Category Archives: Other’s Work

Critique of Bruce Nauman, Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (1968)

I went to see “Watch This! New Directions in the Art of the Moving Image”, December 10, 2010 – Indefinitely Rotating Exhibition, American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

“In this rotating permanent gallery dedicated to the media arts, the museum takes stock of the cutting-edge tools and materials used by video artists during the past 50 years. This installation features key artworks from the history of video art and works by a new generation of artists on the cutting edge of new media art practices.”

 There, on your right when you enter this little exhibition room, the second screen displayed will show you Bruce Nauman”s, Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk). It is a 60 minutes single channel video, in black and white, with sound.

The film shows Nauman in is studio, tracing the space of the camera’s frame. The camera is fixed, turned on its side and records the artist repeating a laborious sequence of body movements: Hands clasped behind his back, he kicks one leg up at a right angle to his body, pivots forty-five degrees, falls forward hard with a thumping noise, extends the rear leg again at a right angle behind, and begins the sequence again. The movements of the body resemble exercises repeated unendingly. Sometimes, he walks off-screen completely while the sound of his footsteps continues on the sound tracks. Progress, even by a meter, seems to be a tiresome and complicated process.

The film creates a kind of tension and some suspense, because Nauman always risks to loose his balance and fall (which also happens). I was attracted to this film because of its title, which explains the work: The walk is meant to echo the repetitive, futile, meaningless behaviors of Samuel Beckett’s characters.

I love Beckett’s bleak, tragicomic outlook on human nature, which is often coupled with black comedy and gallows humor, so I was curious to see how it could be conjured up through an avant-garde film. And I think this performance is very interesting, as the artist perfectly successes in recalling the writer’s silent, precise, and absurd language. Indeed, as he executes his movements with deep concentration and conviction, he emulates Beckett’s highly obsessive characters. Using banal everyday movements in such a raw way, he give them back the interest and power which they had lost through habit.

Overall, the result is as powerful as it is absurd, just like Beckett’s language.

Annie Leibovitz’s Pilgrimage

Annie Leibovitz is widely (and fairly enough) considered as one of America’s best portrait photographers. Over her career as photographer for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair she captured the greatest musicians, actors and artists of the boomer generation.

Leibovitz’s portraits tell about famousness, beauty, and power. She is known for her ability to make her sitters become physically involved in her work, and her trademark technique involves the use of bold primary colors and surprising poses. Even if you do not know her name, it is very likely you already contemplated some of her most famous shots: The Rolling Stones’ tour in 1975, the famous nude session with John Lennon and Yoko Ono hours before Lennon was killed, the American Express and Gap campaigns, Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk, or Demi Moore pregnant and naked on the cover of Vanity Fair.

But there are no people in “Pilgrimage”. No celebrities, no models, no V.I.P.’s. The exhibition is about something else entirely. It actually shows the legendary photographer pursuing a more personal project. For once, she wasn’t on assignment, and chose the subjects simply because they meant something to her. `

Nevertheless, you can feel that the photographer’s fascination with icons continues. But in this case, they’re historical and personal ones. Following the footsteps of her own heroes, she went to their homes, studios, or also places that evoke their spirit. She photographed the things that are most representatives of their owners, from the television Elvis Presley shot out in a fit of pique to the gloves and hat Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated For instance. A series that is quite moving is the one where she photographed Sigmund Freud’s reclining couch, draped in a Persian rug, as well as his collection of books on sex and psyche by Havelock Ellis. One can picture the doctor’s patient lying there and speaking, or Freud elaborating theories about unconscious. It has a solemn, almost spiritual feel.

And this is why I have mixed feelings about this exhibition: it shows a surprisingly ghostly, almost chilling collection of object and places. The dead idols are still present in the photographs, and to me it was somewhat disturbing. The feeling of loneliness, quietness you have watching the photographs is strengthened by the fact the artist is quite “out of the frame”. You do not feel any kind of her artistic presence: no irony, no pose, no sense of humor. It is clear Leibovitz took those pictures for herself, but at the same time they do not say a lot about her personally. As her public, I think I had a hard time understanding what she wanted to say, if I did at all.

Helmut Newton

KLAUS BEHR (Born in 1941)

Helmut Newton behind  «They are coming», Berlin, c. 1985. 28 x 35,5 cm.

Helmut Newton is not only a world famous photographer, but also one whose art contributed to change the mere concept of fashion photography. His provocative signature shattered the common perceptions about women’s fashion, if not about women. But he is also a very controversial character, what makes him yet more interesting to be looked closer.

Born in 1920 in Berlin, he grew up in a privileged family. He attended the American School of Berlin, but was expelled when his fascination with photography, sparked by a camera bought when he was 12, overshadowed his interest in class.  He started his apprenticeship with Elsie Simon, known as Yva, a famous nude –portraitist photographer, until he was forced to flee after the start of Hitler’s pogroms in 1938.

His parents managed to secure him passage on a ship to China, but he stopped off in Singapore, where he got a job at the Straits Times newspaper. He later joined Australia, the Australian army and became an Autralian citizen. In 1948 he married actress June Brunell, who would remain his partner for more than 50 years until his death.

Neustaedter changed his name to Newton, opened a small photo studio in Melbourne, and soon began contributing fashion photos to French Vogue in 1961, a magazine that he made his own for a quarter century. Over the years, Newton also contributed to magazines such as Playboy, Queen, Nova, Marie-Claire, Elle, and the American, Italian and German editions of Vogue — his stark and provocative style setting a new industry standard.

His studies of nude women became his signature and the self-obsessed and often distant poses of the models frequent caused polemic in the art-world. He won the sobriquets “King of Kink” and Prince of Porn” in the 1970s after the publication of his erotic photo book “White Women.” Robert Sobieszek, photo dept. chief at the L.A. County Museum of Art, noted to the L.A. Times: “His work was never dirty … but he stretched the boundaries of what a fashion magazine looked like.”

Helmut Newton Newton defied convention, but his talent was awarded by the highest distinctions: In 1990 he won the French “Grand prix national de la photographie.” In 1992 he is made “Officier des Arts, Lettres et Sciences” in Monaco. In1996: he receive a commendation to “Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres” by the French Ministry of Culture. In 2000, there was a large retrospective for his 80th birthday in the New National Gallery (Neue Nationalgalerie) in Berlin that travels to London, New York, Tokyo, Moscow and Prague, among others.

Helmut Newton died in Los Angeles driving is Cadillac, in 2006.

HELMUT NEWTON (1920-2004)
Big Nude III: Henrietta, 1980.

His row of oversize prints of naked models, “Big Nudes,” has perhaps become his best-know work. This one is my favourite. Newton is often criticized for the image he gave of women, as fashion/sexual objects. But in my opinion, this picture is the entire contrary. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it, and this is how I came to be interested in Newton’s work. The stance of the model is pure beauty, strength, and confidence: planted on her two legs, firm on her high heels, she stares at the photographer and seems to challenge him with her clenched hands, her bombed torso. She is absolutely naked, which should make her vulnerable. Though, she rather looks like she could kill bare hands any troublesome man. And you cannot escape her, because the foreground is totally absent and the eye has nothing else than her sculptural body to rest on. This is reinforced by the strong contrast and exposition and the black and white. The low angle, too, is powerful and was probably carefully chosen to get this low glance and general impression of heights.

HELMUT NEWTON
They’re Coming!, 1981.

Once again this picture shows that Newton valued dominant femininity. The high-heeled shoes, the strong upshot, the light, neutral background against which the contours of the women stand out, all strengthen the impression of the threat, expressed in the title. The charm of the two photographs resides in their character as a diptych: only in terms of such a thesis and anti-thesis does the theme develop its full interest. Helmut Newton was without a doubt a witness of this time when the corset (the one of slimness) was reinvented and was now being recommended once more to women. To me, these photographs also say: “if you want these clothe to look nice on you, you must be like that under them.”

HELMUT NEWTON, for Vogue, 1967.

This photography is part of a serie realized for Vogue in 1967 with model Willy Van Rooy. It is highly entertaining and theatrical, and in so far representative of Helmut Newton’s treatment of fashion images. It is impressive with this idea of movement, and because of the risks the model might have taken to get this result. Although, it looks like both the model and the plane are about to end their race on the photographer. Whatever the issue was, I think there is a lot of humour and irony of this picture, contributing to its charm.

Sources:

Website of the History of Photography: http://www.all-art.org/history658_photography13-27.html

Also, an interesting point of view on Helmut Newton, on the blog of one of his model, Willy Van Rooy: http://willyvanrooy.com/modelling-in-paris-1/

“The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai, or the pathos of things in Japanese Aesthetics.

Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) “Great Wave Off Kanagawa” is probably the most famous work of the Japanese artist. It is the first view of his major work of art, the “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji” created in 1831, and is displayed in the exhibition’s introductory gallery. It is a rather small (10 x 15 inch) but very fine colour woodcut which represents a gigantic wave curling over three tiny fisher boats. On the background, one can see a small, distant, snow-capped Mount Fuji. Only two colors are used in this picture: blue for the sea, the sailor’s clothe, and the base of the Mount Fuji. The sky and the boats are painted with a lighter hue. The white summit of the Mount Fuji contrasts on a darker horizon.

In this piece, Hokusai makes the viewer experience nature’s overwhelming power through the movements, contrasts and colors of the composition : the eye is at first cached by the main point of focus, the monstrous, disproportionate wave which occupies half of the space. The dramatically curved line of the wave perfectly frames the distant Mount Fuji, and is suspended in time like a huge paw with multiple foam claws about to grasp the frail fishing boats. The dark blue symbolizes the ocean’s brutality, but also ground forces as the sailors brace on their oars to survive. The first boat is partly under water, the main wave is about to engulf the second. The violent force of blue balance and contrasts sharply with the soothing, bright shade of the sky. It is indeed strange that despite the sea storm, the sun seems to shine on the scene.

However, the central theme here is not the wave but the Mount Fuji; however at first glance, it almost reads as another cap of foam. But precisely, it is its consistency with the lines and colors of the piece, as well as the construction of the picture around it which achieve the unity of the composition. Indeed, the Mount is placed in the right central part of the composition, which has to be read from the right to the left (instead of reading from the left to the right, as occidentals use to). Furthermore, it is painted with the two main colors of the picture. The message uniting this piece is conveyed through the contrast between the distant, quiet, and unchanging mount in the background and the violent and ephemeral foreground scene. Mount Fuji is like a spectator of this furtive scene, evoking a characteristic principle of Japanese aesthetics, the Mono no aware1 or “the Pathos of Things”. It is well described by this verse: “The sound of the Gion shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sōla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.”2 The message is clear: the wave will swallow up the sailors, but even the wave will disappear long before the Mount Fuji.

This work is deeply interesting because it links Asian spirituality and western typical structures of design. First, it echoes the Taoist philosophy (according to which everything is divided into the yin and the yang) as well as the Buddhist philosophy (which says the elements built by man are ephemeral) and the Shinto (as it shows that nature is all powerful and sovereign, beyond the control of humans). But on the other hand, one can notice that Hokusai was influenced by western tradition, because of the use of perspective, and because he chose to represent daily life of common people. It is a very valuable piece, even to understand western art movements. Hokusai’s works were collected in Paris in the mid-19th century, especially by such impressionist artists as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and even influenced them as they further developed a fashion for Japonaiserie3.

1Parkes, Graham, “Japanese Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

2McCullough, Helen C. (trans.), 1988, The Tale of the Heike, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

3“Hokusai.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2012