Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece

Julien Spiewak is young, talented, inspired and modest. His photographic oeuvre has been exhibited at art fairs in Rome, Rio, Seoul, Amsterdam and, significantly, Paris. I meet him at the tenth anniversary of that where-things-happen gallery, Espace L.  

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Canapé Biedermeier (XIXesiècle), portrait de Louis Marguerite van Loon par Thérèse Schwartze (1894), Juliette, fauteuil Louis XV (1750). Musée Van Loon. 2018

Julien took a degree in photography from the University of Paris in 2008. Since, he has with single-minded passion driven one project to considerable success: his Corps du Style (the title being a nod to the Louis XV Style.) His modus operandi comprises an intriguingly staged photograph in which only a part of his or a model’s naked body is set against furniture, painting or sculpture in the sumptuous surroundings of major museums. (Apparently, having access to an empty museum for this exercise is no mean administrative feat!) The resulting images are technically accomplished. Real beautiful stuff! At the same time, there is something a little disconcerting and even amusing in Julien’s striking contrasts between the living body part and the inanimate; the young and the old; the warm and the cold. I can’t help noticing how the rather discrete lines left by the young model’s bra play off the marble’s delicate veins. 

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Colonne de marbre, Carole. Musée Ariana, Ville de Genève. 2018

So far so good. Close co-operation with Espace L took Julien’s work to the Paris Art Fair in 2020. The Director of the Maison de Balzac tapped him on the shoulder, declared an admiration for his project and invited him for tea so to speak. “Have you read D’Honoré de Balzac’s Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu (Unkown Masterpiece)?” asked the Director. Julien had not… but he did soon after. Balzac’s short story, set in Paris and published in 1831, centres on the tortured soul of  a painter called Frenhofer, an old master of the day. Frenhofer tries to execute a masterpiece on canvas but ends up with a chaos of colour and swirls with a protruding human foot. Reading Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu was to be a major light-bulb moment in Julien’s life because, here in Balzac’s words, were countless phrases that seemed to speak directly to his Corps de Style photographed over the preceding years.

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Portrait d’Honoré de Balzac en plâtre patiné de Pierre-Eugène-Émile Hébert (1877), Julien. Maison de Balzac. 2020

Serendipity having added a new dimension to his project, Julien then set about doing his thing at the Maison de Balzac. He was also gifted a facsimile of the first edition of Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu. It’s pages with Julien’s annotations linking his photographs with Balzac’s prose are also on show at Espace L. But the story doesn’t stop there. Enter Leticia – the “L” of Espace L – who, in a former life, was a journalist and publisher. She figured that publishing a book that documents the entirety of Julien’s story and presenting the book together with some of his photographs would make a fitting event to celebrate her ten years in contemporary art in Geneva. She figured right!

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Photo: Talking Beautiful Stuff

Dominique Baqué, a prominent historian of photography, has written the book’s monumental and detailed foreword that reads like an “A” graded academic treatise. She concludes that the real, living, breathing Julien Spiewak represents the incarnation of the fictional Frenhofer. Wow! If she claimed that Julien’s image-making embodies the spirit of Frenhofer, I would readily agree. However, Frehhofer’s spirit is known to live on in real paintings. Paul Cézanne strongly identified with Frenhofer and went so far as to declare “I am Frenhofer!” None other than Pablo Picasso was commissioned to illustrate Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu. He moved his studio close to a where Balzac’s story unfolded and, during World War II, painted his own very well known masterpiece, Guernica.

As I leave Espace L, I ask Julien what he will be doing in ten year’s time. Without hesitation, he answers “Just this….” I think to myself, I can believe it and by then you will have collected the highest accolades in the world of contemporary photography.

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses

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I am in down-town Geneva. I call in at that mine of beautiful stuff, Galerie Cimaise. And what a seam of gold I find! It is the last days of Katrin Benninghoff’s “HORS(ES)”. The gallery’s walls are tastefully hung with large format, striking, close-up photographs of horses. The whole is wonderfully easy on the eye. Each image is intimate, intriguing and technically accomplished and yet there is something at once confusing and troubling at play. The viewer is tricked by his or her own subliminal recognition of the clichéd style of “glamour” photography. But this is a show about neither eroticised beauty nor cosmetic ads in a fashion magazine. This is about horses. At least, I think so.

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Katrin Benninghoff’s life has been dominated by a proximity to horses. Here, she has created an exhibition that is born of her sensitivity to equine power, elegance, fragility and intelligence. She has achieved this by a manifest determination not to portray a whole specimen of equus caballus; her compositions ensure that homo sapiens is never far from the viewer’s mind. I’d go so far as to bet that her influences would lean more towards Robert Mapplethorpe than to George Stubbs or Alfred Munnings. It comes as no surprise when I am told that Aline Kundig, – one of this town’s most daring photographers – has had a hand here.

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I stand in the middle of the gallery and turn full circle taking in this work in its entirety. I have never seen anything quite like it. I pull out my iPhone and google images using key words “horses art” and “horses photographs.” Nothing comes up that in any way resembles what surrounds me. Am I looking at something totally original? Will this exhibition prove to be an important beacon in contemporary photography? Two photographs stand out in this regard.

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The close up of a horse’s buttocks and vulva predictably recalls the human form and if this was the human form, might even be labeled pornography (with little chance of exhibition at Galerie Cimaise!) The image tickles up a prickle of discomfort. But then, I am sure that this is precisely what Ms Benninghoff intends.  

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Why is such a distasteful image of a horse’s mouth so arresting and why does it work in this context? Because this is not a veterinarian’s perspective. This is quite simply the mouth you wouldn’t want to kiss!

Bravo, Katrin!

Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre: an underwhelming experience

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Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of a “helicopter” Pen and brown ink (1487-1489)

A weekend in Paris with friends! We have tickets to visit the biggest ever collection of works by Leonardo da Vinci. Brimming with anticipation, we head off to the Musée de Louvre. The famous glass pyramid sparkles in the light of a crisp January morning. Quelle bonheur! I want to experience up close two of Leonardo’s works that represent the wide range of his extraordinary achievements: a tiny drawing of a hand-cranked helicopter and, of course, the Mona Lisa.

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Infrared reflectogram of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, oil on walnut panel (1503-1519)

We queue to go through a metal detector and to have our bags x-rayed. We queue to show our tickets. We queue to pay for an audioguide. With the receipt for the payment for the audioguide, we queue to pick up the audioguide itself. We are given a hasty explanation of how it works. Apparently, the numbers of the 179 works on display do not correspond to the numbers of the 22 works featured on the audioguide. We enter the exhibition a tad confused and with spirits a little dented.

The free exhibition catalogue is helpful in explaining the phases of Leonardo’s life (that ended 500 years ago), his influences, his interests and his techniques. The Louvre’s chosen approach is very academic and presents the works in four not entirely coherent sections: “Light, shade, relief,” “Freedom,” “Science” and “Life.” With respect to the paintings, there are few complete works (because Leornardo completed so few!) There are many studies executed in chalk or ink. There are also fascinating infrared reflectograms – an imaging technique that traces the carbon of the drawing beneath the layers of coloured paint – of his better known paintings. The section on “Science” makes manifest what puts Leonardo da Vinci in a class of his own. His truly beautiful drawings and hall-mark mirror writing reveal an inquisitive technical mind and a profound comprehension of worldly things. He was way ahead of his time. He mastered anatomy (which meant he dissected dead bodies.) He mastered geometry. He mastered chiaruscuro – the drawing of light and shade. He observed and drew strata in rock formations, the growth of trees, the nature of waves and fluid mechanics. He imagined and designed numerous machines and buildings.

Regrettably, I am unable to say whether the Louvre is successful in making the oeuvre of this towering genius accessible to the exhibition-goer. Why? People! The place is heaving. Like hundreds of sheep we shuffle around shoulder to shoulder all trying to get a view of the great master’s works. It’s impossible to take a quiet moment to appreciate them. And… merde! … every picture has hands in front of it all manipulating smart phones. The works that feature on the audioguide are obviously those that draw most interest – and most smart phone photography! Further, the audioguide number is displayed so low on the wall that it can be difficult to find through the press of twenty-first century humanity. It is not always clear precisely to which work or works the audioguide is referring. In brief, the exhibition is a chore. Add the crush of people and the experience is an exercise in frustration with little to reward us for having braved the current French transport strikes to get there. And I’m sorry to say, the news gets worse.

Isn’t it reasonable to expect to see the Mona Lisa at this exhibition? She is, after all, housed permanently in the Louvre. Wouldn’t you think that the infrared reflectogram of the Mona Lisa is a foretaste of what must certainly be awaiting us in the last room? Inexplicably, the audioguide when describing the sepia toned infrared reflectogram refers to the colours of the Mona Lisa’s lips and skin in the conditional tense. Most bizarre of all, the narrative ends with “The real Mona Lisa belongs to the King of France and to see it you have to go to Fontainebleu.”

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The room in the Denon wing of the Louvre that houses the Mona Lisa. (That’s her at the far end!)

Having queued to return our audioguides, we head off to a nearby bistro for lunch. We admit to each other that the morning was not what we were hoping for. We agree that the absence of the Mona Lisa is both a surprise and a disappointment. We also concur that the audioguide really did make reference to the world’s most famous painting belonging to the King of France! Is there still a King of France? But then, on examining a casually picked up museum brochure, we see that the Mona Lisa is still displayed at the Louvre but in a different wing several floors up. Obviously, the Louvre wants her to remain viewable by the broader public but nothing indicated that she would not be part of the dedicated Leonardo exhibition. Communication 101! So we decide to return and, inevitably, we join the longest queue of the day to stand for 30 seconds in front of her. And of course, it’s Mona Lisa selfie time.

It saddens me that the works of one of the greatest minds ever in one of the greatest museums ever can be exhibited with such mediocrity. The exhibition closes on 24th February. Don’t join a brawl for remaining tickets.

Emrys Parry at Mandell’s Gallery, Norwich

Norwich. My home town. There are places here that carry enduring attraction. The castle. The cathedral. Elm Hill. Mandell’s Gallery. They’re all a long way from the spiritual home of Emrys Parry in Northern Wales.

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Emrys Parry “Man with dog” Mixed media 20cm x 12cm.

The first of Parry’s images that draws me in is deceptively simple. A man – a little worried and looking directly at the viewer – holds a dog in both arms. The lines are economically and elegantly painted on and cut out from a page of a Norwich telephone directory. The numbers make a digital column that runs down through both man and dog giving the impression that they are so close that their DNA is shared. I find this small picture at once touching, intriguing and satisfying.

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Emrys Parry “Land of my fathers” Mixed media 25cm x 25cm.

Another telephone-directory-man sings looking heavenward. The background is a stylised landscape comprising trees, a winding road and three mountains.

I learn that Parry left Wales in 1959 at the age of 17 to study Art and Design in Leicester. In 1963, he began a Norfolk-based teaching career at the Great Yarmouth School of Art and Design. However, he admits he has never severed the umbilical cord of his Welsh upbringing and the land of his fathers: the three-peaked Llyn Peninsula.

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Emrys Parry “Black bird with script” Oil on canvas 50cm x 50cm.

Parry’s recent work relies less on observation and more on memory, myth and story-telling; it reflects a longing for his roots and a concern for the survival of Welsh culture. The Welsh language names eight three-hour intervals of a day. These eight words are found in many of his pictures. I wonder if the swooping black crow of time is, little-by-little, stealing away these words forever.

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Emrys Parry “Frightened horse” Oil on Canvas 40cm x 40cm.

I am enjoying Parry’s beautiful stuff enormously. Here, his wonderful nearly-abstract-frightened-horse-nod-to-cubism is within neighing distance of the three Llyn Peninsula peaks.

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Emrys Parry “Twelve heads” Mixed media on canvas 100cm x 100cm.

The work that I really fall for has pride of place in Mandell’s. Twelve telephone-directory faces are painted in Parry’s signature dashed-cartoon style. Each man stares through me with intensity. Each seems like a good bloke. Is this a Welsh all- male choir? Welsh apostles? Twelve solid Welsh working men? A Welsh rugby team (minus the back row)? Whatever their purpose, these men are clearly united.

The ever-welcoming director of Mandell’s, Rachel Allen, deserves praise for this stylish exhibition. Each work has been beautifully framed and presented including a display of Parry’s exquisite sketchbooks and diaries.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to meet Emrys Parry himself. The most telling part of his bio reads “I am interested in the imprint of man on his environment and how past thoughts and actions of individuals are recorded and transmitted by the objects they leave behind. I believe that things created with love have a memory and warmth which is accessible to those who seek it for all time.” Evidently, he also is a good bloke. But I know that anyway; he taught my brother, Garth, how to draw!

Tate Britain: exhilarating and exhausting

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Tate Britain bowls me over again. In one hit – in retrospect, a mistake – I get to take in the work of Vincent Van Gogh and Don McCullin with Mike Nelson as the bonus prize. These three stunning exhibitions could not be more different. I only have the morning. I move through them perhaps too quickly; the resulting cocktail of emotions takes me surprise.

Van Gogh came to London in 1873 at the age of twenty; he lived here for three years. England and english people inspired him; when his work became well-known, he in turn inspired English writers and painters.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Prison Courtyard” Oil on canvas 1890 (after Gustave Doré, “The exercise yard at Newgate Prison” Engraving on paper 1872.)

Long after leaving England, he painted a prison exercise yard. This was inspired by a fascination for London’s seedy underbelly and descriptions of the city’s prisons by Charles Dickens: a writer whom the young painter admired greatly.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Starry night” Oil on canvas, 1888

Years after his death in 1890, Van Gogh’s work was labelled “post-impressionism.” Some found the style shocking but exhibitions of his paintings in London drew thousands. The hall-mark brushstroke technique was eagerly adopted by the Camden Town Group of painters.

Soothed and enchanted by Vincent’s starry, starry night, I believe myself ready for Don McCullin. Wrong again!

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Don McCullin “Londonderry, Northern Ireland” 1971

Don McCullin is a legend. This comprehensive show covers his extraordinary sixty-year photographic trajectory through the world’s worst trouble – misery spots. There is a reason that the Tate has an advisory notice pertaining to his images. Much of the subject matter is heart-wrenching; the outstanding quality of the (self-printed!) photographs only serves to make them more powerful still. And there are hundreds of them. I recoil from the man-made suffering, the executions, the starvation and the dead bodies. It cuts just that bit close to my bone. I notice that the many viewers fuse into a sort of silent, shuffling, heavy-weight-around-neck chain gang tasked with looking at McCullin’s photos. Some of us loiter around his own escapism in the relatively few but exquisite landscapes and still-life studies.

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Don McCullin “Shell-shocked US Marine, the battle of Hué” 1968

I confine my focus to his portraits. Even these can be harrowing. Probably the best known is the Vietnam shell-shocked American soldier of whom he took several photos and who neither moved nor blinked over several minutes. In the trade, this is known as the “thousand-yard stare.” McCullin admits that receiving praise for photographing the suffering of others sits uncomfortably in his soul.

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Don McCullin “A boy at the funeral of his father who died of AIDS, Kawama cemetery, Ndola, Zambia” 2000

I try – and fail – to imagine how McCullin has been able to cope with the extreme insecurity and distress inherent in his chosen contexts and then function professionally and creatively. I leave this landmark exhibition steeped in admiration for the man, his endurance, his compassion and for what he has achieved with his talent.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

I literally stumble into the Duveen galleries; the main central space of Tate Britain. I am looking at some old telegraph poles and a section of a wide concrete pipe laid out on some canvases all in a kind of makeshift roofless shed.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

The galleries are full of old machinery and a variety of heavy objects mostly associated with manufacture. Everything sits on a neat stone plinth. Is it an industrial museum? Is it a contemporary installation? Is it a tongue-in-cheek collection of big old heavy mechanical and electric stuff. Well…. all of the above! And what’s more, it contrasts rather deliciously with the classic architecture of the space. What I am standing in – and enthralled by – is “The Asset Striipers” created by Mike Nelson for the annual Tate Britain Commission.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

Nelson’s concept for the commission is that the Duveen Galleries become a kind of warehouse of objects that serve as monuments of Britain’s former industrial wealth just as the industrial is being superceded by the digital; as manufactrure is being superceded by service. To make the point, he selected and purchased all the objects through on-line auctions of asset strippers and company liquidators. I find the concept at once brilliant and intriguing.

Then suddenly I am drained. I feel as though I have just climbed off one of those roller-coaster rides that is supposed to be fun but, in reality, precipitates spells of wheeeeee… and white-knuckle nausea. I head for the main exit with a haste that surprises me. I find calm on Millbank; the black taxis, the River Thames and the unseasonably warm May London sunshine.

All images reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.