Friday, May 31, 2019

Strange Beasts...

A brooding beast to mark the end of the month. In fact, this is was one of a collection of curious creatures to be found in different exhibitions around town by the artist Mauro Corda.

Some of the sculptures are of imaginary hybrid creatures such as this snaky -headed 'cobra tiger', above, which looks as if it is preparing to strike.

Or this rather more docile camel-unicorn...

Or the 'walrus bear', above, with its impressive pair of ivory tusks, roaring at passers-by from its bank of shale.

Other figures are of real-life species, albeit in danger of extinction. Take this enormous sculpture of a perched fruit bat, hanging from an imposing stand of at least two metres in height...

Or this cluster of oil-coated mischievous meerkats that huddle together on an upturned barrel...
One of the key features of the show are the numerous sportive bas-reliefs to highlight the 2024 Olympic Games, to be held in Paris...

The following black and white portraits were part of the Chambres exhibition – Positif/Négatif – Noir/Blanc. Whilst the portraits were classic bas-reliefs, rather like traditional death masks, the white versions were concave – as if the faces were molded into the bed pillows.

The masks that I preferred were the ones of the most interesting facial traits, with less regular features. Prettiness never seems to highlight character in art in the same way that rugged, striking expressions do. All those prominent noses, craggy jaws and brows, hooded eyelids and etched skin seem to tell a story where the conventionally attractive features simply fail. Pity life cannot follow along the same aesthetic lines!

I have often noticed that modern figures in ultra-realistic sculpture do not always seem to convey an appropriate tone and mood and often look like Disneyfied pieces of work.

I didn’t initially appreciate all the Corda portraits for this reason of ‘blandness’. Many just seemed to be 3D print-outs rather than real artistic portrayals. However, once I had just focused on the more interesting faces, I really did start to enjoy the exhibition. The white portraits look better in photo than reality, I noticed, but the optical effect is lost.

Corda is a contemporary sculptor, born in 1960, who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Reims.

I am off to see an exhibition of the street artist Levalet in Rouen tomorrow! Update to follow!

Thursday, May 30, 2019

After the Rain, the Sun....

The month has been taken up by extremes of the pleasant and not so pleasant... Fortunately, troublesome legal formalities, tax declarations and hassle at work have all been offset by trips, visits and concerts. These all seem to alternate with a certain reliability, yet their rate and rhythm are difficult to foresee.

Meanwhile, as unseasonably cold weather gives way to warmer temperatures, a new passionflower plant is growing up, sending out a collection of tendrils, shoots and striking flowers. The honeysuckle that had to be cut back last year is about to burst out in bloom too... However, the vine weevil beetles are also back on the balcony, readily devouring foliage with voracious appetite, presumably priming themselves for another onslaught on my flowering treasures whilst I prepare myself..... for war.

It all seems to be swings and roundabouts and the other day I actually found myself humming this funny old school-assembly hymn which is quite soothing in its simplicity. Right, off for some nocturnal beetle-bashing!

                Glad that I live am I
                That the sky is blue;
                Glad for the country lanes,
                And the fall of dew.
                After the sun, the rain,
                After the rain the sun;
                This is the way of life,
                Till the work be done.

                     Lizette W. Reese (1856–1935)

Street Activity

Last week I came across another work by the street artist Levalet. Stuck in an otherwise unoccupied alcove on the grimy façade of a building that houses a law firm stands a rather jaded Lady Justice. She looks down below, cigarette nonchalently perched on her lips, clasping her Iphone as she props a drooping set of scales over her arm. Her blindfold has slipped down from her eyes, to be worn bandana-style around her neck. There is no limb to grasp onto the sword by her side...
Is this an illicit tobacco break or is she about to throw the towel in?

This is Iustitia, the Roman goddess, who, alongside Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance, was of the four cardinal Virtues in mythology. Her Greek counterpart is known as Themis, the personification of 'divine order, law, natural law and custom'. She was also mother to the three Fates, who literally weaved the destinies of men on the loom that laid out the threads of life's tapestry. Through this divine female frontline, mere mortals were assessed, judged with reason and rationality, and finally  punishment was meted where due.

On numerous law courts around the world, Iustitia is traditionally dressed in a Greco-Roman toga, as worn by classical figures of philosphy and mythology, thus highlighting the ancient Roman adage "Cedant arma togae" (meaning "Let war give way to the civil power.") Justice is presented as 'blind' (hence the eye-covering) since justice is objective and unbiased. It does not pass judgement based on mere appearance but the weight of fact. Likewise, the scales of justice measure both sides of the story at hand with fairness. The wronged and the alleged wrong-doer, the opposing parties are treated with objectivity and the final outcome - the rightful verdict - is governed by the weight of evidence. Justice symbolically keeps the double-sided sword by her side, ready to strike a blow and deliver a binding decision. Physical might is thus led by justice alone and wielded with logic and reason, keeping corruption at bay, symbolized by the serpent under the left foot of Justice. Sadly there is no snake in this image of a worn-down provincial French Lady Justice, perhaps not all that surprising in view of the present social/political climate.

While vast parts of the country regard the future of France in the bleakest, blackest of lights, seeing red with every measure of action or inactivity n the government's part, the vision of this rage is bright yellow in colour; les gilets jaunes. Shortly after noticing this rémoise Justice, I encountered crowds of demonstrators and wreckers going on the smash around the town - breaking and burning, slicing and shattering. Initially, they seemed to have taken aim at affluent commercial institutions such as banks, insurance and estate agencies, and the odd jewellery store, but as they headed up my street, any old glass window, item of street furniture, fencing, railing, traffic light and humble wheelie rubbish bin became fair target.
No wonder Justice has laid down her sword and turned to her fags and phone!

A shattered glass 'spider's web' on a street sign.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Cats About Town....

The odd occasion that I encounter a cat out and about the city centre is not usually a happy event since invariably the poor creature in question has escaped from some building and got lost in the streets. However, there are a few other feline forms to be encountered around town.

I wonder who commissioned these features in the reconstruction years after World War 1 and why we no longer see anything even vaguely comparable today.

The majority of these beautiful details are well above the eyeline so it really is worth looking up as you wander around the streets and notice the Art Déco architecture.

Not only are there sculpted forms to decorate building façades, a wide variety of mozaics serve the same purpose. You just have to know where to find them, but it is not always that easy!

These mozaics just capture the antics of prowling cats perfectly...

I wonder whose cats were the inspiration for these works....

And if the individual who ordered such architectural features chose cats out of personal preference...

These days, there are a few feline references to be found around town in the form of street art. The following is the work of C215, a French artist who also held an exhibition here in 2016.

C215 in Reims

All of these mischievous cats remind me of the poem my Dad used to read us...


Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town by T. S. Eliot

Bustopher Jones is not skin and bones--
In fact, he's remarkably fat.
He doesn't haunt pubs--he has eight or nine clubs,
For he's the St. James's Street Cat!
He's the Cat we all greet as he walks down the street
In his coat of fastidious black:
No commonplace mousers have such well-cut trousers
Or such an impreccable back.
In the whole of St. James's the smartest of names is
The name of this Brummell of Cats;
And we're all of us proud to be nodded or bowed to
By Bustopher Jones in white spats!

His visits are occasional to the Senior Educational
And it is against the rules
For any one Cat to belong both to that
And the Joint Superior Schools.

For a similar reason, when game is in season
He is found, not at Fox's, but Blimpy's;
He is frequently seen at the gay Stage and Screen
Which is famous for winkles and shrimps.
In the season of venison he gives his ben'son
To the Pothunter's succulent bones;
And just before noon's not a moment too soon
To drop in for a drink at the Drones.
When he's seen in a hurry there's probably curry
At the Siamese--or at the Glutton;
If he looks full of gloom then he's lunched at the Tomb
On cabbage, rice pudding and mutton.

So, much in this way, passes Bustopher's day-
At one club or another he's found.
It can be no surprise that under our eyes
He has grown unmistakably round.
He's a twenty-five pounder, or I am a bounder,
And he's putting on weight every day:
But he's so well preserved because he's observed
All his life a routine, so he'll say.
Or, to put it in rhyme: "I shall last out my time"
Is the word of this stoutest of Cats.
It must and it shall be Spring in Pall Mall
While Bustopher Jones wears white spats!

From the exhibition of C215

The Lady and The Unicorn - Musée de Cluny

La Dame à la Iicorne: Sight

I recently went back to one of my favourite places in Paris; le Musée de Cluny. I finally saw the newly finished entrance and reception area that are able to cater to the needs of a wide range of visitors and therefore meet the demand for accessibility for all.

There were certainly many people queuing to enter – far more than I can recall when the public were plunged into one of the last vestiges of medieval Paris the moment they had purchased their ticket in the former hôtel particulier.
The edifice had originally been constructed to house the abbots of Cluny at the end of the 15th century, thus bridging the Gothic and Renaissance period. Needless to say, it was ill-adapted to hosting visits some 6OO years later and some modernisation work was vital.

However, I was very sad to see that a hideous bronze carapace has defaced the site outside. Inside, ugly modern functionality seems to have taken precedence over any attempt at aesthetic harmonisation and has obliterated the calm, unique atmosphere of the setting.

Climbing the new steps, my heart sank; I could have been in the atrium of any other uninspiring 21st century building, that probably will not make 60 years, let alone 600. Nothing I laid my eyes upon appeared even vaguely noble, attractive, lovingly or artfully crafted, but then that’s my opinion. I couldn't face including a photo here.

Now, at least, absolutely anybody can enjoy the treasures of Musée de Cluny and one of the most renowned of these must surely be the tapestries of the Late Middle Ages, La Dame à la Licorne. Having been cleaned and restored in 2012 – requiring some 2,3OO hours of painstaking work – the six tapestries are now hung on flat wall surfaces, as opposed to the curved forms in the old arrangement. Furthermore, visitors are now able to take photos, without flash, and so can prolong the pleasure of seeing these magnificent works after the initial visit.

A Mon Seul Désir: Love
With the multitude of details that feature in all six pieces, it is a privilege to pour over these at leisure – discovering new aspects and trying to find their symbolic meaning within the whole or simply appreciating the fine observations.

The Letter: Tapestry from the Southern Netherlands 
These tapestries stem from the long-established custom of suspending vast wall hangings to provide insulation in cold, draughty buildings such as castles and churches, in addition to offering rich illustrations of stories, fables, myths, moralistic tales of religious and/or historical significance.

Whilst such works were once the preserve of royalty and the church, in Gothic and Renaissance times these tapestries, art forms in their own right, were used by the nobility and the merchant classes too in order to express both material wealth and personal values to affirm status. The Lady and the Unicorn collection is thought to have been a private commission, simply intended for display to the select few, and without a direct ecclesiastic function.

The Unicorn tapestries here display many of the characteristics of other works of the same period – both in France and in the southern Netherlands, with special attention given to foliage, fruits, flowers, animals and the feminine form. A millefleur background, with its profusion of delicate intricate flora and fauna, was common from end of the 15th century, but was rarely of a red colour as is the case here.

I love all the expressive animal forms – going from the relatively commonplace creatures (dog, rabbit, lamb, fox, duck, magpie, bird of prey, heron) to the rather more exotic species (monkey, lion, genet).

The body language and quizzical regards of all these creatures seem to be so familiar to any viewer today, despite the centuries that separate us from them.

The unicorn and a banner-bearing lion take centre stage alongside their lady. Both beasts were often used in common imagery. The mythical figure of the unicorn was frequently used in allegorical representations from antiquity onwards, lending itself to different symbolic interpretations; purety, chastity, Christ, the Virgin Mary, untamed nature, ferocity. The exact meaning of the unicorn’s role in the Cluny tapestries is unclear, as is the final message conveyed by the overall work. Nevertheless, the core theme of the Senses is manifest throughout each separate tapestry.

The symbolic importance of the five senses was not the preserve of the Middle Ages nor solely of the Christian faith. It was, in fact, part of a philosophical tradition with roots in classical thought from Antiquity. The Greek philosophers Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Galenus (129-200), had long before developed their theories of perception and intelligence. Later, the ‘father of modern medicine’ the Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna (980 – 1037) had argued that just as there are the five external senses—vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell—so there were five internal senses; common sense, retentive imagination, compositive imagination, estimative power, and memory.

Virtue and perfection could be reached through the appropriate use of the bodily senses, leading to an understanding of God, which was the highest level of knowledge, and the attainment of the righteous self and soul. In this manner, to the learned and clerical body of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, the five senses were the connecting link between human form and soul.

The external senses could thus represent the keys to unlock the door to Knowledge or could, conversely, obstruct this entrance by acting as tempting lures to sin and damnation. With their unique power to sweep the being to a higher, spiritual level, or plunge him into an abyss, the senses needed to navigated carefully. It was deemed that the senses were not of equal importance and as such, should be classified in accordance with an established hierarchy to guide the individual through this perillous terrain. There were numerous reminders of such dangers. Representations of the Seven Deadly Sins were widely available - pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth were portrayed in order to warn the weak of such peril. 

The five senses were thought to correspond to the four elements. In this framework, earth was correlated to touch; water to taste; air – smell and hearing; fire – sight. Touch was considered to be the lowest, basest sense that was integral to the carnal, physical world. Likewise, taste could lead to sinful pleasure. Smell, however, pointed towards the spiritual over the material as it stimulated the imagination, whilst sight and hearing were the noblest senses that marked the transition towards a transcendental realm and the Divine. The ability to see and hear, the highest gift, was vital to learning, contemplation and knowledge (interestingly, encyclopedias were often referred to as ‘mirrors’).

A harmony of the senses could enable the soul to free itself from its base constraints, to transcend an animalistic state. Indeed, at the very top of the hierarchy was the sixth sense – governed by the heart. Unlike the lesser senses, that lead outward onto the material world, the sixth sense offered a profound, interior meaning and understanding ; spiritual love. The Italian philosopher, Ficino (1433-1499) argued that Reason was indeed the sixth sense and was set in the heart. Likewise, the French scholar Jean Gerson (1363-1429) cited the heart as the only inner sense « Et je parlerai des six sens, cinq dehors et un dedans qui est le cœur ».

The themes of temptation and redemption, linked to the senses and and their bodily organs, were primarily spiritual concerns. Nevertheless they were also associated with notions of courtly love in the 12th century and were treated in secular, allegorical representations too. The Lady and the Unicorn, is a case in point as the beautifully attired, noble lady attends to occupations or rituals that exemplify the power of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight in this jardin d’amour. The scenes appear to demonstrate acts of preparation for love, and to lead to the final tapestry.

A Mon Seul Désir
This piece,‘A Mon Seul Désir, seems to play on a certain ambiguity. Is this woman preparing for her chivalrous knight-errant or getting ready to renounce this world of earthly pleasures for the spiritual ? Is she awaiting the purity of amour courtois or the pure love of God? There are references to quests and hunting (the birds of prey and dogs), power and domination (the lion), virginity and innocence (the unicorn). Viewers from the Middle Ages would have been fully acquainted with such symbols since Medieval bestiaries traditionally linked the quirks and failings of the animal kingdom to reflect the weaknesses of the human one.

Here, the monkey mimics some of the gestures of his mistress as it eats in Taste, and sniffs a rose in Smell. whilst the unicorn gazes at itself in a mirror in Sight. In the sixth tapestry, A Mon Seul Désir, the lion and unicorn hold open the awning for their lady as she prepares to leave their company. Whilst the first tapestry, Touch, sees her and the beasts around her tied and chained to material objects – perhaps governed and grounded by lesser instincts – in the final tapestry she seems to hand over her jewellery and thus free herself of material wealth.

No one will know the definitive meaning of the Lady and the Unicorn, if indeed there is just one. However, far more people will now be able to observe the work and try to come to their own conclusions – or simply enjoy it for its own sake, as a beautiful piece of art.

When I was there, an old couple were visiting, commenting in great detail on the tapestries that were on display. They seemed to take real pleasure observing and discussing the work and that added to my pleasure as I eavesdropped on the talk. Monsieur was in a wheelchair, pushed around by his wife, but were able to move around the exhibition rooms relatively freely, something that would have been most problematic a few years ago.

Mind you, I still can’t help but miss the old entrance to the museum, at the heart of the ancient courtyard, with the rich architecture towering above, where you stepped out of the streets of 21st century Paris into the Middle Ages.

A Mon Seul Désir