July 26, 2015

The Mad Mad World of "Ubu Roi"

Imagine that you are a guest at an elegant dinner party held in an all-white apartment in Paris' chic XVIième arrondissement.  Apart from the hosts' self-obsessed teenage son who occupies himself with a hand held video camera, everything is perfect until, without warning, the bourgeois husband and wife morph into raging maniacs - swearing, hallucinating, destroying the apartment and attacking each other and their guests - and in the next moment sitting at the table as though nothing had happened.  Sound like a nightmare?  Well, it's actually a contemporary take on a late 19th century play by Alfred Jarry now being performed as part of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival, and it's amazing!

Here's a little background.  Alfred Jarry was French writer known for his sharp wit and biting criticism of the conventional.  Born in 1873 he lived a short but meteoric life dying in squalor of tuberculosis at the age of 34.  While he produced several manuscripts of plays, prose and poems, it was his creation of the character "Ubu Roi" for which he is best remembered.

The play "Ubu Roi" opened and closed at the Théâtre de l'Œuvre in Paris on December 8, 1896.  Its outrageous, anti-social and generally offensive nature literally caused riots in the audience who objected to the language (the first word uttered is "merdre" a made-up variation of "s**t") the violence and the blatant derision of "normal" behavior and values.  Despite this inauspicious beginning, the play became a major influence on the Symbolist, Dada and Surrealist art movements, and, as this current production by the Cheek by Jowl company attests, remains significant to this day.

Briefly, the story begins with Mère Ubu persuading her husband, Père Ubu, Captain of the Dragoons, to kill King Wenceslas and assume the Crown of Poland.  Even though King Wenceslas is about to promote Père to Count of Sandomar, Ubu goes ahead with the scheme and murders the King.  The widowed Queen Rosemonde and their son, the Crown Prince Bougrelas, are legitimately frightened and go into hiding where the Queen dies.  Ubu Roi becomes completely obsessed with money and power, terrorizing the population to gain more and more dominance.  His wife, Mère Ubu, realizes that he is out of control and tries to stop him to no avail - Ubu Roi continues his murderous rampage by eliminating the magistrates and financiers who obstruct him before escaping to Russia.

In the meantime, Mère Ubu tries to steal back some of the ill-gotten treasure while Captain Bordure, a co-conspirator, realizes the monster he has created and implores the Tzar to declare war on Ubu.  Ubu Roi has defeated the Russians and survives an attack by a bear when his wife finds him and, disguised as the Angel Gabriel, implores him to forgive her.  The pair fight until she is rescued by the Crown Prince who is avenging the death of his father.  Finally, Ubu Roi succeeds in fending off his attackers with the body of the dead bear and he and his wife return to France and live happily ever after.

Sound bizarre?  You have no idea!  Whether performed in 19th century France or 21st century New York City the story is as madcap and shocking now as it would have been then.  An irreverent combination of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and Sophocles' "Œedipus Rex", Jarry's play lampoons government, society, religion and family values with an energy that is astonishing.  In between polite, civilized, dinner party conversation, the action erupts with manic bursts of rage and violence, vicious and infantile at the same time.  Performed in the original French with subtitles, this production of "Ubu Roi" is as relevant today as it was in fin-de-siècle Paris and was a more-than-stimulating theatrical event.

July 19, 2015

Two Tates, Three Women

I wrapped up my recent trip to Europe with a few days in London where we had what I thought was lovely summer weather but the locals considered a heat wave!  No matter what your definition of sizzling there was plenty of hot art to be found at the two Tates which are currently featuring outstanding retrospectives of three women artists.

Let's begin at the Tate Britain, Millbank, a short walk from the Pimlico Tube Station, where an homage to one of England's most famous sculptors opened in early June.  Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) devoted her life to carving wood and stone beginning in the 1920s and continuing until she perished in a fire at her home in Cornwall.

A native of Yorkshire, Hepworth is primarily known for her work in St. Ives where she had lived since 1939 and consequently assimilated the landscape and culture into her work.  Though her earliest pieces were figurative in nature, her ethos became more and more abstract as she explored the theories of her European colleagues, such as Jean Arp and Constantine Brancusi, and
fellow Brits, like Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson whom she married in 1938.

Barbara Hepworth was an early practitioner of the avant garde practise of "Direct Carving" preferring to work directly on the material to be sculpted without using preliminary models for an artisan to follow.  By avoiding a third party, i.e. the technician, the resulting piece is an even more intimate expression of the artist's intent and in Hepworth's case, the relationship between nature and people.

As well as being a thoughtful and intelligent artist, Hepworth was also a shrewd promoter.  She knew exactly how she wanted her work to be seen and maintained complete control over its presentation and publicity.  I came away from this exhibition not only far more aware of her contribution to modern sculpture but very impressed by her marketing skills as well.

A short and scenic ride on the Tate Boat takes us along the Thames from the Tate Britain to the Tate Modern.  Here we have two more special exhibitions, both dedicated to 20th century woman artists.

The first is the continuation of an exhibition that I saw in Paris and blogged about last November (see "Delaunay & Delaunay - Robert & Sonia Reign Over Paris") so I will not explore this version too deeply.   However, I did spend a very rewarding half and hour revisiting the show and was very impressed with the Tate Modern's presentation.

This is the first UK retrospective of the work of Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) and the curators gave equal weight to her contributions to both the fine arts and her more commercial endeavors in the decorative arts.  From her early paintings and book illustrations to her hugely successful textile and fashion designs to her impressive panels for the 1937 Paris Exhibition, the exhibition explored all facets of this Modernist artist and very modern woman.

I have saved the best for last.  Also on view at the Tate Modern is a major retrospective of the American abstract artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004).  I was vaguely familiar with the œuvre of Martin having been intrigued by her large, square canvas' with their delicate pencil lines at major art fairs over the years, but I didn't know much about her.

Meticulously crafted and very distinctive, I had always found Agnes Martin's works quite beautiful in their simplicity but I wasn't entirely sure that there was enough there to sustain a solo museum exhibition.  But after about a minute in the first room I was hooked and with each gallery became more and more entranced with her technique and her vision.

Agnes Martin was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, but moved to the United States as a teenager.  Much like her fellow artist Georgia O'Keeffe, Martin first worked as a school teacher, then spent some time in New York painting with fellow abstract expressionists Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman before settling in Taos, New Mexico.  A closet homosexual, Martin also suffered from schizophrenia and used the discipline of painting and the regularity of the stripes and pencil lines to keep her grounded.

The rectilinear grids we see repeated over and over in various combinations and against different colored backgrounds are mesmerizing - almost Zen in their tranquility.  At first glance the groups of paintings seemed identical but with a second look there were distinct differences and after a little more time each work was truly unique. 

The Tate's survey of the paintings, drawings and prints of Agnes Martin was outstanding and a far more powerful experience than I had anticipated.  Stripes and lines were never so fascinating!

"Happy Holiday", 1999
Oil and graphite on canvas

July 03, 2015

A Day Trip to the Castle of Angers

Located about 200 miles southwest of Paris, in the Loire Valley, is the historic city of Angers (pronounced "ahn jay").  Once the capital city of the province of Anjou, it is the cradle of the Plantagenet dynasty, a major source of slate and hydrangeas, and the home of Cointreau liquor.  But Anger's biggest claim to fame is undoubtedly its massive fortress, the Château d'Angers, that is now the repository of the celebrated Apocalypse Tapestry.

I must admit that I knew nothing about Angers or its priceless treasures when some Parisian friends suggested that we spend a Sunday visiting the city.  In a leap of faith I agreed, trusting that Françoise and Alain wouldn't make me catch an early morning train if it wasn't worthwhile!

Under a glorious blue sky we arrived by TGV and walked the short distance to the Château that overhangs banks of the Maine River and dominates the skyline.  The original fortress was begun in the 9th century by the Counts of Anjou and thereafter it passed through various royal hands and was enlarged and adapted to its present day area of 220,000 square feet.  The protective outer wall is nearly ten feet thick and is spotted with seventeen perimeter towers, each 59 feet in diameter.  Not surprisingly, the fortress was never breached and remained a formidable garrison until World War II when a German ammunition storage facility inside the castle blew up.

Today the Château is owned by the City of Angers and it serves as a museum with gardens, a space for temporary art exhibitions, a charming café, an apiary and even a vineyard!  But what visitors come from far and wide to see is the world's oldest and largest collection of medieval tapestries and in particular the Apocalypse Tapestry.

I am not a connoisseur of tapestries but I have seen a few very impressive examples like the Unicorn Tapestries at The Cloisters, The Lady and the Unicorn at the Cluny, and The Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings.  Nothing could have prepared me for the impact of entering a darkened gallery with red and blue ground woven tapestries extending from floor to ceiling, as far as the eye could see.  And when we reached the end of the long hall, the tapestry continued on around the corner and down another stretch.

Commissioned circa 1375 by Louis I, the Duke of Anjou, the tapestry was designed by Hennequin de Bruges and woven in Paris by Nicolas Bataille and Robert Poincon between 1377 and 1382.  Originally comprising 90 different scenes and covering 436 linear feet, the intensely colored woven hangings tell the story of the Book of Revelations, the final chapter of the New Testament of Saint John.

"La femme recoit des ailes"

 "Une deuxième ange annonce la chute de Babylone"

The account of Christ's victory over Evil and the end of the world is told in six "chapters". each announced by a figure on a pulpit reading the "revelation" to follow.  In a fascinating parade of dragons, monsters, prostitutes and angels, the panels depict battles, destruction and death before God triumphs over all.

 "La prostituée sur la bête"

"St. Jean mange le livre"

Although the exact purpose of such an enormous tapestry is not known, it is thought to have been displayed outside of the castle on festival days as an allegory for the ongoing Hundred Years War being waged between France and England.  After being held by the Dukes of Anjou for over a century, the tapestry was gifted to the Angers Cathedral where it remained until the French Revolution when it was taken and cut up for use as floor mats, horse blankets and to protect the orange trees from frost.  Remarkably, all but sixteen of the original panels have been located and most of these have been returned to the City of Anger.

"Le sommeil des justes"

Today, visitors can view 71 of these panels, beautifully restored and hanging in a specially constructed gallery.  To walk the 100 meter length (longer than a football field), or sit on elevated benches to quietly contemplate this extraordinary legacy is an awe inspiring experience and one that I am most grateful to have had.

July 01, 2015

A Visit to the Fondation Louis Vuitton

What do you get when you put a renowned architect together with a very wealthy foundation to build a repository for a contemporary art collection?  The answer was unveiled last October when the magnificent Frank Gehry designed Fondation Louis Vuitton opened its doors to rave reviews.  Curious to see what all the fuss was about, I took advantage of a beautiful Saturday afternoon in June to hop on the Number 1 Métro line to Les Sablons station to visit this new marvel of architecture and art.

A clearly marked route takes visitors through the historic Jardin d'Acclimatation designed after Hyde Park in London to provide urban dwellers with a green space for recreation and botanical studies.  A legacy of Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie, this beautiful park features pavilions and pools as well as a palmarium, an aviary and horse stables, and is as popular today as it was when it opened 150 years ago.

After a short walk the landscape changes and soon the Foundation's amazing structure appears, its glass and white curves rising above the treeline.  Conceived by Frank Gehry as billowing sails around an "iceberg" core, the stately edifice seems poised to embark on a magical journey.

The Fondation Louis Vuitton was formed in 2006 as a private cultural initiative with the purpose of promoting and supporting contemporary art in France.  In their quest to create an important cultural center, the Foundation gave Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry carte blanche to design a building that would put them on the map.  And on the map they are.  The Fondation Louis Vuitton is a masterpiece of both design and technology - so impressive that the art collection it houses is almost secondary.

Inspired by the Victorian glass exhibition halls of Paris (Grand Palais) and London (Crystal Palace), Frank Gehry has created a futuristic greenhouse that echos the shapes of the gardens surrounding the structure.  The twelve billowing "sails" comprise 3,600 panes of glass, each one twisted both vertically and horizontally and no two exactly alike, and 19,000 sheets of a white fibre-reinforced concrete called Ductal.  The glass was made on-site in specially designed furnaces while the Ductal is a relatively new compound that blends the strength of concrete with the flexibility of metal.

The glass and white concrete shell is supported by wood and steel beams - so beautifully constructed and installed that they look like sculpture.

The 126,000 square foot interior features an auditorium, with a mural by Ellsworth Kelly...

Multiple terraces and observation decks, many with art installations...

All with views...

A cascading waterfall...

An excellent restaurant called Frank's, with a Gehry-designed "fish chandelier"...

And eleven art galleries...

Right now, on the lower level is a very special exhibition called "Keys to a Passion", the third stage in the inauguration of the Fondation Louis Vuitton.  On view are masterworks by Bacon, Giacometti, Kandinsky Matisse, Munch and Picasso, to name just a few, culled from the LVMH collection as well as loans from some major museums.

Its hard to say what was more impressive, the building or the art, but either is worth a return visit.  I leave you with my farewell view of this architectural jewel, the "stern" of the "ship" sailing off to parts unknown!