Louise Bourgeois: More than Spiderwoman

The French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is widely known for her gigantic spider sculptures, like the one at the Tate Modern in London, but she is so much more than that. I had never seen much of her art in person before, and since the exhibition of her late work The Woven Child at the Hayward Gallery will be closing on the 15th May, I made it a point to go there last week to see it.

Of course, spiders were involved. This work combines her use of cages/enclosed spaces in her later work and her love of spiders. She associated spiders with her mother: hard-working, patient, creative, resilient. Her family had a tapestry restoration business, and you can see fragments of tapestry scattered around the edges of the cage.

I am not necessarily a huge fan of installation art, but there is something so visceral and moving about Bourgeois’ work that you feel you want to immerse yourself in it. Certainly step into her cages or cells, touch those floating bits of gauze, lace and other silk, which feel so vulnerable.

Another spider/mother sitting on an embroidered chair, in a cell. To me it represents hard-working women and mothers everywhere, being constrained in the domestic sphere, whether they choose it or not.
Many of the nightdresses and underwear were either the artist’s own (like shedding her skin, she described it) or her mother’s.

The contrast between the formal little black dress and the disarmingly innocent and fragile underclothes.

It is impossible not to be struck by the symbolism of the work. Some of it was too disturbing, too powerful for me to want to take a picture to share with others: couples embracing where the woman had a maimed limb, bodies hanging in various stages of distress… I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising. But others were more benign and profoundly moving.

The Good Mother. The imagery of unspooling (which appears quite frequently in her work), lactating and being tied down would have made me cry when my children were very young.
The woman toppled over. The curvaceous woman reminded me of Niki de Sainte Phalle’s Nanas. Niki was another French-American woman artist, only a little younger than Bourgeois. Unlike the smooth, colourful papier-mache Nanas, Bourgeois has created Frankenstein women, by sewing together pieces of sometimes rough, sometimes smooth fabric

Then there were the fabric heads with gaping mouths and flattened features – like a zombie army. So many ways to interpret this!

Pretty but vacuous?
Not just two-faced – this one had four faces – dark and light, demonic and innocent.

There were ‘prettier’, less visceral works on display too, full of literary allusions or nostalgia for long-gone places.

Bourgeois repurposed old teatowels or handkerchiefs to create this mood board for Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, a novel about the few choices open to women at the time, and a journey from innocence to bitterness, illusion to disenchantment.
Ode a la Bievre, a series of fabric drawings in memory of the river Bievre. The family moved next to the river when she was a child, and she reminisces about the family’s beautiful garden and exploring the river (which contained tannin, an important ingredient for dyeing fabric). The last panel says that when she returned with her children to show them the river, it had disappeared (been filled in) and ‘only the trees planted by my father along its edge remained as witness.’

LATE ADDITION: I’ve just been made aware that there is a video of someone much more eloquent than me who can talk you through this wonderful exhibition, namely Deborah Levy.

Friday Fun: Romanian Painter Ion Andreescu

Not as well known as Nicolae Grigorescu or Constantin Brancusi for fans of Romanian art, Ion Andreescu is my favourite Romanian painter. He lived a quiet, sadly all too brief life as an art teacher, studied for a short while in Paris in 1878/79, and painted some of the most evocative Romanian landscapes before his death in 1882 at the age of 32 from TB. He is particularly good at capturing the forest in all seasons and all moods. His paintings offer me pure escapism, a breath of fresh air.

Summer landscape.

At the edge of the forest.

Women sitting at the edge of the forest.

Country cottage.

Autumn

 

Winter

Winter in Barbizon.

Friday Fun: 5 Things to Sing About

It took some deep digging these past two exhausting weeks, but I finally found five things to rejoice about.

On a Poetry Roll

I’ve been working hard at editing and in some cases rewriting my poems. Maybe I’m regaining my groove!

Unexpected Fleabag Treat

A friend of mine couldn’t make it to the NTLive screening of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag theatre performance, so I was the lucky recipient of her ticket. I loved the TV series, but I thought the stage show demonstrated the range of her acting talent, as well as her writing talent. She is far more moving, able to switch (you as an audience) from laughter to tears in a few seconds.

A Painting I Thought About for a Year

I visited local artist (and friend of a friend) Inge du Plessis last year at the local art trail and open house. I bought a small portrait of one of my heroines Sophie Scholl, but I couldn’t forget another picture that grabbed my attention that time. It was entitled The Suburbs and reminded me of the books of Richard Yates – the everyday blandness but also darkness and loneliness of life there. This year, I visited again and there were plenty of new paintings, but no sign of The Suburbs. So I asked about it – and it turns out it hadn’t been sold and Inge was thinking of painting over it! Luckily, I rescued it from its ignoble fate and am now the proud owner of it. Taking pictures of painting is very tricky – but I hope you can catch a glimpse of why I fell in love with it.

Discovering Norwich and UEA

I was utterly charmed by the town and the university, despite the grey concrete of the latter. I’m trying not to influence my son, but wouldn’t mind if he went there to study. And, if I do stay in the UK after they leave home, I’m seriously considering moving there!

Iconic architecture, the Ziggurat accommodation seems to be the party hub of the campus.
The Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts is not just a gallery but also Avengers HQ (especially in the earlier films).
Norwich Cathedral is just so beautiful and full of friendly people… and a cathedral cat.
Less Gothic, more Norman – a very interesting interior
Strangers Court, so-called because Norwich provided shelter for refugees from the Low Countries in the 16th century. By the late 1570s, one person in four in Norwich was a refugee who had come into the city within the previous ten years.

Going to the Gym with My Son

My older son and I have signed up with the local gym and are egging each other on. A much-needed break from hunching over books and computers!

Modern Couples Exhibition

I mistakenly thought the exhibition at the Barbican Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde was on until the end of February, so I still had plenty of time to visit it. I’d been meaning to go since it opened in October, but something or other always seemed to intervene. So when I realised on Thursday that it was closing this weekend, I scrambled desperately to get tickets. Me and a few hundred other people, which meant that it was very crowded and quite a challenge to read the many texts telling you about the different couples of the exhibition.

Klimt: Death and Life, from the Klimt Foundation, Vienna.

The focus was firmly on the first half of the 20th century and the so-called avant-garde, including Surrealism, but the definition of art was very broad, including textiles, architecture, interior design, literature etc. Some of the couples I knew pretty well already: Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, Rodin and Camille Claudel, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Others, however, were more in the ‘heard about them vaguely’ category rather than knowing anything about their art, such as Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Lee Miller and Man Ray. And then there were those who were completely new to me: Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer, Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst. (I knew about Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, but not about this later relationship.)

I fell in love with this self-portrait by Romaine Brookes (another artist new to me): she looks so ready to embark upon adventure.

There were many positives about this exhibition: all kind of relationships were taken into account, from short-term love affairs to long marriages and more or less platonic relationships. Heterosexual couples, gay couples, a trans marriage, threesomes, fluid gender, interracial relationships – everything was present there. Many of the exhibits displayed that sense of exhilaration when true minds meet each other, when mutual support and collaboration inspires artists to new heights. Salvador Dali encouraged Federico Garcia Lorca’s drawings, Aino and Alvar Aalto completed each other by thinking about a house from both the inside and the outside, Emilie Flöge the fashion designer was not only Gustav Klimt’s muse but also translated his artistic visions into magnificent and revolutionary dresses.

Sonia Delaunay creation.

Overall, however, reading the notes about the different relationships saddened me somewhat. It appears that all too frequently the women were appreciated mainly for their bodies and looks, were often much younger than the ‘artistic men’ to whom they became muses. Many of the letters on display show a male obsession with the body, a female obsession with the mind and the emotions. Take this sad little P.S. at the bottom of one of Camille Claudel’s letter to Rodin: ‘Surtout ne me trompez plus.’ (Please stop cheating on me.)

Mask of Camille by Rodin, portrait of Rodin by Claudel. Copyright: Musee Rodin, Paris.

Needless to say, this ‘muse’ period was often transient, and the men moved easily on to the next shiny thing, leaving quite a lot of despair, desolation, broken dreams, mental health issues, abandoned children etc. in their wake. There are only two women who acted like men in this respect: Alma Mahler (the original groupie, her list of lovers and husbands reads like a Who’s Who of the Germanic arts at the turn of the 20th century- Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel) and Gala (married to Paul Eluard, in a threesome with him and Max Ernst, eloped with Salvador Dali and then short affairs to encourage many, many younger artists).

Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp in front of some of her puppet creations.

Even the happy marriages only appear to have stayed happy because the wife died prematurely (as is the case with Aino Aalto and Sophie Taeuber-Arp), and so was presumably somewhat idealised by the surviving partner. Not for too long, however. Within three years, the men settled down with a new life partner. Jane Austen certainly observed and expressed this perfectly in Persuasion: ‘All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’

I am very glad I caught this exhibition, where I could have spent hours, but the downside of visiting on the last day was that they had run out of exhibition catalogues. And this is one catalogue that I really would like to keep.

Strawberry Hill Forever!

I had the great good fortune of visiting St Mary’s University in Twickenham on a sunny day, which allowed me to take a walk through its lovely campus and visit its next-door neighbour Strawberry Hill House: indeed, there is a door leading from the wing of one to the old building of the other.

St Mary’s University leading to Strawberry Hill House (in white).

It was the summer house built to house the art collection of the extravagant and eccentric Horace Walpole, politician, art historian and writer. He was not all that rich when he acquired a plot of land with a cottage and a nice view over the River Thames in Twickenham, but he had very strong ideas about what he wanted to create: an architectural folly to entertain guests who would come upstream to visit him, a backdrop for his legendary literary and artistic parties.

Period view of Strawberry Hill House by E. Sandby.

He had a passion for the Gothic style and pioneered its revival a good half century or more before the Victorian revival of it. He even pioneered it in literature, starting a new genre: the Gothic horror with The Castle of Otranto. As he got richer, he kept adding another wing or redecorating the house, and of course he spent a fortune on his collections. Not just objects of artistic value but also of historical importance – for example, the clock that Henry VIII gave to Anne Boleyn on their wedding day or Cardinal Wolsey’s scarlet cardinal hat. Before visiting, I had the impression that Walpole made it up as he went along and created a mish-mash of styles without much thought and planning. But I discovered just how meticulous a historian he was and how accurate all his reproductions were (of wallpaper and silk hangings for example).

The oldest part of the house was a sort of two up two down cottage, and Walpole added a wooden turret to it.

And it was not all about extravagance. He was also astute at spotting a bargain – for instance, most of the stained glass in the windows was reclaimed from Flemish salvage yards. Unlike most private collectors, he was not about keeping it all for himself, but saw Strawberry Hill as a cultural centre to be shared with others. He started a printing press, and exhibited most of his possessions like a museum.

He had a wonderful life surrounded by all his favourite objects, showing them off to visitors, living exactly as he pleased. But the sad coda to this tale is that when he died without an heir, his entire collection was auctioned off. Fortunately, for a short time only, much of it has been brought together again (on loan or reproduced) and until the 24th of February you can see Strawberry Hill as its owner wanted it to be seen in the Lost Treasures exhibition.

You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, but I have to show you the promotional picture of the library, which can be hired as a wedding venue, I believe.

The view over the Thames has been lost, sadly, and the gardens border onto St Mary’s athletic track, but what other garden has got a shell-shaped seat with a whole book dedicated to it?

Anni Albers Exhibition at the Tate Modern

When my friend from Hamburg visited me last weekend, she was adamant she wanted to see the Anni Albers exhibition. I – forgive me for my brash assumption – was somewhat less enthusiastic, thought it would be merely pretty carpets or something that my grandmother might have woven in days gone by. But I’m very happy to report that my friend was right, I am an ignominious philistine (if I can pronounce it!) and the exhibition at the Tate Modern is very much worth your time and money. 

Six Prayers was a commission from the Jewish Museum in New York to create a memorial to represent the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The threads create a scriptural effect, bringing to mind the Torah scrolls.

Anni Albers was born in a middle-class German family (she later said her Jewish descent was only visible to the Nazis, they were so well integrated that she was even baptised Protestant) and studied art at the famous Bauhaus school in Weimar and then Dessau. Connected with big names such as Gropius, Paul Klee, Kandinsky, Mies van der Rohe, this radical new school of art gave equal weight to architecture, painting and all crafts, including bookbinding, carpentry, metalwork and weaving. Anni wanted to study art, but was encouraged to switch to weaving (‘unenthusiastically’, she admits), which was seen as the ‘women’s domain’. But she very soon made it her own.

In 1933 she and  her husband, fellow artist Josef Albers, emigrated to the US, where they both taught for a while at the equally experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. What is fascinating about Anni’s work, however, is not merely that she recreates abstract art in her woven wall hangings, but that she constantly experiments with new weaving methods, new textures and materials (including found materials), creating both pattern weaving works and pictorial works. Many of her works are multi-layered and create a 3-D effect.

She never ceased learning and incorporating new ideas: textile as text in pre-Columbian art, floating weft technique, tactile sensibility, knots which she associated with mathematics. Later in life, when weaving became too physically strenuous, she turned to printmaking, embossing, etching, lithography. The woman just had creativity pouring out of her!

Let me end with a beautiful Anni Albers quote: ‘What I’m trying to get across is that material is a means of communication. That listening to it, not dominating it, makes us truly active. That is: to be active, be passive.’

Heartily recommend this exhibition, especially as an example of #Womensart, which to my shame I very nearly didn’t take seriously on this occasion. Bravo, Hamburg friend! The exhibition is on until 27th January 2019.

Cultural Events Summary 20 May 2018

I hope you have all been enjoying the nice weather this week. I’ve been mostly stuck inside, as we’ve been busy at work with two conferences, a workshop, becoming GDPR compliant and budget forecasts. However, sunshine is always good for the soul, and especially at the weekend. And I’ve managed to sneak in a couple of cultural events too…

On Thursday I watched the film 120 BPM (beats per minute), runner-up at the Cannes Festival last year. Filmed as a sort of faux-documentary of life as an activist member of ACTUP Paris in the early 1990s, it captures that frenetic spirit of being young (but not only), fighting for your life as well as for justice, fighting Big Pharma, public ignorance and apathy, government failure to debate, inform or provide any coherent policies. It is also a love story and, inevitably, as with any story about AIDS, there is grieving. But this is no Philadelphia or Longtime Companion, unashamed tear-jerkers, with (usually not gay) actors fading away eloquently and elegantly. This is about anger and survival, doing anything you can to feel alive, about strategy and protest and disagreements within the group, but also about coming together, solidarity and changing the world. ‘Paris were frankly a bunch of complete maniacs’, a former ACTUP London member said, and I had to laugh as I tried to imagine those protest or virulent discussions transposed in a British environment. The two male leads are extremely charismatic: Arnaud Valois from Lyon and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart from Argentina (who, as far as I can tell, are both gay, which makes it all the more realistic) make that very serious struggle look like fun.

The real ACTUP Paris in 1995.

The film transported me back to 1989-1992 when I too was young and politically engaged, although in our case it was regime change and democracy that we were fighting for. In spite of the disillusionment or flaws or failures (and the pain of watching friends die), it was an exhilarating movement to be part of (both mine and ACTUP) – and this is perfectly captured in this film. It’s all too easy to say that the world has moved on since then regarding attitudes towards AIDS and the LGBTQ+ community, but sadly, it hasn’t really progressed that much. The film is forbidden in several countries (where homosexuality is illegal) and in my own home country, alas, there was a church-organised protest when it was first screened.

A very different atmosphere on Friday when I attended an early morning viewing of the Rodin Exhibition at the British Museum. This beautifully curated, reasonably small show demonstrates that you don’t need to overwhelm museum-goers with information or exhibits if you stick to a narrow topic and present it well. Rodin was obsessed with ancient sculptures, and collected many of them himself, so it was refreshing to see to what extent they inspired his own work.  There were plenty of original plaster, bronze and marble examples of many of Rodin’s sculptures on loan from the Musée Rodin in Paris, as well as the Parthenon marbles that are already (controversially) in the British Museum.

Icarus’ sister.

I also got to hear that Lord Elgin originally wanted sculptor Antonio Canova to ‘renovate’ the Ancient Greek fragments and complete them. Luckily, Canova was wise enough to not meddle with the beauty of the original. Rodin himself was so taken by the incomplete statues, that he deliberately sculpted many of his own like that.

The Walking Man.

The links with literature were never far away. Not only was Rainer Maria Rilke briefly Rodin’s secretary, but I was not aware that Rodin had illustrated Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (one of my favourite volumes of poetry, especially back when I was in my teens). And that he intended to reproduce it in sculpture as well.

Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre…

A wonderful, calming way to start the day with art, not forgetting the quotes from Rodin about the sculptor’s ability to capture motion.

For next week, I have a very special recommendation for you: experience a piece of literature in an all-immersive annual event at Senate House on 23rd May. To celebrate 200 years since the first creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the School of Advanced Studies will present a Living Frankenstein evening, with pop-up activities, talks, films, performances and ghost stories. The full programme is here.

Finally, no weekly summary would be complete without a few books begged, borrowed, stolen or bought.

From the library I borrowed Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, the May read for the David Bowie Book Club. Written in 2007-8, it is sadly more timely than ever. I was also looking for some Richard Yates novels which I haven’t read yet, but found instead a very bulky biography by Blake Bailey A Tragic Honesty. Nicely cheery, then…

I also got Ali Smith’s Autumn, the so-called Brexit novel, and Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning. I’ve already finished the latter: this author is one of my favourite comfort reads, and Three Pines is where I would love to retire if only it existed. I also came across a strange little volume called Alberta Alone by Cora Sandel, an early Norwegian feminist compared to Colette and Jean Rhys.

Last but not least, Europa Editions are producing new editions of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy and have sent me the first volume, Total Chaos. Little do they know that it is one of my favourite French novels (or trilogies) ever and that I bribed a second-hand bookshop in Lyon to find me all three volumes in French. You can expect a close read of the book in French and in translation coming up soon. (Although my personal favourite is Chourmo, the second in the trilogy, coming out in August 2018.)

 

Cultural Events Summary 7 May 2018

I’m greatly enjoying the Bank Holiday weekend with my children: a lazy pub lunch, even lazier attempts at gardening, lashings of ice-cream, visitors and BBQs… and the occasional cultural foray.

This was the weekend of Open Artists’ Studios in our area, under the somewhat misleading name of Henley Arts Trail. Misleading, because we never made it as far as Henley, since there are plenty of artists in our more immediate neighbourhood. But a great initiative overall to get to know local artists, of varying quality of course, but something for every taste.

We only made it as far as two venues, but it was inspiring nevertheless. At The Big Plant Nursery near Twyford we saw animal sculptures made out of bronze, metal and recycled kitchen utensils hidden amongst the foliage, as well as the multilayered, large-scaled pointillist paintings of Sarah Pye. I don’t have a wall big enough in my house to hang one of the paintings up, but I got some postcards to remind me of their colourful, tactile exuberance.

Summer Dreams, Copyright Sarah Pye.

The second venue was a private property which had been opened up to the public and for local artists to display their work in an almost purpose-built extension to the rear. It turned out that the owners had previously housed a graphic design agency there but had now retired and were thinking of organising art classes in the future. The combination of gardens, art, sunshine and coffee and cakes was simply irresistible.

Micklems Farm.

I was particularly taken with the stained, fused, slumped and woven glass of John Eastwood. Despite my financial uncertainties, I couldn’t resist the jewellery of Pink Costello either, or the extremely diverse, East Asian-inspired ceramics of Lucie Lambourn. After all, I know how hard it is to make a living as an artist… And, as if to confirm that, I met a couple at a BBQ later that day who were artists – or rather, they had met as artists, but he had given up his jewellery making to become a systems architect and IT specialist, so that he could support his family and their move to the UK.

Ceramic bowl by Lucie Lambourn.

I was also going to tell you about the books I acquired this week, but I think I will prepare a video to post tomorrow. So let me just finish off with another glorious image of the venue. Nothing beats cake by the pool, with a black cat purring nearby and the scent of clematis filling the air like a haze.

Friday Fun extends all the way into Monday…

Friday Fun: The Courtauld Gallery

The Courtauld Gallery (which I seem to pronounce differently from everyone else in the UK) is a beautiful little gem, no longer quite as well hidden as it used to be when I was a student at King’s and could access it during my breaks. Covering an entire wing of Somerset House (plus modern extensions), it boasts a splendid art collection, particularly of 19th century painters. Most recently, it hosted an exhibition of portraits by Chaim Soutine, which struck me by their compassion for the suffering and boxed-in feeling of the working classes, service staff that most hotel visitors ignore (even nowadays). I don’t often feature art, because I think the colours go all wrong online, but here are a few samples.

The Little Chef by Soutine.

The Bellboy by Soutine.

The Chambermaid by Soutine.

Other paintings from the permanent collection: German expressionist painter Gabriele Münter: Portrait of a Young Woman with a Large Hat.

Degas ballerina.

The building is beautiful too: the staircase.

And even the floor details.

Last, but not least, on a sunny day, the basement cafe is delightful

Friday Fun: Women Reading

Portraits of women reading is perhaps one of the loveliest examples of ‘memes’ in art history, particularly in the 19th century and particularly in France. Was it the rise of the middle classes and of leisure time? Were the men boasting that their wives and daughters were well looked after, well-educated and could therefore spend time on that frivolous pursuit of reading novels? Or was it that there is a certain stillness in the act of reading which men as doers felt that they could not or would not choose to quite live up to? Or was it simply a respectable form of voyeurism for rich men/art collectors? Whatever the reason for it, it has left behind some beautiful paintings (all in the public domain, as far as I know, but please correct me if I am wrong).

One of the best known – by Fragonard.

Woman reading in landscape, by Corot.

Another dreamy summer readingscape, by Monet.

So intent on reading, this must have been a real page-turner, by Jacques-Emile Blanches

One of my earliest favourites, by Renoir.

She hasn’t got eyes for anyone but the book, leave her alone, by Matisse.

Victorian portrayals of the angel in the household on the rare evening off, by Edward John Poynter.

Blue Girl Reading by August Macke from the Blaue Reiter school of art.

American impressionism via Dutch painter Isaac Israels.