Schoenberg, de Keersmaeker, Freud, and the restless nights of autumn in Paris

Schoenberg, de Keersmaeker, Freud, and the restless nights of autumn in Paris

Autumn in Paris is brimming with exciting events of all kinds and while some of the films previewed at the Cannes Film Festival may be slow to reach movie theatres, there is still plenty of dance, concerts and live theatre–so much that even the most seasoned audiences will not have time to discover it all. In recent weeks, a retrospective devoted to Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker as part of the Fall Festival showcases her repertory and, in particular, the daring choreography of The Transfigured Night by Arnold Schoenberg.

Looking back on the poem written by Richard Dehmel, a contemporary of Schoenberg’s, from which the piece was inspired it’s difficult to decide whether the project is a tragedy or a lyrical message of happiness. Actually it’s a duet. A woman confesses her secret shame to her lover when she reveals that she is pregnant by another man. But Schoenberg’s music and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s choreographed interpretation removes all traces of a sense of guilt from the story.

© Anne Van Aerschot

The performance starts off with a literal reminder of this thin storyline by joining the woman to two men in complete silence before the famous “pianissimo” opening of this piece even begins. The performance is a remarkable combination of a romantic masterpiece with one of the 20th century’s greatest examples of choreographic excellence and innovation, a performance which I “forced” myself to see twice within the space of a few days. I wanted to be certain that what seemed to me to be the interpretation of the chaos of the senses was in fact the result of obsessive demands and of an exceptional acrobatic precision. All these elements contribute to slowing down the theme of the initial poem – the night, the confession and finally, at the close of this short narrative, the happy ending and acceptance of the child by the lover—and we are swept away in a bodily frenzy that reminds us of everything that made Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker a “minimalist” choreographer.

Schoenberg’s music was composed when he was 25 years old (1899) and we can feel the romantic excitement generated by his meeting the woman who would eventually become his wife, Mathilde. The piece is also famous because of the dividing line that it represents between romantic music and that of the 20th century. It’s also a kind of farewell song before the subsequent major conceptual shifts in Schoenberg’s work (the twelve-tone technique for example). We can spot Wagnerian influences in certain moments that evoke Tristan, but mainly it is the speed of execution that this piece demands, the narrative compression that it enforces, that pull the music’s romantic roots closer to a 20th century repertory. (I recall a version directed by Pierre Boulez—near the end of the 2000s—that made it all very clear!)

Schoenberg. Copyright

During the two shows that I attended dancer Samantha von Wissen conveyed, by her nervousness and by certain movements demanded by the choreographer, an energy and a sexual appeal that caused some discomfort for certain audience members who may have been shocked by the lack of elegance in her gestures and especially by the comic upheaval created by a dress whose printed floral pattern made me think of a field of flowers painted by Odilon Reddon. That is precisely the symbolistic legacy that this choreography brought to mind for me, this pictorial symbolism whose theme of the woman in the forest was so often repeated by Carlos Schwabe and even Puvis de Chavanne (I deliberately chose these two names to contrast and unite the German and French tradition of symbolism).

I was also reminded of some of the pieces selected by Jean Clair and Guy Cogeval for their exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art (1995), Lost:Paradise: Symbolist.Europe In that show, probably one of the most important ever dedicated to symbolism and one that decisively contributed to a shift in thinking about the transition between the two centuries, there was a particularly moving painting by Ozias Leduc, Erato, Muse in the forest, curated at the National Gallery of Canada. But it’s also the photographs by Georges Seeley, including L’Offrande, kept at Orsay Museum and a pictorialist painting titled The Whispering Pines, on display at the Met in New York, that I thought of while listening to this maudlin music. By using this music de Keersmaeker transforms the ambiguity of the libretto by bestowing upon the female dancers an absolute sovereignty, a complete of the conquest of the self and a power that crushes any sense of guilt.

The coincidence of all this exceptional Parisian cultural programming seems too uncanny to be anything but a collaboration. It’s certainly quite different from what is going on elsewhere. In New York, for example, French exhibits are reworked and galleries remain rooted in the nostalgia of the minimalist 1960s and the Bohemian Beat.

While wandering through the Sigmund Freud exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Art and History, I rediscovered Jean Clair, who is the museum’s chief curator along with Laura Bossi, a vivacious and learned neurologist and Phillipe Commar, a brilliant Art History professor as well as an outstanding artist. With an inner smile and a good deal of tenderness and admiration, I began thinking that this exhibit was, as is often the case, but quite remarkably in this instance, a self-portrait of the chief curator as much as it was a documentary on the translation of Freud’s genius using the language of Fine Arts.

Max Halberstadt : Portrait de Sigmund Freud (1932).

Many of the works brought together here were already borrowed by Jean Clair for previous exhibits: L’âme au corps (The Soul and the Body) in Venice, La Mélancolie in the Grand Palais in Paris and Crimes et châtiments (Crimes and Punishments) in the Orsay Museum. But their relationship, their scenographic discourse is exploited differently in each exhibit and is imbued with a different meaning. The accusations of “conservatism” or of anti-modernism directed at Jean Clair are thoroughly belied by this approach: the same pieces serve different (but obviously related, since this exhibit dedicated to Freud is undoubtedly the most beautiful arrangement of previous exhibits) projects.

But it is the final room of the exhibit that clearly leads to a new and innovative beginning. The three curators bring it to life at the end of a journey that holds few surprises for those already familiar with Clair’s exhibits. One exception might be a small number of children’s books (?!) that are relatively unknown in France such as Max and Moritz by Wilhelm Busch, or Heinrich Hoffmann’s Pierrot l’ébouriffé (Shockheaded Peter), a compilation filled with comic and cruel situations indicative of fantasizes and quirks best described by psychoanalysis. Another delight may be the rare chance to get as close as possible to L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) by Courbet and his renowned “modest” panel of André Masson, composed of graceful, magnificent arabesques that are endowed with humour that I never really appreciated before.

The final room contains an exceptional life- size cast of Moses by Michelangelo originating from l’École Nationale des Beaux-Arts (the National School of Fine Arts). It is a most impressive replica made at a time when the goal of teaching arts was to resemble original pieces as much as possible through the accuracy of their … reproduction. Finally, as if it were nothing but an afterthought, Marc Rothko’s portrayal of Moses holding the tablets bearing the 10 commandments – a painting which comes from the National Museum of Modern Art and has seldom graced the gallery walls of the Centre Pompidou, is on display here as if to confront or perhaps even echo Michelangelo’s Judaeo-humanist depiction in its somber iconoclasm.

What a wonderful autumn this will be !