Marc Chagall, View from the window in Zaolchie near Vitebsk, 1915
Anyone looking for the romance of Paris in the springtime this year will have been hard pushed to find it through the cold and driving rain.
With the winter chill still in my bones I was recently shaken out of my hibernation gloom by two very different exhibitions that gave a warm glow to my sun-starved mood: Chagall between war and peace at the Musée de Luxembourg and Ron Mueck at the Fondation Cartier.
The first three paintings of the Chagall show (the section entitled “Bella”, the name of his first wife) are brimming with love. View from the window in Zaolchie near Vitebsk (1915), a lush green composition, combines elements picked up from modernist movements Chagall encountered in Paris with something unmistakably Russian (the trees are reminiscent of Ivan Shishkin‘s forest landscapes). The meditative deep green of this painting and the domestic scene hanging to its left, Bella and Ida by the window, are profoundly peaceful paintings. On the right, The Lovers (1916 – 17), seems to go further, with emotion overspilling into that tragic yearning of a first love. Painted during the first World War, Bella’s startled expression also forewarns us of the horrors of war in contrast to the otherwise blissful lovers who appear alone in the world as if in a dream.
Marc Chagall, The Lovers, 1916 – 1917
The exhibition moves on chronologically to works on paper during WW1, with angular figures and almost caricatured peasants and soldiers. The later paintings become more dreamlike and oscillate between violent scenes of crucifixions and bright blue fantasies. The exhibition is not a one stop love in (see title) but that’s what makes it such a touching body of work: love, war, mourning, peace…
Australian artist Ron Mueck concentrates a similarly dazzling array of human emotion in his hyper-realist sculptures. The ground floor of the Fondation Cartier is dominated by Couple under an Umbrella, an up-scaled woman sitting under a beach umbrella with her husband lying, head propped up on her thigh. The details are incredibly realistic and the larger than life pair take on an almost uncanny aura. Visitors get close to inspect believable hair follicles, freckles and veins that look as if they risk becoming varicose, then step back suddenly as if close contact might wake the gentle giants. This eery realism is enhanced by the very tender gestures of the couple, the woman looking down at her husband, while he gently holds her upper arm. They are the picture of a content old couple. The banality of the scene doesn’t match the monumentality of the scale but that’s what makes it so disarming. That disjunction, plus the sagging flesh and rough feet, save the sculpture from sentimentality.
Ron Mueck, Couple under an Umbrella, 2013
Mueck’s background in model-making and special effects is evident in the minute attention to detail but there is more to his sculptures than realistic model making. Each sculptures projects a multitude of potential references and possible narratives. A stout woman carrying a bundle of sticks (who appears on the exhibition poster) is like something out of a fairystory, while another, careworn woman with baby in a sling and a couple of very realistic Sainsbury’s bags looks like she’s been plucked directly off the bus and doesn’t have the wherewithal to figure out what to do next.
For a half hour waiting in line outside you only get 9 sculptures. This may seem measly but a 52 minute video documenting Mueck’s work process (projected downstairs in the exhibition) reveals the amount of time and painstaking care that goes into each sculpture.
Also downstairs, a sculpture of a youth investigating a wound in his ribs was apparently inspired by Caravaggio’s Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Hardly surprising, Caravaggio shocked his 16th century audience with his earthy realism and lack of regard for idealized beauty, Mueck shocks us with the raw fleshiness of unadorned nudity in all its goose-pimply glory .
Which reminds me, when’s that sun coming out?