Month: September 2017

Is it ever JUST a kiss?

It was just a regular day of museum visiting at the Beyeler Fondation in Basel, Switzerland. That is, until it wasn’t.

Danielle and I had just finished discussing some works in an exhibition featuring Wolfgang Tillmans’s photography, emerging from the show feeling very serious, very intellectual.

We trotted into the next room on our artsy fartsy high horses. In the following moments, we were knocked clean off our noble steeds. THUD THUD. Dumbfounded.

birdyThe space is large, white, mostly empty. There is a big square mirror propped against the right wall. It doesn’t hang but simply rests on the floor. On the left side of the room I recognize the polished gold surface that belongs to my favorite sculpture, Bird in Space by Brancusi. Right smack dab in the center of the room on the floor, sandwiched between the mirror and sculpture, lay a man and a woman kissing.

We don’t really know what to think.

The kiss is long and slow. I don’t embarrassedly look away like I normally do when I see these sorts of kisses between couples in public.

The man and woman appear to be in their late twenties or thirties. Both have tied back their brown hair in loose buns, some flyaway wisps of hair escape the elastic constraints. They both wear plain pants and shirts.

They move in a perfectly controlled slow motion, methodically shifting between positions of spooning, cradling, hugging, different forms of embrace. All the while they maintain an unbroken eye contact.

I, not usually a great admirer of excessive PDA (public display of affection), was completely mesmerized.

What made this so special? After all, we see people kiss and embrace all the time. Heck, and you sure see a lot more if you’ve been watching Game of Thrones. But these two fully clothed, regular people seared an image in my head, probably forever.

It was done tenderly and with such sincerity. Didn’t feel phony, didn’t present as a set-up. Those two could have been visitors just like everyone else and suddenly plopped down in the center of the gallery and there they were.

tinoWhat we were seeing was a presentation, Kiss (2002), created by Anglo-German artist Tino Sehgal on display at the Fondation Beyeler during a limited time. Sehgal does not call his works “performance” or the participants “performers” because that might suggest viewers don’t play a role in his works, which they defintively do. Instead he calls them “constructed situations” and “interpreters.” His oral instructions and rules are interpreted by male and female artists who can usually sing, dance, and choreograph. The situations he creates are “immaterial and fleeting, the thing that truly matters being the viewer’s experiencing of the situation.” Sehgal gives an insightful talk on his inspiration, thoughts and motivations for creating Kiss which I link here.

Once Danielle and I were finished dusting ourselves off from our metaphorical fall and processed the situation as an art piece, we calmed down. We wearily re-mounted our high horses and started to analyze and discuss.

This act breached the boundary between performance and “real life.” Where does one make an exact distinction between the two anyway? The blurred line freaked me out a bit.

What a funky paradox. It feels private and intimate, yet other visitors and I were watching them do their thing safely from within the sanctions of a museum. Besides, this was not real…. right? It was a feeling of internal conflict I had never experienced before.

Danielle and I began to observe the other visitors filing cautiously into the room.

kiss3A teenage brother and sister blundered in. His gaze fell upon the interpreters, the color rushed to the tips of his ears and he twitched a sheepish smile. The siblings retreated to a corner of the room and with body language oozing of insecurity continued to watch in spurts of furtive side-glances. 

A young woman and her hunky beau strode in holding hands. As they registered the situation, they broke apart and perhaps unknowingly distanced themselves. She was very intent on watching the piece while he stood behind her and stole a glance at his watch. Heaved a sigh. 

Another couple -much older this time- hobbled in. They watched the embrace side by side for some time before pulling each other in close. A secret smile spread across her face and her eyes flickered in a way that gave away her nostalgia.

A father and his pre-teen daughter shuffled through the doorway, talking. She was facing him and saying something when he first discreetly spied the interpreters and made the decision to keep a fluid walking pace. She didn’t look around the room as they crossed, her eyes fixated on him the whole time. They disappeared in the other doorway.

Funny how a performance can unveil so much about its audience. Some were embarrassed, some drew together while others spread apart. Everyone kept an invisible radius of distance from the couple, and no one stayed long. I didn’t meet the interpreters, but I did meet the visitors in a sense.

It can be refreshing to not know what to make of an artwork at times, to be humbled by it, to have to work to comprehend.

Thank you, Sehgal, for the challenge. I hope I stumble on another equally as curious “situation” again one day.


Félix Vallotton vaut le coup

Enter Kunstmuseum, Bern. Ascend ancient spiral staircase. Arrive exhibition entrance. Traverse three doorways. Enter Room 4. Pause. Gasp. Gawk.

The current exhibition on display is “Van Gogh to Cezanne, Bonnard to Matisse: The Hahnloser Collection.” As we wind through the rooms at the beginning of the exhibition, we are greeted by the oeuvres of all these big-name artists.

But nothing compared to the experience of emerging into Room 4. Nothing. I’m not even being dramatic.

Sometimes when I walk into a gallery space, I scan the room first and make a beeline for the piece that compels me most. Why not? There’s no shame in seeing what you damn well please, and isn’t that the whole point? Yet this tactic failed tragically in Room 4.

Every single piece was equally as compelling, and like some form of medieval torture I could feel my conflicted body torn in all directions. Where should I go first?

Shimmering landscapes and radiant portraits galore. All by Franco-Swiss artist Felix Vallotton. Although all are dazzling, I will contain my discussion to my favorite piece which I chose according to purely personal preference.

Detail 1The star of the show, the cover of the exhibition catalogue. The 1913 painting La Blanche et la Noire is as beautiful as it is mysterious. A harmonious symphony of color graces the canvas and instilled in me a sense of awe. The space is divided horizontally into two color blocks: a bright teal blue and a stark white. The brilliant hues complement the women’s yellowish-peach and walnut brown skin tones. The black woman’s fire orange head wrap against the teal background enhance their vibrancies, while the white woman’s flushed red cheeks and auburn hair mimic the black woman’s beaded jewelry.  

Even on a purely visual basis, the painting pulsates with an almost inexplicable radiance.

Now, it may seem odd to call such a well-lit, realistically rendered piece mysterious, but I mean this in the sense of the content. What in the heck is going on in this image exactly? The black woman sits casually with her arms folded over her knees, torso leaning forward, head turned and shown in profile to look in the white woman’s direction. The burnt end of the cigarette that is nestled between her lips suggests she has been sitting and smoking for a few minutes. Is she going to ash that soon? What’s the next move?

The white woman casually reclines, head propped on a pillow. Her torso is a creamy yellow while her extremities flush pink. But it’s her intense sanguine facial complexion that made me question: is this a healthy glow or is she actually sick? Her stance can now be read as casual rest or exhaustion. She gazes out in the direction of the black woman from underneath her droopy eyelids. Her face, like the black woman’s, appears pensive or altogether void of any expression.

Notice that for both women, I do not claim that they are looking directly into each other’s eyes or faces. I feel that it is too ambiguous to decidedly tell, since Vallotton does not provide a fully frontal view of either woman. The white woman’s eyes even appear totally closed at first, and only upon further inspection does one realize a small sliver of eyeball. I think that Vallotton instilled this ambiguity on purpose.

Despite this obscurity, we can still identify that this painting is all about contradiction, oppositions. How very modernist.

One woman is white, the other is black. One woman reclines, the other is seated upright. One woman is clothed, the other is nude. One woman exudes strength and vitality, the other is languid, suggesting possible illness. The only point of intersection between the two occurs at 1) (possible) exchange of gazes and 2) physical overlap of the white woman’s feet with the black woman’s backside.

Yet despite the clashing of the content, this painting is still harmonious. Perhaps there is a certain balance in chaos, no?

Bear with me for the final thought on this piece. According to my interpretation, I can identify some form of racial power play in this painting.

Screenshot 2017-09-18 11.51.17After I was done oogling over the pretty colors, I found that I was somewhat surprised at the set-up of the figures. The black woman, physically elevated and gazing downwards at the white woman. The black woman’s skin pulsing with vitality while the sickly white woman meekly returns her gaze. This strikes odd for an early 20th century painting.

Let’s get situated here: It’s 1913 in France. France still has control of a majority of its African colonies. North, West, Equatorial, East African regions- you name it! To depict a woman of African descent not just equal but suggest a superior stance and aura to a white woman was out of the ordinary for a 48-year-old European white male, to say the least.

Let’s also keep in mind that only 50 years prior to this, Manet painted Olympia. Here, the power play is far more reflective of what the actual racial relationships between white and black women resembled at the time. Like in Vallotton’s work, the white woman is nude while the black woman is fully clothed. The black woman also stands up and is ultimately taller than the reclining white woman on the canvas.


Olympia, Manet, 1863

It’s the same, but drastically different.

Here, the black woman is in a subservient position; she is the white woman’s maid or personal servant. Although fully dressed, the black woman’s body is obscured by frothy cloth and a sprawling floral bouquet. Her body is shrouded and does not attract admiration for its beauty or strength like Vallotton’s. She is merely a background actor, existing only to fulfill the white woman’s desires. Furthermore, the directions of gazes are telling of the relationship between the women. Olympia stares directly out of the canvas to engage with the viewer, while the black woman looks attentively at Olympia, perhaps offering the bouquet or waiting on further orders.

I much prefer Vallotton’s depiction of racial relations to Manet’s, but what bothers me is not knowing why. Why would Vallotton depict a relationship which, historically and sociologically speaking, was extremely uncommon to experience in the early 20th century? What is he trying to say?

Some claim that he was depicting a lesbian relation between the two. Although this may be true, it did not strike me as such when I looked it over. In any case, I would like to believe that the message goes deeper than the lesbian affair, and does indeed aim to comment on racial relations.

What do you think?

De toute manière, Vallotton vaut le coup. 

Header Image: Félix Vallotton, La Blanche et la Noire, 1913

Woman on the Vertical

Elegantines dans un pre

Eglantines dans un pré, Ferdinand Hodler, 1884

Danielle and I spent a great deal of time standing in front of Eglantines dans un pré (Rosebush in a  Meadow) (1884) by Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler. As we squinted at the Hodler, she introduced to me the idea of associating verticality with masculinity. That had never occurred to me before.

This verticality is manifested not only in the shape of the canvas as a whole but in the vertical nature of the subjects depicted in the painting as well. Here we see thin green reeds sprouting from their patch of pasture ground, elongated towards the sky. Dainty swabs of white and pink tones pepper the grass blades and grace the canvas with flower buds. On the upper left-hand corner emerges a noticeability phallic shape, further solidifying the connection between vertical direction, erection, and the masculine.

Man is upright, man is a straight hard edge, man is erected. But enough about men and their penises, it’s time to bring light to another narrative.

Using Danielle’s claim as a jumpstart, I suggested its sister idea. That is, the link between horizontality and femininity. Again and again throughout art history, we see women compared to landscapes. Their sensuous curves parallel distant soft, rolling hills and undulating earthy surfaces. Think Mother Earth. Woman and nature, woman and sweeping landscape. Even if we distance ourselves from speaking directly on Hodler’s piece by taking away the element of landscapes and focus instead on pure vertical and horizontal form in general, my contention still holds. The woman AND the horizontal, the woman ON the horizontal, the woman AS the horizontal itself. Clothed or nude, in ecstasy or slumber, she lays down.

She is plastered against the ground, pushed against the earth, flattened down down down. Think Ingre’s Odalisque, Cabanel’s Venus. Stretching from the 16th to 20th centuries, this has continuously been the case. 

Not convinced? I challenge you to find at least 10 oevres relevant to the art historical cannon from before the 1960s that depict men on a horizontal.

Tricky, isn’t it? That’s because you just don’t see men depicted laying down very often (unless it’s a wounded soldier or Christ’s descent from the cross or something). Much less nude or in ecstasy! It is far more common to see them triumphantly erect, proud, chest puffed out. If you were to conduct the same search for women, however, countless results arise.

All you have to do is Google search “reclining nude” to see what I’m talking about. Although the search does not specify gender, most of the images that pop up will be of women’s mostly naked bodies.

Screenshot 2017-09-17 22.06.13

This whole vertical/horizontal man/woman ordeal connects to a wider dialogue concerning the gender binary and gender roles. To me, it is evident. Men stand tall. Women lay down. The social, political, and economic hierarchy among the sexes is manifested in the depiction of their body language in the paintings I reference. The evidence is scrawled all over the history of artworks.

The woman is physically suppressed, her realm is one which you can look down on, stare at without consequence of confrontation, she is in a submissive pose, at your disposal, at the mercy of the gaze. The male gaze. The world is her oyster, and the oyster is a spoiled marine mass shoved into a miniscule, gnarled shell.

To add a contemporary peg to this train of thought, I found a work by the Guerrilla Girls to be relevant to what I am expressing. The Guerrilla Girls formed in 1985 as an anonymous activist group that aimed to expose gender discrimination in the art world. Their 1989 work Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? is pretty self explanatory once you read the message.

g girls

So, not only is the depiction of the woman in this perpetual suppressed position sexist, but the practices of some of the very institutions that display the art are also sexist. 

SEXCEPTION! Oh wait. Well that didn’t quite translate the way I’d hoped.

Well sheesh, who knew that discussing a Hodler would lead to such an intense art historical analysis of sexism? Certainly not me! But honestly, I’m here for it. What about you?

Words of parting: The woman deserves a place on the vertical, so let’s place her there already.

Header image: Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?, 1989