Friday, 30 November 2018

The "Amour" Exhibition: in praise of love or celebrating misogyny?

Reviewing this exhibition again (see my first review a few days ago), I’m still perplexed. What was this exhibition about ? I looked at the guide, by the exhibition curator Zeev Gourarier, and his choice (presumably) of themes is reasonably clear : "to explore the history of love relations … in order to measure the supposed universality [of love], its cultural and social components."  Yet the image of women presented in this exhibition is very negative, and it would appear the exhibition guide even supports this interpretation : « Starting with original sin, whether it stems from Eve or from Pandora, the exhibition emphasises the female figure. Stigmatised then adored, at times prudish, at times libertine, she occupies the exhibition up to the beginning of free love [amour libre] in the 1960s." 

What free love ?  I didn’t see any. Does amour libre mean something different to free love ? Why does a study of love emphasise Adam and Eve, the expulsion from Paradise, and Pandora’s Box? What do they have to do with love?  The Wikipedia entry for Pandora’s Box, for example, is more than 3,000 words long, but there is no reference to love. There might be a discussion about whether Pandora’s Box contains evils or good things, but love is not one of them.  According to the exhibition guide, « Pandora was created by the Gods as an object of seduction to arouse male desire, while Eve was created as the companion of Man ». In neither case does this involve love, just an unmistakeably negative image of women. 

The scene is set in this exhibition; from the start of history, women are inferior, responsible for the evils of the world, and they never really recover, especially after being seduced throughout the 18th century (of which more later, although it's clear even here that love has little or nothing to do with it). 

The Hesiod myth describes Pandora opening a cask, which released all manner of evils: “But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered, all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men [Loeb,].” But love is nowhere mentioned in the original Greek source. 

Other images in the exhibition show the evil power of women (Samson and Delilah, Judith and Holofernes) and emphasises that classical art “condemns rape in principle but rarely condemns it in practice”, and by way of example, the exhibition includes a well-known mosaic image of the Rape of Europa, with Zeev Gourarier in the audio guide pointing out that Europa seems very cheerful to be abducted by Zeus. What are we to infer from this? Is this a model of love we should follow?

There is a horrific Allegory of Chastity  by Hans Memlinc that shows a woman surrounded by lions and sharp rocks to protect her reputation. Is that love? It's an attitude that will make many viewers scratch their heads to try to understand it. The handful of positive images of women are often unconnected with love, for example a Virgin and Child with saints. Where’s the connection?

We look in vain for positive images to correct these early misogynistic images. One image, from 1525, looks at first glance to be an expression of love, the exchange of rings, but the caption sternly reminds us that "the woman placing her hand on her partner's shoulder is doubtless not a gesture of tenderness but ... a seizing of power."

Apart from the very first room, which shows couples smiling, giving me the impression of a shared and equal love, there are no images of mutual, celebratory love in the whole exhibition. 

What is termed « free love » repeatedly by the guide is exemplified in Niki de saint Phalle’s rather self-centred and winsome expressions of love, without any partner in sight. They might be "expressing a power" but they are hardly positive images to be celebrated. Niki de saint Phalle is the only post-19th century artist in the show (ignoring the last corridor, which comprises hundreds of record sleeves from the 1960s, none of which are credited to any artist).  

Another way to see the limitations of this exhibition is to think about what could have been included. Without thinking for very long, I came up with several possible themes, to include :
  •  Art that depicts genuine loving couples: Rubens and his wife, Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride
  •  Different forms of Greek love – not just Eros, sexual love, but  also Philia (affection, friendship) and Agape (love for others); what about Montaigne's celebration of friendship in his essay de l’Amitie?
  •  Acceptance (or otherwise) of homosexual love: declarations of homosexual passion.  One or two images are included of classical figures who have been interpreted by later commentators as possibly homosexual, but what about modern unambiguous celebrations of homosexual love, for example by David Hockney ?
  • A bit more light-heartedly, perhaps the exhibition could have explored the myth of Paris as the capital of lovers ? Where did that come from? Or perhaps this might not be thought appropriate for a show in Lens.
If you removed the main title from this exhibition and just asked viewers to suggest their own heading for the exhibition after viewing it, the collective title would certainly not be love. That's about as damning a comment as you could make of an exhibition entitled "Amour".

Monday, 26 November 2018

The Louvre-Lens view of art history

The Louvre, we are told by Wikipedia, is the world’s largest art gallery, and the world’s most visited art collection. The opportunity to visit the Louvre-Lens, the new outpost of the Louvre, and only the second location in France, after Paris, creates a sense of anticipation before visiting. Will this be simply a place to display the second-rate stuff, while the really top-rank things remain in Paris? Or is this the opportunity to create a wholly new art-historical experience, freed from the need to display the permanent collection with all its baggage?  

Visually, the Galerie du Temps is splendid – by far the most effective use of space in the new Louvre-Lens building. The Galerie comprises one huge room, with no dividing piers or walls, showing objects in one long chronological progression, with years shown as a timeline on one wall. It is always clear where you are in art history.

Nor is there any question of the quality of many of the objects. Several of the works are in the top rank, culminating in the Delaroche painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps – you can’t get much closer to the French heart than that. A work of outrageous hagiography, it is pure hero worship. Not a great painting, but certainly one of the ten or so most famous works in the Louvre; undoubtedly a masterpiece of propaganda.

Better still, the juxtaposition of civilisations and cultures works very well. The lack of walls means that other objects are in view at all times, so you could be looking at, say, an Egyptian statue and see a medieval king a few yards away. The gallery is excellent for making comparisons.

But what is the logic behind the 200 or so objects? They begin with prehistory, predating Egyptian times. But it ends rather curiously around 1830, for no apparent reason.  In terms of subject matter it reflects the Louvre Paris, in that there is a strong proportion of French art. Some of the objects appear to be included (the Delaroche, for example) as much for their links to French history as for their intrinsic value as works of art. It is not surprising that everything revolves around the Delaroche painting of Napoleon, since this painting, both in its position at the end of the Galerie and its sheer scale, dwarfing most of the other objects in the exhibition, suggests that the Galerie is as much about the history of France as about art history.

Does the Galerie du Temps reflect the Louvre collections? That makes some sense. The strong collections of Greek and Roman art, Egyptian and near Eastern art in the Galerie all correspond with major Louvre collections; and the absence of American, Indian, Chinese and Japanese art can I suppose be explained by the lack of any major collections in the Louvre itself on which to draw.  In other words, the Galerie du Temps is perhaps a kind of taster of the Louvre collections, mirroring the strength (and gaps) of the parent collection. It makes no attempt to be a universal history of world (or even Western) art for the period it covers. Even so, that still does not explain why the Galerie du Temps ends so abruptly when the Louvre collection continues well beyond that date.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Louvre-Lens, and the Galerie du Temps, contain nothing of any relevance to Lens and Northern France. Given that the region has been awarded world heritage status by UNESCO, that perhaps suggests a rather top-down view of high art. Certainly the Louvre-Lens building makes no attempt to integrate with anything in Lens, apart from being built on the detritus from a former coal mine.

To point out just one example of the rather curious selection, the last bay contains, alongside the vast Napoleon picture mentioned above, there is a painting of the artist’s family, by the little-known Claude Dubufe. It’s a lovely painting but appears out of place alongside the very public and conscious striving for effect of portraits by David and Ingres nearby. Similarly, there is a Corot landscape. Why just this landscape, and almost no others? What was the impact of M. Dubufe and his family on world history? 

Other portraits are included, I think, because of the identity of the subject as much as for the quality of the work; an example is a portrait of Mansart, by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Mansart is certainly one of the best-known French architects, but I would not put his portrait in the 200 key works in art history. The question is why include this picture, and not any of 20 or 30 others?

The limitations of this approach are, I think, twofold. First, as stated above, some of the works raise questions because they are not of great art-historical importance in their own right – so you ask why they have been included. Second, the throwing together of so many cultures and ideas make it difficult to make any meaningful comparisons.

In fact, if I were being caustic, I could claim that this display presents a view of art history based around the Louvre collections, largely by French artists in France, supplemented by works that came into French hands as French colonial acquisitions, and culminating in the greatest moment of France’s historical glory, the Napoleonic era (even though in art-historical terms there was much more to come later). I would like to see a spirited defence of the whole exercise by the gallery staff, a justification of the selection, and a room, or at least a small number of works, related to the surroundings. After all, this is Louvre-Lens, not just Louvre no 2.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Looking for Love in Lens

I didn't really intend to look for love. I was visiting the Louvre-Lens museum on a drab day in winter, and it turned out that that largest part of the collection was unexpectedly closed. The Louvre-Lens gallery comprises two wings – the “permanent” collection and temporary shows, with a central entrance, café and shop. The permanent collection is not really permanaent, but changed every year; it comprises a rotating selection of some 200 pieces from the main Louvre collection. However, unknown to us, and not mentioned on the Louvre-Lens website, the permanent collection is closed for three days each year while they change the collection, and hence was closed the day we visited. No problem with that, but since it is an annual event, and the website lists daily activities, you would think it reasonable for the website to state that the galleries are closed. After all, this is the collection for which the Louvre-Lens is best known

Still, there was the temporary exhibition, entitled “Amour”. That’s a big subject, and I can’t say this exhibition exhausts the topic. Perhaps it’s a bit churlish to be negative about such a lovely subject, but this show was very selective, with a lot of gaps. The implied definition of “love” was certainly limited, and yet remarkably there were things on display that should not have been there.

The show was divided into seven “chapters”, and their titles gives you some idea of the problems raised by this selection. I have given the Louvre-Lens translations of each of the chapters together with the original French term:
  1. Seduction (French séduction) - a very disappointing room. It contained some images about abduction (a.k.a. rape), but I don’t think that theme was examined in any detail. There was one rather disturbing image of a naked woman in the foreground, while some violent abduction was taking place in the background; yet for the most part, abduction was seen almost as something to be accepted. The show curator, Zeev Gourarier, states cheerfully on the audio guide that the Roman mosaic with the rape of Europa shows Europa sitting on the bull very cheerfully, not in the least worried about being abducted – after all, it is Zeus doing the abducting, so why worry? After all, as the guide states, “For a long time … the consent of one partner was not necessarily required for the other to experience pleasure. It features a number of kidnappings and abductions”. Well, that’s alright, then; things were different in those days.
  2. Worship (French adoration)
  3. Passion (French passion)
  4. The Relationship (French relation): from the French Louvre-Lens website it would seem this refers to the progress of a love affair - not something I would call in English a relationship; hence a strange one, this, including the idea that in the Renaissance, people would exchange portraits as a prelude to love. Fascinating, but nothing to do with relationships). This section also included the “fete galante”, which is a fascinating topic, but not connected with relationships. It would appear from reading the French
  5. Pleasure (French plaisir)– which included the fascinating revelation of the invention of corridors as a way of enabling intimacy.
  6. Romanticism (French romantisme) which included the odd term "Fusion" – by which is meant kissing and cuddling, in other words an opportunity to show many sculptures of embracing couples.
  7. Freedom (French liberté), which was visualised by the work of just one artist, Niki de Saint Phalle, and some hundreds of record covers. This was the least satisfying room.  There was mention of “free love”, which was never questioned. Niki de Saint Phalle was described as being abused as a child; so perhaps freedom for her was being liberated from others? Her rather trite, sentimental, cartoon-like drawings did not tell us. She seemed to be nostalgically remembering love, not finding either free love or freedom. Why were there no other artists from the last 100 years represented? Did nobody have anything to say about love in that time?

A few other points:
  • Where was their definition of love? There was one painting with Socrates depicted, but no definition of the different types of love common in Ancient Greece, for example.
  • Many of the items on display had no descriptive text, so it was anyone’s guess why they had been selected.
  • By far the bulk of the coverage was heterosexual love between white adults.
  • For such a grand topic, there was very little to challenge the viewer.
  • It wasn’t all bad. Many of the images were wonderful, and some of the captions provided some fascinating insights, for example A tapestry from around 1500 of men and women dancing together pointed out that such an image was highly radical and unprecedented.

What should not have been there? Well, there was a room with some porcelain "entremets", which were described as object to be placed on a table during a meal. Such objects are about as connected with love as my toenails.  Equally, I think it is stretching things to imagine Bernini’s Blessed Ludovico Albertoni is an expression of love. Passion, yes, but not love. In fact, the show seemed more a hotchpotch of images and films about several unconnected topics rather than having any clear central theme of love. By way of example, in every room you could hear Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again” from the film The Blue Angel. I feel very sorry for Emil Jannings, but what happened to him had no connection with love. I’m afraid to say this was an exhibition where the title was guaranteed to get the crowds in, but the thinking behind it was simply not apparent – there was less exploration of what love might involve than the history of Eroticism I reviewed some time ago. So, some lovely things to look at, but I’m no wiser about what love is.  

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Wacky periods in human history

Forget arguments about the validity of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Here is a book (Soul, Self and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State, by Edward Rubin) that claims there are just three periods in “Western ethical life” (whatever that is): the morality of honour, the morality of higher purposes and the morality of self-fulfilment. The morality of honour is from the end of the Roman Empire to 1000; the morality of higher purposes from 1000 until 1800; and finally, the morality of self-fulfilment happened around 1800.

Terms associated with these three moralities are heroism, physical courage, and reputation (for the morality of honour); concern to save one’s soul (for the morality of higher purposes); and concern with present pleasure rather than saving one’s soul (for the modern era). A moment’s thought reveals the idiocy of these categories. If saving one’s soul was the predominant morality to 1800, then what was the Enlightenment doing? Heroism and physical courage may have been a feature of the very few literary works dated before 1000, but they are vastly outweighed by religious works. In terms of output, religion wins by a mile. The reviewer Albert Weale in the TLS spends two columns pointing out shortcomings in the periodization; he could have taken twenty pages. Yet instead of condemning the lunacy of such vast categories, Weale suggests a further periodization of his own: one taken from Henry Sidgwick, suggesting that only in the 17th century in England did there emerge a distinction between thinking what is good for a person and thinking what is good for the world. At least such a distinction could perhaps be validated with a little more precision than Rubin’s three moralities.

Rubin’s argument does not stop there. His book attempts to link morals with the three periods. Self-fulfilment, in Rubin’s terms, is a good, meaning that people living under the ideal of "self-fulfilment" choose the most meaningful life path. However, that doesn’t sound like self-fulfilment to me; I look around and see plenty of examples of self-fulfilment in the modern world that strike me as case studies of excessive egotism. The real problem is that 464 pages can only really be trite, if you try to sum up 2000 years of (Western) human history. By the way, why “Western ethical life”? Was there no ethical life elsewhere? And does he mean what people believed, or what they said they believed, or how they lived? There is enough here for several books, in fact a whole library.   

This broad-brush view of history seems to me to be so much the product of an academic study that it is hardly worth discussing. You can’t help feeling that a few minutes’ discussion with a few other academics before committing any words on paper might have saved a lot of time. As a sixth-form essay it might have been received politely, but as a 464-page monograph you wonder what the point in writing it was. In the TLS it was reviewed under “religion”, a heading that seems as misguided as the book itself. Perhaps anyone who includes the word “soul” in the title of their book suggests a particular world-view that puts into question any dispassionate, neutral analysis of the history of human ethics. Who knows? Rubin himself is a law professor.  

Monday, 19 November 2018

Basildon: impoverished utopia

This documentary about Basildon (New Town Utopia, produced and directed by Christopher Ian Smith) was remarkable for encapsulating a few key years in British social history, with the following key dates:

1948      Foundation of new town of Basildon
1980      The Housing Act under Margaret Thatcher provides council tenants with the “right to buy”.
1974      arrival of the railway (Basildon) – the line was already there when Basildon was founded, but it took more than 25 years for a station to be built. 

The documentary is punctuated by rather patronising comments from Lewis Silkin, planning minister under Atlee, on the vision of Basildon – a very top-down view, guaranteed to alienate the residents. That attitude is mercifully no longer with us. Other indicators of Basildon’s development would be the politics of the town. In 1974 Basildon was a safe Labour seat, then switched to the Tories in 1979, and remained Tory to 1997. Since 2010 it has been Conservative again.

The contrasts highlighted by this documentary include
-          From a town with its own industry, a town where there was no need to travel anywhere else, to a commuter town for London. The railway must have changed the whole composition of the town.
-          From a town based around social provision of amenities, at little or no cost, to a town where you ignored what was already there and bought your own version of theatre, gym, whatever; from a social community to a consumer society (at least, that’s the claim of this film).

In passing, you couldn’t help noticing:
-          An almost complete lack of ethnic minorities in the documentary. Most of the people interviewed were old and white, and most of them male.
-          The documentary is almost entirely based around musicians and painters. Although their view is interesting, it’s only one view; there is no attempt to create a rounded view of Basildon.

So, what are we to make of Basildon from this documentary?The Guardian called it “unapologetically upbeat”; I wouldn’t go so far as that.  Is it a tragic memorial to top-down planning? Is is a memorial to the generation who successfully moved out of London to live in what must have seemed a green paradise? A time capsule of 1960s urban design, most likely, with its one “significant” building, Brooke House, Grade II listed, trying to be vaguely Corbusian but lacking the courage of its convictions.