Do you –readers of Paris Match, exhibition visitors…– have the audacity to think you would be able to understand the complexity, plenitude and mystery of the pictorial or sculptural act of creation, just by looking at photographs or movies showing the artist at work? Well, the exhibition In the Studio (at the Petit Palais, until July 17, 2016) will crush any delusions you might have. You will see artists striking a pose with self-confidence and pride in their talent, promoting themselves on glossy paper, managing carefully their own image: from Ingres brooding or Pablo Picasso fooling around for Brassaï to Jeff Koons as a naked gymnast (not to mention the purely commercial product that is M.-P. Nègre’s photograph of M. Moquet for the Drouot Gazette, depicting her studio as “a place where, when hands are busy, orgasms are possible” –No comment). You will see portraits commissioned by journals, publishers, galleries or the artist him/herself, all in line with the same precisely defined and regulated logic, aimed at selling illusions. You will see Rodin pretending to chisel marble (which he never did) and Auguste Renoir, his hands deformed by arthritis, pretending to paint in front of Sacha Guitry glorifying French creative geniuses in 1915. But you will not see Lucio Fontana pretending to slash a canvas for Ugo Mulas, as the latter is regrettably not featured in this exhibition, even though he might have been the only photographer capable of portraying the impossibility of photographing the artist at work. Indeed, after photographing Jasper Johns, Mulas decided to stop picturing painters in the process of painting, thusly acknowledging the very ambiguity of the situation: “If the painter agrees to it, the image is purely promotional in nature; if he refuses and I do convince him, it becomes an act of violence.”
You will see empty studios in impromptu snapshots at lunchtime or meticulously arranged compositions, in which everything contrives to have us believe in the presence of an elusive genius loci, of creative genius having just stepped outside for a second –or forever. That being said, Luigi Ghirri’s almost conceptual work in Giorgio Morandi’s studio, 25 years after his death, is wonderful; as well as the post-mortem inventory of Lucien Hervé’s colored files by the young Hungarian, Illés Sarkantyu (see below).
You will see the social dimension of the studio, a place where appearances count as much as actions, with all the founding clichés: skylights, stoves and models. You will therefore see plenty of models, their bodies laid bare, but also Pierre Molinier’s “muse”, a superb anonymous photograph of a model’s undergarments, and even a naked man posing for Lucienne Heuvelmans at the Villa Medici in 1911 (was it a first? –see below). You will see Jeandel’s tender obsessions and Carabin’s more vivid ones. You will see many hands, pale evocations of the artists, and even Jean-Paul Riopelle’s shoes. You will feel the frustration rising in front of this mystery that remains inaccessible, and that only allows its epiphenomena to be perceived.
Are the movies more efficient in giving access to the enigma, in revealing its truth? Certainly not, in the case of Guitry’s, and the same goes for Hans Namuth’s infamous portrayal of Jackson Pollock, forcing him to paint on a glass table above a camera (not featured here), triggering a fit of rage (“I am not a fake!”) and a relapse into alcoholism. (Also, Namuth was not very discrete, contrarily to one curator-author’s opinion.) Yes, maybe, in the case of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Mystère Picasso (not featured either), in which staging and dramatization do work, for Picasso is a natural born actor –but the mystery remains a mystery, precisely. Another convincing film can be found in Gérard Rondeau’s documentary on Paul Rebeyrolle, which must be watched from start to finish (84’): friendship and absolute trust allow us to catch a glimpse of the mystery, and to get a little closer to understanding the painter’s genius.
Some clarity might finally come upon us when it is the artists who represent themselves or their artworks. Bruce Nauman, walking in his empty studio, creates a true work of art, a reflection on the space of studio that is much more powerful that any external gaze. Constantin Brancusi, refusing to all the right to photograph his sculptures, learned from Man Ray the technique of photography, and produced original artworks with photographs Man Ray deemed “blurry, over- or under-exposed, scratched, stained […].” In fact, Brancusi was not the only one to keep his distances, to remain modest, to refuse exhibitionism, to fear intrusion, divulgation, and the removal of the protective veil. Seldom are the artists self-confident enough to be able to say, like Picasso to Brassaï: “Through your photographs, I see my sculptures with a new eye.”
To conclude, a quotation from André S. Labarthe which opens one of the catalogue’s chapters: “If you expect us to show the artist caught in the act of being inspired, we will say ‘Goodnight; go and see if God exists on the other channels, for this broadcast is not for you.’”
Photos by Lunettes Rouges, except 2 & 3
Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: April 20, 2015.
Translation by Lucas Faugère