Friday, March 27th 2015
We had several activities planned for today and the first was a visit to the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Strasbourg’s gallery of modern and contemporary art. Happily, it was within easy walking distance of our hotel.
Wanting to make an early start, we arrived too early: the gallery was not yet open. Fortunately, it was a sunny day and so we filled in the time wandering and sightseeing. The above photo shows the row of towers that were built as fortifications along with the Ponts Couverts (see Strasbourg 2015 – Day 2). There are four towers altogether but they comprise two sets. Three of them (those to the right in the picture) were built in the 14th century but the one on the left is of an earlier vintage. Called the Tour du Bourreau or Henckersturm (the Executioner’s Tower), it was constructed in the period 1202-20.
The design was copied with slight differences in the other towers, built in the second half of the 1400s. For a while, La Tour du Bourreau, no longer needed for defence, served as a prison. I do not know whether executions or torture (the bourreau was also the official torturer) were performed there but it seems likely.
Another surviving piece of Strasbourg’s ancient fortifications, is the Barrage Vauban (the Vauban Dam). It is named after its designer, Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban, who was, among other things, a military architect. The actual building of this impressive structure was undertaken by military engineer Jacques Tarade. As military technology progressed, the medieval fortifications of the Ponts Couverts were perceived to be less effective than when built and between 1686 and 1700, the city now belonging to France, the Barrage was constructed, its purpose being to block the flow of the river and flood the surrounding area in the event of an attack. It was used for just that purpose during the siege of Strasbourg in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
We returned to the Musée, to see whether it was open. The coloured glass panels of the gallery were shining becomingly in the sunlight but the gates were still firmly shut. We would have to wait a little longer…
We went back into the streets and found a cafe where we could have breakfast. It is called Le Rive Gauche (the Left Bank), no doubt in honour of the famous Left Bank of Paris.
We returned thr the gallery and, after a short wait, the gates were opened. The public entrance is closed by two heavy metal gates but each has a pivot in the centre. They open by rotating 45 degrees and can easily be handled by one person, despite their size and weight.
Strasbourg’s Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain is quite large and well stocked, so there is plenty to see. I cannot show everything and have selected just a few samples.
Rodin’s famous Penseur (‘Thinker’) needs no introduction and must be one of the best known sculptures in the world. The only point at issue is that there are now getting on for 30 copies of the work in various galleries and other places. What you might consider the original, the bronze, currently resides in the garden of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, not in the Musée Rodin in Paris, as you might expect. Whatever we might think of that, the fact remains that whenever you come across a Rodin Thinker, it is likely to be one of the copies, as here.
The Belgian artist René François Ghislain Magritte is known above all for his surrealist paintings which are often visual puns that are both witty and challenging to our perception of reality. Here he has created a sculpture. It shows a coffin, flexed as though to allow the occupant to occupy a seated position on a chaise longue or couch. Beside it is a tall, delicate lamp stand. Graveyard humour, indeed, but what is it telling us? The title, of course, gives the game away. Madame Récamier was a celebrated society hostess of the late 18th and early 19th centuries during the age of the “salons”, social gatherings of the artistic, intellectual and political élites. The artist Jacques-Louis David painted a famous portrait of Madame Récamier which is in the Louvre. It is to this Madame Récamier de David (David’s portrait of Madame Récamier) that Magritte is making reference, transforming it in order to… what? Is it a joke? a challenge? a message? Perhaps it is left to individual viewers to make of it what they will.
In this room, a number of works attracted my attention, though I can show only a selection of four.
This stained glass window, whose design is somewhate reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts & Crafts Movement, is an anonymous work entitled Allégorie du Printemps (Allegory of Spring). It is colourful and very pretty, if perhaps a little old fashioned in design (though some of us don’t mind this!).
Jean-Désiré Ringel d’Illzach (1846-1916) was an Alsatian artist who worked especially with engravings and sculpture. Many of his works were inspired by music, including a set of nine figures, each representing one of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. This wax bust incarnates the Ninth Symphony.
François Rupert Carabin (1862-1932) was also Alsatian, a carpenter and sculptor. This remarkable armchair (fauteuil in French) was made in 1893 and shows the influence of Art Nouveau. While I like the cats and the mice, I must admit that I have mixed feelings about this chair given that it is support by two human figures in servile postures. (Click to see details.)
This is another work by the same artist, a full-size sculpture of a woman with a cat and a monkey. The title, La Volupté (‘voluptuousness’, ‘sensuality’) suggests that she is a symbol of an abstract concept rather than a person. Abstract she may be but, for all that, she is the very embodiment of that which she represents.
There are plenty of paintings in the exhibition, of course, though I do tend to concentrate on sculpture and other ‘solid’ forms as I find them easier to photograph. I liked the above work by Max Liebermann (1847-1935), showing a scene in the communal orphanage of the town of Amsterdam. All is quiet and activity is at a minimum. We imagine speech is hushed and even the two moving figures are so placed as to balance the composition and convey a sense of stillness rather than movement. Is this an earthly paradise or are these orphan girls bored out of their wits? The viewer decides. The artist painted at least one other picture of the orphanage: Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage.
Here we enter the realm of modern art and living artists. This piece by Giuseppe Penone (b. 1947) is the sort of thing that I have railed against in the past, I admit. In this case, though, I find myself vaguely attracted to it, perhaps because of its animal appearance. There is something of the gazelle in the delicate feet and of the anteater in the poise of what one supposes is the head. But there is something of the insect also. The title means something like “Proceeding in a vertical direction” but I suspect it cannot be translated literally. The title, especially with the number, suggests an emphasis on processes rather than on representing recognizable entities and I expect my attachment to it is an example of that ‘mnemonic irrelevance’ (thoughts and emotions dragged in from the viewer’s own experience that in fact have nothing to do with the work itself), that those experienced in art criticism warn against.
Yes, my little joke. On the other hand, it did strike me that the view through the heavily framed window did have something of the painting about it, especially with the asymmetric cathedral standing starkly on the skyline – a case of reality imitating art, perhaps.
Recent times have seen more revolutions in art than you can shake a stick at, revolutions in form, in artistic language and even in the nature of art itself. Daniel Dezeuze belongs to the group Supports-Surfaces which seeks to – that word again – deconstruct painting in order to find out what it is or perhaps to build a new version. Who can tell? His colourful, three-dimensional and delicately latticed Pavillon (‘pavilion’) fits into this programme somehow. Yes, but do I like it? Hm, well maybe…
We began to make our way out of the gallery. The sun was shining through the panes of coloured glass, creating a warm and joyful impression. I took this photo from a suspended walkway. But we had not finished with the art. Not yet…
In the yard of the museum stands this figure. His form carries overtones of the Michelin Man or rolls of pastry. The work is robustly formed from metal. On the label this is described as fonte de fer oxydée, ‘rusty cast iron’. Actually, there is a more common word for ‘rusty’ in French: rouillé(e). Oxydé(e) like ‘oxidised’ in English, is a more technical or scientific term. Does this mean to indicate that the figure is not just rusted through neglect but has been carefully ‘oxidised’ as part of the artistic endeavour? Thomas Schütte (b. 1954) has apparently made many of these Geister figures, hence the number in the title of this one. In each case they were made in sets of different materials. Here we have only one to judge him by. Click to see other views.
We proceeded (in orizzontale, not in verticali) into town. We crossed the Ill by the Pont Saint-Nicolas from where I took this photo. Included in our book of tour tickets was one for a boat tour run by Batorama and that’s where we were heading.
Boat tours can be interesting, instructive and fun but they have one disadvantage. This is that you are completely enclosed. Yes, I know that’s to stop idiots falling overboard and suing the company but it rather cramps your style if you are a photographer. Glass, especially tinted glass, as on the boats, stops you getting the sort of quality of image that I like. So I usually put my camera away for the duration.
This picture shows you what I mean. It’s not worth the effort of craning your neck and dodging other people’s cameras to get shots like this.
On the other hand, I was interested enough to take this photo of the Maison des Tanneurs which I showed you on our first evening in Strasbourg (see Strasbourg 2015 – First day).
On the boat there is a commentary on the passing scenery that you can listen to over earphones. There are versions in several languages. Tigger listened in English and I listened in French. We compared notes afterwards and found differences between the two. They must think that speakers of different languages are interested in different things.
Walking to our next destination, we passed the Palais Rohan. This magnificent Baroque structure was originally built for Cardinal Armand Gaston Maximilien de Rohan, Bishop of Strasbourg, between 1731 and 1742, replacing a previous bishop’s palace. A number of important people stayed here, including Marie Antoinette and Napoleon but between 1872 and 1898, it served as the German University of Strasbourg. From 1898, however, it served to house several important museums. Damaged in the Second World War it was restored and is now classed as an Historic Monument.
Along the front of the palace is a row of decorative faces, all different from one another but all very expressive. I show just two of them above.
I also liked these mouldings in the form is heads at the bottom of the drainpipes. I am not sure but I think they are supposed to be dolphins’ heads but they could be some sort of imaginary fish.
Our last visit of the day was to a place known as the Aubette. Its history began in the 1760s and 1770s when it was built as part of the Place Kléber, then being developed. It became a military building and acquired the name ‘Aubette’ from the fact that the changing of the guard took place at dawn (aube, in French).
During the 19th century, the building experienced mixed fortunes. It housed a paintings museum, was badly damaged by fire in 1870 and renovated in 1973-5. Its modern history began in the 1920s when modernizing architect brothers André and Paul Horn rented the right wing to create a leisure centre. In 1926, the interior design was entrusted to a pair of avant-guard artists, Hans Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. They were joined by the Dutch painter and architect Theo Van Doesburg and between them created what was considered a revolutionary new style of design. Part of their decor was restored in 1985 and 2006 and the whole is now classed as an Historic Monument.
To be honest, I was not impressed. To me it is like so much of the decoration of public places in the post Second World War periods. Cinemas, ice rinks, ice cream parlours and other such public places all had these patches of bright colours and in the end it became a cliché. This site may be of historic interest but, for me, that’s where the interest ends.
And finally, here is one of the paintings from the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain. I was caught by the lively depiction of the prancing horse and the fish-headed rider. What it ‘means’ I do not know. I only know that I like it. (Pas compliqué, moi!)