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.  

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece 1
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. 

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece 2
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.

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece 3
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!

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece 4
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

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 1

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.

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 2

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.

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 3

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.

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 4

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.  

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 5

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!

The COVID Chronicles – 18

Geneva, 27 June, 2021

The COVID Chronicles 60

New Zealand, the brightest beacon of covid-correctness, is sitting smugly in its own unique elysian isolation. The Land of the Long White Cloud is, according to friends there, going through a process of rediscovery. Those happy-go-lucky kiwis are finding places and community as they were before being swamped by hoards of inconsiderate overseas tourists (like me.) Life, it seems, is just a box of fluffy ducks. And there is good news elsewhere. Despite disruption of their formal education, children are reading more books as a result of the lockdowns. The property market is booming in many countries as those who can tele-work re-assess the necessity of living close to urban centres. Outdoor pursuits such as cycling see an unprecedented hike in popularity. E-meeting systems – through their quality and people’s increasing familiarity with them – are becoming accepted as the norm. I met a cosmetic surgeon who claims to be in the pink thanks to the pandemic. He says people are so horrified by confronting their own image on zoom all day and every day that they want just a little teeny-weeny botox injection.

And how time flies! It is nearly eighteen months since the disappearance of jet streams from the skies over Geneva and the appearance of supermarket trolleys piled high with toilet paper. Little by little we have become accustomed to life in the era of COVID-19. And what’s more, it is now clear that this is something that is with us for good.  We just have to work out how best to live with interim measures involving masks, hand sanitisers, social distancing (there’s a phrase we hadn’t heard before March 2020!) and travel restrictions. Meantime, we await the ultimate means to control the virus’s impact; that is, a sufficient proportion of the human population being immune to serious COVID-19 infections through vaccination.

But then, as has become apparent, it’s not so simple. A year ago, we believed the roll out of an effective vaccination programme would simply clear up the aftermath of the pandemic (or first) wave and prevent a second wave. Last December, we had the welcome news that an effective vaccine would be available in 2021. This news coincided with the reality that a second wave was already under way in many countries. Little did we know that the virus would show its true colours and keep many steps ahead of us by generating even more transmissible versions of itself that show no respect for national boundaries. The foreseen roll out of vaccination campaigns has turned into a desperate race to keep up with the new variants; the big fear being one such will pop up that is vaccine resistant. On a global scale, inequitable access to vaccines, testing protocols and global travel restrictions including mandatory quarantine have become, predictably, major political issues.

A conversation after a round of golf. Me: “Have you had your vaccinations yet?” Golfer1 (articulate, educated, businessperson): “No, I don’t trust them.” Me: “Who don’t you trust?” Golfer1 “The World Health Organisation.” Me: “Why don’t you trust the WHO?” Golfer1 “They changed their definition of a flu pandemic in 2009. And their vaccines are dangerous.” Me: “Urrm… OK … but it’s your government that is running the vaccination programme… and all evidence points to the vaccines being safe.” Golfer1 considers this for a moment and lights up another cigarette. I wonder if I have at hand a copy of “Health for Dummies.” Golfer2 (health-care professional) joins the conversation: “I’m not going to get vaccinated. I’m waiting to see what happens.” Me: “What is it that might happen that you’re waiting to see?” Golfer2: “Oh, you know, side-effects. Case numbers. Things like that.” My mind boggled. My jaw-dropped. “Brace! Brace! Brace!” screamed a voice in my head.

The COVID Chronicles 61
Source: Johns Hopkins

As I write, news comes in of booming case numbers and overloaded health facilities in St Petersburg, Russia. This coincides with – and may be linked to – that city hosting several of the European (Football) Championship matches. Sydney, Australia, is in lockdown again as a result of a spike in cases of the delta variant. And the Olympic Games in Japan are just weeks away. Current case numbers there are higher than the peak of the first wave. This does not look good.

The COVID Chronicles 62
Source: Johns Hopkins

Concerns about the global economic impact of the pandemic seem to be bubbling away on a back burner; at least for the time being. I haven’t come across any credible predictions about how this is going to play out in the months and years ahead. Having said that, there is evidence of strong undercurrents in the great money ocean. Perceptions of the Swiss Franc as a financial safe-haven in global hard times have forced Swiss banks to bring in negative interest rates. Yes, negative interest!! This is to deter people simply loading up their Swiss accounts. My bank announced a couple of weeks ago that savings would be charged 0.75% per annum. Conversely, if I were to take out a mortgage with them, I would benefit from a negative interest rate meaning that I would ultimately pay back less than I borrowed. The world of high finance slips even further from my comprehension. 

I’ve had my two vaccinations. Case numbers here in Switzerland are dropping dramatically. This will be the last of these chronicles….. unless, for whatever reason, we go back into full lockdown.