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Face-à-Face (Audio- und Miniguide)

Face-à-Face (Audioguide)

Face-à-Face (Face to Face) is the result of a collaboration between the Moderne Galerie – Saarlandmuseum Saarbrücken and Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, two major museums in the Grande Région and the European scene. The fruitful dialogue between the museum’s collections highlights the particularities of each institution, whose histories go back to the 1920s and 1990s respectively.

Two collections, two institutional histories

In 1924, in Saarbrucken, the Staatliche Museum put together its first modern art collection, whose administrative status would shift over time until it took on its current name of Moderne Galerie in 1952. Its location on a geopolitical border means its collection has a distinctive focus on the French and German avant-gardes of the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century.

It is by design that none but one of the works borrowed from the Moderne Galerie’s collection are dated later than the 1960s: the selection is representative of the essential role played by avant-garde movements. From a chronological point of view, Auguste Rodin’s 1888 sculpture Polyphème (Polyphemus) is the oldest piece in the exhibition. This exception aside, all other artworks selected are from the twentieth century and come from various artistic movements characteristic of the first half of the 1900s – expressionism, surrealism, constructivism – all the way to the end of the 1950s with the ZERO group. The existence of a major photographic endowment created thanks to Otto Steinert, a key figure in subjective photography, and the presence of Alexander Archipenko’s bequest are also noticeable throughout the exhibition.

Acting as a counterpoint to this rich historical ensemble, Mudam’s collection is resolutely rooted in more recent decades. It offers a broad and diverse array of contemporary creation, from the media represented – with the prominence of moving image works, for instance – to a greater number of artists who are women or come from different parts of the world.

A constellation of works

Through an exhibition circuit that comprises approximately ninety works produced by over fifty artists, Face-à-Face moves between modern and contemporary art. The exhibition highlights how artists, from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day, have never ceased to question modes of representation and experiment with new ways of creating, all while reflecting on the historical events and societal issues of their time. Unfolding in the two main floor galleries, it does not follow a single or chronological path, but was designed to reflect the idea of a constellation. It foregrounds the formal parallels that exist between eras as well as similarities in the creative approaches of some artists whose work, despite these similarities, nevertheless emerged from a diversity of artistic and historical contexts.

East Gallery

Questions of metamorphosis, the transformation of matter, optical phenomena, and the perception of space are the threads weaving through the exhibition in the East Gallery. They highlight a diversity of formal experimentation, as well as the willingness of artists to challenge social and political structures.

Bathed in a black and white atmosphere, the wide-open space offers a landscape with shifting edges from which Otto Piene’s Black Sun (1964) emerges, a black circle made with a flamethrower on a bright red background. The artist evokes fire and the sun, primordial and destructive forces whose visual impact exceeds the limits of the canvas. With this attention to natural phenomena, he touched upon a new field of experimentation. Eager to disrupt the status quo and establish a more sensitive relationship to our environment, he found himself as part of group ZERO working alongside artists like Heinz Mack, whose Reflektorenstele (Stele of Reflectors) (1966–8), shown here, plays with the reflection of light.

A few decades earlier and under a different form, this same appetite for transgression was present in the work of two artists tied to the surrealist movement, Hans Bellmer and Max Ernst, whose painting Ils ont été trop longtemps dans la forêt (They Slept for Too Long in the Forest) (c. 1926) focuses on dreams and the subconscious. The hybrid beings that populate the painting, with their undefined outlines, are formally reminiscent of the plant-like, undulating morphology of Tobias Putrih’s sculpture and Germaine Hoffmann’s inventive collage. Transformed by the spirit of the place, they also recall the dense tropical forests photographed by Emily Bates on the Japanese island of Amami Ōshima, where elderly women carry on ancient, spiritual shamanic traditions, or Janaina Tschäpe’s sensual paintings, which communicate her desire to lose herself in the exuberance of the Brazilian jungle.

The same intense vital spark is the thrust behind Alexander Archipenko’s series of prints entitled Les Formes vivantes (Living Forms) (1963). Here, the faithfulness with which humans are depicted gives way to abstraction. His goal was not so much to represent the exact details of a body, but to show the autonomy of dynamic forms animated by the breath of life. In this way, they connect with the random creation principle of François Roche, whose architectural models surround and contrast with Norbert Kricke’s strictly geometric sculpture Raumplastik (Spatial Sculpture) (1976). Roche’s visionary urbanism is based on a principle of autonomous growth that rejects the norms of global planning. Not architectural per se so much as a collection of mineral concretions, his models recall the asperities of Relief (1959) by Jan Schoonhoven, who, as part of the informalist movement, focused on the pure materiality of the canvas’s surface as his main means of expression. Giulia Cenci’s complex amalgamations of industrial material and found objects, Michel Paysant’s dozens of slowly morphing asphalt fragments gathered from major European roads, and Mark Lewis’s immersive video also give substance to transformation of matter phenomena while also raising politically charged questions.

This sensitive approach, which is more interested in visual experimentation as a whole than in faithfully depicting a given subject, is exemplified in the 1950s movement of subjective photography. The sophisticated overlaying of architectural elements in Grand Palais (Great Palace) (1955), a piece by the leading figure of subjective photography, Otto Steinert, demonstrates a sense of framing and montage that is in service of formal inventiveness. Similarly, the photographic work of his student, Monika von Boch, seeks to highlight the inherent structure of industrial objects and natural elements through an interplay of contrasts and repetition. Here, pattern becomes its own graphic language and breaks free from the identity of the object being photographed. Objects even border on disappearance in adjoining contemporary artworks: Lutz & Guggisberg’s photolithographs and the moment when wisps of incense smoke turn into writing in Yazib Oulab’s video.

The infinite vortex of Lee Bul’s staggering sculpture and the delicately balanced assemblage of apparently contradictory materials – glass and stone – by Alicja Kwade resonate with the photographic works of Steinert and von Boch. They are also reminiscent of the research conducted in the 1920s by artists who were attached to principles of modernity at odds with traditional representation and immersed in the idea of a new, future world. The fragmented depth effect created by the colourful, prismatic shapes of Lyonel Feininger’s Lüneburg (1924) significantly shifts the viewer’s perception of an architecturally developed space. Meanwhile, with his series Konstruktionen (Constructions) (1923), László Moholy-Nagy developed spatialisation effects through a dynamic interplay between planes, lines, surfaces and colours. The tight and bold framing in the series Baukonstruktionen (Building Constructions) (1920–9) by Albert Renger-Patzsch, a photographer associated with the New Objectivity movement, push industrial construction closer to geometric abstraction. Finally, Dom Sylvester Houédard’s visual poems based in typography employ a formal vocabulary that offers endless variations.

West Gallery

The body in all its forms is the focal point of the West Gallery’s installation. While it does occupy the space physically, it also functions as the site of ancient and contemporary mythologies. Furthermore, it acts as a metaphor for a form of inner withdrawal or, conversely, physically wrestles with the troubles of the world.

Under the stroke of Henri Matisse’s pencil, the body becomes one with its environment. The artist’s clean drawings, with their clear lines, capture his models’ personalities and his close connection with them. Roland Fischer’s head-and-shoulder portrait, the drawings by Isabelle Marmann, and Josef Scharl’s Mann im gelben Mantel (Man in Yellow Coat) (1929) share this graphic clarity. They also invite a direct relationship with the model. This feeling of proximity is present in Katinka Bock’s installation as well, but it is offset by the romantic feeling emanating from the silhouette of a simple board, which places human presence in the infinite expanse of the horizon.

In Alexander Archipenko’s sculptures, made between 1909 and 1959, the tension between the fullness of the bodies and the empty space around them creates a counterpoint to their curvilinearity. The artist borrows considerably from ancient sculpture while also adding his very own stylistic form. The position of his figures’ hips, characteristic of classic contrapposto, echoes the pose captured by Nan Goldin. The great sensitivity with which she captures moments shared with her intimate circle of friends offers a portrait not only of a strong and fragile underground community, but also speaks to how we find ourselves in the gaze of the other.

Henri Laurens and Fernand Léger, both of whom were part of the cubist movement, often depict full female figures. With La Baigneuse au tronc d’arbre (Bather with a Tree Trunk), Léger aimed to reinvent the genre and resituate it within modernity by bringing equal attention to the woman and the tree. In doing so, he displaces our gaze, accustomed to focusing primarily on human depictions in a given image. While Auguste Renoir’s bas-relief depicts the mythological story Le jugement de Pâris (The Judgement of Pâris) (1914), the photographic panorama by Beaurin Domercq dramatises antique combat while also modernising it. On the other hand, works by Kathia St. Hilaire and Edward Lipski draw from non-western traditions: the former pays homage to the Haitian culture she grew up with; the latter builds on stereotyped depictions of Asian deities, giving them unsettling forms conducive to further reflection.

Auguste Rodin’s Polyphème (Polyphemus) (1888) depicts the mythological cyclops as he rips out a rock he is about to cast. His body is indicative of the impending drama and the tension of the moment. In a manner that is characteristic of the artist’s work, the figure seems to be wresting itself from the sculpture’s material, similarly to Rui Morera’s shamanic character emerging from the undergrowth or Andrea Mastrovito’s drawing himself on the white surface of the paper, embodying in his own eyes the supreme creative act. Rudolf Belling’s Tänzerin (Dancer) (1916) is propelled by a spiralling thrust. Its broken angles and lines demonstrate the influence of cubism and futurism. They invite viewers to move around this sculpture with no singular point of view. In this way, Belling’s work is contiguous to that of his contemporary, Archipenko, who also researched dance. Silke Otto-Knapp’s moving silhouettes float in space and tend towards abstraction.

Conversely, the atmosphere in Giorgio de Chirico’s Malinconia (Melancholy) (1955–6) is almost static, stretching around a sculpture of the mythological figure Ariadne. Time stands still, just as it seems to be suspended when the artists from the collective Little Warsaw place a bust of Nefertiti, an archaeological relic that is more than 3000 years old, on a custom-made bronze of a female body. Helmut Federle’s large abstract composition is hung close to de Chirico’s painting; both share a metaphysical aspect fundamental to both artists’ processes.

Finally, in Pascal Convert’s monumental bas-relief, bodies convey the symbolic strength of images. The artist examines the cultural and political aspect of images and their impact on the construction of memory and history. The scene is based on a photograph taken in 1990 in Kosovo and is presented across from Judenfriedhof in Randegg im Winter mit Hohenstoffeln (The Jewish Cemetery in Randegg in the Winter with the Hohenstoffeln) (1935) by Otto Dix, as well as Ludwig Meiner’s drawing, each of which foreshadowed a world war. Then, there are the satirical drawings of Nedko Solakov and George Grosz. In his series Kleine Grosz Mappe (Little Grosz Album) (1917), Grosz captures the shortcomings of the German petty bourgeoisie and the people they’ve failed – workers, orphans, and war amputees. The artist’s bold and angular strokes render the greed and hypocrisy of society in the midst of the First World War. Solakov’s lines are just as caustic as he denounces the erring ways of Bulgarian policy makers during the communist era.