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“War’s Unwomanly Face”. Svetlana Alexievich

Author: Maira Herrero, 
MA in Philosophy.

Maira

 

 

 

 

 Archive of Svetlana Alexievich

Photo from the archives of Svetlana Alexievich

 


Svetlana Alexievich (1948, The Ukraine) was last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature on one of the very few occasions it has been awarded for a work of non-fiction or in her native language, Russian. Only Theodor Mommsen, Winston Churchill and Solzhenitsyn have ever been likewise honoured for historical research in prose.

 

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  Front covers of the English and Spanish translations of Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize-winning book

 

It is throughout her book, War’s Unwomanly Face, that the characters’ transcribed voices denounce some of the worst crises of the twentieth century, as experienced by the then Soviet Union: the Second World War, the Afghan conflict, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Alexievich has invented a new literary genre in which the reader inadvertently comes face to face with gritty truths spoken from the deepest wells of pain in the human soul.

The style of War’s Unwomanly Face is arguably and essentially that of a doctoral thesis documenting the behaviour of Soviet women on and off the battlefield during the Second World War. The book is made up of the not-so-fond reminiscences and short personal stories told to the author by women who risked their lives for their country but were never credited, or even remembered, by history until now. Alexievich remembers how, as a child, she would listen enthralled to the women in her village swap tales about the war. They and their stories had a huge impact on her young mind that only increased over time and led to her wanting to find out more. After moving to Belarus in the late 1960’s to study journalism and forging a highly successful career there, Alexievich embarked on a journey to interview hundreds upon hundreds of women who had served in the Red Army. Those monologues became the initial stages of what would turn out to be a rich and detailed tapestry of testimonials concerning the role and vision of women during this terrible period of time in modern-day history. Women who survived and lived to tell the tale of circumstances so extreme, tragic and painful that it is difficult for us to hear, let alone imagine, them in today’s world. All of these lived experiences, recounted from the most intimate memories of the female protagonists, make up a choral narrative with a unique perspective – what the war to combat a German invasion meant for Russian women at that time and what they understood by patriotism. The author, whilst remaining true to the serious revelations contained in every memory she records, does also grant the reader frequent respite from the severity of her subject matter by the inclusion of seemingly frivolous little anecdotes from the humdrum everyday lives, even during wartime, of otherwise unremarkable human beings. Her prose is concise and without artifice, thereby brilliantly resolving the difficulties inherent in dealing with feelings. It also transmits the author’s empathy with her interviewees who leave us in no doubt as to the veracity of their testimonies and who imbibe the entire book with their palpable strength of will.

 

 World War II Soviet female snipers unknown author
   
World War II female Soviet snipers. Photographer unknown.

 

The publication in 1985 of War’s Unwomanly Face, written two years earlier, coincided with the welcome arrival of the perestroika/glasnost era and was met with spectacular critical acclaim and commercial success. Its 2015 publication in Spain came in the same year it was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

This is evidently not, therefore, just another book about war or the barbarity of war in our time. It is, rather, a reflexion on the hopes invested in and frustrated by the events that constitute our recent history. When, in 1979, Lyotard described a crisis facing longer novels versus the proliferation of shorter books whose infinite varieties are unforgiving of them, he could have been describing exactly what Alexievich does on a daily basis, namely: she maintains the individual identity of each of her speakers without compromising their credibility or that of the narrative.
For me to recommend that you read it smacks almost of a dare because, as Franz Kafka once said, this is a book that deserves your attention and one that will strike you down with the aim of an ice-pick, chipping away at the coldness in your heart, mind and very spirit itself.
 

 

 World War II sniper Roza Shanina with her rifle 1944. Photo by A. N. Fridlyanski
  
World War II sniper Roza Shanina with her rifle, 1944. Photo by A. N. Fridlyanski 

 

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)      

 

 

- “War’s Unwomanly Face”. Svetlana Alexievich -                     - Alejandra de Argos -

Tears in Van der Weyden's Deposition of Christ

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Detail: St John’s eye. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.

 

It’s 1435 and Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400?-1464) leaves his French birthplace of Tournai, where he had been Robert Campin’s apprentice, to embark on a new life in Brussels along with his Belgian wife and young son Pierre. Here he would paint The Deposition of Christ - now one of the crown jewels in Madrid’s Prado Museum. It is thrilling to see this exquisite painting flanked by the artist’s other masterpieces, in one place for the first and perhaps only time ever, namely the Durán Madonna, the Seven Sacraments triptych from Antwerp and the extraordinary and recently restored Escorial/Scheut Crucifixion.

 

Flanders: the role of the bourgeoisie in art

Van der Weyden knew that any artistic debate would be settled there in Brussels, a city wallowing in the economic prosperity occasioned by certain dynastic alliances and political stability. Painters, sculptors, illuminators, goldsmiths, tapestry weavers flock to Brussels for its commercial opportunities and potential clientele. The trade guilds start to move and shake within society. Banking and industry are the new sources of wealth, making material comforts and sumptuous lifestyles a reality. The new middle classes are now the catalysts for revolution within both society and artistic parameters. In the “Flemish School” of art they patronise, the object takes centre stage and realism mirrors their enrichment in microscopic detail. The middle classes now require art to reflect their way of life and their high standard of living. Paintings replicate the minutiae of their everyday lives. In the Northern European religious remit, The Annunciation and The Crucifixion are situated inside their very own homes, their gardens, in amongst their furniture, mirrors, pet dogs and shoes, between birds and clouds … and every pearl, every vase and every fireside armchair becomes a chronicle or contains a message. Also, the growing cult and holy grail of fabric perfection: how it drapes and folds; how its colour, texture and quality indicate the wearers’ social status; how textile manufacturing is having its heyday in Flanders.

Shortly after arriving in Brussels and at a pivotal time in his career, Van Der Weyden receives a commission to paint an altar triptych. And it is this work that would mark an end to all that had gone before in Flemish art. ”The best painting in the world”, concluded King Philip II of Spain’s advisors, a sentiment echoed by both their contemporaries and successive generations of experts alike.

Van der Weyden and the Van Eyck brothers constituted two very different camps in Flemish painting. The latter’s mastery of gothic miniaturism produced their meticulous rendering of every detail and their illusory depiction of perspective whilst any emotions, and never any untoward ones, played only a supporting role. Van der Weyden, by contrast, although also a consummate detailist, would be the most ‘dramatic’ of all the Flemish artists. He would outshine all-comers in his composition and his creation of the illusion of movement through linear angling, He fully intends this picture to be a masterpiece showcasing his idea of what painting is and also a new beauty ideal based on the transmission of feelings. The moving beauty of seeing others ‘moved’. All that was then known about painting comes together here in perfect, seemingly alchemic, fusion to flesh and stone, rest and motion, composition and expression, rhythm and geometry. It is also the confirmation of the supremacy of oil as a medium to render the biblical message of Christ’s passion through human compassion, realism and empathy with the emotions of the characters depicted.

 

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Detail: Maria Salomé. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.

 

The journey to Madrid


It was the Grand Guild of Archers, the oldest and wealthiest of the four in 15th century Louvain, who commissioned Van Der Weyden’s work for their chapel - Our Lady Without The Walls. As a homage to and marker of their patronage, there are two small crossbows hung on the spandrels of the tracery in the top lateral corners of the painting.

 

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Detail: Tracery with hanging crossbow. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.

 

In 1548, the painting was acquired by the Emperor Charles’ sister, Queen Mary of Hungary, in exchange for a copy painted by Michiel Coxcie and an organ worth 1,500 florins. Mary, also governor regent of the Netherlands, hung the painting in the chapel of her castle at Binche with is fine collection of the very best paintings and tapestries, its frescoed walls and ceilings and its jasper fireplaces, all handpicked by the queen herself. It was seen and admired there in 1549 by her nephew, prince Philip of Spain, and his entourage. By 1556, the painting had been gifted to him, now King Philip II, and was hung first in the El Pardo palace and later in the sacristy of the El Escorial monastery fortress alongside Van Der Weyden’s Scheut Crucifixion. In 1939, it was moved to the Prado Museum where it remains to this day.


Baltic Oak and Flemish Oils


Recently arrived with his wife and small son Pierre, Van Der Weyden has a large house in the silversmith neighbourhood of Brussels out of which he starts work on The Deposition, not as yet having a separate workshop of his own. Given the ongoing influence of traditional altarpieces, Van der Weyden and his two assistants carefully select the boards of wood to be used, rejecting any with knots or imperfections and positioning them vertically in the direction of the grain. The support for the painting would eventually comprise eleven panels of the best Baltic oak.

Back in his studio, the painstaking task of priming the assembled panels begins: one layer of stucco and gelatine size, laboriously hand polished to give an impeccably white, marble-like surface. It is by this process that oils of that era achieved such luminosity: transparent upper layers of colour traversed by the white base underneath them. Often the top coat applied was of a lead-filled white with enormous reflective qualities.

 

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Detail: The clothing of Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden. 

 

Van der Weyden paints with a palette and brushes; it’s the moment of revolution in oil in Flanders. This technique has been known and used since antiquity and up the 15th century when the Van Eyck brothers perfected it by mixing pigment with a linseed and walnut oil substance. They also added a quick-dry agent that also enhanced the oils’ fluidity, thereby solving the two great problem defects in the technique up until that time. One of the characteristics of oil, compared with tempera’s opaque egg and pigment combination, was its fabulous transparency that afforded a hitherto unknown depth. Van der Weyden exhaustively explores the possibilities of the technique: veiling and superimposing colours to reveal objects as never before; a tear’s reflection, shoe buckles set in the shiny surface of a stone. VDR also sought out the highest quality pigments for this piece. For this reason the painting emits a lustre normally only seen in varnish or enamel. From a technical point of view, The Deposition is one of the most elaborate and well-preserved works of its day. Rarely has a colouring been seen so vivid as that of the Virgin Mary’s apparel, resembling rather a flame of blue fire than a coat of paint. Transparency favours colour saturation, which in this case was achieved with a base layer of greenish blue superimposed with two layers of ultramarine.

 

 1024px-El Descendimiento by Rogier van der Weyden from Prado in Google Earth-x1-y2

Detail: The Virgin Mary’s clothing. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.

 

Dramatis Personae of the tragedy


Much has been written about the sensation one experiences on viewing this painting from a certain distance. It’s theatrical staging, as if the curtain had just been raised in a small village theatre of the time. The tableau vivant that would be so familiar to the imaginations of people of that era, accustomed as they were to seeing representations of Eucharistic plays.

The size of the figures, and, more importantly, their positioning in a composition where time seems to be standing still. They are characters immersed in the drama taking place around them, shown in their gestures and expressions, and must have been in total motion before the curtain went up. Arms opening, hands joining, crossing and falling. The ladder cutting through the cross, the pliers to remove the crucifixion nails, the Virgin Mary in mid-fall to the ground, Christ’s body and its weight against Joseph’s chest. The behaviour of the characters, the heightened expressions, the eyes, reddened but still intently focused, mouths half-open, the theatricality and the central role of emotion and its expression during the whole gamut of stages of grief: anxiety, mourning, weeping, self-restraint, tears, fainting. Nothing crass or gruesome or sensational has any place in this painting.

Christ’s body is treated with supreme delicacy. It is the otherwise unblemished body of a young Jewish man, the only pathos to be found is in his petrified facial expression and the marble-like colour of death on his skin.

There are ten in this cast of characters, six on the left and four on the right. They make up a geometric design of straight, horizontal and oblique lines, bracketed and closed off at the sides by the curved bodies of Mary Magdalene and St John. The rhythm of the painting, undulating, uneven, irregular, full of puzzles to be solved, of eyes or lines of vision or patterns telling us where we should be looking is one of the painting’s fascinations for us.

 

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The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.

 

And there is much of the sculptural about the painting. Van der Weyden, who survived the Black Death raging in his native Tournai in 1400, was heavily influenced by the funereal statues and carvings he saw growing up. It is also supposed that his apprenticeship with Robert Campin began with instruction in sculpture and this early influence never left him.
Two principal forms traverse the scene diagonally: that of Christ having been lowered down from the cross and that of the Virgin Mary who has just fainted. The shape of these two bodies as they descend in a synchronised echo of each other, one beside but below the other, is that of two crossbows. In perhaps another nod to his patrons, the arms of Christ and his mother each form their own semi-circular arc whilst the trunks of their bodies form the straight stock of the weapon.

To the right of Christ and dressed in an opulent coat of purple and gold damask, Nicodemus’ fixed gaze takes us across the oval of the painting from above. Along the radius emanating from Christ’s right hand, it takes us over Christ’s loincloth to one of the most iconic parts of the painting: the hands of the Virgin Mary and her son’s falling limply within centimetres of each other and about to touch. The diagonal line stops abruptly here and we find ourselves contemplating a few square inches of paint that make this one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art. One hand is punctured by an open wound, the blood congealed into rolling tear shapes, against a backdrop of green velvety damask and red stockings; the other is alone, its fingers softly and slightly spread against a backdrop of lapis lazuli. A genius excerpt from a painting that transcends time itself.

 

 1024px-El Descendimiento by Rogier van der Weyden from Prado in Google Earth-x1-y2

Detail: The hands of the Virgin Mary and of Christ. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.

 

But the story continued and so does the diagonal line, as far as the feet of St John: “Woman, behold your son …” (John 19, 25 – 27) and Mary’s other hand that lies inert, upturned and grey on the ground next to the skull of the first man God ever created, Adam.

 

 

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Detail: The right hand of the Virgin Mary and the skull of Adam. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.

 

This diagonal line that traverses the painting, like a ray of lightening, delineates the message that Man’s redemption after Adam and Eve’s original sin is here in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And in the compassion of Mary, her co-passion, her sharing in and of her son’s suffering. For us all.
Christ’s body here shows no signs of the flagellation he endured before they crucified him. All we see are the nail wounds to his hands and feet and where he was stabbed in his side. This latter wound between his ribs is palpably deep. The crown on His head is a hideous braid of greyish green rosebush thorns still painfully driven into his forehead and left ear.

 

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Detail: The body of Christ. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.

 

Christ’s neck twists to the side, disjointed, lifeless. His mouth is half open and we can see the bottom edge of his top teeth. As a general rule, in scenes of this type, Christ is fully bearded. Here we see only stubble, perhaps what has grown over the three days it took for him to die on the cross. The blood from his pierced side had dripped down as far as his inner thigh under the loincloth, but cleanly, without staining it. Like a red ribbon seen through sheer muslin.

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Detail: The Virgin Mary. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.

 


The Virgin Mary’s head and décolleté are covered by the exact same white frilly-edged fabric as Christ’s loincloth and Mary Magdalene’s scarf. This white contrasts sharply with the lilac of her lips, the washed-out pink of her eyes as they roll backwards and the pallor of her skin after she swoons. Five tears trickle down her face, one about to drop off her pale chin.

She is dressed in a tunic. The cloak that fell to the ground as she fainted is edged with gold thread and covers her elongated legs and all but the tips of her splayed shoes. This blue stain flooding the centre of the painting flows backwards towards the ladder and the cross like a river of soft waves.

Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man in whose tomb Jesus’ body would be laid, wears a tunic of purple black, edged with fur that, like his beard, has been painstakingly applied, one hair at a time, individually. Van Der Weyden’s lushly beautiful technique carries over into the red tabard, its border beset with pearls, rubies and sapphires, each a precious jewel in itself. Above Joseph’s head is the cross, in the form of Tau and of such tiny, unreal proportions that Christ’s extended arms could never have been nailed there.

Leaning on the crossbeam and literally squeezed inside the frame, the young manservant of Nicodemus or Joseph holds in his right hand the pliers that have only just extracted the nails from Christ’s palms.

To the left of the Virgin Mary are three figures: Maria Salomé, a young woman dressed in green, and supporting the Virgin Mary with her hands. Van der Weyden paints her face as almost identical to that of the Virgin Mary beneath. Are they perhaps sisters? Maria Salomé’s head and part of her body are covered by heavy, olive-green velvet, tied under her breasts with chord and tucked under her right elbow, allowing us to see the fur lining, matching the collar and cuffs, and her under dress of the same tone but this time shining and embossed with patterns and motifs.

 

 

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Detail: From l to r: Mary Cleophas, St John and Maria Salomé. The Deposition of Christ, Rogier Van Der Weyden

 

To her left is St John the Apostle, youngish and barefoot, as was customary in most Christian iconography. His left foot treads on the Virgin Mary’s cloak as he lunges to soften her fall. His cheeks and eyelids are reddened, wrinkled and swollen with tears. Although his eyes continue to stream with emotion, his face is set in a numb expression of absolute sadness and sorrow. The pigment used for his crimson tunic was made from one of the most expensive ingredients available – kermes dye, extracted from the dried red bodies of female scale insects.

Facing diagonally forward, Mary Cleophas fills the upper left corner of the niche outside the central oval. Partially hidden behind the hunched semi-circular figure of St John, her grey apparel continues on the monochrome blocks of primary colours surrounding her and culminates in a cascade of white folds and pleats covering her whole head and neck and held in place with a small pin at the top. Mary Cleophas is of mature age. The whole psychological burden weighing down on her is concentrated in her hand gestures. With her left, she clutches a dark blue cloak across her chest, the little finger alone oddly protruding straight out from her clenched fist for reasons known only to he who decided to paint it that way. Her right hand, with a wedding ring on its middle finger, dabs at her brimming, semi-closed eyes with the scrunched tip of her headdress. A full seven tears in what is essentially only part of an obscured partial profile.

 

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Detail of Mary Cleophas. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.

 

To the right of Christ’s prone body and holding his legs is Nicodemus, a rich Pharisee known for bringing myrrh and aloe for the embalming before burial. He wears a black, pointed hood and clothing identical to that of Jan Van Eyck’s Chancellor Rollin in the Louvre painting: a doublet of velvet damask in purple and gold edged with fur. There existed at that time a hierarchy of cloths and colours. At the Bourgogne court, the highest echelon wore gold threaded garments, whilst the rung below wore gold braid, then satin print, followed by damask and finally plain silk. Colours also had a status: gold first, then crimson with a little black, followed by black with a little crimson.

Behind Nicodemus stands a bearded servant dressed in green and cradling a white ceramic jar with the embalming perfumes in his right hand. His left hand, thrust between his master and Mary Magdalene, as if to separate them, creates a foreshortening to the verism, albeit hesitantly.
And lastly, the figure of Mary Magdalene whose emotionally charged presence closes the painting to the right. She embodies the tragedy of having witnessed the death of he who had saved her from public execution for adultery by daring her persecutors: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. Her elbows raised high and her fingers tightly clasped under her chin in a gesture of prayer, her purple cape slipped off, exposing her bare décolleté, the trauma evident in her pose leads us to believe she is about to fall at the feet of Christ, those same feet she had once so lovingly anointed with oil and dried with her own hair, and that are now bloodied and dead.

Her dress also is a lesson in the fashion of the day: sleeves were normally worn short so she has tacked on a longer, red velvet pair with a small metal pin. The hem of her green dress is edged with thick velvet and her hips balance an ornate girdle belt that spells out the letters IHESVS MARIA. The buckle consists of two metal ovals tied with a long chain.

Strong light fills this part of the painting from above right and illuminates the exposed skin of Mary Magdalene’s vulnerable back and neck. But one’s mind’s eye is drawn back again to the mysterious belt and what its significance might be.

 

Inside the Golden Box


The ultra-modern style in which Van der Weyden painted his figures and their expressions contrasts sharply with the unreal and anachronistic frame he sets them in. It’s a crowded horror scene squeezed inside a lantern or gold trinket box and recalling the reliefs of antiquity. An old instinctive reflex from the artist’s sculptor training of the past? Or is it, rather, his natural tendency to pit the two against each other in order that the supremacy of painting shines through?

And why does Van der Weyden, a highly accomplished painter of skies and landscapes, renounce them both in favour of a background more reminiscent of a Byzantine icon?

The scene is set against a golden wall which, unlike contemporary flat-roofed altarpieces, has here an added section jutting upwards and outwards from the body of the painting. The two corners are decorated with false Gothic tracery of gold painted wood. The gold leaf applied over the base primer has black on black specks, blended with reds and applied copiously in order to create light and shade and give the impression of a deep perspective.

 

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Detail: Mary Magdalene. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.

 

This sublime painting, staggering as much for its details as for its colours, its technique, its composition and its drama, recalls Ingres’ words: “Details perform an essential role in classical painting – to engage the spectator as they contemplate them is to touch their soul.”

 

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

-Tears in Van der Weyden's Deposition of Christ  -                      -Alejandra de Argos -  

Interview with Hiroshi Sugimoto

 

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 Hiroshi Sugimo's portrait. Courtesy of the artist.

 

The Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto (1948), is a photographer that resides halfway between Tokyo and New York. He received various awards: The Hasselblad Foundation International Award (2001), The Imperial Award (2009), The Purple Ribbon Medal of Honor (2010), The Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2013) and the Isamu Noguchi Award (2014).

If anything distinguishes Sugimoto's black and white photographs is its use of natural light, the shadows and the purity of forms, some close to pictoric. Standing in front of many of them, the spectator  is encouraged not only to look but also to think; as in his noted marine landscapes, its immutability causes loosing the notion of time. They invite to a constant reflection about the origin and history of the world and of our culture, where concepts like space and time are explored expanding our ways of perception.

Without further ado we begin our conversation in his austere New York studio. Large windows fill with light his office presided by two photographs: Duchamp's bicycle wheel and one of his theaters.

 

Elena Cué: The seascape picture I just saw in the entrance reminded me of the exhibition you presented in London (in 2012) along with Rothko's paintings from 1969, a year before his suicide, was very interesting. This photographs induce us to meditation...

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Yes, the people spent quite some time in front of my seascapes and I found some kind of similar sensitivity with the Rothko paintings. That is why I put them together. Especially the final years of Rothko - they’re very monochrome and very abstract - and they echoed my special night seascapes.

 

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Adriatic Sea, Gargano 1990. Courtesy of the artist

 

I remembered how your photographs gained in beauty once their protective glass was removed. They looked just like paintings.

Yes, but they have the price of photographs!

 

Is Eastern spirituality implicit in your work?

I don’t care whether it’s Eastern spirituality or Western spirituality… There is a spirituality.

 

You don’t require labels?

Well for marketing, it reaches a wider audience if I don’t use ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’ spirituality!

 

Your In Praise of Shadows series is directly reminiscent of Tanizaki. What is the enigma of shadow for you?

I live in the shadow… I like shadow, that’s why I became a black and white photographer. The quality of the shadow says something. And the quality of the shadow is something that I can control… the tonality of darkness to light. Black and white photography is the best medium to show this.

 

Which kind of light do you prefer to use?

Natural light, of course.

 

What do you think of the current aesthetic of light, someone like yourself who belongs to a millenary civilization that is antithetical to Western civilization?

Well, Tanizaki complains about modern society with its artificial light. Since humans invented artificial light, our lifestyle has changed. Especially with electric power. With candlelight, there was a more human-friendly atmosphere. Then all of a sudden we have nuclear power and electricity… so then we changed to nightlife. It used to be nice and intimate, and somehow it was the poetic quality of nightlife that we all lost. There is a beneficial side to it, but not that side. We lost so much, instead of gaining some kind of benefit.

 

Now that we have discussed light, let's turn to emptiness and loneliness. Why, in your Theaters series, is the lighted stage empty?

They look empty but they are full of information. They have accumulated the information of many millions of small photographs that a movie consists of. Before the invention of movies was the invention of photography. To make a movie, you have to sew single-shot photographic images together to make it look like a movie. It is all an illusion to the human eye. So there are many pictures within the white. It’s not empty, it’s too crowded!

 

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Hiroshi Sugimoto. El Capitan, Hollywood, 1993, gelatin silver print, courtesy l’artista

 

Your work constantly evokes primitive scenes. How important for you is that infancy of the world?

I feel like I’m a stone-age man. I try to go back to the original roots of our mind, of our consciousness, that maybe we lost many thousands years ago – or maybe only fifty or one hundred years ago. The human mentality was somehow different. That’s what Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows is telling us. Again, this is modern societys' negative side and positive side. That’s what I’m trying to save, before it is completely lost.

 

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Hiroshi Sugimoto. Wapiti 1980. Courtesy of the artist

 

With such beautifully dramatized light as yours (your use of chiaroscuro), to what extent would you say you are a pictorialist?

Pictorialism was a very interesting phenomenon in the late nineteenth century, after photography was invented. Many painters changed their profession to photography. But twenty or thirty years later, there was a fight back from the painter’s side. Also, it was asked whether photography could be art or not. The camera is a machine and the machine has no spirit. So photography makes machine-made paintings. Photographers developed some sort of complex against painters. So the photographer tried to imitate the painter, which is where pictorialism entered photography history. I don’t have any complex, but I’m still trying to be a painter.

 

Was there a period when you painted?

Well yes, I painted when I was in High School.

 

But you decided not to continue...

It wasn’t that I couldn’t paint and instead decided to become a photographer; I can still paint, but photography was a new medium for me. So when I was young, I thought that photography held more possibilities for the future, to be used as a new kind of tool to create new art. Painting is one of the oldest mediums in art for the human being. People have tried many different things and there’s too much competition. I wonder whether I could be better than Picasso – that’s the question!

 

We have already touched upon the exhibition that you recently presented with Mark Rothko in London. You have said that he helped you on your path to abstraction via photography. Could you tell me about that experience?

Well, to compare myself with Rothko is a brave act! I had a sense that we might share some kind of similar mentality or spirituality. Don’t think about the market price; I cannot compete with him! So that was something to almost surprise people with photography and painting’s relationship. What is trying to be represented? That kind of abstract spirit can be shared with the photographic method. And in a sense, I think it was a success. One of my next projects in the near future will show Impressionist paintings together with my seascapes. Because I knew that Monet painted seascapes in Étretat, in Northern France, so I went there and I found the spot where Monet must have painted them. I took the seascape photographs from the same point. Not the landscapes, only the seascapes.

 

How beautiful!, so this will be your next project. Where will it exhibited?

It is not decided yet, but I am working on it now.

 

Any future projects in Spain?

In February I will be at Fundación Mapfre in Barcelona. Then in June I’ll be at Mapfre in Madrid, which will be a retrospective.

 

So that will be a very important exhibition for you.

Yes, it will be my first retrospective in a museum in Spain. Afterwards, it will travel to Brazil in South America.

 

But you did visit Spain before, I recall your traditional Japanese puppet theatre: The Love Suicides at Sonezaki.  What does Bunraku mean to you?

I’m moving more into the performing arts, especially the traditional Japanese performing arts. So bunraku is the one that I’m doing now. I’m trying to remake traditional theatre. Sometimes, the way they perform is not the way that it used to be. The production is from the 18th Century, so I’m always trying to get back to the original spirit. For my production, the lighting especially is not so bright. I have to use artificial light of course, but I’m trying to create an atmosphere of pre-modern traditional theatres. This sense also derives from the kind of quality found in In Praise of Shadows.

 

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Wasn't your father also involved in theatre?

Yes, a different kind of art form - traditional storytelling at the Comédie-Française. Old stories with lots of jokes.

 

He must have had some influence on you…

My cynical mentality comes from my father!

 

And what did you receive from your mother?

My mother was a very good businesswoman, a very well balanced person. She was spiritual I think… religious, even. For a long time, she was a Christian. She was sent to a missionary school in her childhood.

 

And did this change you at all?

I got a sense of what Western civilization is like. I was in a boys' school at Junior High and I was fascinated; I became almost hypnotized by people singing to the Christ. It made me think, ‘Wow, God really exists!’

 

But later you changed again?

Later I moved to California and then people spoke about Buddha. So I didn’t switch, but I studied Christianity and then Buddhism. They are two totally different branches of spirituality.

 

Then your work lost part of its Japanese spirituality?

No, even in American people I sometimes find spirituality! I decided to be spiritual, and to keep an equal stance on all religions. The more important issue is about what the origin of religion and spirituality is. Our stage of human consciousness all started with the development of the sense of time and the sense of awareness, which all comes with a religious impact. So it’s all related, and it’s related to my seascapes. To think about the religious mind… why is it when looking at nature or the seascapes, you feel something recall your old memories? Either a personal memory or a memory of humanity.

 

In your Portraits series of wax figures at Madame Tussauds, there is something reminiscent of those traditional Japanese theatre puppets. Did you choose them: because of their caricature essence, because of the type of character or because of the technique?

When I started, it was really nothing to do with the puppet theatre. I can see the relationship, though. It’s more related to the history of photography. Madame Tussaud was a wax figure maker in the 18th Century, at the time of the French Revolution. So, somehow it’s a kind of diagram as well, a fake mockup of nature. That is how the first stage of photography came about. That is what they were seeking: to make a copy of reality. So even before the invention of photography, the wax figure was a representative medium. People used to believe that everything being photographed was representing reality, but now we have lost this reality because of the invention of digital cameras. I just want to fool people… There is a photograph of Catherine of Aragon the Spanish Princess, and people tend to believe it! But how can I shoot her, from the 16th Century?

 

To me, your pictures in the Architecture series were almost like the works by Richter. I’m curious to know what do you think about that…

Richter used photographic images to make his paintings. So he borrowed photographic images, then I borrowed the Richter images, bringing them back to photography. But they’re still paintings. So it’s going back and forth, in and out.

 

And what about Duchamp?

Well I think I inherited my cynicism from Duchamp – as well as from my father! They are the bad boys…

 

 Elena Cué Hiroshi Sugimoto 

 

- Interview with Hiroshi Sugimoto -                                            - Alejandra de Argos -

Chema Madoz. A photographer of few words

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

 

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If, in a nod to surrealism, Chema Madoz (Madrid, 1958) metamorphosed into something from one of his own photographs, it would most likely be a little turtle whose shell harboured a poetic soul.

Since his first photographs in the 80's, of superimposed veins branching out over human forearms, his camera has never stopped capturing images of hum-drum, everyday objects as we've never seen them before  coins, books, clocks, scales, tin-openers stripped of any and all superfluous connotations, objects whose reality he skews, sets free and offers to our imagination as simple signs, loosed from the chains of meaning.  

Madoz wants his images to slow us down and halt us in our tracks. He wants them so deeply imbedded in our minds and for so long that they become our very own. He wishes them "to always have something different to say to the person who wakes up with them on their wall every morning. To never wear out". And it was from this poetic wordplay, this expressivity, this expansion of meaning that his exhibition  Chema Madoz 2008-2014: The Rules of the Game came into being. But also as a homage to the Renoir film of the same name.

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While we wait for Madoz, who is patiently dealing with the media days before its inauguration at Sala Alcalá 31 in Madrid, we have a chat with the event’s organizer Borja Casani who tells us: "Chema's photos are, ultimately, the photographic portrait of an idea".

 

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If objects had souls, Madoz would be the one to portray them. He is a seeker of simplicity. He lays all things bare, his aim being to achieve an image that is "austere, almost monastic in its frugality".  That's his way of understanding beauty, interpreting it and then offering it to the spectator's imagination, divested of its usual meaning: books built up as the voussoirs and keystones of an arch, water droplets threaded onto a necklace of aqua pearls, a glass watch, an astral card, ... Casani goes on to say: "With Madoz, what you get is a hieroglyph that is already deciphered. He reveals to us a hypothesis and what then happens is that people feel comforted by the fact that they understand it.  He presents us with objects we all feel familiar with. They're everyday items to an African, a European or a Latin American.  And from this point of view, it's really satisfying to see Chema's success in so many countries. We've exhibited in, for instance, Egypt and people there understood. It's so gratifying, seeing day-to-day objects on display and communicating something to us."

 

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Madoz arrives and what strikes us is his gaze. Shy but scrutinizing at the same time, taking everything in, from top to bottom, fixing on and dissecting whatever grabs the attention of his mind's eye at that moment, lodging itself there, nagging at him until finally it makes its way into one of one of his sketch books in the form of a drawing. And from those pages into an almost surgical transformation on an operating table come carpentry bench where a woodwork square and tools become the sails of a toy boat or the grille bars of an iron door contort themselves into musical notes.

Madoz speaks slowly. He likes a slow rhythm. And silence. These are requisite traits in someone who observes the minute details differently, just as children absorbed in contemplation of an anthill invent a make-believe world around it.  "I was an only child and I got used to playing all by myself very early on. I do like people but I need my solitude, too."

 

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Following earlier exhibitions (Reina Sofia Museum, 1999; Telefonica Foundation, 2006) and Spain’s National Photography Prize (2000), the Sala Alcalá 31 exhibit is a compilation of Madoz's work over the previous 6 years, all invariably in black and white, analogue, and on baryta-coated paper, hung side by side under the dome of a basilica-like building that once housed a bank. Curiously, it was Madoz's first ever and much-despised job in a bank that caused the existential crisis that eventually freed him to devote himself full-time to photography.

The harmony of blacks, whites and greys along with the sheer Madrid sunlight flooding the gallery combine to create the very sensation of calm and silence that the artist intended. He would like his audience's attitude to be one of measured serenity, like the reading of a haiku.  "This space is wonderful, if a little complicated by so many columns. What Borja and I tried to create here is a simple, elemental setting that "breathes", which I think, happily, we achieved with just the three divisions that permit a certain repose and tranquillity."

 

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Whilst talking to us, Madoz is drawn to specific photographs and we follow him, observing his choices. There have been a few tangents during his evolution as an artist, albeit subtle ones because the crux of his language has always remained intact: everything hinges on and revolves around the object itself, and always will. However, in this exhibition, he adds or extends some personal obsessions, namely; his passion for calligraphy and the written word; the as yet timid appearance of some pencil drawings; and animal figures. Incidentally, over the course of his trajectory, he has dropped the human portraits from his field of interest due to the fact that, by stripping away their entire identity, their very selves, all he reduced them to in the end was a kind of pretext.

Now, though, he replaces them with mannequins: St Sebastian on a pillar, pierced by arrows that are better known to us as acupuncture needles or the two hollow, wax, pianist-like hands of a woman, their fingers twisting a thread of letters into a geometric puzzle; a reminder of that childhood pastime whereby two friends face to face, and their twenty fingers, manipulate one long piece of taut string into myriad patterns.

 

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This latter photograph serves as the perfect example to ask Madoz about the very many ways his work could be interpreted. Echoing Joseph Beuys’ views on his approach to the creative process : "I've always been interested in creating images that don't 'wear out' even though they're constantly there, visible; images that, despite being viewed on a daily basis, keep enticing you back up close, again and again, making you re-possess them time after time. When you speak of that paused rhythm, that's the rhythm at which I approach the artists who interest me and whose work affects me on a very personal level. To think that your own work might have that effect on someone else is wonderful.” So we talk more about paintings. Madoz admits to a soft spot for Magritte: the clouds, the bowler hats … but also De Chirico and Morandi.

And then he confesses to another partiality: "There's one photo in the exhibition, just an empty glass tumbler on a white background and inside it is written The End. I think it's a lovely photo. The beauty of it and the glow of the glass really move me. And it’s that simplicity that leads, ultimately, to something beautiful. They’re very simple scenarios montages, lit from side on, the object effectively laid bare for us and within our reach. Nevertheless, it isn’t the beauty of a flower that’s being appropriated, or what is generally considered to be beautiful, or whatever represents the idea of beauty."

 

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From painting, we move on to literature: "It's about the ability of verbal language to give us visual images. Gómez de la Serna would be, for instance, an obvious example but also Jorge Luis Borges, Bioy Casares, Boris Vian and Tanizaki. All of them, consummate writers with very personal imaginary worlds."

 

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Madoz's studio is a suite of rooms not unlike a treasure trove or Borges’ The Aleph: “a point in space and time that contains all spaces and all time”, his micro cosmos of enough items and ideas to last him an entire lifetime. Out of them all, there's one to which he returns again and again and always will, one that plays on his mind in a never-ending loop: "Books. So simple, so quintessential, that rectangle offering so many possibilities, such varied interpretations and points of view, such depths of semantic richness. That's why you’ll find them so consistently and repeatedly throughout my life’s work. But I always get the sinking feeling that, maybe, one day, I'll run out of ways to use them, not because there are no other uses but because of my own lack of ability. I have my limits but the possibilities of the objects themselves are endless.” We stop now to face a picture of a map in which there appears to be the silhouette of a fish. It's one of his photos that have been heavily influenced by Japanese prints: "It's two negatives, one on top of the other; one is the map lit from above and the other is the fish sketch; and then I projected them both together." They start to resemble animals or animal shadows. Beside this is a picture of the grains and rings of a tree trunk marked out with letters, which confirms the importance of not only the written word but the whole realm of literature to Madoz. He never titles his work: "I have too much respect for writing. I well know a title can give a suggestive dimension to the reading of a piece. I, however, prefer not to give any clues at all and thereby give free rein to the spectator’s interpretative possibilities.”

 

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The art of capturing an object’s essence begins, for Madoz, with the search for it. He is a regular at Madrid’s open-air flea markets where he often finds himself as if overcome by a feeling of stalking the prey that’s been snooping around his subconscious for some time previously.  So what causes these “light bulb moments”? "It’s the mystery. I sometimes come across objects that are, essentially, weird. It’s more like them making me feel unsettled and confused. Something tells me to acquire them and make something of them and, generally-speaking, that’s what I end up doing.”

Madoz lives surrounded by the subjects he photographs, as does Kemal, the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk’s novel “The Museum Of Innocence”, who steals everyday household items from the woman he is stubbornly in love with only to make a museum out of them. Madoz, however, is not keen on following in the wake of the trend set in the 1920’s and 30’s by the likes of André Breton and, even more so, Marcel Duchamp during his ‘readymade’ period – a trend whereby the object gets top billing in the art world and has exhibitions to show for it.  "I’ve always felt that photography places these objects in a much more attractive and interesting setting. Somewhat like a dream state. Something in your mind or on your mind that’s difficult to put your finger on, intangible. I really like that distance.”

He is well used to living with the objects he’s photographed. They are part and parcel of his predilection: "I’m surrounded by them in my studio. I store them there, often exactly as they were when photographed and sometimes as re-usable material. It’s quite amazing the significance and implications that objects have and how we endow them with powers of evocation. We associate them with life events, moments in time, people and ideas. For me, this was a huge discovery when I first started working with them. I remember once finding a badge I used to wear at school and I was amazed at how it transported me right back to my classmates, even my old desk …”

And so we finish our guided tour with the photograph that Madoz considers his most representative.  It’s one of a lightplane seemingly made out of a child’s self-assembly cut-outs, black against a white background.  Childhood here hinted at as a magical time of creation. On its propellers, Madoz has placed a compass: "At times, I identify with it. It corresponds to my mood; my being always on the move, somewhat disorientated.” And here is where our artist resides, between imagination and contemplation: Chema Madoz, a photographer of few words.

 

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(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

- Chema Madoz. A photographer of few words -              -Alejandra de Argos -

Interview with Tatiana Trouvé

 

  Tatiana

Tatiana Trouvé in her studio whit Lula. Photo credit: Alastair Miller.

 

The work of Italian artist Tatiana Trouvé (1968), resident in Paris, is grounded firmly on drawing, sculpture and installations, through an inquisitive examination of concepts such as time, space and memory. Her creations and locations are like tracks left by the soul that reveal an inward-looking universe.

Her work has been exhibited at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the MAMCO in Geneva, and in galleries such as Emmanuel Perrotin and Gagosian. Trouvé has won the Marcel Duchamp Prize (2007) and has twice participated in the Venice and São Paulo biennials. Her latest work is a sculpture for a public area in the city of New York.

 

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Tatiana TROUVÉ. Desire Lines 2015. Metal, epoxy paint, wood, ink, oil, rope. 350 x 760 x 950 cm. Photo credit: Emma Cole

 
 
Elena Cué: In your public commission "Desire Lines", for Central Park in New York, you created a very poetic work, envisaging a symbiosis between culture and the act of walking. The lengths of the 212 different paths around the park, like living arteries, are portrayed in huge spools of brightly coloured threads. Can you tell us about the cultural and political meaning of this work?


Tatiana Trouvé: The starting point for this work is an observation I made when studying the park and its history, but also, above all, I tapped into my own experience of this place. Central Park is a natural and cultural object, a nerve centre of trends and mobility in the very heart of a city, combining a web of heterogeneous landscapes. In this connection, it is an emblematic project of modernity. That’s why I didn’t want to create a work that was simply one more of the numerous sculptures that have been created in this context. As the artist Robert Smithson said, Central Park is, in itself, a sculpture. That’s why I decided to establish a dialogue with the park. I created a series of routes from all the roads and paths that cross the park and are open for walking. I measured these routes and then transferred their lengths to huge spools of thread, so that adding the lengths of all 212 spools on the three large frames of which "Desire Lines" is comprised gives us the total length of all the roads and routes a person can walk along.

After that, firstly, I identified each spool with the description of the route they contained and the title of a historic march, the work of an artist, a writer or a song about walking to be associated with that particular route: Selma to Montgomery March (21 March 1965), Woman Suffrage Parade (3 March 1913), projects by “walking artists” like Richard Long or Hamish Fulton, poems by Baudelaire or André Breton, essays by Guy Debord or Henry D. Thoreau, songs by Johnny Cash or Robert Johnson… In other words, a set of 212 references linking each of these paths with another path –historical, imaginary, political, cultural– and providing passers-by with a proposal that would enable them to walk again, to walk differently, around the park. And this formula sums it up: “Follow in someone else’s steps”. The act of walking has its own, singular beauty; it is an everyday, banal action, but at the same time it is a privileged manner of protest, of awakening the senses and the spirit, which is the origin of belonging to the world in a subjective way...

 
Drawing is the key to most of your work. This artistic discipline extends into other works such as sculpture and installations. How important is drawing for you?


It’s true that drawing occupies a fundamental place in my work. As you say, drawing is present throughout my artistic production. I draw spaces, whether in two dimensions or in three. To put it another way, my two-dimensional drawings are images of spaces and, at the same time, my three-dimensional installations build spaces that work like images.

 

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Untitled, from the series Remanence 2008. Pencil on paper, pencil lead, tin, plastic. 82,5 x 119,5 cm

  

Your drawings of spatial creations are very unsettling, like “The unremembered”. The metaphorical representations of places of thought take us into a dream world, a world of the unconscious. They must be a source of self-knowledge...

I complete these two elements, space and image, present in my work, with a third: remembrance. For me, drawing means making my memory work and this is unquestionably why the terms “mental image” or “unconscious” are so often used to describe my work. However, there is something about the unconscious that interests me in particular, and that is that it is timeless. In the sphere of dreams, all times coexist and are superimposed. This is a dimension I am interested in and I effectively try to give it shape in my drawings.
 

Why are your spatial interventions always uninhabited?

I am very fond of a quote by the Italian architect Ugo La Pietra, who says “To live is to be at home everywhere”, meaning that to live is, first and foremost, a question of approach. I produced a work called The Guardian. Its title refers to a person assigned to a place on a chair. But this guardian only exists on the device where it is located: a copper rod is placed over the chair (guarding the guardian’s place), and the rod pierces a concrete wall from which, on either side, small bronze and plastic bags are hung. Inside this wall there are embedded works, whose “ghosts” can be seen in the material pasted on its surface. It is an absent sentinel guarding an invisible exhibition, but it is also a device that must be inhabited by contemplation, just as the images intend.

 

 Exhi Schinkel Pavillon 201 4 photo Roman MÑrz 2 

Tatiana TROUVÉ. Untitled 2014. Patinated bronze, copper, paint, concrete, leather, plastic. 180 x 454 x 250 cm. Photo crdeit: Roman März

 

Your work in “Bureau” is like a kind of “Remembrance of Things Past” since you created a work of art from all the time you had to waste looking for work or doing daily chores that took you away from your artistic activity. How important is the concept of time in your work?

I don’t think of time in its abstract dimensions, on a scale, for example, of cosmic time and its infinite duration. I have seen time as a material of my work since I created Bureau d’Activités Implicites (Office of Implicit Activities), the first module of which I made in 1997. It’s time on a human scale, a time we experience. Hence, its not so much a concept as a reality we experience in its various manifestations: time for waiting, time for searching, time for wandering. But what interests me even more is the coexistence of times. I see time as dual. The present is dual, it has two coexisting facets: the present is the past passing. I have made a series of works called I Tempi Doppi [Double Time]. Each of the works in this series comprises a lit light bulb linked by a copper wire to an unlit light bulb. The past and present feed each other, maintaining a singular relationship whereby one seeks to switch off the other, because the past is also made of present that passes. Time is dual, because it works in a dual way.

 

What is the most important thing art has given you?

Art has given me what I have taken from it.

 

“Double Bind” is the name of your first major exhibition in Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, whose title alludes to the irresolvable situation that emerges when we are faced with an intrinsically paradoxical message. What is your interest in opposites and the tension they emanate?

This title, Double Bind, responded to the spatial proposal I had devised for this exhibition at Palais de Tokyo. The tension was in the space itself –there was no psychological component, unlike the standard usage of that expression. And it was not embodied by a contradiction, but by an echoing structure that perturbs our potential understanding of it, causing a feeling of floating between one and the other. Incidentally, what interests me is not the tension itself, but what it opens up: this interstitial space-time or these inter-worlds and the floating attention they generate when we install ourselves in them.

Your work is full of meanings, and there is an interesting underlying discourse. Is the spectator’s immediate aesthetic experience of your work enough, or do you think some prior knowledge is required?

We must trust those who are looking, because aesthetic experience is on their side. There are many ways to activate the potential of the works, but first and foremost you need to be constantly involved. Involvement: “perception requires involvement” is the title of a work by Antoni Muntadas, who asserts that the senses must be emphasised in order to understand a work, but also that anyone can do it using their own means. But, without that commitment, aesthetic experience is not possible. It all begins with this increase in involvement, and this is also what can lead you to research a process or a particular work. Of course, the works offer different approaches to this experience. If I take the example of Desire Lines, a small explanatory text is outlined at the start of the reproduction of the lengths of the paths in the park represented in the spools of thread. Afterwards, it is up to each person to carry on. The simplest way is by reading the titles of the spools and evoking the walks they recall, to which one may add one’s own memories, considering the various complete references of the titles given to the various routes, which make the historical, cultural and political references appear more explicitly, allowing one to submerge oneself in the history of the march. But it is also possible to take a walk around the park, interpreting the present cultural and historical elements, either by reading a poem or a book, listening to a piece of music, or through the documentation on a historical march or artist’s representation.

By activating each of these modes of operation, the person looking/walking will be following in the footsteps of another. To varying degrees, they will place the work in motion. Various readings are always possible, and none is imposed, but the ones that work are all based on an approach proposed by the work itself.


Through your art, are you asking questions or providing answers?

Personally, I don’t think art either asks questions or provides answers. I think art bewilders; in other words, it invites us to think differently, by shifting around our references.

 

 - Interview with Tatiana Trouvé -                                            - Alejandra de Argos -

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.

Author: Maira Herrero, 
MA in Philosophy.

Maira

 

 

 

 

  Obra de Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun   

 

Paris is paying tribute to Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), one of the most distinguished artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, by according her a magnificent retrospective at the Grand Palais until 11th January 2016. Over 160 oil paintings, pastels, sketches and drawings are on display to illustrate the life’s work of this remarkably gifted painter who dazzled Europe’s finest with her mastery.


Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is arguably one of the few women artists given the attention and recognition they deserve, a rarity as "women's art" has traditionally been paid scant regard. Her reputation could even be said to have reached legendary status in art history, the praise during her lifetime and the wealth of critical acclaim ever since never having diminished over the years. Her tumultuous existence make her an especially appealing personality. High society chic during the Ancien Regime, counting down the hours before the French Revolution, the toast of the most exclusive European royal courts of her time and, when she returned to Paris after a long exile, the Napoleonic Empire at her feet. Always conscious of her own talent, she managed to assert herself in a man’s world and deploy the full arsenal of weapons at her disposal to forge herself a niche in an art world dominated by men. With consummate subtlety, she used her own attractive likeness as propaganda for her skill as a portrait artist, with many of her self-portraits revealing the genius, beauty and vitality of this woman determined to reach the top.

 

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Élisabeth Louise Vigée, born in 1755 into an artistic Parisian family, where her father Louis Vigee, a renowned portrait and pastel painter, introduced his daughter very early to the profession. At fifteen, she began her career as a portraitist and in 1774 enrolled at the Saint Luc Academy where her first works were exhibited. Her marriage to the art dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun opened new doors and paths to recognition for her. She studied the Old Masters and steeped herself in all styles of art for inspiration. In 1778 she painted the first in a long series of portraits of Marie Antoinette, to which she owed her initial fame, and it was this close relationship with the Queen that helped secure her a fully-fledged membership of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1783. Her first portraits exhibition at the Academy was not received unreservedly but she soon won over her critics and the public. In 1785, her large canvas, "Marie Antoinette With Her Children" caused such envy amongst her detractors they instigated a campaign of criticism and libel against her. Although she defended herself ably, her character had been so effectively undermined as to force her to abandon her natal Paris at the onset of the Revolution and begin a long pilgrimage across Europe.

 

 Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: portrait-of-charles-alexandre-de-calonne-1784 

 

Her first years in exile were spent all over Italy. Turin, Parma, Florence, Venice, Rome and Naples, to name just a few, were the cities where she lived distanced from her world, a world that would never be the same again. Her fame preceded her and, with that, Italian aristocratic and artistic circles opened their doors and welcomed in the renowned French portrait artist. There being no sign of a possible return to Paris, her exile would continue on for many more years. In 1792, she relocated to Vienna, to work for exiled French aristocrats and for the Austrian and Polish nobilities. In 1795, she travelled to Russia and settled in Saint Petersburg. The court of Queen Catherine II received her enthusiastically and for the next six years she would work there tirelessly and bring about a new understanding of the art of portraiture. Her work received official recognition from the Saint Petersburg Academy of Fines Arts and she was again rewarded with the support of both fellow artists and the public alike. During these upwards of 12 international years, her fame and fortune grew substantially, allowing her a freedom rarely afforded a woman of that era. On the 18th of January 1802 she returned, finally and definitively, to Paris where she would remain for the rest of her life, bar a few trips to England and Switzerland. Her work rate was prolific as she battled and managed to maintain her fame and prestige within Europe’s most exclusive artistic circles. Her salons were where the most illustrious of the day would meet: painters, writers, and philosophers. The passage of time did not diminish her artistic fervour or curiosity as she devoted most of her time to nuancing the art of landscape painting, then made very fashionable by the arrival of Romanticism. A few years before her death, she wrote her Memoirs: three volumes recording the experiences of a life lived to the full, without compromise or complaint. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun died in Paris in 1842 at the age of 86.

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Vigée Le Brun's compositions are refined, full of beauty, brimming with life, replete with expressivity and colour innovation that leave no doubt as to the sophistication of her technique. Her portraits are the reflection of a whole era and an unbounded source of research into the ideal woman she herself embodies. Rather than breaking from the stereotypes of the time, her subjects go beyond purely pictorial representation. The poses and gestures of each of her models highlight the importance of her paintings in the study of an entire era. Nothing is depicted by chance. Every scene conceals a multitude of details with a life of their own quite apart from the overt composition. Her work served as a reference point for other painters as she tweaked and customized her themes with the changing times. Examples of this include her allegorical and mythological paintings in the neoclassical style; her Rousseau-influenced paintings of maternal and filial love; and a comprehensive gallery of beautiful and sensual women, each perfectly adapted to her time and place.

 

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One cannot talk of Vigée Le Brun without referencing another great Parisian artist, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1813), who shared her passion for "the easel" and her struggle for recognition in a male-dominated artworld. Both started on the same day at the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and, due to the similarity of their styles, were constantly compared with each other but, although Labille-Guiard never achieved the international fame her contemporary enjoyed, she did still forge a niche for herself and earn well-deserved recognition for her historical and portrait paintings, along with much success as a teacher. After working at the court of Louis XVI, she reinvented her paintbrushes, adapting them to the new revolucionary times and continued to paint for the rest of her life.

 

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Vigée Le Brun's and Labille-Guiard’s works made a massive contribution to the promotion of Fine Art studies amongst later generations of women artists and demonstrated that the fact of being female was no barrier to expressing one's talent and creativity in a male-dominated world. Both women had presence and visibility in both private and public spheres, brilliant women whose forthright personalities, in a universe dictated by men, revealed a hitherto inconceivable and unheard of reality.

 

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The Vigée Lebrun exhibition is the perfect opportunity to reflect on women in art and to examine the liaison between reality and painting as a mirror reflexion of our world. Her persona represents those same ideals that, many years later, Virginia Woolf would broach in A Room Of My Own, namely: personal and intellectual liberty coupled with an economic independence that could break the bonds of established convention.

 

 Obra de Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun 6 

 

- Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun -                          - Alejandra de Argos -

Conversations with artists from the past. E. Munch

 Munch Self-portrait in Front of the House Wall 1926 cropped 

 

The galleries of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum have recently opened an exhibition by artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944), successfully curated by Paloma Alarcó, that enables us to “listen to the dead with our eyes”. Paintings and writings come together in the museum’s galleries, divided into emotional Archetypes to communicate this artist’s obsessions from throughout his intense life.

People think that you can have a few friends, forgetting that the best, most authentic and above all, most numerous, are the dead. I intend to engage in a series of conversations with the afterlife. As the tormented spirit of the Norwegian artist has circumstantially settled in Madrid, I enthusiastically headed there to learn more. 

 

 death-in-the-sickroom-edvard-munch 

 

Let’s start with your childhood.

I always felt like I was treated unfairly during my childhood. I inherited two of the worst enemies of mankind: tuberculosis and mental illness. Disease, insanity and death were black angels beside my crib. A mother who died early, planting me with the seed of tuberculosis. A hyper-nervous, pietistic father, religious to the point of being crazy, from an ancient lineage, planting me with the seeds of insanity. 

When you think about those years, how did you feel? 

The angels of fear, pain and death were beside me right from birth, going out to play with me, following me under the spring sun, in the splendor of summer. They were with me at night when I closed my eyes, threatening me with death, hell and eternal punishment. And I often woke at night and looked around the room with panicked eyes thinking “Am I in hell?”. 

The fear of death tormented me, and this fear harassed me through all of my youth. 

Heaven and hell, how do you envisage eternity?

Flowers will emerge from my rotting body, and I will be part of them. That is eternity. 

 

 Edvard-Munch.-Madonna.-1894-1 

 

And where is God? 

With fanatic faith in any religion, such as Christianity, came atheism, came fanatic faith in the existence of no God. And with this non-faith in God there was content, becoming a faith itself in the end. It is generally foolish to assert anything about what comes after death.

But what is it that gives strength to the Christian faith. There are many who have difficulty in believing it. Although one cannot believe that God is a man with a big beard, that Christ is the Son of God who became a man, or in the Holy Spirit formed by a dove, there is much truth in this idea. A God as the power that must be at the origin of all, a God that governs everything. We can say that he directs the light waves, the movement of the tides, the center of energy itself. The Son, the part of this energy that is in man, the immense energy that filled Christ. Divine energy, genius energy and the Holy Spirit. The most sublime thoughts sent by the sources of divine energy to the human radio stations. In the very depths of beings. That which is provided to every human being.

 

 friedrich-nietzsche-munch     

 

But what do you think death is?

Dying is as if the eyes have been switched off and cannot see anything else. Perhaps it’s like being locked in a basement. You are abandoned by all, they closed the door and left. You see nothing and only notice the humid smell of putrefaction. 

And what about life?

I have been given a unique role to play on this earth that has given me a life of illness and also my profession as an artist. It is a life that does not contain anything resembling happiness, or even the desire for happiness. 

Not even love?

Human destinies are like planets. Like a star that appears in the dark and meets another star, glistening in a moment, to then return, fading into obscurity. So as well, a man and a woman meet, they slide towards each other, shining in love, blazing, and then disappear, each one for himself. Only a few end up in a great blaze in which both can fully join. 

The ancient were right when they said that love was a flame, as the flame leaves behind only a pile of ashes. Love can turn to hate, compassion to cruelty. 

 

 munch-ashes-1894 

 

Jealously is closely linked with love, how would you describe it?

Jealous people have a mysterious look, many reflections focus in those two sharp eyes, like in a crystal. The look is exploratory, interested, full of love and hate, an essence of what we all have in common. 

Jealousy says to its rival: go away, defective; you’re going to heat up in the fire that I have lit; you’ll breathe my breath in your mouth; you’ll soak up my blood and you will be my servant because my spirit will govern you through this woman who has become your heart. 

Now let’s talk about art… where does it come from?

Art generally comes from the need of one human being to communicate with another. I do not believe that art has not been inflicted by the need for a person to open his heart. All art, literature as well as music, has to be generated with the deepest feelings. The deepest feelings are art. 

What is the purpose of your art?

I have tried to explain life and the meaning of life through my art. I have also tried to help others clarify life. Art is the heart of blood. 

We must no longer paint people reading or women knitting. In the future we must paint people who breathe, feel, suffer or love. As Leonardo da Vinci dissected corpses and studied the internal organs of the human body, I try to dissect the soul. 

Conclusion.

My art is based on one single thought: why am I not like the others?

How do you think the audience should approach art?

The audience must become aware that the painting is sacred, so that it unfolds before them like in church. 

 

 el grito munch 7319 630x 

 

One of your iconic paintings is The Scream, could you explain the origin of such a radical emotional expression?

I was walking along the road with two friends, the sun was setting. Suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stood, leaned on the fence feeling deathly tired. Over the blue-black fjord and city hung blood and tongues of fire. My friends walked on and I remained behind, shivering with anxiety. And I felt the immense infinite Scream in Nature. 

Your love of photography is known, what do you think of photography as another mode of artistic expression?

The camera cannot compete with the brush and palette as long as it cannot be used in heaven and hell. 

 

 Edvard-Munch-Self-portrai-001 

 

Where is the beauty in your art?

The emphasis on harmony and beauty in art is a waiver to be honest. It would be false to only look on the bright side of life. 

Your writing has a strong aphoristic style. We’ll finish there… 

Thought kills emotion and reinforces sensitivity. Wine kills sensitivity and reinforces emotion. 

 

 

- A conversation with Esvard Munch-                              - Página principal: Alejandra de Argos -

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