8 November 2014

THE MOVING TOYSHOP

Charles Ray, The New Beetle, 2006. © Charles Ray. Photo: Joshua White.

The question of the value of images is an accentuated one for artists.

This highly contemporary problem is what Roland Barthes called the search for a “just image” in opposition to just an image. By this, I think he meant an image worthy of intellectual trust, an image which would last through time rather than one which would be discredited easily or immediately manipulated to some ideological end, the way the mass media so casually do. He meant an image that was more than surface, an image in which a depth of thought could reside and an image to which a depth of thought could be attracted. He meant art, in fact.

– Bruce Ferguson, The Sculpture of Charles Ray

Charley was playing around in a lumberyard in Chicago’s North Shore area when a blitz of planks wacked him unconscious. An elderly couple found the boy meandering about in the marina, disoriented and lost, and sailed away with him. It was when the Coast Guard rescued them during a tempestuous cruise on Lake Michigan that Charley regained his memory.

The American sculptor (and sailor) Charles Ray says that he wants to enchant the world. He does. The warm thrill of confusion is a major thing in most of Ray’s works, and there is a wonderful, sound logic to his quality pieces where reality just gets slightly out of tune. Ray is on view together with Katharina Fritsch and Jeff Koons in Moderna Museet’s fanfare exhibition Sculpture After Sculpture this winter. It is a kind of survey by Jack Bankowsky who has handpicked and synthesised exactly thirteen figural sculptures in a big room with only four white walls.

Just what is it that makes this exhibition so luxurious, so vainglorious then? Sculpture After Sculpture is an experience much like watching the Lithuanian ex-model turned elite food blogger Aiste Miseviciute in the Swedish Foodies (2014) documentary – spending as much as a less fortunate person’s yearly living wage on an everyday flight to Tokyo just to devour Takashi Saito’s ten little pieces of the planet’s most sensational sushi in a parking garage.

In the fairly decent biopic The Theory of Everything (2014), Stephen Hawking tells his Cambridge sweetheart and wife-to-be, Jane, a beautiful thing about the universe: “When stars are born, and when they die, they emit UV radiation, so if we could see the night sky in the ultraviolet light, then all the stars would disappear and we’d simply see these spectacular birth and deaths.” The front page of the bookish exhibition catalogue is designed with the vapid title of the show as an epitaph. It radiates as little substance as the verbal output of the curator of the show.

As Bankowsky puts it in his introduction: “Sculpture After Sculpture comes as a surprise, especially for me. I had not imagined myself, and with flying colours, advocate a return to traditional media, particularly not representational figurative sculpture.” What a quaint notion. The exhibition gathers some of the most talked about works of art since the 1980s, all inspired by a myriad of Duchampian attitudes and Pop strategies that resurfaced throughout that decade.

And as Rachel Wells points out in her book Scale in Contemporary Art, one can also find traits of “Lewis Carroll’s Alice [where] enlargement and miniaturisation seem directly connected to consumption” and of “Swift’s use of exaggeration as a form of satire and parody through Gulliver’s discovery of new and differently scaled lands” in the richness and poverty of this art.

DH Lawrence remarked that “The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Sculpture After Sculpture is naturally about something more than its (undefined) “plot” – however, listening to Jack Bankowsky’s babble during the forty-minute press conference only reinforced the belief that art criticism is anything you can get away with.

Bankowsky’s Pop Life: Art in a Material World at Tate Modern (late 2009) was a materialisation of Andy Warhol’s dollar doctrine “Good business is the best art”. (Alison Gingeras who co-curated the show said that, “You have to get your hands dirty in order to engage in this material.”) The billionaires who buy this kind of art invest in the divinity of the pecuniary masterpiece, a Balloon Dog by Jeff Koons for fifty-eight million dollars.

Jeff Koons (b 1955) has always worked in distinguished series since his striking The New – the Perspex vitrines with the fluorescent-lit vacuum cleaners – initiated at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1980. And they have all been grossly successful, at least in terms of money – apart from the sterile works he did with himself and Cicciolina (Koons married Ilona Staller in 1991) in different formations of unadulterated porno-styled coitus and kitschy money shots. The Moderna show presents four of his works. Let us begin with the art world’s very own guilty pleasure: Michael Jackson and Bubbles.

The Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art this summer was a mega-big farewell to the museum’s Madison Avenue premises. Scott Rothkopf who curated the show makes a strange claim in the catalogue: “Since Marcel Duchamp first exhibited his urinal in 1917, few artists have been as associated with that gesture or have grappled with it as variously as Koons.” It is basic knowledge that the Fountain vanished from this world before it was ever exhibited and that the Society of Independent Artists refused to acknowledge it as a work of art in April 1917. (It became the most famous piece of porcelain through Stieglitz’s photograph, and from the replicas that grew out of this marvellous idea.)

Michael Jackson and Bubbles is a piece about the artist’s wish to become a superstar (the “King of Pop”) more than a work with primal references to Duchamp’s “urinal”. Still, what Koonsified Koons in the late 1970s was indeed Duchamp’s solution to art: “He seemed the total opposite of the subjective art I had been immersed in. It was the most objective statement possible, the readymade.” Koons, describes his sculptural composition – a reworked publicity photograph – with Jackson and his chimpanzee in matching circus uniforms and make-up characteristics as “Christ-like figures, as a triangular Pietà”.

“Over the time, the singer’s features grew even closer to those of the sculpture, and his premature death in 2009 took on a dimension of Christian sacrifice. The work is a marvel of prolepsis,” argues Scott Rothkopf. “What is remarkable about these sculptures almost thirty years later is that they remain nearly as problematic – dare I say vulgar? – as when they were first made. I mean this as a high praise.”

By the end of 1988, Jackson returned from his Bad World Tour. That year he had also moved to his Neverland funfair ranch and published his autobiography Moonwalk. MJ was on top of the world – until Bubbles actually did grow up, went sexually messy and had to be taken to a zoo.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles is the largest piece of porcelain ever manufactured, and the “best” work from Koons’s “bad” Banality series of twenty triplicated, polychromed sculptures based on his smart conceptualisations of gewgaw and sentimental junk that he uncovered in 1988 (most of them were made by ecclesiastical wood carvers in the Demetz Art Studio in northern Italy). The gilded porcelain piece is signed “CS Villari” after the master who made it, and that of course is an “R Mutt” kind of thing.

“His widely publicised works have made it more difficult than ever to evade speculation about the relationship of art to craft and mechanical reproduction, the artist’s role as a maker, conceiver or appropriator, and the distinctions commonly drawn between the high art enshrined in museums and commercial art, decoration, kitsch and pornography. Such issues had of course been raised before, by Duchamp and Picabia, by the creators of Pop Art, especially by Warhol, and in different terms by Beuys, but always in a climate of 20th-century agnosticism,” write Hugh Honour and John Fleming in their huge A World History of Art.

Koons’s Artist Talk at the Moderna Museet was a spectacle. Koons arose as a kind of extraordinary cult leader with his prepacked wizardry of “magic” hand movements and bullshit salesman lingo, a man who truly seems to believe that everyone will put on those Nike shoes and swallow his laced applesauce. He talked about his art teacher “Bo … Derek”, and how he “started to realise how effortlessly art brought all the human disciplines together, and that I could have a dialogue with philosophy, with sociology, and physics, aesthetics. And I have been on this journey with a sense of expansion and transcendence, to so effortlessly connect everything.”

He talked about Cicciolina’s private parts until people began to squirm in their seats. Then, in another twirl of his mock sincerity and mock profundity: “The only thing you can do in this life is to follow your interest, and if you focus on those interests it takes you to a very metaphysical place. It is a place where time bends and you connect with the universal, the essence of being a human being, and you get a foot into the future.”

When Koons makes art in this “metaphysical place” you get a form that accommodates the mess: the Metallic Venus (2010–12) is a two-and-a-half-metre-high farce – kind of reminiscent of classical statuary – with an “immodest” Venus in a curvy contrapposto and a silly flower pot on an amorphous strut, a “contemporary” take on Praxiteles’s Aphrodite of Cnidus (4th century BC) in all her naked beauty.

Koons wants his disciples to know that their history is perfect. However, the blue Venus is nothing else than a stupendous mirror of departed empires – just what Celeste Olalquiaga talks about in The Artificial Kingdom: On the Kitsch Experience: “Despite appearances, kitsch is not an active commodity naively infused with the desire of a wish image, but rather a failed commodity that continually speaks of all it has ceased to be.”

“The rich and greedy buy it because it lauds them for their greediness, their wealthy power, terrible taste, and bad values,” wrote Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine (June 30, 2014) regarding the Koons retrospective and his art. “Duchamp’s readymades have an almost monastic austerity. Koons has bulked them up, transforming the ultimate insider’s art into the art that will not shut up,” argued Jeff Pearl in The New York Review of Books (September 25, 2014) while he asked: “When was it that the art of the dead became the only art that art people want to talk about?”

New Hoover Convertibles, Shelton Wet/Dry Five-Gallon Double Decker (1981–87) is another stately tomb from The New series, and a piece that still excites. Pop was about consumption, the ravishing package design of the time (which was worthy of worship and attention), and once in a while about the ambiguity with the waste of 1960s culture. When Koons mentioned this work during his Artist Talk he claimed that, “They display the integrity of birth. They are eternal virgins. So this is really the ultimate state of being.” These vacuum cleaners (not vacuum cleaners) are a bunch of Vestals from the industrial age.

The bowlegged Balloon Dog (1994–2000) from the Celebration series is Koons’s “Trojan Horse” and it is slicker than a weasel. This work is a mega-indulgent biggie blow-up of a doggy-shaped sausage balloon, minted in an edition of five differently coloured pieces in highly glossed steel. With all these crimps and puckers, it is a lush piece of engineering. Koons says that he would do anything “for the trust of the viewer”: “I was trying to capture all the details in the original one, but through the processes it comes out as somewhat simplified. But today I would take a CAT scan of the balloon so there is nothing left to subjective interpretation.”

The show as a whole feels like a twenty-minute banquet at Sushi Saito.

Charles Ray (b 1953) is something else – as an artist, as a human being – than a manifestation of the ugliness of our culture. Twenty years ago, when this writer had the privilege to work with Ray, he “parked” his Firetruck (1993) on Madison Avenue just outside the Whitney Biennial. The piece originated from a toy fire engine – strangely modified and exaggerated, as they are to look like the real thing – that was broached back to life-size by Ray. The super-realistic sculpture in painted aluminium made the world around the Whitney look like an illusion.

Fall ’91 (1992) is his earliest piece in the exhibition (and it is the version with the purplish business garb and the brooch). Ray’s true-to-life mannequins flicker between the stylised and the creepy real. They replaced the many works – that would inevitably ruin his physique – in which he used his own body in a harrowing range of expressions. The 244-centimetre-high Fall ’91 is not a sculpture of a woman suffering from gigantism, but a sculpture of a mannequin and the rules of attraction that have been assigned to her – the starry gaze, the restrained mouth and the blessing hand gesture (cues to buy the look) – and a piece about the scope of sculptural representation since the Egyptians and the Greeks.

I have seen the artist and an assistant grooming the big lady for days on end. Ray: “You need a window dresser or a display expert to deal with the piece every three or four days, to fix the hair, straighten everything up, get the wrinkles out of the clothes, and clean it all up. She gets all dishevelled. It has to be perfect. It’s because the work is hallucinatory. It’s like the burning bush.”

Boy with Frog (2009) is a piece that loops back to childhood. The sculpture was commissioned for Punta della Dogana’s well-known seaside point in Venice – a child-sized landmark of a boy who is holding up a frog like a used condom (the undertone is sinister, not sexual), to the chagrin of the city’s tourism industry which forced it out of its intended place of permanence after the 55th Biennale in 2013.

The unthreatening and slightly less phenomenal The New Beetle (2006) in the Moderna show took over five years to make. (The artist explains that the activity that takes place has its own beauty.) This work is about gravity, playfulness and the illusionary lightness of white-painted massive steel – as with its companion piece – and they both recall the look of “unpainted” classical statuary. The boys are pretty generic, but the frog and the VW Beetle (which of course in reality looks like a big toy car) are quite remarkably detailed. “There’s something about a toy to a child where the relationship is real, where the kid is playing and it’s just really amazing,” says Ray. “How do I make that experience real for the adult? It’s not so much the size, I think – it’s the weight. I can feel the gravity of it. It’s solid. Immovable.”

Charles Ray compares sculptures to people “in that you see them more fully over time”. Young Man (2012) is his finest gravity piece in a series of 110-per-cent-scale representations – just that slight twist – of real people. And they are not, as one would think, cast out of a mould but cut from three blocks of stainless steel by a computer-guided machine. The silver man meets the public at the entrance of Sculpture After Sculpture with his bulging waistline. He is like the Kritios Boy (4th century BC) stripped of his Greco-impossible ideals – a representation of the human form from our time and similarly a sculpture that is going back to the beginning, a nourished as well as tidy Ötzi the Iceman.

JG Ballard’s Crash (1973) is a novel that Ray used to mention recurrently (though it reads like a book written by a crash test dummy). Unpainted Sculpture (1997) is a full-scale, precise replica and a ghost work of a crashed ’91 Pontiac Grand Am which Ray cast in fibreglass: “I think of its life – from the factory in Detroit, through the wrecks, then ending up in my hands, and now it’s ended up in another weird assembly line in my studio, and it’s going back out again. It has a funny trail of identity.”

The ungainly Tractor (2003–05) is in the show. Ray purchased the ghostly vehicle and had it dismantled in order to cast each individual piece by hand in aluminium, down to the tiniest detail (such as a coin that someone had dropped in an engine part). Another “tractor piece” by Ray is his Father Figure (2007), based on a toy he got from fellow artist Kiki Smith. The result is a green-painted steel sculpture that weights a staggering seventeen tonnes. These works link together the toys from our childhood – and some of the earliest pleasures we experienced – with Ray’s ideas about the inseparable relationship between man and his machines.

Tractor may also be a piece about a lonely, dyslectic boy who couldn’t tie his shoes, who was sent to a Catholic military school, and who came out as an eminent teacher at the UCLA and as one of the finest sculptors that we have in this world.

Sculpture After Sculpture features five works by Katharina Fritsch (b 1956), and three of them are good to quite great. People who have been to London’s Trafalgar Square lately know her four-point-seven-metre-high cockerel Hahn/Cock (2010) in bright, powdery International Klein Blue (placed on that fourth plinth reserved for contemporary artworks). The Professor of Sculpture at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf says that her work “is always on the borderline between a detailed sculpture and a sign”.

Fritsch’s Figurengruppe (2005–08) is an unusual band of holy or symbolic figures and a big black serpent, made in different materials and lacquered in individual, striking colours. Fritsch was exceptionally delighted by the positive response to this group of figures when it was on display in the garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2011: “It was unbelievably popular. I think people were attached because it was about colour – and there were no pedestals. The impact of a sculpture becomes very direct when you can stand next to it and take a photo.” This is Fritsch at her best.

Part of the Figurengruppe, and part of Sculpture After Sculpture, is her powdery, lemon Madonna (1987/2009). Madonna is a human-size polyester sculpture of a religious souvenir, of purchased holiness. It looks as if it was made out of sugar, or like it was a blow-up of a dream edition toy from a Kinder Surprise egg. (I mean this as a high praise.) The first manifestation of this work appeared in a medieval square in the German city of Münster in 1987. The polyester Madonna was stolen and the second version (in cement) desecrated: “People got very emotional. In the daytime, people brought candles and flowers and stood there singing and taking pictures. Then in the night, drunken people hit her and sprayed her. I never experienced anything like it.”

The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones wrote (on September 17, 2001) that “In the art of Katharina Fritsch the Middle Ages return to menace the modern world.” Her Ghost and a Pool of Blood (1988) is a murder mystery (next to Koons’s billion dollar doggie) with a five-litre puddle of Plexiglas blood and, further away, an entity draped in a white sheet. “I find it interesting that in this work I have made something real that does not in fact exists,” says Fritsch. Her ghost is as much a ghost as Nicholas Monro’s good-natured Martians (1964) – a green sculptural group of four red-eyed frogmen aliens – are extra terrestrials.

Painted in the most dissonant – one might say evil – chord of blue, Apple (2009–12) is a far more sinister work than the Ghost piece. The god in the Christian manual punished women to forever suffer at childbirth because the first human beings dared to taste the fruit (often referred to as an apple) from the Tree of Knowledge – just like any sensible person would do. The artist thought of colour – “In the more abstract 20th century colour was lost. It was not allowed because it was maybe too childish, too sensual, too emotional” – and she thought of Claes Oldenburg’s Apple Core (1992) when she made her “forbidden fruit”.

Mary Poppins, Botticelli’s Venus on her seashell surfboard, and the pretty lady from Mackintosh’s Quality Street tin – they all gather in Fritsch’s fancy Woman with Dog (2004) together with the art of Arcimboldo, Hieronymus Bosch, and Elsa Beskow and her Aunt Lavender (who also had a dog). Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Woman with Dog is a piece of fluff and excessive ornamentation. The garish sculpture is built on an armoury of seashell forms. The pink woman has a seashell umbrella in her right hand and a cupcake sea anemone in her left. Another replaceable work is Fritsch’s blue-greenish polyester cast of the elephantine animal in the Zoologisches Museum Koenig in Bonn. The pedestalled Elephant (1987) is a very big piece with so little impact.

During his Artist Talk at the Moderna Museet, Charles Ray said that the prospect of Sculpture After Sculpture felt like “hundreds of thousands of birthdays coming up”.

At the press conference, Bankowsky mentioned a special museum visit when he and Ray had gone to the Getty Villa in Malibu and there, in the atrium, saw a two-thousand-year-old sculpture that had left Rome for the first time: “And of course it was broken in fragments as classic sculptures often are. And Charley said, ‘I would like to see Balloon Dog with a missing leg.’ And of course, it might have sounded aggressive but it is really a compliment from one artist to another, that in two thousand years this thing will still hold up as an object when it is broken apart.”

The sculpture in question is Lion Attacking a Horse (4th century BC), which was fully restored in 1594 since it was one of Michelangelo’s favourites.

In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s totally magical one-sweep over the Birdman’s nestBirdman (2014) – there is a strange note on the mirror in Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton) dressing room that says: “A thing is a thing, not what is said about that thing.” Well, the thing is that an exhibition like this one needs criticism in a new key. It is a tour de force kind of undertaking to put on a show of such grandness. It’s a pity though that it implores the mock erudition of someone from Art Forum.

When Bankowsky put the Balloon Dog in the Sculpture After Sculpture setting, he knew that it had to be the red one. Imagine George Taylor on that beach in Planet of the Apes (1968) in 3978 AD when he finds the ruined body of the red Balloon Dog in the sand.

Will he damn us all to hell?

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. © Jeff Koons.

Sculpture After Sculpture at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm through January 18, 2015.

11 July 2014

PIXIE DUST

Nils Dardel, Young Man and Girl, 1919.

I can and shall be a great painter, a beautiful human whose gaze is pure.

– Nils Dardel

Narcissus is always with us. And Narcissus was always with us with the dandies, those entertaining personalities of the past who – as strange as it might appear today – achieved things with an effort and a basic sense of self-worth: “Above all, it is the burning need to create an originality for oneself,” argued Baudelaire in his essay “Le Peintre de la vie moderne – Le Dandy” (published in 1863). “Whether these men are called refined, extraordinary, handsome, lions or dandies, they have all come from the same origin; they all participate in the same characteristic of opposition and revolt; they are all representative of what is best in human pride, of that need, which is too rare in the men today, of opposing and demolishing triviality.”

The works by the Swedish-born artist and complete dandy Nils Dardel (1888–1943) are a dish of scrambled stars, cosmetic fairy tales, and disorderly hallucinations from the sorry corners of life. The artist said that he was setting himself free “by painting myself away from my visions and befriending my demons”. He knew that his time was measured.

Dardel is coiffured like a proto-version of Lux Interior of The Cramps in his most famous (and to many Swedes overfamiliar) oil painting The Dying Dandy (1918) in which he reclines in a Pietà that dazzles with Renaissance colours, Matissean lines and histrionic death. The effeminate star – with his left hand on his failing heart and the other loosely united with his mirror of coquetry, and surrounded by three caring young ladies and a fellow dandy in a mourning pose – is a dashing figure. As Max Beerbohm indeed declared: “Dandyism is, after all, one of the decorative arts.”

The Dying Dandy was Dardel’s superficial farewell to his terminal homosexuality. (The pre-studies show the dandy served by two soft males and a boy.) “By this time, he had established his own trademark. But it was as if the role or myth of Dardel was already getting in the way of the artist. His witticisms and the juicy anecdotes about him spread far and wide. Dardel jokes were told like bar jokes. His private life had virtually become public property,” writes Erik Näslund in the catalogue to Dardel and the Modern Age at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Nita Wallenberg of the Wallenberg dynasty, and the daughter of Sweden’s attaché in the Far East, became Dardel’s marriage obsession in Tokyo in 1917 during a trip around the world together with his friend (and lover) Rolf de Maré. Her father decoupled them as soon as he heard about the engagement.

Dardel and Thora Klinckowström met on a boat to France and then at the Café de la Rotonde in Montparnasse. He proposed to her by saying that they could always divorce if their wedding arrangement would ever bore them. Braque, Satie and Léger were among the guests when they married in 1921. My Daughter (1923) is a watercolour with Dardel in a snazzy outfit and Ingrid high in his arms as if his only child was a trophy toy to flaunt with in the Mediterranean landscape. Two years into the marriage he painted the watercolour Family Idyll (not in the show) with the spouses back-to-back and bored to death, like the last phase in Orson’s breakfast montage of Emily Norton and Charles Foster Kane. The lethargic Dardel is meant to keep up enough interest to be reading the script for his wife’s next book. The featured pictures on the wall in their Montmartre home at 108 rue Lepic are also taken from reality. They are about nightmares, wishful thinking and the other’s sudden death.

Mr Näslund, author of several biographies including Dardel and Rolf de Maré: Art Collector, Ballet Director, Museum Creator, was also a friend of Thora Dardel: “I remember she came to my home and she looked into my bedroom, and she said, ‘Oh, I see you have a partous.’ And I said, ‘Well, Thora, what do you mean by that?’ And she said, ‘A partous! We had that in Paris in the 1920s. A big, big bed that everybody got into.’ And I think that was also the spirit of the 1920s artistically, that all the arts got into that partous, and participated somehow. Everything was allowed, artistically, sexually and whatever. No one cared and everything was open.” The Dardels were like Bowie and Angie in the 1970s, there was never any love but they drove each other mad of jealousy.

British writer Arthur Symons called Decadence a “beautiful and interesting disease” in the 1890s. Dardel was the last in that tainted line of Decadents who sought the poisonous sensations of alcohol, drugs and forbidden love in measures beyond dissipation. Dardel’s remarkable charm, his delicate evasiveness and precise exterior masked the shadows of his self-destructive conduct. He loved to cause a stir but no one really knew who he was.

Ragnar Josephson is one of the few critics who have mentioned the connection between Dardel and Decadence. This is from his review in the daily Svenska Dagbladet dating May 5, 1939: “Much of Dardel’s art can be perceived as Surrealism predating Surrealism […] but Dardelism is nevertheless neither Dadaism or Dalism. These take their cause solemnly, they seek to reveal new aspects of man’s subconscious, they aim to scrutinise the inexplicable. But Dardel, contrarily, has an irony that fractures any such claims. He may be as eccentric as it is possible to be, but he stands always with a glint in his eye, regarding his bizarre antics. It is this confounding superiority that makes his so-called Decadence seem not so severe after all. Were we to take excessive pains to psychoanalyse his paintings, he would surely be most delighted at having hoodwinked us so capitally. The curious is almost certainly what he himself has experienced, albeit with an intellectual, lucid mind that is tall of ingeniousness and tomfoolery.”

Nils Dardel was born as von Dardel in a mansion 150 kilometres from Stockholm. The young man spent two years at the Royal Institute of Art before he went to Paris in the autumn of 1910 to study at the Académie Matisse and to refine his superlative talents as a social swinger in both Paris and Senlis (north of the capital). Baudelaire’s description of the Dandy in “Le Peintre de la vie moderne” suited Dardel just fine: “To be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very centre of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world, such are some of the minor pleasures of those independent, intense and impartial spirits, who do not lend themselves easily to linguistic definitions.”

Back in Stockholm in 1912, Dardel met the man who would later become the impresario of the superb and revolutionary Ballets suédois in Paris (1920–1925). The extraordinary wealthy and venturesome Rolf de Maré acquired most of Dardel’s early work, and the artist introduced him to Cubism and the great names of French Modernism. Dardel’s paintings before WWI stretched from secondary but competent mimicries of Braque, and prismatic city views, which are rather ruined by his Naïvism of the time, to his wishy-washy country paintings, a crude mélange of Pointillism and druggy candy-shop Renoir. The War and the Existentialism of the author Pär Lagerkvist, who Dardel befriended in 1914, put an end to that.

“Dardelism” is not a singular style but a tendency to collect and reject and wring out the pieces from any possible movement to visualise the impressions of his morbid states of dreaminess and intoxication – his overexcited nerves – flashes of life’s diversions, life’s ill-natured undercurrents … Dardel was great with portraits when he added his own stuff (as with the rogues among the Renaissance artists), and his tender portrait of Rolf de Maré from 1916 is a lovely example of practical Dardelism – a photograph couldn’t have captured de Maré better than this, and yet it is dominated by Dardel’s whimsy: behind the aristocrat is a spongy coastline, a garden of Eden with death lurking up around the next bend, turning our wish to its will.

What makes Dardel fascinating is that he was this obviously contrived and disembodied figure who – when everything was inspired – painted for the eye that registers more than the surface of things. The ensembles of women in ghostly white robes and men in funeral suits in The Drowned Girl (1919) are like pins in a grieving game just waiting for their own collapse. The second version of the work has an important inclusion: a man who is looking at us. Throughout his entire life Dardel lived under the pressure that his weak heart could fail him at any given time. Most of his best works are like confectionary boxes with riotous configurations and sudden (stylish) death.

Cecil Beaton (another dandy) once wrote that, “The West has an absolute need to inject not only the colours of the East into its pallid spectrum of browns and greys and blacks but also its qualities of the bizarre and the alien.” The little Rousseau there was in Dardel painted “nature” as exotic zoos, and the animals – giraffes, lions, elephants, reindeer and the dandy monkeys alike – they all have the look of rub-ons in a panorama. Towards the end of his life he did a series of truly bizarre works that were made after his travels in South America. The way he painted the natives as weird aliens is not racist but a joke without amusement.

The surreal and brilliant Philippe at the Grave (1924) shows a young dandy (likely Dardel himself) sitting on a grave in deep thoughts about his own mortality. Nils Dardel finally met the Grim Reaper at the age of fifty-four, after he and his companion Edita Morris had moved to New York at the beginning of WWII. It is hardly surprising that his last work was his unfinished business with a bunch of skeletons having a laugh. Ingrid von Dardel painted The Dream in 1943. She is the girl who sleeps under a tree as an angel shines up her dream with pappa, dressed to the teeth for the hereafter.

Nils Dardel, Family Idyll, 1923.

Nils Dardel and the Modern Age at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm through September 14, 2014.

10 June 2014

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER IS LIKE SMILING SUNSHINE


“In front of beauty I am _______.” The dash is where Jean Paul Gaultier (b 1952) simulates a merry death by swooning, and almost trips on the Breton-striped rug made in his honour. You are watching the world spin around this man and his superlative charges of enthusiasm, benignity and curiosity. And as Susan Orlean wraps it up in The New Yorker (September 26, 2011): “It is immediately clear when you meet Gaultier that he is that rare thing: a Frenchman with humour.”

He is dressed in a black Abba t-shirt, black trousers, an almost black suit jacket, and heavy black trainers. Monsieur Gaultier exclaims that he is “super-appy” (his vocabulary is proudly void of the h-sound) to be in Stockholm again, prior to the opening of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. The exhibition substantiates the incredible craftsmanship and showmanship of his couture through a deeply perceptive presentation.

In the correct words of Tom Ford, “Gaultier is a master tailor, a powerful creative force. He carries on the tradition and has the immense skill of the great French couturiers of the past, yet is completely modern in his thinking. His couture pieces always astound me with their beauty and originality. What has had an influence on my work is not so much his open-mindedness, but his fearlessness in expressing himself through his clothes.”

“The only way to see haute couture is either if you’re a client or invited to the shows,” says Thierry-Maxime Loriot of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the museum that produced the exhibition together with Maison Jean Paul Gaultier. It was Loriot, as the curator of the exhibition, who selected the 120 complete ensembles from the 8,000 Gaultier creations that were up for review. From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is like a public invitation to a giant haute couture show, the very sexiest of Jean Paul Gaultier.

“Sex is generally processed in one of three shades,” suggested the very gay Quentin Crisp in the book that took him from infamy to fame in 1968, The Naked Civil Servant. “It may be crude, which leads to the numbing repetition of the shortest words for the longest things, or naughty, involving one or both or all parties in dressing up, or it may be poetic.” Monsieur Gaultier, in all this, is sometimes naughty but never crude. And he is always, always, always poetic.

Catherine Deneuve’s words about Gaultier, that he is a designer who “can allow himself many flights of fancy because the basic structure of the garment is always impeccable”, are quite what “The Odyssey of Jean Paul Gaultier” is all about. The first room in the show is designed to let your fancy stray from the very moment you enter the holy blueness. There are three groups of lively mannequins here, masters of attraction and connection – many of them have a voice to support the meaning of the show. In this exhibition, it is the women who do the talking. And they do have the faces that Norma Desmond was asking for in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

“Clothes are about looks, relations, how you present yourself. They are elements that can help you,” says Gaultier. His cheer about life is a kind of smile that stretches out to his arms, they move a lot. “I want to be inspired by those who are different,” he continues. “There is not one type of beauty. Beauty exists everywhere.”

In the 1800s, every Spanish sailor had to sign a contract with the Catholic Church, a legally enforceable promise that they would not have sexual intercourse with a mermaid. Gaultier’s mannequin double to the left is sided by two mannequins who have been given his special treatment: the evening dresses are from the Mermaid collection he did in 2008, where layers of scales and shimmer are entertained by trimmings of nacre, atelier-made algae strings and pointy seashells to mark the breasts, and each hem is a flapper. One of the mermaids is supported on a pair of hybrid crutches that grow coral antlers. Everything is in a state of change, of growth.

There were sixteen female mannequins at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris the year before the outbreak of WWII. Man Ray’s was an Aphrodite with soap bubbles seething out of her hair and big tears coming down her face. The Gaultier group in the middle is a bunch of starry saints and teary madonnas. The ecclesiastical display, based on his Virgins collection from 2007, is a unified mix of mannequins with a personal look from the late Renaissance – holy, human, free from the brutish iconoclasm of “original sin”, crowned with Roman-Catholic-inspired gloriole headgear and graced with the Baroque exuberance of Gaultier’s dresses, the diversity and the lovely abundance of details.

The Breton stripes are the unifying factor for the group on the right, with homosexual stereotypes of sailors versus a strikingly beautiful dress with a feather-skirt finale, white and navy blue all the way down. Gaultier is the undisputed master when it comes to tuning up a wealth of honest femaleness by using puffs and blasts of masculinity in his womenswear. But the other way around is many times an alley of male-only-oriented homoeroticism.

Quentin Crisp once more (from The Naked Civil Servant): “To outsiders the idea that between a man and a woman the sex act can be natural, unnamed, inevitable and lead to total oneness gives normally the radiance of the Holy Grail. Only a lifetime of receiving the confidences of unhappily married middle-aged women brought me to the realisation that in time, even for heterosexuals, sex is reduced to an indoor sport. This was consoling. It is nice to be in the same boat as one’s betters especially if it is sinking.”

Paris and the banlieues were worlds apart in the 1950s as well. Jean Paul Gaultier grew up in a place called Arcueil on the outskirts of Paris with his nice and tolerant family, and an inspirational and eccentric grandmother who he doted on. Marie Garrabe’s holistic take on life made the women in the area come to her for things like massage and counselling, and she allowed the boy to sit in and listen to the women’s stories about their unappealing, sexless marriages, “and she recommended that they jazz up their wardrobes. The idea that fashion was powerful enough to perhaps save a relationship fascinated Gaultier,” explains Susan Orlean in The New Yorker.

Gaultier has talked about the Parisienne as the type of woman he knows best, “but it’s possible that I still haven’t actually met her”. He saw what he saw on the television that his grandmother owned, and he adored the women of Paris as they looked and acted in the films that were made in the decades before he was born.

La femme moderne, as pictured in the mass media between the wars, was literary ‘going places’,” suggest Whitney Chadwick and Tirza True Latimer in The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars. “She was shown at the wheel of an automobile, at the helm of a speedboat, in the cockpit of an airplane. She was in control, self-assured, capable, aggressive, adventurous, independent. As a figure in transit and in transition, she travelled unescorted, distancing herself from her national and/or familial points of origin.”

Another source of stimulation for the very young Gaultier was the nostalgia and flamboyant glamour of the Folies Bergère. It was once again his granny’s television that transferred him from the suburbs to the legendary music hall on rue Richer and its cabarets – and the women in corsets and cancan skirts who looked like they had come right out of something festive and gay by Toulouse-Lautrec.

“The Folies Bergère had become a component part of the mythical image repertory of the alluring hedonistic pleasures of urban Modernity, embodying the intriguing ambiguities and superficialities of the pageant modern life,” as John Kear describes it in Parisian Fields. “On stage, the Folies increasingly provided an eclectic spectacle renowned for its exotic acts from four continents. Like the international expositions it was part of the function of the music hall to provide an image of Paris as an internationalist and multidimensional world.”

Gaultier was slapped by the teacher when she found out that he was working on his sketches instead of paying attention to what she was saying, and she made him walk through the classrooms with his illustrations pinned to his back so he would be laughed at. But when the other boys saw his sexy, elegant scribbles of women in brassieres and fishnet stockings he was no longer rejected as the school sissy, the weakling who couldn’t do anything right with a football.

The kid was nine when he made his first fashion sketches; nine years later he was in Pierre Cardin’s employ. “Feigning sickness, he bunked off school to pursue his interest in fashion, looking at newspapers and magazines and drawing obsessively. In his formative years in the 1960s, his interest was in the world of haute couture rather than the new generation of ready-to-wear créateurs, although anything the teenage Gaultier learned was self-taught,” write Brenda Polan and Roger Tredre in The Great Fashion Designers.

When Gaultier was six he chewed on some paper to form two little cones that he attached to his he-teddy Nana where his breasts would be. Station two in the exhibition, “The Boudoir”, stars the tattered teddy bear and the two cone-breasted corsets that he made in 1990 for the protagonist of The Blond Ambition Tour (Gaultier designed all the 358 costumes). He calls her “the biggest macho that I’ve met” – with the kind of mischief that requires the vigorous waving of both his hands to complete the smile.

“The Boudoir” is like a secret parlour full of articles of transference: lingerie, corsets, bodices, bodysuits, and combinations (there is also a special undergarment for the pregnant woman), and the men’s skirt. Gaultier has stated that “equality, diversity, perversity” is his motto. But there is never anything that is nasty with Gaultier. Most of his designs are free from turmoil, and so differently beautiful. (This notion about Gaultier as an “enfant terrible” is just as ignorant and worn-out as the one about Bowie being a “chameleon”.) However, there is a black installation of a woman riding a man which looks more like a masquerade than a dominatrix kind of thing – a woman wanting to stimulate a certain part of her body, a pleasure known to any equestrienne.

The first corset dresses from Gaultier were made in 1983, the same year as he introduced his prêt-à-porter line for men. The exhibition is full of classy fashion photography, like the picture of Cindy Sherman as someone else in punctuated cone lingerie, a woman and her two imploded missiles. Breasts for Gaultier are some utmost tokens of the female – he made a garment where the Breton stripes are going bonkers out of joy and excitement around the breasts – but they are also toys for the mind. His affection for women is even more evident in how he works with the hips. Just see how he shapes the fabrics around the curves where the whole world moves.

“If a man does wear a skirt, you’re very much aware of him as a sexual presence,” said the curator of the 2002 exhibition Men in Skirts at the V&A in London, Andrew Bolton, to The Guardian. Gaultier’s hands are impassive when he talks about “the injustice and stupid things about clothes”. He was not alone with the launch of the men’s skirt in the mid 1980s (and they all failed), but the skirts he made were actually very manly in appearance and yet they didn’t even look like kilts. “It was not a question of being gay, but about being sensible, because there is seduction in men,” he says. “It was the right moment to do it, I felt that the young men were changing.”

“The amalgamation of Gaultier’s brilliance proves that all dress is a form of costume, whether for the screen, for the catwalk, for the street, for life. Sidewalk to Catwalk declares clothing an extension of the self: our sexuality, our opinions; a means to invite power, responses, revolutions, laughter. It’s this ballsy proclamation which makes Gaultier not just memorable, but legendary,” argues the fine young writer Charlotte Simmonds on her blog at the New Statesman.

The corsets and the playsuits in the “Skin Deep” section of the exhibition are a rhapsody of undergarments transposed into outer armour, costumes with an eye-deceiving anatomy lesson for anyone who has ever wondered what’s inside a girl. These are garments with a sinewy architecture, a circulatory system, and a heart-shaped pump. (This thing about reversing an inward structure so it would surface the outside, was also used with great skills by the British artist Rachel Whiteread when she turned some houses inside out with her ghostly concrete casts in the 1990s.)

It is a lush and fantastical world to be in when haute couture is in the command of monsieur Gaultier and his take on Victorian science fiction. He uses the whimsies of the future to bring out a better past. He uses tradition to look into future possibilities.

In the anthology Steaming Into a Victorian Future, Julie Ann Taddeo is of the opinion that steampunk often “highlights some of the very real, social, and sexual inequalities that dominated late-Victorian and Edwardian discourse and politics; in doing so, it offers an alternative world for women that steampunk’s hero, HG Wells, would have applauded. In one of his essays concerning the advancement of women, Wells aligned himself with ‘those who sanely and healthily await the changes taking place in woman’s status and activity at the present day [and] are hoping for honest comradeship with no false sentiment, no mystery, and no repression, mental or physical’.”

“I use and respect tradition, but try to find new elements which will make it younger,” Gaultier told his biographer Colin McDowell in 2000. Gaultier’s first encounter with the traditional world of couture was when he saw Jacques Becker’s Falbalas (Paris Frills, 1945) on his grandmother’s television. He says that it is still his favourite film because it made him want to become a fashion designer. Micheline Presle, one of Gaultier’s earliest screen loves, plays the woman who rejects the self-engrossed designer in the end, which means the end for the couturier who jumps out of a window after seeing her features come to life on one of his mannequins.

Maison Jean Paul Gaultier is at 325 rue Saint-Martin in Paris. The beautiful building in white marble was once a stronghold for a trade union, which might explain the clumsy carving on the façade: “Future of the proletariat.” “Punk Cancan” is the station in the exhibition where Gaultier moves from Patou to punk, and then back again, where he crossbreeds the filth and the fury of England’s awakening with the drama of couture.

“Fashion is like love, but a love that not always lasts and is not always loyal,” says Gaultier. He adored the atmosphere of the atelier and the validity of the craftsmanship at the House of Patou, where he worked in the early 1970s. But the snobbism, the arrogance, the senile racism of this place gave him second thoughts about ever wanting to be associated with haute couture again.

Jon Savage calls punk “the grandstanding ‘fuck you’ to England that seemed to come out of nowhere – but what they set up was so explosive that, in the polarising climate of the time, it soon required definition”. In England’s Dreaming he describes how “Punk brought together suburban stylists, Bowie victims, teenage runaways, hardened 60s radicals, gay men and women, artists, disco dollies, criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes of all persuasions, football hooligans, intellectuals, big beat obsessives, outcasts from every class. It wasn’t just the groups: the power that they had came from their audience.” Punk also brought together the very elements that would define Jean Paul Gaultier as a fashion designer for the world.

In her book Fashion, Desire, and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the Twentieth Century, Rebecca Arnold describes one of those main elements of punk aesthetics as something that “was loaded with pornographic content, yet it was itself openly bored with, and contemptuous of, sex, which was seen as a mechanical act, lacking emotion. These conflicting messages were presented as a means to transgress social codes and expose the false modesty of the mainstream. Sadomasochistic dress was used as a means to an anarchic end, rather than as part of a sexual ritual as it was by true sexual fetishists.”

“Punk Cancan” does not mean babes in bondage though, but Gaultier’s fully mature designs based on his energised ideas about challenge and clashing messages that have followed him since his formative days – uproar through the passion and precision of couture. A group of mannequins in tartan skirts (and kilts) in yellow, black and red are fronting a wall of graffiti. Others wear tutus and tulle (Gaultier made the costumes for sixteen ballets between 1983 and 1993), or his showy camouflage dresses to make love in.

There is a corner in this space devoted to his Swedish connections. And something about Abba (it is clear that Gaultier is crazy about Abba) which seems to have the dignity of Antoine Doinel’s bedroom shrine for Balzac in Les quatre cents coups (1959), the one that catches fire.

The centrepiece installation of twelve mannequins parading a conveyor-belt podium is Gaultier’s declaration of love to the Parisienne and her city. Each of these creations is a showstopper. There are the wild things like the shoes with the Eiffel Tower heels, or the cancan skirt with a feisty bouquet of kicking women’s legs, if you dare to look inside. And there are the pieces that are even louder in a milder way, the remarkable trouser suits and the dresses with their sober colours and sophisticated cuts. (Gaultier was indeed the creative director of womenswear at Hermès 2003–2010.)

He mentions when his first Gaultier collection was presented in 1978: “Honestly, it was a disaster! It was so unprofessional. Panic, total panic! The dresses did not work on the models so I only showed twenty garments. I did not know how to do anything. It is good to have a sense of humour when you see what I did back then.”

By 1974, Gaultier was back in Cardin’s employ – as far from Paris as it is geographically possible – for an assignment in Manila in the Philippines. Once Gaultier had returned to Paris he found the love of his life. The couple founded the company and lived and worked together for fifteen years. Francis Menuge died from aids in 1990.

“Urban Jungle” is a treasure trove of twenty multicultural styles, the world construed through the world of super-haute couture (the first one thousand hours spent on each of these fantasy creations are just the foreplay in the process), against a backdrop of a moving panorama of dear old Stockholm.

Monsieur Gaultier is talking about Cardin with much reverence. Pierre Cardin was the first designer to introduce the concept of prêt-à-porter, and to sell his collections in department stores, and he wasn’t going to suck up to the couture syndicate. But Gaultier, of course, could not stay away from haute couture. About a dozen fashion houses (and a number of guest designers) are members of the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture, governed by the Fédération française de la couture. Gaultier is very much still part of it, even though his premiere haute couture collection of 1997 (Couture Man) was only meant to be a one-off diversion into this world of fancy expenditure.

The last station in the exhibition is called “Metropolis”. It features the outfit that television woman Andrea Caracortada – a scarry Robot Maria with headlight breasts – wears in Almodóvar’s Kika (1993), along with some of the nine hundred dresses Gaultier designed for Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), and other collaborations with artists. This is Gaultier when he uses high-tech materials to strip down his designs to bare essential structures, or when he leaves his designs in a vegetative state. This is Gaultier heading towards the old future of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and the near past of early new wave and house music, while rejoicing in the analogue and the handmade.

Susan Orlean was with the almost one hundred thousand people who enjoyed the Gaultier parade on Montreal’s rue Sainte-Catherine, before the exhibition opened for the very first time in June 2011: “The parade was noisy and lively and included two thousand dancers dressed in costumes that ranged from cancan skirts to opulent hip-hop outfits to wedding gowns, all representing Gaultier’s work. Gaultier himself marched at the front of the parade, flanked by a cohort of solemn-looking security guards, three pretty girls dressed as fairies, and some of his longtime models, and he was welcomed like the captain of a team that had won the Stanley Cup.”

To experience The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is like watching Edward Bloom and his yellow daffodils in Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003): “A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.” Gaultier is alive and unforgettable. Anyone with a heart-shaped pump will exit his fashion world seduced, lifted, entertained, moved, appy.

Monsieur Gaultier visited Stockholm and the Centre for Architecture and Design last summer. The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is currently at the Barbican in London through August 25, 2014. The exhibition will travel to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne (October 17, 2014–February 8, 2015) and to the Grand Palais in Paris (April 1, 2015–August 3, 2015).