Since October 17 the Centre Pompidou has been hosting a historical retrospective devoted to cubism. The historic nature of this event lies in the number of works that have been brought together and the international origin of the loans. Much is known about this visual arts style whose impact has reverberated across all areas of artistic creation. It has been largely responsible for making the eye an adaptable organ that is no longer subject to expectations or to the ordinary joy fed by a certain idealism (appearance); on the contrary cubism has transformed the eye into an active instrument that constantly questions appearances.
The exhibit, however, offers some surprises including the way in which it transforms two of cubism’s champions, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, into a pair of athletes who have been continuously engaged in an exhilarating rivalry. The peak of their competition is represented in the great hall, stretched out lengthwise, with the collages of both artists facing each other on opposite sides. The years from 1912 to 1914 have tended to mix the styles of the two artists until one becomes indistinguishable from the other. But the at the end of the room Picasso, a superb “runner”, passes his competitor at the finish line with an extraordinary spurt of brilliance. Suddenly we see his Guitar, produced in Céret in 1913, which uses different kinds of paper and reduces the object to four interconnected rectangles on a triangle, one of which seems to project toward the viewer as a result of its sheer whiteness. Even then this “projection” addressed the concept of suprematism which we probably have forgotten may have had its origins here. The stroke of genius of the piece consists in revealing the moment where, at the end of a period where wallpaper had been used to imitate other materials, the artist resorts to using the illusionist quality of painting to imitate wallpaper itself. In other words, Braque and Picasso, but especially Picasso, use the technique of mise en abîme which places a copy of the image into the image itself. They transform something that risks becoming an analytical mannerism into a fresh reflection on the vanity of the act of painting, thereby challenging painting’s ability to imitate imitation.
Everything is amazing about this exhibit and all that we thought we knew is rediscovered. Consequently, the construction of the elegant and transparent Guitarist dating from 1910, clearly evokes the architecture of a Mies van Rohe building rather than a musician’s instrument. Cubism increasingly proves to be more of an illusion rather than an exercise in the objectification of the gaze whose simultaneously reproduced elements guarantee the work’s success. The end of the exhibit demonstrates the power of the cubist movement and has allowed some works, some of which are obviously minor but still quite unique, to be re-evaluated. One of these is this Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’ vision of war whose striped, shiny exterior complements certain contemporary treatments of the pictorial surface.
The Fall Festival also features the team of Marion Siefert and Héléna de Laurens who have reunited for a performance entitled Le Grand Sommeil. The relationship here is not one of rivalry as it is with the two cubists, but rather a collaboration between a director and a performer. Even though the Fall Festival has already spotlighted large scale performances in the past such as with Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson, this one is still exceptional. Siefert and de Laurens are among the artists whose precise theatrical and choreographic role cannot be defined. They are performers in the great tradition of German expressionists of the 1920s (Valeshka Gert…) who transformed the stage into a visual arts space. This show is appropriately titled as Héléna de Laurens (directed by Marion Siefert) provides audiences with the opportunity to contemplate a “very old” character whose childhood is still very much in control of all her contortions and moods. Just like the turbulence of childhood sleep, the elasticity of the body of this tall girl all dressed in red also evokes fire’s dancing flames as well as the helplessness that accompanies the usual childish terrors, and more precisely, the baffling codes of the adult life.
The public is invited on a hypnotic, dreamlike experience, even if the end of the performance abruptly brings them back to a reality where audience members, mere mortals once more, impose all their rigidity and heaviness on each other. Héléna de Laurens has an amazing power to express a kind of intimacy that would only be made indecent with the addition of speech, but with which the body’s geometry calls for the distance of a controlled performance; from the frenzied spinning of the whole body to the smallest quiver of a finger. While Héléna de Laurens’ voice is subtly and infinitely modulated, by contrast even her smallest movements are intentionally excessive and acrobatic. The seemingly endless extension of her limbs is matched by the limitless feelings that her face is able to express.
Héléna de Laurens is reminiscent of Zouk, a great artist of the stage who had limited physical flexibility but whose intense facial features seemed to have the ability communicate immense joy and pain fused with the beat of the endless surf of maritime waves. This great but forgotten artist who left the dance scene rather prematurely due to illness has now acquired an unexpected successor, who elevated her to the status of a dancer, an acrobat and a performer whose technique and geometry of movements are evocative of the tradition of some of the heights that the choreography of Schlemmer and other heroes of the dance within the Bauhaus movement had been able to reach. The duo of Laurens/Siefert still have surprises in store for us: their dazzling appearance is but one of highlights that the Fall Festival has featured this year.
At the Centre Pompidou, in contrast to de Laurens’ solitary presence, Bouchra Ouizguen scatters a disorderly group on stage where the frenzied race of each dancer sometimes manages, following a random pattern, to produce lyrical rotations. This Moroccan choreographer uses the stage as an urban setting and the apparent disorder that governs the insane unrest and the dancers’ breathless races overwhelmingly evokes the enthusiasm of demonstrators and the panic of their repression during certain events of the Arab Spring. I thought about events of Tahir Square while watching this group of about 20 dancers run until the point of exhaustion, not knowing whether it was utopia that swept them away or their flight from repression. It was strange to have experienced two contrasting performances within the space of a few days: a stage occupied by a woman who portrayed multiple dreamlike characters that she probably rehearsed at length before the show and a stage “occupied” by about 20 people who managed to achieve collective unity in order to make a single vibrant and enthusiastic body!