuse. Ses tableaux expriment le mystère de la vie dans une quête de l’inexplicable.

En attendant sa nouvelle exposition à Paris, à la Galerie Rauchfeld, intitulée ‘Le dialogue de l’arbre’, Karine Hetherington, d’artmuselondon, est allée la voir dans son atelier.

 

France Mitrofanoff, pourquoi avez-vous intitulé votre nouvelle exposition à la Galerie Rauchfeld: ‘le dialogue de l’arbre?’

Je travaille depuis plusieurs années sur la forêt. L’arbre  qui est notre refuge, puisqu’il nous abrite de la pluie , comme des rayons ardents du soleil,  m’intrigue car nous connaissons peu de chose sur lui. Dans son poème « le dialogue de l’arbre » Paul Valery donne la parole au Pâtre Tityre et au philosophe Lucrèce qui nous raconte le murmure du vent, le bruissements des insectes dans ses feuillures. Ce texte magnifique m’a incitée à donner vie a mes arbres en écrivant sur l’écorce des lambeaux  de ce poème.

Qui vous a inspiré ou qu’est-ce qui vous a décidé à vouer votre vie à la peinture?

Je n’ai pas choisi d’être peintre, je suis née peintre.

 Il est vrai que j’ai vu toute ma jeunesse mon père s’installer le dimanche avec ses peintures sur la table de la salle a manger et agrandir soigneusement une carte postale de Paris achetée le matin  même, s’isolant dans son univers  que personne n’aurait imaginé troubler.

Il nous a d’ailleurs laissé une collection des vues de Paris, parfois maladroites, mais empruntées d’une ambiance poétique et mélancolique qui me touche.

Une journée typique pour vous…?

Toutes mes journées se ressemblent. Je ne résiste pas au désir de me rendre aux Frigos (anciennes chambres froides de la SNCF transformées en atelier d’artistes et d’artisans). C’est là que se trouve mon grand atelier chargé de quarante années de peintures . Là m’attend ma dernière toile en cours de travail qui m’inquiète tant qu’elle n’est pas terminée.

Sur quoi travaillez-vous en ce moment?

Je travaille toujours sur la forêt, mais je sens naitre un secret désir de retrouver un thème que j’ai a peine ébauché et que j’aimerai poursuivre : « les ruines envahies de nature ». 

On reste donc dans la forêt.

Etes-vous devenue mystique?

Si être mystique consiste a aller toujours chercher au-delà des apparences des vérités qui ne sont pas dites, des mystères cachés que l’on ne comprend pas avec l’intellect mais que l’on  subodore avec  l’intuition, alors oui je suis mystique. Pas au sens religieux, mais plutôt philosophique.

Avez-vous eu des moments difficiles dans votre carrière artistique? 

Je n’ai pas le souvenir d’avoir eu des moments difficiles sur le plan de la création .

Sur le plan matériel, des difficultés d’atelier m’ont permis de connaître des populations très diverses comme « les  gens du fleuve », ces personnes qui habitent sur des péniches et qui ne ressemblent en rien aux autres parisiens. Ne trouvant plus d’atelier bon marché j’avais acheté dans les années 90 une péniche, la Monique, datant de la première guerre mondiale, amarée quai Conti face a l’ile de la Citée sur laquelle j’ai installé mon travail de peintre. 

J’ai découvert , naïve comme je l’était que la Seine montait sur le quai en hiver au gré de différentes crues. J’ai compris très vite que la solidarité qui s’exprimait, alors, entre voisins de péniche n’était pas un vain mot.

 

Avez-vous accompli tout ce que vous voulez accomplir dans votre travail artistique?

Surement pas. On court toujours après une toile que l’on ne fera jamais. Seule la fin de la vie vous guérit de cette obsession.

Quels conseils donneriez-vous à un jeune, qui souhaite se lancer dans la peinture?

Apprendre un métier qui demande les mêmes compétences techniques que celles de l’artiste et qui permette de s’assumer financièrement  afin de louer son atelier, acheter son matériel de peintre, et se nourrir. Les métiers de passion comme la peinture ne permette pas de vivre, il est  nécessaire d’avoir deux métiers si l’on veut rester libre dans sa création.

L’enseignement est une bonne réponse a ce problème.

Admirez-vous des peintres anglais? Qu’est-ce que vous avez vu comme exposition dernièrement à Londres?

L’histoire de la peinture est immense. Il y a dans chaque pays des artistes passionnants. En Angleterre j’admire surtout Francis Bacon et Henry Moore.

Le peu de temps passé a Londres cette fois-ci m’a permis de voir une jolie exposition à la Serpentine. Albert Oehlen que je ne connaissais pas.Une très mauvaise exposition de Olafur Eliasson au Tate Modern. Et William Blake, toujours impressionnant, au Tate Britain.

France Mitrofanoff expose à la galerie Rauchfeld, 22 rue de Seine, Paris 75006, du 24 janvier au 7 février 2020. (Vernissage le 23 janvier) 

France Mitrofanoff: https://bit.ly/2T5ZALB. France Mitrofanoff Whoozart tv

Interview with artist France Mitrofanoff

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French artist, France Mitrofanoff, has a vast body of work behind her, having commenced her career in the 1970s, a time when she was painting monsters. Her interest turned to modern cities under construction. I remember her eerie-looking inhabitants, staring out at me from dark corners of the canvas. In the past decade she has turned the attention away from urban living to the cosmos and nature. Her large canvases, more often or not, pulsate with life and energy. Mitrofanoff’s spray of colour is astounding, but she is not afraid to explore the darker palette. Her monochrome forests or depictions of the cosmos are a celebration of nature’s awe-inspiring power..

Intrigued by this prominent,  award-winning French artist, who is virtually unknown over here, Karine Hetherington from artmuselondon.com went to interview her at her Paris studio where she is preparing her latest show.

France Mitrofanoff, why have you used the title: ‘le dialogue de l’arbre’ , ‘talking trees’ for your latest show?

I have been painting forests for many years now. The tree is our refuge as it shelters us from the rain and the strong rays of the sun. What intrigued me, is that we know so little about trees. I was inspired by a poem by Paul Valéry*, ‘le dialogue de l’arbre’ , which he wrote in 1943. I was very moved by the words.The wonderful text brings the tree to life and so I decided to ornament the barks of the trees I painted with sections of the poem.

What inspired you, or who inspired you, to devote your life to being an artist?

I didn’t choose to be an artist. I was born that way. However, it is true that during my youth, my father, set up his paints on the dining room table every Sunday. Taking his inspiration from a postcard he had bought that day, he locked himself away and no one would dare disturb him.

He left behind, when he died, a collection of views of Paris. Some paintings were a little clumsy, but all his work was imbued with a poetry and melancholy which touches me to this day.

What is a typical day for you?

My days are similar. I can’t help but make a long journey across Paris to the east of the city, to my studio. It is housed in a large building called ‘Les Frigos’ which the SNCF rail company used for refrigerating goods for many years! My studio is large and is on the top floor. In it I store my canvases from the last 40 years. 

Today I’m staring at my latest canvas which is giving me grief!

What are you working on at the moment?

I am still working on forests. However I have a secret desire to take up again on a theme I had barely started, ‘nature taking over ruins’

Looking at your work, I see the mystic in you?

If you mean that I’m always searching for hidden truths or mysteries that cannot be explained with the intellect, only with intuition, then I’m a mystic! So not in a religious sense but in a philosophical sense.

What challenges have you faced during your artistic career? 

I have never had problems on the artistic level.

They were always on the material level – yes. For a long time, I couldn’t afford a normal studio but found another solution by buying a WW1 barge, ‘la Monique’. I was terribly naive as to the challenges of the river Seine and its tides!

Have you accomplished artistically what you set out to do?

No of course not! The artist always is in search of the elusive work that he will never succeed in painting. This obsession dies only when you reach the end of your life.

What advice do you give young artists?

I advise them to have two jobs!  Firstly to have a job which requires the same skills as an artist, for example teaching. You need a job to pay the studio, your materials and to eat. Being solely an artist does not allow you to live. Having a job which pays the bills and more, allows you more creative freedom.

Do you admire any British artists? What exhibition did you see when you were last in London?

I love Francis Bacon and Henry Moore.

Last November I saw a good exhibition by Albert Oehlen at the Serpentine Gallery. A very bad one, Olafur Eliasson at the Tate Modern. And I always find William Blake impressive, who was on at Tate Britain.

France Mitrofanoff will be exhibiting at the Galerie Rauchfeld, 22 rue du Seine Paris 75006, Paris from 24th January – 7th February 2020.

*Paul Valéry 1871-1945 French poet, essayist and critic.

Film in which we see artist, France Mitrofanoff, the studio and her work: https://bit.ly/2T5ZALB. France Mitrofanoff Whoozart tv

Into the Night at the Barbican

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Shadow Theatre at Le Chat Noir, Paris. 

I always look forward to the Barbican Gallery’s exhibitions. Theme-based with enticing titles, they always capture my imagination. The last show I covered there, entitled Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde (see here LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE) in January of this year, was riveting. With the theme of power couples in art, the curators had their work cut out for them. It was an enormous show. Letters featured in great numbers, as well as paintings, sculptures, photographs and textile prints. I remember been amused by Camille Claudel’s letters to Rodin.

When I turned up to Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art this week, the galleries seemed sparsely furnished in comparison.

I could see the curator’s challenge though. Cabarets and bars are all about atmosphere which is hard to evoke in paintings and photographs.

Walking up the steps, I entered Paris. Le Chat Noir corner to be precise. The cabaret sprung up in Montmartre in the late nineteenth century. Entertainment then consisted of poetry, improvised monologues and satyrical songs. The first artists and writers, who came here,  liked to call themselves ‘Hydropathes’, those afraid of water (ie wine and beer drinkers)

As Le Chat Noir grew in popularity and occupied larger premises, up sprung another source of entertainment, the Shadow theatre (see header image)

An arrangement of zinc silhouettes adorn the wall at the Barbican. It’s hard to imagine that they were used for such ambitious stagings of religious tales, epics and complete fantasies. People flocked to see these plays in a grand room hung with drawings by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

I run my eyes over a strange creatures with wings, a maid and a Napoleonic soldier on a horse. Later at home, I read of a production entitled L’Epopée (The Epic) performed in 1887 by Caran d’Ache at Le Chat Noir. It was a grandiose work replete with heroic Napoleonic scenes in twenty tableaux.

Back at the gallery, I peer down at the exhibition space below, where much larger recreations of the puppets, twist and turn above peoples’s heads and project large shadows upon the walls.

Still in Paris I turn my attention to dancer  Loïe Fuller, who performed at the Folies Bergère in the 1890’s. Fuller became known for her mesmeric dances, using her costume, poles and lighting to creative effect. Toulouse-Lautrec, clearly captivated by her, produced a series of hand-coloured lithographs.  In the gallery, I was particularly drawn to La Danse du Feu. It’s strange – so used are we to seeing mass-produced posters of Lautrec’s dancers, that we forget that they were of talented performers! Knowing a little about Fuller now, I will look out for her in the poster shops.

At the show, an early film features an imitator of Fuller. This dancer performs a flower dance. The effect produced is rather like peering through a child’s magic kaleidoscope.

Next I was in Vienna 1907 at the Fledermaus cabaret which was renowned for its spectacular, modern, tiled interior. Visitors at the show were treated to a recreation of the multi-coloured tiled bar, which you can admire on the lower level  of the exhibition. Gleaming tiles displayed fantastical motifs but the installation itself seemed oddly bare with no waiters or singers to animate the space. Music, which had been wafting up to the upper levels, had ceased. I think I might have missed a show!

Sticking to Europe, I peeped into the Berlin Weimar Nightlife of the 1920s and 30s. Of interest was Rudolf Schlicher’s Damenkneiper (Women’s Club), a painting depicting women dressed in men’s attire and sporting bobs. In Germany, women had got the right to vote in 1919, and were now, not only taking their liberated selves out, but foregoing masculine company as well.

Mexico of the 1920s was a welcome addition to the exhibition. At the Café de Nadie in Mexico City  radical artists and writers met to  discuss new political and social ideas following the Mexican revolution. Slogans such as ‘Chopin to the Electric Chair’ must have driven Chopin-playing pianists underground! In 1924 the radical group held its first  exhibition which embraced poetry, performance, music, woodcuts and paintings. Masks were also used, showing the movement’s attachment to ancient culture.

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Mexican masks by sculptor Germán Cueto 1924

A celebration of indigenous culture also came up in what was to me the most interesting part of the show: the Nigerian Mbari Clubs. They came into being in the early 1960s, after Nigeria’s independence. ‘Mbari’  was an Igbo word for ‘creation’ and the first club was open-air in the university town of Ibadan. Here writers, musicians and actors congregated to read their poetry, exhibit their art and perform music and dance. Another club opened in Osogbo and became home to the Yoruba opera company. 

oznorHBOil portrait Self-portrait of Suffering 1961 by Ibrahim El-Salahi

The clubs were both influenced by Western art but were rooted in their own tradition. I loved the art on display particularly an oil portrait by Ibrahim El-Salahi but also a black and white film of a performance of drumming and dance where the cheekiness of the woman dancer wanting to outdo her male dance partner is delightful to watch. The joy and exuberance of all taking part in the musical event warms the soul.

And this was the strength of this part of the show – that you could see, hear and feel the atmosphere of the club. 

An imperfect show but with fascinating insights into clubs from further afield. 

KH

Talks, music and film accompanying the show: https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2019/event/into-the-night-cabarets-clubs-in-modern-art

 

 

LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE

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Artistic duos tend not to receive the attention they deserve in art history. We often read about the art movements and the artists who create them. The artist’s partner or lover meanwhile is often overlooked, or simply seen in terms of a muse.

An ambitious exhibition at the Barbican, entitled Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde seeks to explore the subject of couples and to show how spouses and lovers have had a lot more to bring to the creative pot.

I stepped in room 1 of the show where the pairings of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel and Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp were considered. Both couples had passionate affairs – it seemed a good place to start.

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I was called upon to contemplate Auguste Rodin’s exuberant sculpture, Je Suis Belle. A beautiful naked young woman, bunched up into a ball, is held aloft by a tall, muscle-bound Adonis (In reality Auguste Rodin was small and lame!) The energy of the piece perfectly encapsulates love’s rapture and exemplifies Rodin’s superhuman passion for his eighteen-year old assistant.

Camille Claudel’s letters on display reveal her minx-like hold over him in the early years of their affair. In one she asks Rodin to buy her a two-piece bathing suit in serge from Bon Marché so that she can swim in the lake and avoid the public baths! And to excite him further she states: ‘I go to bed naked every night to make me think you’re here’.

The correspondence in this show is riveting  and should not be overlooked even though it may slow your progress through the rooms!

Though the odds were stacked against Claudel, she was a mere woman after all, Claudel’s talent was recognised by her mature lover. He allowed her to fashion the hands and feet of his statues. In the show we see the clay head Claudel produced of him. I found it disappointing and decided to go to the Rodin museum next time I was in Paris to investigate further.

I turned to another female artist, Maria Martins, occupying the same room. Before meeting Marcel Duchamp in New York in March 1943, she was already a sculptor in her own right. Her bronze cast entitled  Le Couple , produced in the same year, is impressive. Two animalistic male-female forms rear up and spew tendrils. Their bodies arch away from each other (Martins as a married woman clearly had some reservations about the affair!) In contrast, Marcel Duchamp’s artistic offering is less showy. Five mysterious artefacts are displayed in a glass case. One resembles part of a bronze shoe, Feuille de Vigne, 1950. I read the explanation and find that it is in fact an imprint of Martins’s female genitalia! The five pieces together are all imprints of Martins intimate parts. They are strangely elegant, oddly moving.

 

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Sexual desire and the artistic impulse are of course closely linked. I am drawn to the Surrealist section entitled Mad Love where André Breton, founder of the movement, encourages his male followers to go out into the street in search of love. Breton saw women as innately ‘surrealist’. The theme of the female muse resurges. The women associated with Surrealist artists were no shrinking violets however. In the photographs they come across as wild and free. In one they are relaxing at a picnic, sheets draped over their  intimate parts. Their male friends meanwhile are fully clothed! The photograph is no doubt the surrealist take on Manet’s painting,  Dejeuner sur L’Herbe.

One of these women is the American photographer Lee Miller. Early on in her career she teamed up with avant-garde artist Man Ray. In the show they occupy a room of their own. Their homage to the Marquis de Sade seems tongue in cheek. A very young Miller wears a thick iron collar around her neck. In another very strange image Lee Miller and Man Ray have placed a glass dome over their heads! I can’t help but laugh!

Lee Miller’s photographs could also be moving and poignant. In the Dora Maar-Picasso section, we see an older Dora Maar sitting alone in her apartment looking into space. In the centre of the picture hangs a painting Picasso made of her. It is a rare portrait of her facing out at the viewer (rather than in profile), and it is the only portrait she liked of herself. She dismissed the others as ‘lies’. They may be ‘lies’ but Picasso’s Portrait de Femme 1938, of Maar, is still a wonder to behold on an adjacent wall, as is Frida Kahlo’s oil painting entitled The Wounded Deer 1946 located in the same room

 

 

To counterbalance the theme of suffering female artists, Maar’s own photo images of Picasso have been included in the show. A glass plate negative of Picasso caught my eye. Around his face Maar has scratched a halo or crown of thorns of black ink. It gives the painter the air of a saint or more worryingly, the appearance of Jesus Christ bound for crucifixion. It is unusual to see Picasso objectified in this way. So much with Picasso was on his terms.

Alma Mahler in another room seems to be made of sterner stuff. The exhibition focuses on her relationship with husband Gustav Mahler and lover Oskar Kokoschka. Long suffering muse, she was not! A photograph of her shows a Valkyrien woman in a corseted dress and dark, expressive eyes.  She was a talented pianist and composer when she met Mahler. It is surprising to read therefore that at the beginning of her marriage to Mahler she gave up her musical career at his request. It was a big mistake of course; outwardly acquiescing, Alma soon grew bitter. When she was on the point of running off with Bauhaus architect Gropius, Mahler agreed to play and help publish his wife’s lieder which are on show.

 The painter Kokoschka, seven years her junior, filled the void after Mahler’s death. ‘He painted me, me, me!’ Alma Mahler exclaims in a quote on the wall. Kokoschka joined up as a soldier in WW1, perhaps to escape her intensity and jealous nature. On his return however he underwent a change of heart. By then Alma had gravitated towards Gropius again. Kokoschka spent the next few years trying to win her back. The painted fans he produced, depicting their life together, are on display on one wall. We read about a doll he had made in her image. ‘I must have you for my wife or my genius will self-destruct’, he says in a letter. Alma’s power over men was astounding!

The Sapphic section entitled Chloe liked Olivia, was not only illuminating but revealed a whole host of new writers for me such as Natalie-Clifford Barney and painter Romaine Brooks. I was already aware of the love affair between blue stocking Virginia Woolf and aristocrat Vita-Sackville West, but it was interesting to learn of the influence each woman had on the other’s work. The desire Sackville-West ignited in Woolf powered Woolf’s Orlando. In this tale a young man transforms into a woman and retains his love for women. Sackville-West’s writing meanwhile became more experimental. Her book Seducers in Ecuador is on display together with Orlando and Woolf’s wonderful extended essay, A Room of One’s Own.

By the time I reached the painter Klimt and designer and fashion muse Emily Flöge (also fascinating if I had had more time) I was replete with information. I had only covered the first floor of the exhibition! (There are two!)

The show warrants a whole afternoon with two tea breaks!

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Modern Couples is an exhilarating show. A real curatorial tour de force. I am now keen to read up about L’Académie des Femmes (the feminine equivalent of the all-male literary Académie Française), and to explore the art of lesbian painter Romaine Brooks whose self-portraits reveal a growing confidence in her new sexuality. From a timid, thin-faced girl in a graceless hat she evolves into a beautiful, bright-eyed woman with wind-swept hair. I felt happy for her.

Hats off to the Barbican for a thought-provoking and rich experience! Worth joining the Barbican Centre membership scheme methinks!

 

KH

 

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is on at the Barbican (Floor 3) until 27 Jan.