In Search of Dora Maar

62350981_1_x

Model, Assia Granatouroff photographed by Dora Maar

 

Walking into the Tate Modern show on Dora Maar, a question wouldn’t go away. Would Maar’s best work turn out to be what she produced during her years with Picasso?

The Barbican show I had attended on artistic couples, in January of this year, was still fresh in my mind. It had been a fascinating exploration into the creative process and showed how women, like Dora Maar, had not only been muses but artists in their own right. Dora Maar was one of many female creatives who had to fight their patch to get recognised. (See my review here)  https://artmuselondon.com/2019/01/12/love-in-a-creative-climate/.

Taking up where Barbican left off, Tate Modern has organised a retrospective of Maar’s work. It spans decades, right up to her death in July 1997. Here, we were told by the curator, the focus was to be less on Picasso, whose fame and force of personality wolfed up the limelight, and more on Maar’s extensive output. With two hundred photographic and painted works to peruse, it promised to be quite a show.

In the room entitled On Assignment Maar’s advertising work was displayed. The inter-war years presented opportunities  for women photographers to work in the fashion and beauty industry. Out of the rows of tastefully lit monochrome images of women with swept back hair and silken slip dresses, there are few that really stand out. The Years Lie in Wait For You c 1935  however is inspired. An apprehensive-looking young woman, stares out at us through a spider’s web superimposed on her face. A remarkable image, it is thought it was used for an anti-ageing cream. 

Outside advertising, Maar excels in photographing the female nude. Maar was lucky to have the model, Assia Granatouroff at her disposal, whose sensuality and confidence in front of the camera, allowed Maar, not only to explore the female form but also female identity and sexuality (see Header pic) These photographs must have earned her a good deal of money in her time and to this day such erotica reaches a fine price at auction, for the work is adventurous, artistic and proud.

On the Street in Room 3, takes us outside the studio and into the streets of Paris, London and Barcelona. Having researched the subject for my 1930s novel set in Paris, I was interested to watch a short film documenting the poverty, the street children, the political riots of the era. Both right-wing and left-wing riots paralysed Paris for many years as governments came and went. Moving on from the film, I was disappointed in Maar’s prints, which did not reveal anything exceptional. It was probably to do with the lack of contrast in the printing. I prefer a rough, grainier print for documentary work of this kind, a form of printing which would become de rigueur in the 1960s with photographers such as Don McCullin, Diane Arbus.

I largely skipped Room 4 entitled The Everyday Strange, feeling like I seen too many images of the ilk: a man with his head down a hole, inspecting the sidewalk, does not strike me as that strange but maybe I’m being unfair.

More interesting was the Surrealist room. The curator quite rightly points out that, at the time, photography, considered factual, was not thought to be the best medium for the surrealist genre which highlights the subjective and the imagined world. Collage and photomontage techniques was a way around that.

I was amused, but had a sense of deja vu viewing the surrealist montages, having already pored over many surrealist photobooks in my lifetime. One photograph however caught my eye, Portrait of Ubu, produced in 1936. It is an extraordinary shot of what is now believed to be an armadillo foetus up close. It is clearly disturbing with its Dumbo ears, lemon-shaped face and two-fingered horny claws. 

IMG_20191119_103730_resized_20191122_113638195.jpg

Maar was inspired by Alfred Jarry’s play, Ubu Roi performed in Paris, way back in 1896. Ubu Roi, the play’s central character, is ugly, dishonest, petty and cruel who carries out political assassinations and generally causes havoc. For left-wing intellectuals such as Maar, Ubu Roi symbolised the right-wing dictators of the day.

In the Darkroom and the Studio my interest spiked as we had reached the Picasso-Maar room. A negative of Picasso, taken by Maar, is attached to the wall. I had already seen the print at the Barbican and recalled the scribbled fringe running around Picasso’s face and half obscuring it. Picasso peers out at us with one eye. A peeping Tom? Jesus crowned in black thorns? A leonine male? All three? It is hard to fathom whether she was just being playful or ridiculing him.

Also of interest (both at the Barbican and Tate Modern) is Lee Miller’s candid photograph of Maar (1956)  when Maar was nearing fifty years of age. With her hair up and without a scrap of make up, Maar looks older than her years. She is sitting in a chair, looking out of the window, ghostly pale. Our eye moves up to the central mantelpiece, where an unfinished portrait of her hangs. It is Picasso’s rendering of her as a younger woman. Her beautiful eyes show an intensity of character, her pursed lips, pride and her inherent sadness. The face is incomplete however. One could ask why? What is striking is that, in this simple portrait, Picasso captures what I believe to be the real Maar. She is not the composite of womanhood, The Weeping Woman, made up of geometrical triangles, garish green and reds and gushing tears; she is just Dora.

Unknown-4

At the show, I read that Picasso never painted her from life. It obviously rankled her. The portrait in Lee Miller’s photograph, is the only one Maar liked of herself and now, in hindsight, one can understand why.

For all his faults, Picasso did encourage Maar to paint. A large canvas dominates room 6. It is of  two women sitting, one full-breasted blond-haired woman facing out, the other dark-haired, with her back to us, offering just a sliver of the side of her face. The Conversation painted by Maar, with its bold outlines and flattened features, is so reminiscent of the cubist style that I had to check that it wasn’t painted by Picasso himself. The blonde woman is of course Marie-Thérèse Walter, who, having borne Picasso a child, still continued to see her old lover throughout his relationship with Maar. It is strange that Maar has chosen to have her back to the viewer. Marie-Thérèse meanwhile is in the spotlight, as if on trial. The painting is strangely still though, very much at odds with the catfights they were supposed to have had!

Dora-Maar-The-Conversation

The Conversation by Dora Maar, 1937.

Guernica follows and from then on I lose Maar. Her expressionist paintings of her house in Ménèrbes and its surrounding landscape made little impact on me. Having visited the Provençal village myself and stood outside her beautiful house and seen the stunning setting of the hill top village, I do wonder why her paintings translate simply into a blue wash.

More impressive were her engravings for an anthology for poet André du Bouchet (1924-2001) entitled Mountain Soil in 1956. Her light ink impressions of nature are charming here and suit the poetry. 

Maar’s photograms at the end of the show, which she made by placing household objects  or personal items on photo-sensitive paper, was an attempt by Maar to deconstruct the whole photographic process. Rather like Matisse with his cut outs. Unremarkable, they are nevertheless a record of her continuing quest to create in her final years.

Returning to the thorny problem of Picasso. There is no doubt Picasso had much to be grateful for from Maar. She was not only his muse, his model, his confidant. She was his mentor – it was she who persuaded him to paint Guernica. Picasso hadn’t been particularly politically engaged up until that point and his heart-rending canvas of the Spanish Civil War massacre would become the painting that defined him and gave him political gravitas. 

To say that Maar created Picasso is an exaggeration. Picasso was his own man. I do wonder however, if her energies would have been better employed developing the theme of The Conversation, which showed great promise.

The Tate Modern is an interesting and overdue retrospective of Dora Maar’s work. By showcasing her achievements particularly in the interwar years, we get a sense of the energy and the passion she devoted to her photography and her political engagement.

Worth visiting, but I would recommend reading about her life as this is the missing link here. The lack of biography was a problem for me. I would have engaged more with her work, had I had more information about her life, her friendships and her lovers, before and after Picasso.

KH

Tate Modern’s Dora Maar runs until 15th March 2020

Olafur Eliasson’s Show: Pioneering and Powerful.

 

IMG_20190709_112448_resized_20190710_104115151

Beauty 1993

A trip to the Tate Modern almost always involves me taking a left at the Turbine Hall where I know I will end up in familiar art territory, one which preferably involves paint! Going right on the other hand, into the Blavatnik Building, constitutes more of an art departure for me: tech art and design installations, dating from the 1990s, is often a step too far, but I figure that if I don’t try these things, I will age and get more set in my ways a lot faster!

And of course it was Olafur Eliasson’s solo show I had come to see, the artist who brought the sun to the Tate Modern in 2003.  HIs construct, required hundreds of lamps and lit up the Turbine Hall for 6 months. Amazingly it attracted 2 million visitors, most of whom returned many times. They had not only come to bask in the sun’s light but to lie back and gaze narcissistically at themselves and at others, in a large mirror installed above their heads. This installation not only transformed the austere Turbine hall into a friendlier place, but it also initiated another type of art, one which brought total strangers together.

Having listened to the Danish-Icelandic artist speak so eloquently about his latest artistic projects, his concerns for the environment and his love of human connection on radio, I wanted to see the art and design that accompanied the talk.

I walked out of the lifts floor 2 and was assailed by harsh, yellow strip lighting at the entrance to the show and also circled two multifaceted rotating orbs projecting their calm, mesh-like shadows onto the ceiling. The bulk of Eliasson’s work is inspired by the natural world, the earth and the elements such as light and water. Also maths. I entered a dimly lit room and peered into a vast glass cabinet. Hundreds of exquisitely fashioned, intricate, geometrical sculptures of paper, wood metal, marked Elliason’s collaboration with architect and mathematician Einar Thorsteinn (1942-2015), all prototypes for some of his architectural installations which are to be seen throughout the world. 

IMG_20190709_105745_resized_20190710_103517221

Model Room 2003

The rooms following attested to Eliasson’s continual love affair with natural phenomena and preoccupation with climate change.

Room 7 entitled ‘Glacial works’ particularly impressed and moved me. Eliasson’s childhood experiences in Iceland and his preoccupation with the melting of glaciers has led him to produce Glacial spherical flare 2019. The circular dish on the wall, made up of rock particles created by glacial erosion, is composed of gorgeous green, gold, ruby disks. In the same room a sculpture entitled The presence of absence pavilion 2019, was a bronze cast of a ball of ice now disappeared. The sculpture was both delicate and devastating in its message.

IMG_20190710_103100_resized_20190710_104828899

Glacial spherical flare 2019. (Dark shadows are my reflection!)

Eliasson is also interested in our perception of our world and our senses. Many of his installations use reflections, inversions, after-images and shifting colours. Water installation, Beauty 1993 (see Heading Image) took us into a moist cave-like interior. Iridescent violets and pinks flitted across the fine water spray. As we moved around the room, the rainbow colours came and went.

The colours of the spectrum also featured in Your uncertain shadow (colour) 2010, as our pink, violet, green, yellow silhouettes were projected onto a wall and moved with us. I was pleased to have sped past the convoy of journalists on the guided tour, who were told not to linger in the space simply because they would have blotted out everyone’s silhouettes! The room works best if you are three at the most! I am not sure how this show is going to be policed as this was not the only room where numbers need to be controlled.

Two simple pieces moved me the most and belonged together: a burning candle on a small, circular mirror entitled – as I grew up in solitude and silence 1991. The other a tall ‘rain’ window where rivulets of water streamed down continuously. Side by side they conjured up a slightly dull but peaceful rain-washed afternoon in childhood when one is left to flick through a book. This is probably Eliasson’s child growing up in Iceland but it is also all of our childhoods.

I found this an inspiring exhibition. Nothing felt arbitrary or gimmicky as it could be with this type of modern art probably because the craftsmanship was a consequence of years of experimental work, discussion and artistic collaboration. It had soul and meaning. And, there is no doubt about it – I felt connected to others viewing the works, especially in the fog tunnel. 

In the last few metres of the Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) 2010 installation, I nearly knocked over a young man with a notepad. He looked up in surprise at seeing me suddenly appear through the fog. ‘I’ve been here for quite some time,’ he quipped. He had just heard me talking to a fellow woman traveller in the tunnel about heaven and end of life experiences. I laughed nervously, now desperate to get out of there! The fog tunnel is not for the claustrophobic!

A thought-provoking and beautiful show and good one to experience with friends and family. But try to go outside peak viewing times as the queues may be great for certain installations.

 

 

KH

 

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is on at the Tate Modern until 5th January 2020.

A sonic sculptural wrapping: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet at Tate Modern

Guest review by Doug Thomas

Gavin4_400x400
Gavin Bryars

In 1971, the British composer Gavin Bryars looped the recording of an unknown homeless man singing what was thought to be the religious hymn “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” over a dense minimalistic orchestral arrangement. The result is a mesmerising musical experience; first limited to twenty-five minutes on LP, then sixty minutes on cassette and finally seventy-four minutes with the CD version. Unfortunately, it appears that the old man never heard Bryars’ composition – and the composer himself later came to conclusion that the hymn had actually been improvised by the unknown man. Last Friday, 12th April 2019, a handful of lucky people gathered in the Tanks at London’s Tate Modern to experience for the very first time for a full twelve-hour live performance of the piece.

The event, scheduled at eight in the evening and running until the early morning, was organised so that the audience could stay for the entire duration of the concert, but with constant open doors to allow people to come and go throughout the night. Contrary to Max Richter’s eight hour lullaby “Sleep”, no beds had been arranged; actually no seating had been arranged at all. The audience spontaneously sat, and later lay down, in a semi-circle in front of the orchestras, while some people stood up and moved around, as one would do in a museum room. The orchestras were the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Southbank Sinfonia and the Gavin Bryars Ensemble (including my arranging teacher at university, Audrey Riley). On the side of the orchestras, Street Wise Opera, a choir of people with experience of homelessness, and in the middle of all that, on contrabass and later on the conductor’s seat, Gavin Bryars himself.

The piece started quite spontaneously with no announcement or introduction. And then something happened. To the words of the old man’s voice and the sweetness of the instruments, the entire audience remained silent and immovably mesmerised. Stanza after stanza, the instruments introduced themselves, then the choir started singing. There was the beauty of the music, the honesty of the musicians and the singers, the admiration and attentiveness of the audience. When I checked the time, I realised that what felt like minutes had actually been hours. Throughout the night, members of the orchestra took turns in performing while part of the audience remained, as night owls, until the early morning.

Everything about this experience was right. The venue, which broke with the austere standards of classical concerts venues, and allowed everyone to come, and go. The spontaneous audience: musicians, curious wanderers or simple art and music lovers. The performers: amateurs and professionals gathered around a communal sense of honesty and authenticity. And of course, the music. What had always seemed to me like a beautiful two-dimensional musical painting became a sonic sculptural wrapping, and a unique musical experience. How lucky I feel to have been a little piece of history of minimalistic music.


Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London.

Read more

 

Giacometti at Tate Modern

Alberto Giacometti Woman of Venice V 1956 Collection Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Tate Modern is billing this exhibition as the first major retrospective of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) in Britain for 20 years. That’s a bit rich, given the substantial shows devoted to his work at the National Portrait Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich only last year. Neither of those institutions, though, has Tate’s clout when it comes to dealing with the key collection and archive, the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris. Not surprisingly, then, there are some eye-popping loans here, including previously unseen or recently restored works, even a chunk of wall from Giacometti’s Swiss studio.

Early rooms cover Giacometti’s involvement with Cubism, and later Surrealism, after his arrival in Paris in 1922. The pivotal work is ‘Suspended Ball’, which caused a sensation when it was exhibited at Galerie Pierre in 1930: Dali wrote an article extolling it as the prototype Surrealist object. Five years later Giacometti was summoned before the group for making ‘realist’ work; he walked out in the middle of the interrogation.

By the end of the 1930s Giacometti had began to produce his famous elongated figures, which seem to epitomize post-war alienation and despair, although their main inspiration was in fact Egyptian art. The centrepiece of the show is the series of six plaster sculptures, ‘Women of Venice’, created for the 1956 Venice Biennale and reunited here for the first time in 60 years.

Nowadays Giacometti is considered the archetypal existentialist artist, his work situated ‘halfway between nothingness and being’, as Sartre put it. With his wild hair and rugged good looks, and a cigarette permanently dangling from his lips, he certainly looked the part. Seldom getting up before midday, he would spend long hours trawling the cafés of Montparnasse before returning to his near-derelict studio, usually with only his devoted brother Diego for company.

James Lord’s 1985 memoir gives a vivid description of Giacometti’s working methods, which would involve intense scrutiny and endless re-working. Before resuming work on Lord’s portrait he would announce: ‘It’s hopeless!’ or ‘I don’t know why I’m even trying!’ or ‘It’s impossible! I can’t make portraits, no one can’.

Alberto 5
Alberto Giacometti and his sculptures at the Venice Biennale, 1956 Archives of the Giacometti Foundation

Another aspect of Giacometti’s art that emerges very clearly from this show is his preoccupation with scale. One of the most arresting exhibits is a huge, stand-alone plaster leg, which reminded me a bit of the giant foot of Constantine on the Capitoline Hill. At the other extreme are tiny figurines, some only a few millimetres high, said to have been inspired by a sighting from afar of the artist Isabel Rawsthorne on the Boulevard Saint-Michel in 1937.

Giacometti’s life, like his art, was a gradual paring-down process. In his later years he mostly used just two models, his wife Annette and Diego, although from 1958 he did employ a third, the young prostitute known only as ‘Caroline’, who would become his mistress and muse. Stanley Tucci has just made a film about their relationship, yet to be released in the UK, with Clémence Poésy as the enigmatic Caroline alongside Geoffrey Rush as Giacometti. (I only mention this because I spotted Tucci at the press view).

I have a couple of reservations about this otherwise exemplary show. First, it felt rather cramped. How the organisers managed to fit 250 works into just 10 rooms I can’t imagine. By contrast, the 2013 Klee show at the Tate had just 132 works – and Klee worked small – in 17 rooms.

I would also have liked to have seen a bit more art historical context. There are hardly any works here by other artists, for example, unless you count copies of André Breton’s books. In particular, I think something could have been made of Giacometti’s connection with Francis Bacon. The two artists met in the early ’60s and shared models, although because of Giacometti’s early death they never became close friends. Both worked in filthy, confined spaces and were fond of containing their figures in cage-like structures. I suppose somebody has already written a PhD thesis about the Existentialists and their boxes. Rothko too, of course, was very fond of squares and oblongs.

NM

Giacometti at Tate Modern until 10 September 2017

Tate Modern

Alberto 3
Alberto Giacometti The Hand 1947 Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti Stiftung © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017