Tag Archives: Brassaï

Languishing in the Languedoc: Musée Fabre and Pavillon Populaire

13 Sep

Arriving in Montpellier after only two hours’ sleep, le petit train was the perfect way to relax and see the city – full of gorgeous architecture and intoxicating French culture.  Suitably resuscitated, I headed off to the Musée Fabre.   Mad I know, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to miss such a well-known gallery.

Musée Fabre, Montpellier. Own photograph.

The Museé Fabre is housed within a 17th century Jesuit college and an 18th century Hotel de Ville brought together in a maze by a series of 19th century extensions.  It is as big as it sounds.   The current exhibition, touring from the Grand Palais in Paris, presents the works of Odilon Redon, a forerunner of the Impressionists, known for his fascination with the imaginary.

Odilon Redon, Crying Spider, 1881. Image via www.odilonredon.net

Redon is not an artist with whom I was familiar and I wasn’t sure what to expect but the exhibition is striking.  The opening curved rooms are painted dark blue, encouraging visitors to move around the space.  Although the rooms themselves are quite dark, all the works are well lit.  Peepholes allow previews of what is to come and, importantly, all the wall labels are in both English and French (this did deny me the chance to show that a summer course at L’institut was not a waste but I’m sure there will be other opportunities).

Redon exhibition, Musée Fabre. Own photograph.

Redon’s work presents dreamlike visions.  He had an affinity with the ideas of Edgar Allan Poe and many of his early works were inspired by Poe’s writing.  But he did not intend to recreate the scenes and, instead, his works were independent and freely created.

His most well-known work is Homage to Goya.  Although this series does not actually have any formal borrowings from Goya, the title revealed Redon’s desire to draw attention to his work by following the path acclaimed by critics.  This prompted much attention from the literary circle of the time, not least acting as the trigger for his friendship with Stéphane Mallarmé.  Redon began to display works from the series individually and provoked interest from collectors and exhibition organisers.

Odilon Redon, Homage to Goya, 1885. Image via www.moma.org

The dark tonal qualities of his early works radiate originality and character through his highly individual vision and near abrasive use of his medium.  Continuing in a similar vein, one of his slightly later series was inspired by Flaubert.  Again, these were categorically not illustrations but, instead, an aesthetic encounter expressed in literature and art.  From the 1890s, colour was
introduced as a more dominant element in his work and this swiftly became a permanent transition as he began to experiment with new forms.  For me, here, his works lose some of their mystique.

Mid-way through the exhibition the walls change to a deep rust orange colour; this denotes a shocking change in style as Redon took a renewed interest in the decorative arts, prompted by commissions from his growing circle of patrons.  Although his love of flora now becomes evident, he still extolled fantasy and undertook the decorative path simply with no excess or fuss.  This is far too drastic a change from his earlier work for me and from this point on the exhibition (or rather his oeuvre) becomes disjointed and a little confusing.  That said, there are some gorgeous works including one very unusual portrait that shows a delicate sympathy to his sitter.

Odilon Redon, Portrait of Marie Botkine, 1906-07. Image via http://picasaweb.google.com

The exhibition is beautifully curated and the changing colours of the walls serve well to show the developments of Redon’s career.  Upstairs, displayed on mustard yellow, Redon’s later works focus more on his interest in spirituality while continuing an evocation of the dream-like imagination and an interest in Classical mythology.  Gustave Fayet, one of Redon’s best patrons, bought Fontfroide Abbey (a gorgeous site and definitely worth a visit – I went last summer) and undertook its restoration.  He commissioned the library décor from Redon who created the large panels Day and Night as a synthesis of all his ideas.  The interior rooms of the Abbey have been specially opened for the course of this exhibition.

Fontfroide Abbey. Own photograph.

As I said, Musée Fabre is extensive and the permanent collections include works by all the French greats – there’s Géricault, Delacroix, David, Ingres, to name but a few.  The Soulages’ rooms present a more shocking contrast to the traditional space of the gallery; lit by a wall of translucent glass, many of the works are suspended in space, their startling black highlighted by the white walls.

Soulages at the Musée Fabre. Own photograph.

With the sun shining and beckoning me outside, it was hard to give these galleries the time they deserved but Musée Fabre is definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in, or near, Montpellier.

After wonderful crêpes in the Place de la Comédie, I headed to the Pavillon Populaire, just across the Esplanade from the Favre, for their Brassaï exhibition.  I have written about Brassaï fairly recently as he is one of the ‘greats’ included in the RA’s Hungarian photography exhibition and so I shall not go into too much detail about his work again.

Place de la Comédie, Montpellier. Own photograph.

This exhibition focuses on the artist in America in 1957.  As known from his famous Paris photography, Brassaï enjoyed looking at a city’s undercurrents and photographing prostitutes, drug addicts and seedy music halls as well as the better-known attractions.  In this way, he set himself apart from other artists of the time.  Perfectly displayed here in groups, his short exposures capture an amazing spontaneity – many of the shots have been captured in quick succession showing movement or the progression of time, often in comic ways that reveal remarkable insight into the mind of the artist.

Brassaï en Amérique, 1957. Image via www.paris-art.com

Again, different sections of the exhibition have different wall colours, a stylish presentation that the French pull off with aplomb.  Brassaï was a very talented photographer with an incredible eye.  His photographs of people from behind show a remarkable intimacy and offer a new perspective on city life.

It was time to head into Marseillan and have a siesta before cocktail hour!

Marseillan sunset.  Own photograph.

Odilon Redon, Prince du rêve, 1840-1916 is at the Musée Fabre until 16 October 2011, http://museefabre-en.montpellier-agglo.comBrassaï en Amérique 1957 is at the Pavillon Populaire until 13 October 2011, http://www.montpellier.fr/506-les-expos-du-pavillon-populaire.htm.

Snap – Hungary’s genius, Eyewitness at the RA

18 Jul

Robert Capa famously said ‘It’s not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian’.  Even though most of Hungary’s famous photographers decided to leave their home country and make their names in Germany, France and the US, having visited this exhibition, I see his point.

Centring around five major photographers – Robert Capa,  Brassaï, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi -this exhibition presents a chronological journey of Hungary’s conflicted history (all Jewish-born these men were forced to change their names due to the frequent anti-Semitism they encountered), looking at the lives of these artists and revealing their achievements and genius.  With around 200 photographs, by over 50 photographers, ranging in date from 1914-1989, I think everyone was ready to expect a mess but the Royal Academy has produced a beautiful show with striking, provocative images arranged in a coherent and concise manner.

Robert Capa, Death of a Loyalist Soldier, 1936.  Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk.

In many ways, these five photographers gained recognition as a result of leaving Hungary.  Yet, their technique and style was much influenced by the photographic traditions of their homeland.  It was in Budapest, for example, that some of the first photography stories were printed in the 1920s.  Many others, such as Károly Escher, Rudolf Balogh and Jószef Pécsi, did remain in Hungary and the exhibition includes a good spectrum of such work.

László Fejes, Wedding, Budapest, 1965. Image via www.independent.co.uk.

I think this exhibition was a big gamble.  Although Hungarian photography is getting more popular, I wouldn’t have thought it is popular enough for an RA summer show.  Maybe they have enough people already coming through the doors that they’re happy to take the risk or maybe they just felt these amazing artists deserved some more attention.  Whichever you believe, their gamble has paid off – when I was there, it was packed.

As you know, I’m normally the first to criticise grey walls but here they work.  The black and white photographs have a serene and calming quality.  There’s no problem with reflections.  The exhibition is uniform and well-conceived.  My one small niggle was that queues built up while people stuck in the dead-end sections of the exhibition were looking into the cabinets.  Oh, one other thing…  The wall labels now include the catalogue numbers which I thought slightly weird.  If you see people walking around catalogue in hand, this is why.

The personalities of the photographers are evident in their works.  Kertész, for example, was shy and never felt fully comfortable outside Hungary, while Brassaï was a confident socialite who had spent four years working in Berlin before moving to Paris in 1924.  His new home became the focus of his work and the centre of his life.  Fascinated by the cultures and sub-cultures of the city, his works delve into Paris at night and the restless wandering souls who occupied the city.   Bijou of Montparnasse stares out at the viewer. Expensively attired and heavily made-up, her face reveals the tire and strain of years of work.

Brassaï, Bijou of Montparnasse, 1932.  Image via http://thingsbecomethings.blogspot.com.

Munkácsi’s works inspired many American fashion photographers, including Herb Ritts.  Perhaps the most accomplished photojournalist here, he began working in the medium aged only 18.

His work Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika is carefree and inspiring, the perfect social commentary of a young family playing on the beach.   Their raw nakedness against the white foam is poignant and striking.  The sharpness of the image, created by use of a high shutter speed, results in an image filled with dynamism and vitality.  Henri Cartier Bresson said “it is only that one photograph which influenced me.”

Martin Munkácsi, Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika, c. 1930.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

The exhibition also includes Munkácsi’s photograph of the Nazi superstar Leni Riefenstahl (I won’t go into Riefenstahl’s life story and her claims for that is not what is relevant here).  Wearing hotpants and a vest, her dark hair, chiseled features and smooth skin appear more pronounced by the snow.  This photo appeared on the front cover of Time in 1936 to mark the Fourth Winter Olympics that Hitler had inaugurated earlier that month.  Munkácsi was fascinated by bodies in movement; innovative for his time, he was making history with every shot he captured.

Martin Munkácsi, Leni Riefenstahl, 1931.  Image www.artvalue.com.

I studied Kertész at school and his works still have a special resonance for me.  With little formal training, Kertész began taking photographs of rural scenes and everyday moments in Budapest.  He was then known for his trench photography while he served from 1914-15.  A shy character, his work expresses an overriding interest in the daily routines of people.

Strict regulations were imposed on Hungarian photography in the latter half of the 20th century.  No Hungarian photographs of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 were allowed to be published and photography began to lose some of its earlier vigour as the political climate trampled freedom of artistic expression once again.  Experimentation continued on the fringes and during the 1980s the art form began to re-emerge and flourish.  The Hungarian contribution to photography is still felt today and, as this exhibition shows, many modern-day artists and photo-journalists alike are indebted to these figures.

Károly Escher, Bank Manager at the Baths, 1938.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

These photographs present the glamour, truth and terrifying realities of the time.  The strength of this material, and the incredible range of photographic media here, has influenced generations of photographers and much of what we see in newspapers, magazines and art galleries can be referenced to these works.

Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century is in the Sackler Wing at the Royal Academy until 2nd October 2011, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

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